Biblical Criticism, Bleak Theology, Lent, Sermons, St. Lydia's

Betrayal, Confession, and our Uncertainty [Lenten Sermon]

On Sunday night, I preached at St. Lydia’s on John’s version of Judas at the Last Supper. You can listen to it or read it below.

 

 

Jesus Foretells His Betrayal

21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26Jesus 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. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some 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. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. (John 13.21-30, NRSV)

Very truly, I tell you, this is a difficult sermon. Very truly, I tell you, this is a difficult sermon not just to preach, but to write, to hear, and to dwell upon. I confess this to you now. But this is Lent and this is the season for difficult things. John, the last of the canonical gospels to be written, sets Jesus in Platonic, idealistic terms. He is the Word that creates the World through the Word and entered the World, but the World did not recognize him. John’s gospel is thematic, crisscrossing time upsetting the orderly events of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John’s gospel tells this from the very beginning about the Word: that “he was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” John is a gospel of light and shadow, of veilings and unveilings. John is a wink and a nod. We were outsiders, but now we’re insiders. We see what’s going on here. But, really, we must confess, we never quite see what’s going on there. And Judas, Judas is there.

Jesus has just washed the feet of Judas and the rest and he has told all of them that what is about to happen is to fulfill Scripture. He tells them that the one who eats bread with him will lift his heel against him. He tells them this so they will know who Jesus really is, the Son of God. The fulfillment of Scripture grounds this truth.

And then he makes things more clear, saying “one of you will in this room, who I am speaking to, will betray me.” And everyone looks at each other. And so Peter asks “who is it?” and Jesus says, “I’m going to give this bread in my hand, right after I dip this very piece of bread, to my betrayer, in front of all of you right now.” And he does it. And he gives it to Judas. And Jesus says in front of everyone to Judas, to whom he has just given the bread, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” And no one at the table gets it. Except for Judas, who goes out into the night with clean feet and Satan within him.

But we get it, because as readers, as hearers, we are supposed to. We are in the room here and with Jesus and the Disciples. We are expected to already know this story. We get it. But we don’t get it. And this is why we have to hear it again. We always already get it, but we always already don’t.

I confess that I don’t really know what is going on here. And to confess this to you, this is my first step toward trying to listen, to understand. Before I can begin to listen, to begin to understand, I must confess that I don’t understand. And this is not a bad thing. In fact, this is the first thing. We do not understand, but we will. We must listen. But Judas understands and he is certain about what he is about to do.

Each gospel presents Judas for what it needs him to be. He is a traitor, but he is more than that. He is a scapegoat. In John he is evil, the devil within him. He’s one of the Twelve, filled with power and authority, preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry. He grumbles at wasteful perfume. He keeps the purse strings. He steals from the alms box. He is selfish and sinful. He’s the poseur apostle, the deceiving disciple. Throughout Western art, he is a red-haired Jew. In Dante’s Inferno, he spends eternity in the lowest circle of Hell, head-first in the mouth of Satan, his back clawed to shreds. In Jesus Christ Superstar, he is a black man. In The Last Temptation of Christ, he’s Harvey Keitel, an idealistic zealot. Judas is evil. He’s a foil. He’s on a mission from God. He’s Judas Iscariot.

And John’s gospel seems quite certain about Judas Iscariot. Judas is the traitor. Satan enters Judas. Judas is certain where and when Jesus will be in the garden. Judas will bring a detachment of soldiers and the police from the chief priests and Pharisees. There is no kiss. And seeing Judas beside them, Jesus, knowing all that is to happen, will say to them “Whom are you looking for?” And then Judas disappears. He’s never mentioned again. No suicide. No guts bursting open like in the Book of Acts. No just dessert. Nothing. He’s vanished. Just gone, his purpose served, the prophecy fulfilled, he’s absorbed into John’s story of the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And I confess that I don’t really know what’s going on here. I get it, but I don’t get it. It’s a paradox. And there are many weird things about this story and about this gospel and about this Jesus and about this Church. But I can confess this. And I confess this now to you.

I grew up immersed in North Texas evangelicalism, where there was Jesus and there were Catholics, who might have a personal relationship with Jesus. And while an undergraduate, I witnessed firsthand the internecine war among Christians prejudiced against other religions, LGBTQ, women, race, and the poor. And frustrated with what I was told what was the Gospel and the Bible and the unkindness I saw over and over, I switched my major to classics to learn for myself Greek and Latin and to learn the world of the Jesus Movement. And I went to divinity school to learn theology and biblical criticism and cultural studies and ethics. And I confess that throughout all of this, I have taken my privilege for granted as I live in this city and community and I realize that it affects others in ways I cannot fathom. And for this I repent.

And I’ve read these gospels for years and I’ve thought and written about it, and I’ve been a member of Christian communities and I’ve wrestled with this stuff for years and I still don’t get it. I keep having to go back to the stories of Jesus, what he taught, how he lived and died. How he gained and lost his friends. I am still uncertain. In gentrifying Brooklyn, I am uncertain. In my country and world where there is so much social, political, racial, economic, and religious unkindness toward the stranger and the neighbor, I am uncertain. On my planet where we are poor stewards and exploiting the environment, I am uncertain. What is going on? What am I doing? What can I do? I confess that, often, I do not know. But I am not alone. I confess that I am not alone.

I am at this table with Jesus who offers bread and says this is my body that is given for us for the forgiveness of sins and that I am loved and that I am forgiven. And I have no idea what is going on. No one at the table gets it. And there is John and there is Judas and there is everyone else. And at least we can confess this. Confession is our acknowledgement of our place in this world in relation to what we experience.

Here, we confess to God, our neighbors, and our selves. When we confess, we are not alone. I confess that I do not understand and by confessing that to you, I am not alone. Uncertainty is not a bad thing. It is not faithlessness. Uncertainty is not our betrayal. But we can confess that we are uncertain. We must be aware, be aware of social injustice, political turmoil, economic disparity, unkindness, love, forgiveness, confession, faithfulness. And by becoming aware, we become aware of our unawareness. And we become more aware of each other, ourselves, and perhaps our God, as well.

In Lent we live in a time of reflection, a time of growing awareness, a time of recognition of and for ourselves and community. What is happening in our midst? What shall we confess? Here at St. Lydia’s during this time of Lenten confession, we invite you to share a time of confession on the paper provided on the table.

 

Utrecht, Michiel van der Borch (illuminator); 1332
Jesus gives the bread to his betrayer right in front of his clueless disciples. Utrecht, Michiel van der Borch (illuminator); 1332

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