The Dinner Party
Text: John 13:21-32
After saying what?
And then he goes on to have this strange conversation with some of the disciples in which, as is often the case, they don’t understand him - someone is going to betray him, what does he mean, who is it?
And then he gives Judas bread and says something to him, yet another thing the disciples don’t understand, and Satan enters into Judas (what is that about?), and Judas goes out, and Jesus starts talking about being glorified and I don’t think he’s talking about the burgers at the Varsity that come with lettuce and tomato. And the disciples figure Jesus has sent Judas out on an errand even though it’s the middle of dinner.
In a weird kind of way this is like dinner at my house. Maybe yours, too. People are busy with their own thoughts, their own concerns. We only half hear each other. We are not quite paying attention. What was that you said? What are you doing? What are you talking about? People are coming and going in the middle of the meal. I’m sorry, is this important? I don’t get it! Of course not, you missed half of the story. Somebody needs to get some more milk. The point, if there was one, gets lost in all the confusion.
But of course this isn’t a regular dinner party. This is the last supper, John style. It’s not just any old meal - it’s the farewell meal, the last meal with Jesus after he has told them what their life’s work is to be as his followers. He has washed their feet and told them that he has set an example for them. Here’s the punch line from that scene: They are to serve one another, and if they act on what they have been told, they are blessed. They will be doing the work that Jesus has given them to do. That’s what Jesus was saying just before we came onto the scene.
It seems it didn’t register, though, at least not for long. Here is your work, Jesus says. Don’t just know what you are supposed to do, but actually do it.
And then immediately the coming and going and questions and interruptions begin. Jesus says someone isn’t going to do the work; someone isn’t going to love but will be a betrayer. Someone has gotten lost. And the subject is changed, suddenly and firmly. Is it me? It’s not me, is it? Who is it? I can hear the hissing whisper: Ask him who it is!
And they move on, away from the commandment to serve one another and on to the part about Judas. There’s no turning back now.
Alas, I know this part well, too.
Once the subject is changed, I don’t need to focus on the work Jesus has given me to do if I can allow myself to become distracted by finding someone else to blame for not doing the work Jesus has commanded. I can put the onus on them along with the focus. The concern becomes about Judas and his failure and not about me and my shortcomings. And then I am lost.
What was it Jesus was saying when we came in? ("Ask him who it is!")
It’s hard to be truly present to Jesus and the work he gives us to do. For one thing, it is not plain on its face what it is that we are to do. Jesus wants us to figure out ourselves how to live out his commands, in our own time and in our own place, but that takes some focus and patience and clarity and it’s easier just to find fault with others. We’re happy to be distracted, to shift the focus elsewhere while the important thing gets left behind, pushed aside, for the side show, again and again. Because following Jesus can be confusing. We just don’t know what to do - what if we’re wrong? What if we didn’t hear Jesus correctly? What if we’re not good enough? What if, what if, what if? And then we're lost.
Thomas Merton has a lovely prayer that speaks to this dilemma:
“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen”
Jesus himself has walked that road, and is even now in the shadow of death as Good Friday approaches. Even if we don't know, he knows where he is going. But he has promised that he will always meet us at the table. That's where the road starts. It's like home base. No matter who else is there or not there, no matter what we have done or not done, no matter who is coming or going, Jesus will be there to welcome us. In our confusion, our doubt, our distraction, we are never lost. We will always find him at the table.