Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.
Think for a moment about your favorite story, the book or movie that you could never get tired of watching or reading. Is it set in an exotic local you would love to visit someday? Is the plot fast-paced and exciting, keeping you guessing until the very past page? Are the characters memorable and complex, so real you feel like you've known them for years?
The true mark of good story, I think, is this – no matter how many times you've read the book, no matter how many times you've seen the movie, you cannot stop yourself from wondering how the story is going to end. And the very best stories are the ones which sweep us up into take part in the story as if we were there. Where we feel the pain of the characters, their every heartbreak, and every time, we hope against hope that certain heartbreaking moments turn out differently.
Tonight is no exception. Tonight we hear again the story of the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Tonight we hear again the story of the night before Jesus died, and we hope against hope that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, THIS time the story will turn out differently.
Just maybe, this time, the other disciples will catch on to the assassination plan of Judas and the chief priests and scribes, and will act to stop it in time.
Maybe this time, Peter, James, and John will actually stay awake while Jesus prays in Gethsemane, and they will be supportive friends in his hour of dread and anxiety.
Maybe this time, Judas “come to his senses” and have a change of heart before giving Jesus the kiss of betrayal.
Maybe, this time, the rest of the disciples won’t flee in terror, leaving Jesus utterly alone.
Maybe this time, someone on the religious council will see the charges against Jesus for what they are – trumped up excuses to murder an innocent man just for political gain.
Maybe this time, Peter will be steadfast like his nickname – Peter the Rock – to fulfill his promise to stay with Jesus, even to death, to proudly and publicly claim his identity as a Jesus-follower.
It could have happened differently… but not this time. These events never change, no matter how often we hear it, no matter how much we want them to.
The chief priests and scribes do convince Judas to betray Jesus. Peter, James, and John are unable stay awake with Jesus and keep vigil. The rest of the disciples do flee. And Peter, blustering and brave Peter, though he at least follows Jesus a little farther along his journey to the cross, in the end he too denies Jesus, as Jesus foretold just hours before.
And we cannot forget Judas, of course - the most famous betrayer in the history of betrayals. Judas does betray Jesus, bringing a crowd, not waving palm branches and cheering, but instead brandishing weapons and threatening violence.
But the other disciples, part of Jesus own hand-chosen twelve, betray Jesus too. Not intentionally, like Judas did. They, rather, don’t seem to be able to help themselves. The spirit might be willing, but the flesh is oh so weak. And they very thought of hurting the one we love is, of course, distressing. When Jesus predicts their future unfaithfulness, Peter tried to hide his anxiety by assuring Jesus that though all the OTHERS might have it in them, surely he does not. It’s not like we've never done that before. And we all know how that went for Peter in the end.
It is really too bad for Peter and the rest that their flaws and weakness have been immortalized forever. But really, the night before Jesus died was neither the first nor the last time that Jesus has been betrayed by his followers. We too, can find ourselves at the table and in Gethsemane. Tonight is a story that is also about US.
We all know what it feels like when those we love and trust fail us – when our best friend reveals something we wanted to keep secret. When a family member makes a promise and doesn’t come through for us. When someone we thought cared about us doesn't show up for us when we are in need. We've all been on the receiving end of betrayal. And it hurts. It hurts a lot, and often the thought of forgiveness is the last thing we ever want to think about.
But we've all been on the other side. We've all been the betrayers, too. When that happens, it can be so easy, so tempting to rationalize. “I just did what I had to do to protect myself.” “I was so overwhelmed, I just couldn't help it.” “Things weren't going the way I though they should go, so I had to take matters into my own hands.” It’s part of our survival instinct to shield ourselves FROM ourselves, or we too might run away in distress or break down grief at how we have failed one another.
Jesus is on the list of those we have betrayed. Perhaps not as dramatically as the disciples or Peter, but we have, just the same. Probably every single day. We, like the disciples, over-stress our devotion, only to fall short of our promises, or we fall asleep on the job when we are needed most, or we even run the other way from Jesus. We find excellent excuses, airtight explanations, and solid defenses. We do not even have to say, as Peter does, I do not know this man. Our actions too often say it for us, loud and clear.
Nearly forty days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we confessed our excuses, using words that perhaps hit a little too close to home: We have shut our ears to God’s call. We have let our lives become infected with envy, apathy, pride, prejudice, and hypocrisy. We have inattentive in prayer, neglectful in loving our neighbors, and careless in our care for the earth.
We deserve to eat of the dry dust of our repentance, and to drink of our own bitter tears.
Perhaps we ought to eat dust and drink our tears, but that is not what we are given by our Lord Jesus. Instead of dust, in the night in which he was betrayed, we are given the life-giving body of Jesus. Instead of tears, we are given Christ’s life-giving blood of the new covenant. Instead of what we might deserve, we are given a place at the Lord’s Table, gathered together with other betrayers, deniers, deserters, and sinners.
Every week we hear what Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died. The words never change, thank God, it always begins the same way: “In the night in which he was betrayed.” It begins there, but it does not end there.
Knowing what was to come, knowing he was to be betrayed, deserted, and denied, Jesus took bread, said a blessing, and then shared it with his disciples. Knowing his death was near, he shared his last hours with them. And even when facing his own betrayer, Jesus never stopped showing us how to follow him.
In the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus offers to us the strength we need for this journey – his life and his presence. We are given this strength through the breaking of Jesus’ body and the pouring out of his blood, strength so that our lives can also be poured out for others – for other betrayers, deniers, and deserters, sheep of God’s own flock, sinners of God’s own redeeming.
Tonight, the night in which he was betrayed, we beheld Jesus undeterred by betrayal. Tomorrow, on the Friday we call Good, we will remember how Jesus suffered and died. Tomorrow, on the Friday we call Good, we will remember how his life was poured out for us. Tomorrow, we will behold the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the world.