A Love That Saves

A Homily for Wednesday in Holy Week

Margaret D. McGee

The Psalm sets the tone and lets us know right up front what kind of mess we’re in. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire … the flood sweeps over me … shame has covered my face … I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.”

Shame, and fear of shame. This is a hard place to go, and I don’t want to go there.

When Isaiah says, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard,” he’s talking about that same place. It was usual in Isaiah’s day for Hebrew men to wear full beards, and pulling out a beard, besides being quite painful, was an attack on a man’s dignity. So the prophet is speaking of being in the hands of people who hurt him and who want to shame him.

The collect reminds us that Jesus spent his final hours in that very place. “Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon.” Then it goes on to make a request that’s very difficult for me to say whole-heartedly. “Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed…”

When I first read the collect, I winced and turned away. I don’t like to think about anyone being whipped and spit upon, much less Jesus. And to accept joyfully my own pain and humiliation? Please.

Shame, and fear of shame. This is a hard place to go, and I don’t want to go there.

Course, it’s not as if I don’t know the way. Not as if I’ve never been. We start going to that place at a young age, and once we’re there, it can feel as if there’s no way out.

Second grade. You remember how in elementary school, you had to raise your hand to go to the bathroom? I don’t know how I got in this frame of mind, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t like for anybody to know that I had to go to the bathroom. So I’d wait for recess, or wait for lunch. I’d hold it.

And, one day, seated at my desk during Show & Tell, I waited too long. The dam broke, and I wet my pants right there in front of everybody.

I remember the moment when the kid who was up front doing his Show & Tell realized what had happened. It may have been the sound of drips off my chair that tipped him off. His eyes got big, and he put one hand over his mouth, and he pointed his finger right at me. I can see him today. Steve Warner was his name. Then the teacher realized what was happening, and she hustled me out of the room and sent me home for a change of clothes.

At home, my mother was puzzled about the episode. Wasn’t I allowed to go to the bathroom at school? Well, yes, of course I was. But I was too embarrassed to tell her that I was too embarrassed to raise my hand. So she stayed puzzled. I don’t remember being mocked about it in the playground later, so maybe the teacher gave the other kids a talking-to while I was gone. That would be a blessing. And yet, even today I can see Steve Warner pointing his finger at me, and the look on his face.

I hadn’t thought of that incident for years and years. The memory came to me while I was studying today’s scripture readings. And once that memory came, it was as if another dam broke, and other memories flooded out, some from long ago, others from just last week. Times when I was the one pointing my finger at someone else. Times when a loved one counted on me, and I didn’t live up to their trust. They felt betrayed, and I felt ashamed. Or maybe they didn’t live up to my trust, and I felt betrayed, and they felt ashamed. Illusions shattered, relationships wounded by pride, or shame, or the fear of shame.

It’s a hard place to go, and we may not want to go there, but the truth is, we live in that hard place for much of our lives.

And in the gospel, we come to the moment when Jesus serves a piece of bread to Judas. Satan enters Judas’s heart, and he leaves this gathering of close friends to arrange for the arrest of his teacher, who loves him. Judas will live the rest of his short life in shame, his memory to be held in contempt for generations to come.

The scene is told with great intimacy. After Jesus, troubled in spirit, declares that one of the people in this room would betray him, the gospel says that the disciples looked at one another. Who could it be? Peter motioned to one of them – the one whom Jesus loved – who was reclining next to him.

In the King James Version, this disciple is described as actually “leaning on Jesus’ bosom,” and a verse later as “lying on Jesus’ breast.” So close. This disciple asks, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answers, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” He dips the bread and gives it to Judas. Moments later, Judas is out of the room, on his way.

Then Jesus says something truly extraordinary. Judas is barely out of the room, when Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him.” Now. Right now. To ‘glorify’ is to make visible the presence of God, and Jesus says it happens at this moment. He goes on to say, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. … I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

He doesn’t say anything about Judas, about how disappointed he is in him, or how awful it feels to lose your trust in someone close to you. It’s almost as if Jesus didn’t lose anything, as if nothing changed from his standpoint between him and Judas. He says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Who in that room did Jesus love? Only one disciple is described as “the one Jesus loved.” But when Jesus tells the disciples to love one another as he loved them, clearly he’s speaking to every disciple. He loved them all. Without expecting perfection, or even ordinary loyalty, he just loved them. Immediately after this passage, Peter gets all gnarled up in his betrayal of the Lord. And Jesus, unsurprised, clear-eyed, loves him all the way through.

To whom in that room did Jesus serve bread? Again, only one is named – Judas. But again, we know from other Gospel accounts that Jesus served them all on this night. He served himself to them, knowing that any one of them might betray him at any time. They were only human, just like us.

John’s gospel doesn’t say why Judas did what he did. No motivation is given. Based on that flood of memories I had, I wonder if Judas might have become suspicious of Jesus’ mission, or might have wanted to retaliate for some perceived slight to Judas’ own dignity.

Whatever his motivation – suspicion, a sense of disillusionment, or disappointment, or just a simple lack of faith – Judas broke away. He left the room, and then unlike Peter, he couldn’t find his way back.

In the meantime, in that room, God’s saving grace is present and visible in Jesus. How? Jesus shows the way when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

That new commandment rests on an ancient and well-worn path. If we go back to the psalm, we hear of this path: “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help, rescue me from sinking in the mire.” And in Isaiah we hear of this path, when he says, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced … It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

On this night, Jesus makes the path visible in the love he offers everyone in the room. He says, this is how you find the path and walk on it. Live in my love, as close to me as you can get, leaning right up against my bosom. This is the safe path through that terrible place where none of us want to go, and where, at one time or another, all of us live.

On this path, you don’t need to be perfect, and neither does anyone else. If you have to go to the bathroom, it’ll feel fine to raise your hand, no shame involved. If anyone tries to pull out your beard, then like Isaiah, like Jesus, you are not disgraced. Because it’s at that very moment that God’s saving grace and love can be not only present (which it always is) but also visible. Visible in a love that holds no illusions about who we are or what we might do. In this love there is no shame, or fear of shame.

This is the love of Christ.

Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington on April 4, 2007.

The Readings for Holy Wednesday:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 69: 1-2, 7-15, 22-23
Hebrews 9:11-15, 24-28
John 13:21-35

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