In the Garden of Gethsemane, twelve of twelve disciples failed their Master. For most of them, their failure laid the groundwork for future service. Their failure under pressure caused them to realize how much they needed the strength of their Lord. Eventually, most of them would find their way back to Jesus and would eventually come to claim their true identity. But one of them ran away from his Master and was unable to find his way back.
Some years ago, I heard the testimony of a well-to-do Charlotte layman and philanthropist who had financed a mission trip to a war-torn corner of Africa. The abject poverty, the squalor, the rampant malnutrition, the sight of mangled bodies and the numerous manifestations of humanity’s cruelty and viciousness so devastated this man that his faith was profoundly shaken. While visiting there he had the opportunity to climb an active volcano, and as he peered into that seething, pulsating lava, it seemed to him as if it represented Satanic energy. He could hear the voice of the Tempter, saying, “You have beheld the magnitude of evil’s power. Why are you wasting your time and money trying to fight it? Spend your wealth making yourself and your inner circle of loved ones comfortable. Surrender this notion that you can be a servant of God and good.” As this man beheld that seething lava, symbolic of evil’s powerful presence, he admitted that he was on the verge of cursing God. Suddenly he heard a familiar hymn, sung in an African tongue, wafting up to his ears from the village below. The sound of this hymn, emanating from what struck him as an angelic choir, seemed to be the voice of God, calling him back to discipleship, calling him back to compassion, calling him back to generosity, calling him back to embrace his true identity as a servant of the Kingdom of God.
Judas, by contrast, allowed the Tempter’s voice to pierce his consciousness and infect his soul. Yes, he had earlier heard the call of Christ to become one of the Master’s inner circle, but now he heard the Tempter mocking his ambitions about serving the Lord’s Anointed. “Why waste your life serving a man soon to be crucified? Why fritter your talent away serving a so-called Kingdom not of this world? Serve me instead! Find your own enjoyment and fulfillment in pursuing your own agenda.” Judas had sensed that his true fulfillment, his true identity, would emerge as he answered the call of the Christ, but the Tempter offered him the opportunity to reject that call and embark on a path of his own choosing.
The truth is, very few people are wholly and absolutely bad, either in the Bible or in our own world. Very few people are always evil in orientation. I think of Joseph Stalin, credited by historians as being the worst mass murderer of the twentieth century. Joseph Stalin for a time was a seminary student before he turned his back on Christ’s values and embraced the opposite approach to life. The psychologist William James termed such a turning a “reverse conversion.” Someone feels a profound attraction to the power of good, feels the tug to be compassionate, loving and altruistic, but then reverses course and embraces instead the opposite value system. That is what happened to Judas. He felt the tug of Christ to find himself in the pursuit of the values of the Kingdom of God, but he suffered a reverse conversion and chose to worship his own values instead.
I am not without pity for Judas. He was a victim, as well as a victimizer. And the truth is, being a judas was not what doomed Judas. All of the disciples failed Jesus. All of them in their own way betrayed him. But eleven of the twelve found a way to throw themselves back upon the mercy of their Master. One did not. His great sin was to doom himself by serving as his own judge, his own executioner, his own god.
We have seen that Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi for a variety of reasons. But one reason was intensely practical. Paul sought to address what he feared might be a potential “reverse conversion” among two of that congregation’s leading citizens, Euodia and Syntche. Somehow these two leading ladies had engaged in a big fight, and Paul, ignoring the nature of the fight, focused instead on the impact their disagreement was causing the health of the fellowship. He wrote to them, “Look, this spat you are engaged in is undermining the health of the community of faith. Moreover, you are undermining all of the good work that you have done in this fellowship over the years.” Perhaps it was precisely this controversy that inspired Paul to articulate this profound counsel: “Do nothing from selfishness and conceit, but rather in humility count others better than yourselves. Don’t look to your own interests but rather be motivated by the interests of others. Have the mind among yourselves similar to the mind displayed by our Lord Jesus Christ, who though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Paul essentially says to Euodia and Syntche, ‘Don’t you understand? The overall health of the fellowship is far more important than who is right or wrong in the matter of your little disagreement,’ (which may have been over something so trivial as the color of the drapes at the house church.) To these women whose disagreement was sapping the vitality of the entire fellowship, Paul says in essence, ‘You girls knock it off.’ Then he said to the other church members, ‘Help these ladies come to an amicable resolution, for the truth is both of them have been valuable servants with me in advancing the cause of Christ.’
Let us return our attention to the Last Supper, the Supper that we are about to commemorate this morning. On that night Jesus looked at his disciples and said to them, “One of you will betray me.” Do you remember their response? Each of them looked at each other and asked, “Is it I?” Every single one of the twelve knew they were capable of failing their Lord. Every single one of them knew they had the potential to reject their true identity. And they knew themselves well, because in the short term, all of them indeed fled into the darkness. But only one didn’t make his way back to Christ. Given the extreme pressure of that night, we cannot be surprised that one of the twelve did not make it back to the Savior. What should amaze us is that the other eleven did.
When we come to this Table, it is fair to ask ourselves the question that the disciples asked themselves: “Is it I?” The privilege of participating in this Supper entails the burden of choice. Are we willing to partake of the meal not only physically but spiritually? Are we willing to ask ourselves, ‘Am I willing to embrace the life of sacrificial love that comes with being a disciple of Jesus Christ? Am I truly willing to live the life of graciousness and mercy?’ We can come to crossroads moments in our lives and pretend that we are embracing the call of Christ, when in fact we are secretly committed to being our own god. But when we approach this Table we are aware of the reality of choice: we can embrace the values of the Kingdom, or spurn them. But when we hear our Lord say, “This is my body; this is my blood,” and we offer, not only our physical assent but our spiritual assent to accepting his sacrifice on our behalf, then we have taken a step toward embracing our true identity. It is with that courage and commitment that we approach our Lord’s Table this morning.