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Loving the One Who Will Walk Out On You

A sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 (with discussion of the excluded verses).

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Philippe Mignot on Unsplash]

The gospel I just read is the reading assigned for this night in the church calendar, but it is not the story as John wrote it. Or, rather, it is only part of the story. In John’s gospel we get the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then telling them to do likewise. And we hear Jesus’s new commandment, that Jesus’ followers love one another “just as” Jesus has loved them. But tonight’s reading skipped over the verses that come in between those two elements, verses that Lutheran professor and John scholar Karoline Lewis tells us “casts the love commandment in a completely different light.”[1]

That different light comes from the playing out of Judas’s betrayal.

First, Jesus references a prophecy that, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.”

Then, he speaks more plainly, telling his disciples “one of you will betray me.”

Finally, after the disciples ask who it is, Jesus tells them it is the one to whom he will give the bread after dipping it in the cup, suiting his action to his words, and offering the bread to Judas.

When Judas takes the bread, John tells us that Satan entered into him, and Jesus tells him to do quickly what he is going to do.

According to John, the other disciples do not entirely understand what is going on, but they do see Judas leave Jesus and go out into the night. And it is at this point that Jesus gives them the new commandment to love one another as he has loved them.

Do you hear it? Do you hear how different the commandment sounds in that context than it sounds without it? Such love certainly includes the act of humble service that Jesus has just performed in washing his followers’ feet, but it is so much more than that.

What is so stunning about this command to love is not just that it voluntarily takes on the role of a literal servant, or that it engages in a somewhat distasteful task. The stunning character of this love is that it offers such service, humility, and vulnerability to the one, to use Lewis’s phrase, “who will walk out on you.”[2]

If we are to love as Jesus loved, then we are to love our Judas. We are to love the one who will walk out on us.

I have always thought of Judas as “the betrayer,” and betrayal is already an emotionally powerful word, to be sure, but there is something more visceral, more personally painful about the framing of “one who walks out on you.”

If you have ever had that experience, those six words take you right back to the moment of breaking.

Hearing the door slam and knowing it is the end of something.

The relationship is fractured, potentially forever.

You are still there, holding all the broken pieces. But the other person has made the decision to walk away.

That is the pain that Jesus is sitting in when he turns to his remaining disciples and tells them “l give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you (all), you also should love one another.”

The disciples may not have understood in the moment all of the ramifications of what Jesus was commanding them to do, but Jesus knew.

He knew it when he knelt before Judas, with a towel around his waist, and gently cradled each travel-stained foot to wash it clean.

He knew it when he dipped bread into wine and offered it to Judas, a sign of both betrayal and communion.

He knew it when he gave Judas permission to walk away… to walk out on him on his night of greatest need.

That is the kind of love Jesus commands his followers to practice. The kind of love that serves everyone… including the ones who clearly do not deserve it, even the ones who will hurt us.

Now, here, I have to pause for a word of caution… because all too often the Christian church has told people in powerless conditions that they are commanded to love their abusers. But that is a misreading of this story.

Jesus is not powerless in his relationship with Judas. He knows before Judas does about the coming betrayal.

He is the leader. The one with authority and power in their relationship. Judas does not manipulate Jesus to believe he has somehow earned betrayal, or that he has to forgive time after time, and serve in whatever way is demanded of him.

That’s not love. And that’s not what Jesus commands us to do.

Jesus’s commands us to love as he has loved us.

And that means offering care and service to others without wondering whether the other person deserves it.

Without keeping an account of what is owed to us because of what we have given.

Without reserving the right to bitterness if our service is not received the way we think it should be, because we are committed to offering loving care even to the one who will walk out on us.

Jesus is not commanding us to submit to abuse… but his command may still sound impossible, especially if that evocative phrase about walking-out transports you back to the sound of the slamming door and the slicing wounds of a shattered relationship.

But here’s the other thing we need to hear in Jesus’s command: we are to love as he has (already) loved us.

John reports that Jesus calls this a new command, but the agape love Jesus commands has been a central theme of the whole gospel.

The clarification that Jesus offers in this new command is that his followers are to love as he has loved us, which means – of course – that we can only do this after we have experienced his love.

His command contains within it a promise. The promise that we have been loved, already, with the kind of love that holds NOTHING over our heads. The kind of love that is as available to us in moments of betrayal as it is when we are leaning in close.

This love that we have received is so secure that it changes us. It makes us capable of the kind of service and care we can never do just because we are commanded to.

We can do it because we are profoundly loved. And nothing we or anyone else will ever do can change that truth.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Working preacher podcast 776. Maundy Thursday – April 1, 2021. [2] Ibid.


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