Grace, Mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who with the Holy Spirit is Three-in-one:
I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience like this. You get to class, get settled in, and the teacher or professor says that your tests have been graded, and that he’s very disappointed by some people’s poor performance. Before handing anything back, he begins to go through the test, pointing out one person’s lousy answers, showing that that student — as the worst representative of all the others — just didn’t “get” whatever it was they’d been studying for the last weeks or months.
And so, as he is going through the test and sharing that one student’s embarrassingly wrong answers, every student in the class is asking themselves, “Wait, that’s not my test he’s reading from, is it? That can’t be me, can it?” For at least one person in the class, once the papers are handed back, the answer will be, “Yes, it’s you”.
Something similar, but much more serious, was going on in that upper room on Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus announced something much more than disappointing, something beyond confusing. “One of you will betray me,” he said.
There was more than a grade on the line. Jesus was announcing the results of the testing of their hearts before the test had even been given. He was saying, “One of you will fail. One of you will show that nothing you have learned these last three years has made a difference. One of you will trade your trust for rebellion.”
Now, since Jesus was speaking in the future tense, the disciples would not have known whose heart he was reading. And so, we find them, naturally, asking themselves, “That won’t be me, will it?” and with troubled hearts, each then asked Jesus, “Surely not I, Lord? Surely not I?”
Jesus made his announcement while he was eating the Passover meal — the last Supper — with his disciples. But this wasn’t the first time Jesus had spoken of his betrayal — early in his ministry he had already told them in John 6:70 “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil”.
At that time, not even Judas would have known whom Jesus was referring to. And earlier this same evening, as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he declared in John 13:10: “You are clean, though not every one of you”.
One wonders if Jesus looked at Judas when he said that, because he was obviously trying to let Judas know that he was aware of his plan and was calling him to repentance.
Judas obviously didn’t respond as he should have, and so Jesus replaced His somewhat confusing language in favor of something more direct: “One of you will betray me.”
Try to imagine what effect that statement would have had on his disciples’. Maybe we’re so close to the center of American politics here that this kind of deceit doesn’t shock us as much as it should. Or maybe our society’s postmodern relativism has turned the black and white of betrayal into shades of gray, “Well, we can’t fault Judas, can we? I mean, he did what he thought was right for him, didn’t he?”
For the eleven other disciples, the idea that one of their own, someone who had shared meals with them and Jesus, sat at his feet, and traveled with him all over Palestine could do something so shameful and faithless was beyond imagining.
And yet Jesus said it was going to happen. And they knew that what he said was always true. They couldn’t wish his words away, so they each began to ask him, “Surely not me, Lord?”
The way they asked the question assumes that the answer will be “no.” But they needed to be reassured — they wanted Jesus to tell them that they would not do such a thing.
Each of them asked the question, because they needed to hear it from their Lord, because the examination of their hearts led each one of them to realize, to their great disappointment, that it could be any of them.
Self-examination should lead us to the same conclusions and the same need for reassurance from our Lord because there are more ways to betray Jesus than Judas’ way. A teenager looks at a fellow church member or family member who went off to college, or the military, and promptly forgot his faith and says, “That couldn’t happen with me, could it? Surely not me Lord?” A married man on a business trip sees one of his colleagues slipping off his wedding ring before heading out for a night on the town and wonders if he could do the same thing if his marriage got worse. He looks up to heaven and says, “surely not me Lord, surely not me.”
You see, it doesn’t really matter what the sin or temptation is, at some point we all ask, “Surely not me, Lord?” And it doesn’t do any good to look around us and point fingers or compare ourselves to the treacherous Judases around us, because, no matter how awful, arrogant, or abusive, no matter how ungrateful, unholy, or unforgiving another sinner or his sin might be, we recognize that we are capable of the same. We are kept from betraying Jesus only by the grace of God.
And it is also the grace of God that provides an answer to our troubled hearts when we ask, “Surely not me, Lord?”
But don’t expect it to necessarily be a direct answer, although it will always be the best answer. Look how our Lord answered his disciples. He didn’t tell anyone, “No, it’s not you” or, “It’s Judas.” Instead, he simply said, “the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”
Now, while these words might sound like a direct identification of the betrayer, they really weren’t. And they weren’t intended to be. Jesus simply said that the betrayer was someone who was eating with him. And as Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples, all of them dipped pieces of bread into the bowl of spicy sauce that was served with the Passover lamb. Maybe Jesus was indirect again because he wanted them to do so more soul searching.
It’s more likely, though, that Jesus, in his perfect love, avoided naming Judas in the presence of the other disciples to give him room to give up his wicked plan — he wanted him to repent.
That desire for repentance, that hope of regaining his lost sheep, led Jesus to give a very stern warning to his betrayer. He said, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”
You might think that such sharp language, warning the betrayer of the terrible judgment he would face for his sin, would have had some positive effect on Judas.
But by now Judas’ conscience was too corrupted. His mind was made up and his heart was cold, and with brazen hypocrisy he asked the same question the other disciples asked, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Like Adam and Eve after the fall, or Jonah on his way to Tarshish, he actually thought he could hide himself and his sin from an all-knowing God. So, finally Jesus spoke clearly and directly. You can picture his eyes burning into Judas’ as he said: “Yes, it is you.”
Judas had rejected God’s grace, so Jesus gave him the law. When Judas chose sin, he chose judgment instead of forgiveness, and everlasting death would be the price of that faithless choice.
But what about the others? Could Jesus leave them wondering about their faithfulness or doubting their love? Well, I suppose he could have, but he didn’t. Not only would his love for them not allow him to leave them with their worry, but he also wanted to teach and show them that the place to find strength and certainty was not in their own hearts or decisions, but only and entirely in Him. So, he gave them, and us, a wonderful gift of love and reassurance:
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”
In other words, our Lord’s answer to his disciples’ anxious, self-doubting question, “Surely not I, Lord?” was the Sacrament of Holy Communion. He gave them salvation, and forgiveness for all their sins by giving them his own body and blood, which, very soon, were to be given and poured out on Calvary’s cruel cross. He gave them everything they would ever need.
So, when we examine our own hearts and actions and find that the answer to “Surely not I?” is a disappointing, “Yes, of course, it is I, it’s me, I am the sinner. I am the one who betrays you, Lord”, then we can change our focus from “me” to “Him”, because through Christ we have forgiveness. And when we look into our hearts and are frightened by the lack of faith we find there, we can have our faith strengthened by the visible gospel in the bread and wine. Doubts and fears, weakness and pride, greed and irresponsibility — every kind of anxiety and every kind of betrayal are answered, all dealt with, and all forgiven in His body and blood..
And so it is our joy to participate in this wonderful gift and taste his glorious grace as often as we can and as often as we need it. So then, come, come often, feed your faith, and find rest for your soul. Amen.