God, help me. Come quickly. “O Lord, make haste to help me,” cries the Psalmist. “Let those who seek after my life be ashamed. … I am poor and needy.” Don’t delay. “You are my helper.” The psalmist pleads, protests what is wrong, and trusts. You are my helper. You are my God.
About half of the psalms are laments. Lament is a cry of pain, a cry for help, and a cry of trust. Lament is stark and boldly real about pain and suffering, and it assumes being heard. Tonight we will chant Tenebrae, a service of shadows, with lament psalms and haunting solos from Lamentations about people abandoned, isolated, cut-off, and grieving. Though we chant psalms like these all year, tonight they come together in a particular prayer for Holy Week. Jesus was troubled in spirit, and so are we, especially now. The Surgeon General said this may be the “hardest and saddest week” for our country.[i]
Isaiah 50:4-9a John 13:21-32
In his The Gospel of John: A Commentary, scholar Frederick Dale Bruner headlines this day’s gospel reading as “Jesus’ Foot-washing Warning: (with the subtitle) Let Yourselves Beware of Yourselves.” Or, as Rudolf Bultmann puts it, “The consciousness of belonging to the body of disciples must not seduce any of them into the illusion of security.”[i] And, I would say that, a false sense of security from harm without is usually paired with such a sense within: a false certainty of our own steadfastness and loyalty, under any conditions. This passage from John, in the context of Holy Week, will not allow us to dodge a confrontation with the power of evil in humanity.
The gospels do not provide us with a clear explanation for Judas’ act in “handing over” Jesus to the authorities. And most of the answers we try to extrapolate from the evangelist’s words say a good deal more about us and our need to distance ourselves from the possibility of acting as Judas did.
In our gospel lesson from John two supporting characters emerge at center stage with Jesus. One of these characters has been in our field of view the whole time. The other makes his official debut in the gospel, somehow avoiding notice until this moment at supper where the flickering candlelight makes shadows jump dramatically on the perimeters of that upper room.
The gospel writer says that Jesus heart was troubled as he announces that someone at the dinner table will betray him. As the disciples’ eyes dart around the room we can feel their uneasiness, perhaps because each of them at one point on their journey with Jesus had considered jumping ship and going back to their old lives and families, back into their individual realms of safety and the familiar. We read earlier in John that as many of Jesus’ followers were abandoning him, He turns to his disciples and asks if they too want to leave. You may remember Peter’s response: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’*Jesus replied: ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’
“Jesus was troubled in spirit.” He doesn’t say it, but they could see it on his face. The disciples were again confused and clueless, but they could tell. Jesus was troubled. He was sad and afraid, knowing he would be betrayed. Grieving the great loss and suffering to come, let alone at the hands of his friend, Jesus was troubled in spirit.
Remember Jesus on the storm-swept sea fast asleep in the bottom of the boat, exhausted from ministry. Remember Jesus greeting Mary and going to Lazarus’ tomb: “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Onlookers said, “See how Jesus loved him!” (1) Overcome with grief, Jesus wept for and with his closest friends. Troubled and grieving, Jesus was human. Jesus’ humanity—shown in sleep, in tears, and a troubled face—is hopeful and instructive for us in Holy Week as we reflect on his suffering and death.
Judas is a complicated person. (Aren’t we all.) We know, of course, that Judas had been invited by Jesus to be among his twelve closest followers and friends… and we experience Jesus to be a very keen judge of character. What did Jesus originally see in Judas? What did Judas see in Jesus? We’re not absolutely clear. We do know there was subsequent jealousy among these twelve apostles: who was the greatest. (1) The one nicknamed “the Beloved Disciple” seemed to have the greatest intimacy with Jesus and was the target of some jealousy. (2) Judas seemed to have the greatest… greatest something in Jesus’ eyes – greatest power? greatest stewardship? greatest accountability? we don’t know – because he was entrusted to carry the money. With that responsibility, Judas’ reputation became mixed. Though he upbraided Jesus with the other disciples about their self-indulgence in the face of the poor, he was known to steal money from the common purse. (3)