WEDNESDAY IN HOLY WEEK
Verses: John 13:21-32
John 13:21-32 [NRSV Text from BibleWorks]
21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, "Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me." 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23 One of his disciples-- the one whom Jesus loved-- was reclining next to him; 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25 So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?" 26 Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27 After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "Do quickly what you are going to do." 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the festival"; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30 So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. 31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Because most of the communicants in this parish choose not to drink from the common cup but instead receive the Blessed Sacrament by dipping the bread in the wine, I cannot help but be drawn to the dominant image in today’s reading from the Last Supper. Jesus’ betrayer dips his bread in the same dish with his friend, and then Satan enters into Judas. The betrayal by one who communes with Jesus is patently obvious in John’s account and doubtless is on the mind of the Evangelist as he tells this story.
Many years ago my friend, Pastor Peter Steinke, taught me to pay attention to the meaning of our words in English. For instance, the word “companion,” he pointed out, means “one with whom one breaks bread.” In those days he was a pastoral counselor writing a regular newsletter to pastors. He wrote that most extramarital affairs begin with a shared meal. When we eat with another person, especially when we eat repeatedly with another person, an emotional bond begins to develop. Emotional intimacy can lead to physical intimacy – to betrayal.
Having listened to so many sad stories in my office over the years, I know that Pastor Steinke’s insights were dead on. Sometimes it was the betrayer coming into my office consumed with guilt, wanting no longer to carry around a secret that was like a cancer. Sometimes it was the betrayed coming in heartbroken and wondering what she or he had done to cause betrayal. In more recent years, often the betrayer wasn’t feeling guilty but felt rather justified in the choice to stray and came looking for affirmation that it was a good relational move. Sometimes it was the betrayed recognizing that she or he had pulled away emotionally from the relationship and wondered if she or he had led the other into temptation by being emotionally and physically unavailable.
We could pursue this line of thinking in the way that Roman Catholic annulment tribunals do looking for legal fictions such as when there is no physical relationship between spouses – as difficult as that may be to believe in this oversexed age. Or we could focus as they do on those that are too immature or too damaged in the psyche to fully enter into a lifelong covenant of faithfulness. Nevertheless, even following that more pastoral line of thinking, anyone knows that whatever the occasion for the failure of a marriage both parties are left with a strong sense of betrayal. The one with whom one has broken bread has let you down. It was not supposed to be that way.
Removing the psychosexual component from the picture – again not easy to do in this oversexed age – it is useful to think now of the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ. Eucharist after Eucharist the Bride breaks bread with her Husband. She dips her bread in the same bowl and then goes forth to play the harlot – every bit as much the betrayer as Judas Iscariot. She whispers and shouts her love in worship and then goes out to fall in love with the world again.
On Good Friday we sing that classic Lutheran hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.” And it is the most honest hymn on our lips throughout the entire year. We sing: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ’Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee” (Johann Hermann, 1585-1647).
I cannot help but think of that (often disputed) story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery. The townspeople are so ready to stone her until the Lord Jesus says: “Whoever among you is without sin cast the first stone.” When they have left in silence, He asks if there is anyone left to condemn the woman. When she says no, He says: “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
It is that same Master at whose table we dine time and time again who knows that despite all our protestations of love and fidelity, we will, nevertheless, break His heart over and over. Each act of omission and each act of commission, each sin in thought, word, and deed, is yet another nail in His body, another spear in His side. Of enemies one should expect such repeated betrayals. But of one’s companions, of one’s Bride?
It was St. Paul who gave us the words: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in the high places” (Ephesians 6:12, KJV). We are personally responsible for our actions, but that does not mean that the forces of darkness are not allied against us – seeking constantly to capture our hearts and minds as they did Judas Iscariot.
Many in the Church today would reduce the demonic powers and principalities to the world of governments and corporations and other purveyors of various “isms.” It is the same old warmed over Marxism from the 60s. Meanwhile the whole Church is overrun with demonic activity that encompasses everything from pedophile priests to full-scale assault upon the Church’s worship, Scripture, doctrine, and ethics.
Senior Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten is blunter than I. He writes: “Many folks in the church are asleep while their church is being taken hostage by a belief system incompatible with the Christian faith. Many others do not like the struggle metaphor, preferring, instead, the policy of appeasement and accommodation for the sake of peace and harmony, as the necessary condition of institutional growth and financial success” (Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism, 134).
Yet week after week the Bride of Christ continues to assemble to break bread with her Husband. And week after week the Bride steals away from the table like Judas to go back into the darkness – either the darkness of claiming some autonomy from the Head of the body of Christ or the darkness of shamelessly embracing what He calls sin. No matter how we go or to whom we go as we steal away from Jesus, we gather up another handful of nails to crucify Him again and again.
Telling the truth to ourselves and about ourselves doesn’t wash with the kind of positive-thinking religion that masquerades as Christianity. People don’t want to hear about sin and guilt and shame and betrayal. Crossless Christianity has always been popular especially in America. But Good Friday is coming, and we cannot anymore escape what our sin has wrought. We crucified Jesus – as complicit as Judas in our own right – and we crucify Jesus again and again.
There is no way around this. God doesn’t want us wallowing in guilt or shame. Our heavenly Father wants us to say the only words we have to say: “Have mercy on me a sinner, O God.” And then He reminds us that it is not merely bread that we are dipping in the wine at table with Jesus. It is, in fact, the body and the blood of Christ given and shed on Calvary’s cross for the forgiveness of our sins. We are not alone. Christ goes with us. The Spirit prays for us and with us that we may not try to go it alone against the powers and principalities, the rulers of darkness against which we are contending.
Luther gave us the words to remind ourselves where to turn: “No strength of ours can match his (Satan’s) might! We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, whom God Himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he! Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious!” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, stanza 2).
Today as you and I come to the table we come as those for whom Christ has died. As He did with the woman caught in adultery so He does with us. He throws no stones. He does not condemn. He forgives, and He goes with us – always hoping that we will turn to Him in the hour of trial and always looking forward to that day when we will, at last, sin no more!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina
[An mp3 version of this sermon will be available Wednesday afternoon at www.stmatthewsch.org]