Maundy Thursday, 2017.
In the night in which he was betrayed…
Those are the words we use when we consecrate the bread and wine for the sacrament of Holy Communion. Have you ever thought about why the Words of Institution begin like this?
In the night in which he was betrayed…
The betrayal Jesus experienced in the context of his last supper cuts right to the heart of what this meal means for us whenever we receive it. If Jesus had instituted this sacrament at any other time, it wouldn’t mean what it does for us. It had to happen in the night in which he was betrayed.
Have you ever been betrayed by one of your closest friends? After opening yourself up and becoming vulnerable to another person, to have them abuse the trust you placed in them and stab you in the back can cause more pain than if that person had beaten you to a pulp.
If a person claims to love you and turns around and hurts you deeply, you probably want to do what most of us want to do in that situation – you want to hurt them back. You wouldn’t choose to spend your last night alive with that person. Especially if you knew it was his betrayal that was going to lead to your death, a death you didn’t deserve.
You wouldn’t include him on your guest list as you gather your loved ones for one last meal together. You wouldn’t treat him with all the love and compassion that you show to all the other guests at your table. You wouldn’t get down on your hands and knees and wash his feet. You wouldn’t break bread with him and offer him the same blessing you give to all the others who have left everything to be with you. Certainly, you wouldn’t give yourself, your very body and blood, to this one who betrayed you. But that’s what Jesus does, isn’t it?
He offered the wine, his blood, to all of them, including the one who had already betrayed him to the chief priests. Judas had gone to them and asked, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” And they paid him off with thirty pieces of silver. From then on, he was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus.
No doubt, that’s what Judas was thinking about as he sat down to eat that night with Jesus and his friends. He felt the weight of the silver coins in one hand while he received the broken body and the spilled blood of Jesus in the other. Judas was wondering if this might be a good time to betray the one who was handing him his very life.
It’s hard to believe that Judas could have turned on Jesus like this and gone through the charade of participating in Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. What’s even more unbelievable is that Jesus himself knew exactly what was going on, and he still gave himself to the one who already had been paid to have him arrested and killed.
As the story unfolds, we watch Jesus making a point of letting Judas know that he knows. “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me,” Jesus tells his disciples. When they want to know who it is, he says, “It’s the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So he dips the bread in the dish and gives it to Judas.
Now, only one of the disciples understood what was really going on at that moment. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” So Judas got up from the table and left.
I’ve often wondered why Jesus didn’t dismiss Judas at the beginning of the meal. Why did he wait until after he had shared such an intimate time with his closest friends? I imagine it might be like having your family gathered around your deathbed and seeing your arch-enemy standing there in the midst of them. A deeply personal last time to be with the ones you love the most would be ruined. In the same way, Judas had defiled this holy moment. If Jesus knew what was going on, it would have made more sense for him to ask Judas to leave earlier, so he could have been excluded from this loving encounter with his followers. But Jesus intentionally chose to include Judas.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Judas isn’t the only person present at the meal who will betray Jesus. One by one, they will all fall away. When Jesus is arrested, three times Peter denies even knowing him. After Jesus is crucified, they all hide out for fear of being recognized as his followers. Not only did Jesus share his last supper with the one who would betray him, he shared his last supper with all who would betray him. And yet, he loved every one of them enough to give them his very self, his body and blood.
This same Jesus loves us enough to give us his body and blood, too. Just as he didn’t turn any away at the table on the night when he was betrayed, he doesn’t turn any away at his table ever. Even for the one who may be holding thirty pieces of silver in one hand, Jesus still gives his body and blood to be taken in the other.
Lest any of us think ourselves unworthy of receiving the body and blood of Christ, we need to go back to the night when Jesus gave us this holy meal. From the very beginning, it was shared with people who were unworthy of the gift. And that’s what makes it a sacrament, because it is all about God’s grace poured out for the undeserving.
No matter how strong or weak your faith may be, no matter how much or how little you read your Bible or pray, no matter how well you’ve done at following Jesus or how miserably you’ve failed, no matter who you are or what you’ve done – Jesus offers you his body and blood. And the more unworthy you may feel about receiving it, the more it has been given for you because it is given for the forgiveness of sins.
The forgiveness of sins isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people like Judas, who betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. It’s for people like Peter who promised he would never leave Jesus and then turned around and flatly denied even knowing him. It’s for people like the disciples who cowered in fear as soon as Jesus was taken from them.
It’s a meal given for the unworthy, and no one is excluded. It’s a meal where all are loved and forgiven. It’s a meal where all are offered the gift of Jesus himself.
And lest there be any doubt about it, we’re reminded of this fact as we gather around the table to receive Christ’s body and blood and we hear again the words that recall for us how this meal came to us from the beginning. In the night in which he was betrayed…