Wednesday: The Question We’re Afraid to Ask
One of the most difficult obstacles to experiencing Holy Week fully, to entering into with full emotional integrity and not turning off and tuning out, is the heavy sense of inevitability to it all.
We know that on the other side of these dark days lies the greatest joy in the world, but sticking it out while these terrible things happen, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, day after day of crisis and calamity, is rough.
That is emphasized tonight by the fact that our readings this evening are not actually going to take place until tomorrow. We are reading about Thursday night’s events on Wednesday night.
And we know they’re going to happen. We know there’s no escape.
John often portrays Jesus as impassive, cool and serene and dispensing wisdom from a sage emotional distance.
But here, at the turning point of his life and work on Earth, even John can’t quite believe that Jesus could experience his own betrayal to death with no visible reaction.
“At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit,” John says.
Troubled in spirit. Can we speculate on what Jesus might have been feeling at that moment?
Fear, perhaps. He was about to endure an incredible amount of physical pain that would in the end kill him.
I don’t think his human self could anticipate that without fear.
Despair—he only has a few days left and his disciples are still clueless. Will they stubbornly continue to fail to understand what he’s been trying to teach them?
And pain. Jesus hurts to know that Judas, Judas whom he chose, whom he taught, whom he loved, will sell him out to be killed.
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” our lesson from Isaiah says.
Even here, even now, pushed to his own emotional limits, Jesus continues to teach.
Notice that Jesus does not say, “Very truly, I tell you, Judas is about to betray me.”
He knew it was Judas, he wasn’t guessing.
But he leaves the disciples to wonder, to ask, “Lord, who is it?”
This is a moment of profound spiritual significance for the disciples, because the test of what they have learned from him will be whether they consider the possibility that it could be them who betrays Jesus.
Do they assume automatically that it must be someone else?
Or do they ask the painful but necessary question: could it be I who betrays him?
Could it be I who betrays him?
This is a deceptively important spiritual question to ask, because the very act of asking it reveals certain qualities about us.
If we ask that question, could it be I who betrays him, we are showing humility.
We are showing that we understand that there are parts of ourselves that we can’t control, that can lead us astray, that will have us sinning before we even consciously decide to do something wrong.
By asking that question, we could even be showing our readiness to rely on God to love and forgive us, because we’re de facto admitting that yes, it could be us.
And by saying, “One of you will betray me,” Jesus is giving us the chance to ask that question.
He’s giving us the chance to come back down to earth and admit our human frailty, admit our need for him, here on the threshold of the catastrophic drama about to unfold.
Let me put it this way. A disciple who is not able to ask, “Could it be I who betrays him?” is arrogant, always more ready to see evil in others than in self, confident and secure in his spiritual maturity, frankly without need of God.
And that person, when her human frailty does show through, because it always will eventually, has a lot farther to fall when she does in fact betray Jesus.
The disciples who ask, “Could it be I who betrays him?” and the ones who do not ask because they’re sure they wouldn’t—both groups will abandon Jesus to die on the Cross alone on Friday.
But one group will not be surprised by itself, will know their constant and ever-renewed need for grace and mercy, and will be able to return to God for healing and forgiveness without an utterly destroyed sense of self.
The other group, who insisted they could never betray him, will also run away on Friday and abandon Jesus to die alone.
But when they have to confront that truth within themselves, the pain and shame will be excruciating.
Then one of two things will happen: either they will deny it and insist they were there all the time, it’s just that no one noticed them on Calvary, or they will be plunged into an abyss of self-hatred and unworthiness, unable to believe that God could truly love such evil, terrible sinners as them.
See the difference?
Can you recognize these patterns in yourselves and people you know?
And notice, most important of all: what is Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question?
How does he respond when John asks him, “Lord, who is it who will betray you?”
“Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.””
Who is given bread and wine every single Sunday at this altar?
All of us.
We need inquire no further. We are the ones who will betray Jesus, not by giving him up to the Romans like Judas, but in a hundred small ways a day, a hundred small failures of integrity or kindness or love.
But we knew it was coming, didn’t we?
We asked the question: could it be I who betrays him?
And so when the answer is a disappointing but inevitable yes, what will our response be?
Will we cringe in shame, turning our hatred for ourselves outward into hatred for others?
Will we storm out into the darkness like Judas?
No. Just admitting the possibility of our betrayal before it happens places us in a place of humility, of knowledge of our need for God.
We don’t have to come crashing down from some lofty height of self-sufficient pride and arrogance.
We’re not shocked that we’ve failed yet again.
We’re in touch with our humanity, and we know Jesus loves us deeply in our humanity, frail and mixed-up and sinful as it is.
Jesus knows that we very rarely succeed in standing by him, but he knows that we are always trying.
So he dips the bread in the dish and give it to us.
He feeds us with the bread and wine, with his very self.
It is not the public shaming of a traitor as it might at first appear in the gospel.
It is an act of profound love. Here, Jesus gives us his body and blood.
And we, betrayers as we are, know ourselves to be the Beloved.
So we receive him.
We open our hands and our hearts to his gift of himself at this very altar.
It does not erase or change our betrayal, but it is actually a sign of resurrection in our very midst.
Even with the painful truth of our disloyalty hanging in the air all around us, Jesus draws us to himself in communion.
And we say yes to that communion.
We go to him trustingly, with our hearts open.
The truth of our communion with Jesus is bigger and stronger and deeper than the truth of our betrayal of him.
Our sins and failures can never overcome or outlast his love for us and his longing to be in union with us.
“Could it be I who betrays him?” we ask.
The answer is yes, and the answer hurts us.
But there is another question: “Could it be I who loves him?”
The answer is yes, and the answer heals us.
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