On Holy Thursday we gather to remember a meal, we pause to experience something important on the way to events that are squarely at the center of our lives and even human history, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Maundy Thursday is rooted in the Latin mandatum, the commandment, the new commandment to love one another , Jesus says , as I have loved you. Then he washes the feet of the disciples, a sign of that love, and in the midst they share a meal, the Passover feast. Maundy Thursday is about an impending incident, the death of Jesus, and all of the events that lead to it. It is a significant act, this night, this meal, and we enter into by thinking about how it is interpreted, how it is "framed". It is an act of betrayal, but it is also an act of love.
Love and betrayal, betrayal and love. This year we saw perhaps the most famous athlete on the planet, standing before world, in the aftermath of scandalous behavior that had come to light. We heard a confession, an apology, and we saw betrayal, especially in the face of the spouse. Earlier acts of betrayal from governors of the states of New York and South Carolina had caught our attention. These were betrayals lived out for all the world to see, and yet they are exaggerations of the smaller betrayals that punctuate our lives.
The events of Holy Thursday have as a central focus the act of betrayal, in the person of Judas. He is perhaps the most famous betrayer in all of human history, a member of the inner circle of Jesus' disciples, he is the one who counts the money: he would be the church treasurer, or the finance chair today! So they trusted him. And yet, Jesus knows: Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me , he says to those who are gathered at what will be known as the last supper.
And so it happens. We see it in the movies: The younger sister betrays her older sister in Atonement. The attorney betrays the lawyer-client privilege in The Firm. The older, weaker brother betrays the younger, stronger brother in The Godfather.
And we see it in real life. It could be gossip or identity theft or exclusion.
In Dante's Inferno, betrayers are cast into the lowest circle of hell. There are the most famous, or infamous, betrayers: Judas, Cassius, Brutus. They are frozen in ice for all eternity, although it is clear that Judas will suffer the most, because he had betrayed Jesus with a kiss.
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has suggested that the betrayal may be the deepest pain that Jesus will undergo in the days and hours ahead, and that is possible. Betrayal saps the spirit, deadens the mind, paralyzes the body. And yet, after the betrayal, there is that lingering question. The question was put to the spouse last week, in the public scandal, the question we sometimes ask ourselves: why do we stay in relationships when there has been a betrayal?
It is a crucial question. Parker Palmer reflected years ago, in a brief essay on the choice of Jesus to "stay at the table" with Judas. Jesus stays with Judas. Why not leave? Palmer offers this reflection:
"Community is not so much a demonstration of heaven as it is a negative way to God. We will always be disillusioned by community. But in the spiritual life disillusionment is a good thing: it means losing out illusions about ourselves and each other. As those illusions fall away we will be able to see reality and truth more clearly.
And the truth is that we can rely on God to make community among us even-and especially-when our own efforts fail...And here is the paradox: as we become disillusioned with community and more dependent on God, we become more available for true community with each other...
Seeing ourselves and each other clearly, yet seeing God's continual healing presence among us, we can begin to experience the fruits of the Spirit with each other: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness."
There is an incident. And yet how the incident is framed is of utmost importance. Jesus does not frame it as a betrayal. He sees it as the Passover meal, his own life and death as the great gift, the great provision, the great sacrifice. Do this in remembrance of me, he says. Don't remember the betrayal. Remember the gift, the love, the sacrifice.
The Passover is about the creation and the salvation of a people, and in the insistence that we repeat this meal, over and over again, we are remembering, we are actually re-membering, putting the body back together again, through an act of love that finally overcomes an act of betrayal. Jesus chooses not to see himself as one who is betrayed, as a victim, but as one who offers a gift, a gift that is undeserved, surely. And yet, it is his gift. To us. To the undeserving.
Now here I am going to quit preaching and go to meddling. Of course we are here this evening aware that we are not only ones who have betrayed, but we have been the betrayers. Do we not sometimes betray those we love? Have we not betrayed our Lord? The hymn captures it:
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.
And yet, and here is the good news, he stays at the table with us. He calls us his disciples, even, a couple of chapters later, in John 15, his friends. What a friend we have in Jesus, indeed.
And so, brothers and sisters, we are the community of betrayal and love. We will always be disillusioned by relationships with each other, and yet the loss of illusions is not a bad thing. For then we see each other for who we really are. We are the body of Christ, broken, but broken in order than we might give ourselves for others. And we are here to receive the body of Christ, also broken in order than he might be given finally, for you and me.
Do this, he says, in remembrance of me.
Sources: Barbara Brown Taylor, God In Pain; Parker Palmer, "On Staying At The Table", Expressions (St. Benedict Center Newsletter), unpublished; Kenneth Leech, We Preach Christ Crucified. "Ah, Holy Jesus", 289, United Methodist Hymnal.