Monday (April 18th) was the 120th running of the Boston Marathon. And again we remember that moment during that race, three years ago, when the hate and anger that had been fanned to life within two young men exploded; forever altering or destroying the lives of many innocent and wonderful human beings.
We’ve seen people coming together in many ways to minister to those wounded, whether visibly or not, by this and so many other acts of inhumanity, both before and since that day. And, we’ve all seen those who were victims of such violence coming forward with their own stories, sharing them in many different ways, so that others who have suffered similar losses might find healing.
These outpourings of love, compassion and care reflect how Jesus calls upon us to love one another and minister to each other, especially in times if crisis, as we see in this morning’s scripture. But, here in John 13, the disciples have not yet endured the tragedy that we know so well.
What the disciples knew was that Jesus had just washed all of their feet, and told them that if they truly love him they must follow his example by ministering to one another, as he had. He then foretold his imminent betrayal by one of their own. Finally, Judas accepted an offering of bread and vanished into the night on some unknown errand. It was the evening of the “Last Supper.” The disciples had taken shelter from the darkness around them through this ancient and much cherished communal festival of love and connection with each other, and with all the people of God through the generations before and since.
We remember and celebrate this even today, in our sacrament of communion. The sharing of the bread is seen as the sharing of the Body of Christ that has been broken for us. By eating of it, we are sharing in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. By eating of it together as a community, we acknowledge that we are all part of the Body of Christ here on earth, working together to continue Jesus’ ministry and to make manifest the Kingdom of God that is already all around us, even though we do not yet fully see or comprehend it.
That night, Judas took the piece of bread he was offered and abandoned his companions and Lord, retreating into the darkness forever.
Why did John think it important to preserve the memory of this strange offering to the Betrayer? Judas is to be shunned, damned and forgotten for all time – why remember him at all? Was this gift just for Judas? I doubt it. No passage in the scriptures has just one lesson for us – or I’d be out of a job!
I see parallels between then and now. As a nation, as a community, we took in a family fleeing from war and oppression, one of millions in the world today. We gave them a home, sustenance, allowed them to become citizens of our nation, and yet these two young Judases betrayed us, forever marring a beloved festival with our own blood. They seared our hearts with their pain, shoved their inner darkness and alienation upon us in a forceful, shocking way that will never be forgotten, nor should it be. Many of us bear scars, whether visible or not, of this and similar evils, regardless of whether they made the evening news, or not.
But this meditation is not about our Judases. It was Jesus who put that morsel into those hands, his love and acceptance never left Judas, and it was Christ’s choice to continue to love him. The disciples had no part in that decision, and were not called to love the Betrayer. Jesus does ask us to love those who have personally hurt us, but he did not command the disciples to love each other until after Judas was gone. So, let us leave the brothers of despair to history and consider the lesson here for us.
Three years after that terrible day, most of us have moved beyond, but have not forgotten, that same unlooked-for prison of fear, pain, and shock that is so like the one that must have overwhelmed the disciples on their own night of terror, so long ago. But, some have not yet escaped, and some never will.
As the full cost of those hateful deeds became known, as we listened to the stories and losses of those who survived. We began to connect our stories with the narratives of those closest to the tragedy. As news of what those two planned began to surface, questions were asked, fingers pointed, accusations flew, and even political advantage was and is still sought: using the misery of others as a footstool to political victory. These same behaviors are all around us even now: of manipulating shock and pain to create anger, and then inflaming that anger into hate.
The disciples faced such a challenge, too. They also wanted to find someone or something to blame; to absorb their redirected anger, fear and frustration. It’s a very human reaction. We all need to find a way, somehow, to empty ourselves of the pain within.
Jesus knows this; and knew that all too soon, great loss would engulf those he loved, and that it is inescapable. Those who survive will ask questions, and questions will be asked of them. Accusations will be made, divisions will arise and might irretrievably fracture the tiny community that Jesus worked so hard to build, and is still very fragile.
And yet, He gave some of that bread, a symbolic piece of his own body, an offering of community, and love, and of his own death and the promise of resurrection, to the Betrayer.
Jesus knew that a despairing and lost Judas would soon follow him to the grave. So, the lesson was mostly for the disciples, and us: for as soon as Judas left, and was no longer within hearing, Jesus said: “My children, My time here is brief. … You cannot go where I am going. So I give you a new command: Love each other deeply and fully. Remember the ways that I have loved you, and demonstrate your love for others in those same ways. 35Everyone will know you as My followers if you demonstrate your love to others.”
Jesus talked about love, not pain; about sharing love, not seeking justice; and about bearing witness to love, not seeking revenge. He was teaching us that carrying pain and anger is like that glass of water I talked of earlier: it always gets heavier, and heavier, and heavier: incapacitating and hurting us more and more until (and unless) we put it down.
Such pain and anger is like a cancer: it devours us from within, destroying relationships, poisoning emotions, polluting our community with evil – just as those two young men and others have sought to do to so many of us as they try – and fail – to cast out their own pain. Can we allow this to continue?
The challenge we constantly face, and admittedly it is not an easy one, is the same choice the disciples would soon face: are we going to do unto others as others have done unto us? Are we going to afflict those around us, those we love, with the unresolved pain others have placed upon us? Or, to put it another way (given what we see in our political news), are we going to let our own pain and fears direct our thoughts, words, and actions regarding others?
By sharing that bread, Jesus showed that he did love his betrayer, but the choice to embrace that love was his and Judas’s, not ours. The love or lack of love between Jesus and his betrayers is not our concern.
Jesus was teaching his disciples, and us, that we have a choice as to what we do with the pain we carry. Shall we refuse to put it down, and so afflict others with it? Do we allow such pain to fester within our souls? Should we allow it to poison the ways in which we relate to others? Do we dump it on to others in the misplaced hope that casting it from us means we will become free of it forever?
It won’t. Dare we imagine that Christ welcomed such things, or that he was modeling them for us in this last moment of communion with his disciples? Obviously not.
For the Body of Christ to survive, for the Kingdom to come to fruition, for us to succeed in the mission Christ bestowed upon us that night, the disciples had to model love, not hate; compassion, not judgment; and most importantly, unity, not division. For us to survive and spread the Gospel, as Jesus called his disciples, and us, to do; we must make room for healing, not build new altars to hate. We are called, as they were, to set down our own pains, so that we can walk in love and compassion for others’ hurts; not to wound them further.
Christ then gave us a new command: “Love each other deeply and fully. Remember the ways that I have loved you, and demonstrate your love for others in those same ways.” Christ loved us first, and it is only through sharing that love, which is already within us, that we shall be healed, and in so doing we shall find that we are helping others to be healed as well, for that love is in them too; and even in our many Judases.
We will never forget the tragedies that have happened to us and to those whom we love, but that does not mean we have to allow those roots of bitterness to fester within us: poisoning our lives; destroying who and what we are (and what we aspire to be) as individuals, or as a community. Those who betray seek to cast their pains upon us; but Christ gave us the choice, and the strength, so that we do not need to cast our pain upon others.
Rather than looking for blame as to why this or why that happened; rather than shouting for revenge upon real or imagined enemies; let us unite and seek healing, let us come together to minister to those lost or in pain. We are not called to judge, but to show the world our living, unbreakable, compassionate faith; that we are members of that indivisible, loving community of God preserved and passed down to us since that night through the many, many disciples of Jesus who have preceded us.
You are not alone. All of us are walking with you, and will do so for as long as it takes. We need each other; and the Holy Spirit will not let us forget that this is so.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, April 24, 2016.
NB: I was not happy with the original ending of this sermon (which is in the audio recording below). So, the sermon text posted here has been edited to have what I see as a more succinct and stronger conclusion. A previous version of this sermon was given at Memorial Congregational Church in Sudbury, MA on April 28, 2013.
John 13:4-35 (The Voice)
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)