Reading: John 13: 21-25
The desert mothers and fathers have a tradition of asking for a word. “Give me a word” they would often say to their elders or to God. This tradition of asking for a word was a way of seeking something on which to ponder for many days, weeks, months, or sometimes a whole lifetime. The “word” was often a short phrase to nourish and challenge the receiver. It was meant to be wrestled with and slowly grown into.
And so as many of you know, in this tradition, at the beginning of each year I ask for a word. A word to ponder over the year. This year the word is Abide from John 15:4. “Abide in me as I abide in you.
Jesus speaks these words in what has now become known as the upper room discourse or the farewell discourse which is found in John chapters 13 to 17. 5 chapters on Jesus final meal. Over the year as I have pondered this word, I have found myself moving outward from the word, to the verse, to the chapter and then to the whole 5 chapters. In these chapters, which detail Jesus final meal before his crucifixion we get, as Thomas Goodwin puts it, “a window into Christs heart.” They have become quite dear to me. And so I thought for the month of Sept I might share with you with some of my ponderings on these 5 chapters.
What John does in these chapters is quite different to the other 3 gospels. Matthew and Mark give only 15 verses to this meal, Luke gives 25 but John 5 chapters.
It is a Passover meal that they are sharing, as part of the Jewish custom of remembering the Exodus and the Jews liberation from slavery. It is a sacred meal but for this group it is also fraught with anxiety and pain. Something about these two together speaks to me.
In the synoptics Jesus shares the bread and wine with them and tells them to share bread and wine with each other in remembrance of Him. As Christians we now do this together in our churches – sometimes called the Lord’s Supper, communion or Eucharist – it is our sacred meal. It reminds of us Jesus, of what he gave for us because of his great love. It reminds us of our discipleship and points us to the sacredness of sharing our food and our suffering.
John however leaves this out. Rather the symbolic action John focuses on is Jesus washing the feet of the twelve. As you probably know in first century Palestine most people washed their own feet unless they had a slave around to do it and so this action on the part of Jesus was an act of great humility and devotion to them. Over this meal Jesus is going to speak a lot about love and discipleship and what it looks like when he is no longer with them but before he speaks about it, he does it. Like the parables we have been speaking about, this action confronts and subverts the world as they know it.
This reading that we have read follows directly on from the foot washing. Having washed all their feet, Jesus tells them that one of them is going to betray him. Again like the parables this conversation raises a lot of questions for me.
As always I don’t know that I have the definitive answer to that, but in pondering it, it has revealed some things to me about Jesus and discipleship that have spoken into my current moment. This is the extraordinary thing about Scripture when you sit with over time. You realise the job is to ask it questions, to wrestle with it and when you do, it reveals things to you.
Last week Celia gave a sermon titled Jesus, kind and dangerous. She spoke about the fact that for the disciples then and for us now knowing Jesus had its dangers. To follow Jesus is not about making your life plans and then asking Jesus to back them, rather, in her words, it is about, “taking up our cross and following him because it is the only path that truly has life both now and into the future, and he draws us into that future.” This was the choice before the twelve that night. When Jesus dips that bread in the dish and hands it to Judas and says, “go quickly and do what you are going to do, I hear it as a question. Jesus is asking Judas what are you going to do? Whichever it is go and do it. Even at that moment I think Judas could have changed his mind and Jesus would have forgiven all, but like Pilate Judas could not bring himself to give up, what he would have to give up though ultimately, this choice would rob him of his soul.
And so Judas leaves, but the disciples are confused about what he is doing. Despite the fact that Jesus has just handed Judas the bread dipped in the dish and thus revealed to them that he is the one who will betray Jesus, they start thinking maybe he is going to give something to the poor. I have been pondering why they failed to understand this when Jesus made it pretty clear.
What I have begun to think is that it is because they like Judas. Judas has travelled with them since the beginning of this extraordinary journey. He is one of them. He preached and performed miracles alongside them in Jesus’ name. And not only that Judas was entrusted with their money. And so when Jesus hands him the bread, he has just dipped in the dish, they go into a bit of denial.
I think most of us have experienced something like this. A time when someone we really like, someone we have trusted has turned out to in fact not be trustworthy. Perhaps it was someone we knew personally or perhaps it was someone we admired – a celebrity, a sports person, an historical figure, a politician or a Christian leader.
When it is revealed that this person we like has acted deceitfully or has done or said things that are not ok we often go into denial about that because we think they are good. Often they are good in many ways and so it is hard to acknowledge that they did this. This is especially hard if say we voted for them or like their music, movies or books, that have impacted on us personally. For example, Johnny Depp. Throughout a very public defamation trial, Depp’s ex-wife Amber Heard who accused him of violence towards her was vilified by the public whereas posts with hashtags like “JusticeForJohnnyDepp” racked up nearly 3 billion supporters.
For us as Christians I think it can be particularly hard when we hear about Christian leaders or institutions that have been abusive. In another recent example, despite numerous complaints and deep concerns and suspicions about the Hillsong leadership for over many years, it has taken over twenty years for the church to have to answer to any of them.
And as many of you know as part of my thesis and now the Adelaide House project I have been wrestling with our own church’s history in this place. While, there is no doubt much good has been achieved by the church here, the truth is there were things that were done and said (or not done and said) that were also hurtful and harmful.
Now I am aware all this is very complicated. It is often impossible to know the full truth of anything when often it one’s person’s word against another’s. Sometimes someone is just lying but sometimes two people simply have quite different experiences of what the truth is. People are complicated. And as Christians, grace and forgiveness are also very important to us. We do need to be careful not to be judging people for every mistake.
However, I also think none of this should mean that we do not seek to exercise wise discernment or that we should never call people to account. Yes, we are all sinners and God is gracious and forgiving and so we should be also. And yes most people who have behaved terribly have also done good things too and so we should be very careful in just “cancelling” someone and joining in gossip and online vitriol. But we should also not cover things up to save someone’s reputation or enable them to continue in leadership. We should never leave someone in an unsafe place hoping in someone’s better nature or be silent about abuse and oppression because we do not want to appear judgemental.
After Judas leaves Jesus gives them a new commandment, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” No doubt he is referring to his previous actions of washing their feet and perhaps to his coming crucifixion as well. Unfortunately, I do not think this is how we, as Jesus disciples, are known, and I think we all need to hold that pretty seriously.
But being loving is not about avoiding all hard conversations and truths. Right before he says this, Jesus names Judas betrayal and right after he names Peter’s. Jesus did this because he loved them. He wanted it to be different. And he wants us to love each other in the same way. I wonder if the church was more willing to have loving but hard and truthful conversations with its leadership and those in its congregations who are abusive, manipulative, greedy, exclusive and violent we would be more known for our love.
This kind of love, this kind of wisdom, discernment and humility is hard. To have it, we need to make time to search for it, experience it, to practise it. And for that I come back to the word – abide. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
This is the beautiful invitation Christ gives. And so let us take a moment to do that, to abide in the love of God as we ponder the reading and the words spoken today.