It may not have escaped your attention, but this week I'm following Jesus' steps as He walks toward Golgotha, which is the Greek word given for the site where the crosses were raised, and Calvary is the later Latin translation. I like using the word Golgotha, mostly because it has such a guttural, ugly sound that fits the base, ugly event that happened there at the "place of the skull", as Mark calls it.
Anyway, as a reader, and student of literature, I'm well aware of how timing works in literature. As a story approaches its climax, it slows down. Rather than moving through a series of independent episodes over a course of years (in this case 33), it moves in terms of hours, even minutes as we get to the--er, THE--significant moment. In the gospel of John, for instance, a book of 21 chapters, the Last Supper begins in chapter 13. Twelve chapters to cover three years (since he doesn't write of Jesus' early life) and nine to cover Thursday, Friday, Sunday and post resurrection. That's really, really slow motion.
In fact, John write more about the Last Supper than any other part of the story, including the crucifixion. When that much of a story is concentrated on a single event, it deserves special attention. Yet even though we practice a small portion as a Sacrament, I think we often hurry past to get to the climax--to the good/hard part. The saving part. So I want to linger here for a couple of days.
Last week I wrote about how this meal started, with Jesus kneeling in front of His disciples and washing their grubby feet, so if you feel the need to re-read that, go right ahead. It's "Blessed are the feet" and you can find it on the side. (I'd link you right to it, but my techs aren't home at the moment, and I'm a techno-idiot). The other part of this meal I probably won't write about is the Sacrament itself. I've written about it quite often, and hopefully tomorrow, I can give you those links. For today, I have other fish to fry, so to speak!
Today is about the difference between denying and betraying Jesus. One gigantic difference. A life and death difference. An eternal difference. Right at the start of this meal, while the disciples still felt Jesus' hands rubbing their feet dry and Peter's avowed "You shall never wash my feet" and complete turnaround, "Then wash my hands and head too," were ringing in the air, Jesus starts talking about betrayal. Can you imagine? He had just knelt not only in front of Peter the brash, but the turncoat in their midst as well, and washed those dirty feet, washed them kindly, completely, lovingly. There they are, reclining at the table--and they were always reclining at tables in those days. ( I'd kind of like to see how that worked, wouldn't you? I mean, I spill on myself about half the time when I'm sitting straight up in a chair, and Beve? Well, I'm sorry to say, Beve is the cause of more Spray 'N Washed tableclothes and place-mats than our kids these days, and he leans forward when he serves us. So I'm pretty sure we'd be a wine-covered, bread-matted mess if we lay down at any table, but they'd learned it as they'd learned to eat, so maybe they were better at it.)
So there they are, reclining, most of the disciples thinking they're having a nice time, a lovely intimate time, just the baker's dozen of them for once, except that Jesus is troubled. He can't go on moment longer just eating this meal--even if it is His last--knowing what He knows. "One of you is going to betray me." 'Holy mackerel, Andy,' as my father-in-law would say. Imagine how this news landed on the ears of eleven of those men just reclining innocently around that table. I bet they all sat up in alarm. Started looking at each other. All the little issues that had come up along the road probably rose up with them. "Betcha it's Matthew," thinks Philip. "Never did think a tax collector was suited for this." "That John--he's still wet behind the years," Thaddeus might have been saying to himself. "I'm not so sure about any of them," Thomas is surely doubting.
Peter, though, is never one to internally doubt when he could raise a question, nudges John. "Ask Him who He means." So John does. And Jesus answers, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then He calmly hands the bread to Judas Iscariot. A couple of things strike me about this. First, the same practice we have taken as a Sacrament for 2000 years, Jesus extended to the man He knew would betray Him. Even Judas was given the bread, from Jesus' very hand. Just as his feet had been washed, so the bread was given. With an outstretched hand--full of what Jesus would call, "My body, broken for you", Judas was offered Jesus' love one last time. And, in that moment, he had one last choice. Jesus said quietly to him, "What you are about to do, do quickly." It doesn't quite sound like it, but even here there was a last-ditch chance for Judas to refuse. Jesus knew, though, that Judas wouldn't refuse, that he would do what greed, and sin, and Satan himself, had compelled Judas to do. It isn't that Jesus--that God--made Judas do what he did. But God, being God, being Sovereign, knew he would do it. Such is the great tragedy of Judas Iscariot.
Judas left--quickly. And in the next breath, practically, while Peter and John, who knew what had just happened, were still catching their breath, Jesus begins explaining what's about to happen. "Where are you going?" "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later." It's always been a bit of a mystery to me that the disciples were so obtuse, that they missed so many of Jesus' words about His death. I mean, how can you not understand, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matt. 12: 40) But I have the luxury of living post-cross, post-resurrection. I can live the story, keeping the end in mind. For them, all of it had to walked through as it happened. And, if I might be so bold, no wonder it scared the living daylights out of them at times, scared them so much they ran, or did exactly what Jesus is about to tell Peter he'll do. "Before the cock crows, you'll deny me three times." Imagine Peter's horror.
But there's a difference here. I don't know if you caught it. But here again is what Jesus says, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later." There is promise in this sentence. Yes, on the heels of it, He tells Peter of a fairly significant failure. But after that, beyond that failure, there is hope. "You will follow later on." For a few glaring moments in Peter's life, he will deny his Lord. Three times. Three stinkin' times. Those dark moments may cause nightmares for him for the rest of his life. He may wake up sweating them in prison down the road, when Satan wants to distract him from faith, when he wants to mock him. Yes, Peter failed. But before that failure even happened, Jesus knew they'd only be like a single click of the fingers in a life-time of hand-clapping for Christ. A vapor. Signifying nothing.
I think Jesus wanted to get these things out of the way at the beginning of this meal because He had a whole lot to cover. A lot of life to impart, a lot of praying to do. Loving to do in that long (three chapter) prayer. These two moments pointed out the huge difference between betrayal and denial. And it comforts me to think through this. I know--I love deeply--people who question who/whether God is. I continue to pray for them. They might be saying, even as I write this, "I don't know the man," but I believe that they will "follow later." And that when they do, all this time will be but a vapor, and their lives, turned toward Him, turned over to Him, will be a the same kind of lives I know God has envisioned for them all along.