It took a different look at the Last Supper, the mood in that room, the character of Judas, and on the way to the bottom line made a startling discovery: Jesus was a Free Will Loving Methodist. So was Matthew, his biographer. I thought I saw them walking the quad at Asbury Seminary a time or two . . . .
All that led to the sermon’s refrain: Jesus made you but he won’t make you. Enjoy this rough manuscript:
Foodies in the house today, listen up: of all the food stories in the library of the bible, the one we are going to enter into today is the most famous. Part of the reason it’s the most famous is that it is called The Last Supper, which is a bit ironic because it wasn’t the last at all but instead the first of many, many re-creations and re-entactments. But it’s also the most famous because it has the best painting of any bible story:
And that painting is so iconic, so cross-cultural, that even people who aren’t regular in church & those who don’t know anything about the bible (maybe like some of you here today), know the painting & story it depicts. DaVinci’s work has also spawned some terrific . . . copies:
Yet here’s what’s true: when you take the story more from Matthew than from Leonardo and see what was really going on in that room that night you find a story that’s much more interesting, more practical, more jarring, more like US, than DaVinci ever dreamed. It’s about more than a meal & more than communion.
While DaVinci may be great art, it’s not accurate history. And this is one of those occasions when accuracy MATTERS to capture a mood in a room. Because Jesus and his 12 closest followers were NOT seated around a table like the art suggests. Look at 26:20:
20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.
Instead, the manner in which they were eating is called triclinium in which the 12 are not so much sitting as they are reclining.
Feet against the wall; head on the table, snarfing down the food. It seems odd & uncomfortable to use but then again knives & forks were an unknown concept to them. But to eat in this reclining manner shows the height of intimacy, familiarity, comfort. Everyone there was so at ease. There was tension in the city, but for the moment you had 12 guys serving their leader well, and enjoying the time together. Can almost imagine an after dinner cigar that they’d share. When you think about it, those 12 had it made.
They were made men! Jesus had said follow me and I will make you fishers of men and they did and he did. Beyond that, Jesus had made them more than they could ever be on their own and exposed them to sights and sounds literally no one on earth had ever seen or heard before. Peter, James, and John had seen him turned inside out on the mountain; they had approached the unapproachable light in which God dwells. They basked in the glow of his miracles. They had food he had evidently created out of nothing. They acted as bodyguards against over-eager crowds. Judas was the treasurer, which means he had so much of Jesus’ trust. You know checks were coming in fast & furious because money follows vision and Jesus had vision aplenty. And here’s how you know these were made men lounging around that table: we’re still talking about them 2000 years later. They’ve got churches & colleges & cities named after them. We don’t talk about, write about, name things after any other 1st C Galilean fishermen except these guys. They were made men and Jesus had done it.
A lot of you are probably more like that than you realize. Jesus has made you into something you could have never been on your own. For some of you it’s that really good career. For others, it’s the kind of parent or spouse you are, the kind that so far surpasses what you grew up in. Still others it’s the fact that you are living a life now free of the kind of compulsions that used to dominate. Wherever it is for you, you are SO FAR beyond where you started and it JUST NOW hit you: Jesus did it. Did for you what you could not do for yourself. You are made. Made man. Made woman. It’s so funny about this church. We’ve got a beautiful website; colorful & easy to navigate. The logistics of the church as a whole flow well; our money in particular gets well allocated and is well managed. We’ve got terrific ministries with families & children & students. And I get the credit! I don’t know the first thing about web design or money management or even student ministries but people just shower me w/ praise for stuff others have done. Guess what? I’ve got it made! I’m a made man! Jesus has made me. And we’ve got made men & women all around, people standing in a line started with Peter, James, Judas, & John.
Which is why what Jesus says to these 12 made men lying around with in relaxation mode is so . . . jarring. So unexpected. So out of nowhere. Look at 26:21:
21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
What? We were all getting along and then you go Debbie Downer on us, Jesus! In this moment of intimacy you introduce the idea of betrayal. It’s so out of place; it doesn’t fit the setting or the mood or the painting! But it does fit human nature. Look at what happens next in 26:22:
22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”
AND CIRLCE ‘LORD.’ Each one asks “one after the other” – P, J, J, Bart & on down the line & you know what I think Jesus at least thought if not said? “Yup.” Each one. Peter: Is it I, Lord? Jesus, well, you are going to deny me 3 times in the next 6 hours. James: Is it I, Lord? Jesus: well, you are going to flee with the others when it gets gruesome. Thomas: Is it I, Lord? Jesus: your doubts will almost get the best of you. All 12 of them at some time and at some level will betray, deny, and abandon.
And 26:23 makes it clear:
23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.
Listen: they’ve all dipped their hands in the bowl with him! They’ve all shared that moment and that intimacy that only food with friends can provide. In sharing food, space, and touched, they’ve communicated highest honor to Jesus and he has returned the favor. And isn’t it true, all you made men & women, that we too can follow great intimacy with Jesus with a haunting betrayal OF him? The proximity is astounding! Some of you use the same hands that you raise in worship … to strike a child or a spouse. Is it I, Lord? Yup. Or you use the same voice you lift up in song to crush the spirit of a spouse, an older parent, a would-be colleague at work. Is it I, Lord? Yup. Or the same body you’ve presented as a living sacrifice to God (Ro 12:1) has been united with one NOT your spouse. Is it I, Lord? Yup. Yeah, those guys at the table, those made men, are not the only ones to couple intimacy with betrayal in a way that endures.
And then the conversation narrows in on Judas. You know there’s a reason there’s no St. Judas UMC, right? Why no St. Judas University, right? Look at 20:25:
25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”
You know what is so interesting about that? All the other 11 who asked is it I? – none of them suspected Judas!! They didn’t point fingers. A betrayer! Gotta be that guy! Nope. They trusted him with faithfulness in the same way Jesus trusted him with money. No one suspected Judas except the one who knows all. You know what else is interesting? The other 11 said Is it I, Lord? while Judas says Is it I, Rabbi? Critical difference. “Lord” is for insiders. “Rabbi” is what outsiders call him. Judas is already on the move from the in to the out.
And look how Jesus answers in the last part of v. 25: You have said so. You are saying that, Judas, not me. You. Know what that means? The door was still open. Jesus had MADE him but the choice to betray was all Judas’. Matthew’s language here implies strongly – and the whole scene underscores – Judas had free will. Jesus will not force him or coerce him; he is not Jesus’ puppet on a string. Judas had free will and Matthew makes that clear. Know what that means? Matthew was a Methodist! So was Jesus! But it means something for real today, Jesus extending that offer to Judas over the food, almost saying to Judas, “this is all your choice. You don’t HAVE to. I want you to obey & follow: Jesus made you but he won’t make you. You may be undecided about him, you may be wavering about him, you may be backsliding away from him (now I’m going Baptist on you!), and he will not coerce you or force you. You are not a puppet. It’s not even the devil made you do it.
He WILL persuade you. He WILL confront you. He WILL cajole you. He WILL wave both arms in the air and call out to you not to forget him. But he leaves the choice to FOLLOW or BETRAY all up to you. In Matt 26, he COULD have insisted & coerced Judas to stay . . . but he valued the dignity & freedom even of the betrayer TOO MUCH to do that. Jesus made you but he won’t make you.
Some of you are right there, even today, even in church. You know how Jesus’ people get lost? Like cattle, following appetites from one stop to the next and pretty soon they are way outside the fences, lost. That’s where some of you find yourself today, lost … and it was appetites that did it. Or you come to church after a week of sowing wild oats … and you’ve come to pray for crop failure. Jesus confronts, yells, waves his arms, I pray uses these words but he restrains his own power as the ultimate choice is yours. You know what I think Judas’ issue was? He’s the Treasurer, right? A lot of power, a lot of success. We have a biz mgr here who you rarely see but has so much of my trust. Anyway, I don’t think Judas could handle success & favor. A lot of us can’t. While failure makes us desperate, success makes us complacent. Man, every season of blessing HAS to be followed by a session of prayer or you can get yourself in trouble quick. Earlier this year I went through an unprecedented run of things going well. Blessed in so many areas. And I knew at every level: this is a call to prayer. To give God credit. To say he’s good. To ask him to let blessings endure. To live Prov 3:5-6. To realize that it was all God and very little me. All of us, I suspect, are more vulnerable in the midst of favor than of trial. Jesus made you but he won’t make you.
But do you know the most glorious part of the story? In Matthew’s telling of the Last Supper, Judas stays. No record of him leaving. The man who turned intimacy into betrayal. The man whose hands dipped into the bowl with Jesus and those same hands would later hold 30 pieces of silver for turning him in. Jesus doesn’t kick him out. Know what that means? Jesus broke bread with him! He gave him communion! He doesn’t give him the boot; he gives him the bread! He doesn’t force Judas to obey, but he doesn’t stop making the offer. I can hardly imagine the emotion, the pleading: Judas, this is MY body, broken for you. My blood, shed for you. Til the very, very end making that offer. Whew! You may have called me Rabbi but I still want to be your Lord. I’ve made you who you are but won’t make you follow me.
Makes me think of my friend Manny who became a Xn as a young adult. His own dad was not. In fact, alcohol had ruled the dad and Manny’s young life. But as a Xn, Manny prayed without ceasing for dad’s conversion. And then, miraculously, dad became a Xn. He said yes to Jesus’ arm waving. Two weeks later, he was dead of cirrhosis. Guess what we believe: he is in the same heaven as Mother Teresa. 2 weeks! And gets forever glory just like the saint of Calcutta. Not fair, is it? Nope, it’s not. We ought to be so glad that God doesn’t give us what’s fair. We don’t want him to be fair. We want him to be gracious. We want him always to keep the door back home open.
You who have used the same hands in praise and abuse, the same voices in worship and in spirit-crushing, the same bodies in surrender & in immorality . . . the bread is still offered. To all the Judases here. The table is still set. You’ve been made. He just won’t make you come. That choice . . . is all yours.