A service of worship centered on the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples.
Text: John 13: 21 - 30.
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
This audio excerpt opens with the blues tune blend '11th Commandment/Well Well Well' (B. Harper/B. Dylan), offered as 'The Set Up' before the reading of the text and sermon.
- Isaac Herbert (lap steel, vocals) and Katie Herbert (backing vocals, tambourine).
And it was night. And it was night. Four little words – just a tag on, really, to the whole story that proceeded them but words we know all too well, right? Have you ever told such a story? “We were stuck on the boat… and it was night.” Or “Man! I lost my keys out in that field and couldn’t find them for the life of me. And… and it was night!” Or – “I was lost driving around a strange city without a GPS. It was raining. Oh, and it was night.” Or… “My water broke and we had to figure out what to do with the older kids. Did I mention – it was night!” And. it. was. night. It doesn’t always have to be a bad thing I suppose. A couple of weeks ago, Carrie was out of state and the three kids and I were at home as the sun was setting. We got in the house, flipped on some lights, going about our typical evening when a little storm blew through and it took our electricity with it. And… it was night. Fear was the first response of the kids – how unusual to have everything off in the house – no light, no manufactured noise, and nothing but the sound of our own voices in the darkness. I was sitting on the couch in our living room. It wasn’t long before a little hand had grabbed onto my leg. Another little body had snuggled up on my left and another on the right. The kids had found their way over to me and they started in with the questions: “What are we going to do? What if the power never comes back? What happens if I can’t charge my iPad?” You know – life and death stuff. After a while, they started to think – “Let’s find some candles.” We found some and lit them – enough that we could play Chutes and Ladders by candlelight. It was so peaceful. I loved those 90 minutes as much as any in a long time. And it was night…
Most of the time… and it was night… comes with a foreshadowing of trouble. It was true of the night we remember this evening. The Last Supper. So dramatically final. There’s a lot of drama to visualize in this scene John paints for us. The darkness of Judas’ tormenting choices is loudly known to us. If you’re watching this unfold at the Movie Theater, you’re shouting at the screen by now: “It’s Judas!” It seems to me that if the other disciples had known what Judas was about to do, he would never have left that room alive. I mean – we know enough about Peter’s bold disposition that I have a hard time thinking he would have casually let Judas leave the table. It’s funny how you picture things. I have a friend from my student church in Indianapolis who played the role of Peter at a dramatized Last Supper one year on this night – he’s my image of Peter. He also happened to be a Rugby player. I tend to think Peter had that same kind of spirit. The kind of guy that, if provoked, you better be ready to rumble. But Judas leaves that space without any hold up from the others. What does this say about him? To me, it suggests that he was as loved as any of the rest – committed to the cause, at least for external display. He was in charge of the group’s bank account so they trusted him with their meal tickets.
And even on this occasion in the Upper Room, there’s Judas up close and personal. The disciple Jesus loved is next to Jesus. Some versions said, “He had his head in Jesus breast.” Another says, “His head rested on Jesus’ shoulder.” Who’s this beloved Disciple that is never named? Some suggest that it’s Lazarus. Just a couple of chapter’s ago, the text says, “Jesus loved him,” and we know they were close as they spent much time together. Interestingly, some argue that maybe that disciple is the Rich Young Ruler. The one who previously left a conversation with Jesus “sad because he had many possessions.” That story says, however, that “Jesus looked at the man and loved him.” Perhaps he changed his mind, sold his possessions, giving it all up to pursue life with Jesus. Interesting ideas but most agree that the disciple Jesus loved was John himself. I think that is most likely. Why does this position matter?
At such a dinner table, those present would recline instead of sitting in chairs like we do. They would lay on their side, leaning on their left elbow so their right hand is free to negotiate the food on the table. If the beloved disciple has his head in Jesus’ breast or shoulder, it’s because they are laying on the ground and he is to the right of Jesus. He could just turn his head into the chest of Jesus so to speak to talk with him. Jesus was the host so he’d be in the center of all of this. And to his left, would be the position of highest honor – saved for the most intimate friend. When the meal began that night, Jesus must have said to Judas: “Come sit beside me tonight so we can talk.” More telling of their relationship is that Jesus, as the host, offers him a special morsel of food, hand dipped himself in his own chalice, and shared with him. We understand how this works. You don’t share your drink or your eating utensils with just anybody. You certainly wouldn’t hand feed someone you weren’t particularly close with. In the book of Ruth, when Boaz wanted to show how much he honored her, he invited her to come and dip her morsel in his wine. This sharing of Jesus with Judas showed an intimacy in their relationship and one that didn’t seem to surprise anyone. Judas was beloved by Jesus and respected in the group. He was surely a part of singing Hosanna’s at the Palm Parade even as his heart was twisted for some reasons we’ll never really know for sure. And we always pick on Judas for his betrayal, as if we would never do such a thing. As if, our discipleship is always totally pure and perfect and loyal.
I read a Holy Week prayer the other day that shared this sentiment. Hear it with me:
“Lord Christ, we confess that even when we are praising you, part of us is also considering how we might betray you. Sometimes we betray you here at worship, when our minds drift to what is happening after we leave church. How soon can we rush back to our “real” lives and leave the unrealistic demands of discipleship behind? Sometimes we betray you at our workplaces, when our actions say, “I don’t know him.” Sometimes we betray you in our families, when we let each other down for the sake of our own convenience. Forgive us, that we forsake you so soon after singing “Hosanna.”
Is that a fair assessment of our own struggles in following Jesus? And after all, it was night. It is always night when one turns their back on their faith. Like the old soul-filled song that Isaac sang for us just moments ago, “A hole was being dug in this moment and it was getting deeper and deeper.” That slide guitar just holds that angst in its very composition. When you’re down on your knees with nothing left to sell, you just keep digging a deeper and deeper hole. Judas would soon dig a hole for all of us that he just couldn’t crawl out of. And it was night.
Listen – I had a feeling you would be here tonight. If you’re wondering if I’m talking about you, the answer is “Yes.” I don’t mean this in a weird way like I’ve tapped your phone lines or have been following you around or anything. I just know this about you. Maundy Thursday is not the most glamorous of services. Its name even sounds funny and people who aren’t’ familiar with it will ask you whether it’s on Thursday or Monday. You know, Monday Thursday. I’m sure it’s happened but I’ve never met someone who’s first worship experience ever was on this night. Our denomination is big on this night, of course, because of its focus on the Table and our love of communion. Even then, many Disciples of Christ folks won’t come out tonight. Why? I don’t presume to know why for sure – and I certainly cast no judgment on any who come or don’t come. But I do wonder. What scrolls through our minds this night – oh you the faithful who are here on this most sacred occasion? Do we wonder about Judas and wonder whom else we can toss into the hole he’s digging? Do we point and blame and lean into the chest of Jesus whispering, “Hey – point to the guy who’s going to betray you. You don’t have to say anything – just point to him and I’ll take care of it.” All of us have had moments where we just felt like someone else was getting it wrong and we kind of wish we didn’t have to deal with such nonsense.
Do we wonder about Jesus and why he let matters unfold as they did? Do we already turn past the betrayal of this moment onto the cross and even beyond to Easter. “Whelp… (whenever did “Whelp” become a word?) “Whelp, somebody had to betray Jesus so we could get the whole cross going and the sacrifice and the whole deal.” Or… Do we wonder about our own betrayal of the Way of Jesus? I mean, come on… if we’re here tonight it’s because we are the most faithful of the faithful. We care about each step of Jesus from Palm Parade to empty tomb. What betrayal have we to consider ourselves? Well, well, well…
I don’t pretend to know all you carry on your spirit tonight. I know that at any given moment in our lives, we each are carrying a burden, a heartbreak, a sense of being betrayed and perhaps a sense that we’ve done some betraying ourselves. I think it is extremely courageous that we keep showing up week after week considering the stuff we face and the heaviness we carry. And yet here we are. We know there’s something to this night… to the mystery of Christ… to the holiness of the Table. We’ve got stuff we need to lay down in order to receive the fullness of Christ in our lives. What do you need to lay down tonight? What do you need to set aside from the dark places within so that you can serve again, love again, give and receive grace again… shout on Easter with full heart that he is risen and you’re starting fresh too? What will you lay down before we take in, again, the sacred body and blood of our Lord? Addiction? Anger? Pride? Apathy? Arguments? Hurtful words? Lay them down. Resentment? Bitterness? Judgment of another? Silence meant to hurt? Fear? Narrowness of vision and mind? Contradiction to Christ’s peace? Betrayal? Lay them down tonight. You’ve come this close, after all. Close enough to reach out a hand. Close enough to lay your head into the chest of Jesus.
There’s darkness, yes. And it is night. And sorrow and fear thrive in darkness. But we lay it down, knowing the light will return, the power will come back on. If we can… when we do… “And it was night” can soon be replaced with “But on the third day…”
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 Exegetical support for this passage comes from William Barclay’s commentary on The Gospel of John. The Westminster Press. 1975.
 A holy week prayer as written by Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer, Homiletics Online.