The theological importance of Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper cannot be overstated. But it is what comes next that fascinates me. Jesus’ words about his betrayer in verse 21 remind us that great leadership does not automatically guarantee results. Jesus has a traitor in his inner circle. And look at how Jesus talks about this in verse 22. “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” Notice the two parts here.
First, the Son of Man will go as it has been decreed – decreed by God. Nothing is going to happen to Jesus that God has not accounted for beforehand. God is not surprised, left flat-footed. It’s all part of God’s plan. That is reassuring. But the other part reminds us that God’s plan does not absolve us of our responsibilities. “But woe to that man who betrays him!” Jesus knew that Judas was plotting, and God accounted for this all along, but that did not mean that Judas would avoid the consequences of unfaithfulness. This is a theme that runs through Scripture and through our lives. God will work, whether we are faithful or not. But on which side of God’s grace will we be?
The disciples’ response in verse 23 would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Imagine that your leader, your hero, said that there was a betrayer in your midst, and at a moment when he had just laid out the new covenant that was going to be the basis for moving forward as followers. I’m not sure about you, but I hope I would be pressing into this new covenant – affirming and reaffirming my loyalty. I want to be clear about where I stand. But what do the disciples do? They’re mucking around, looking for the guilty party. They are present for the announcement of the greatest truth in history, and they totally miss it.
Imagine you are in a group of people at the dedication of a new superhighway. It is both a road and a lifeline, because it leads from a place you can no longer stay to a place you need to go. You are invited to follow your leader and drive out on this great new thoroughfare. And each of you at the event has been given a new, environmentally friendly vehicle to drive, because you have no transportation of your own. Imagine that you decide not to go, but opt to linger over a conversation with some others about who is going to be the first person to crash along the way.
You might think that this is a ridiculous scenario, but I think it is not altogether unlike what the disciples were doing. It reminds me that even in the face of such a profound gift, people have a tendency to fix the blame rather than to fix the problem. But that doesn’t help.
In my experience, I have often seen people look at the gift of the new covenant as an achievement rather than as a gift, and I confess that I have done the same. My sinful temptation has been to look down on those that don’t seem to be like me, or who have not embraced the gift of the new covenant in Jesus. Why wasn’t I racing to their side to share this good news?
We might excuse the disciples for being confused or mistaken about what Jesus was planning. The conventional wisdom was that he would lead an army and establish his kingdom by force. I understand that the disciples were committed enough to be willing to die with him, or go to prison. I get that they didn’t initially grasp that Jesus was establishing an upside-down Kingdom, the only kind that can bring about the change God intends to bring. I can even appreciate that they thought they were special, having been chosen by Jesus himself, so they might argue over who was disloyal, and who might be the greatest. It’s not a good thing, but I can see how it might happen. But the question I have is this: What is our excuse?
What is our excuse? We have the benefit of insights that should prevent us from making the same mistakes. But Christians still put their trust in earthly things to bring about the Kingdom. We know that the way of Jesus involves self-sacrifice, but we still embrace our lives of comfort, and cringe at the thought of giving things up for our faith. We know that we are all saved by grace, but we are still, as the saying goes, the only army that shoots its own wounded. We aren’t always very good at sharing the grace we have received. We see how the plan unfolded. Like the disciples, we still see that things are just as Jesus said they would be. When are we going to learn?
During this season leading to Easter, I invite you to continue to reflect on the magnitude of God’s work in Jesus to establish the new covenant. And I urge you to reflect on what it means for you – to think, to speak, and to do in the presence of those who are right around you. In light of pandemic restrictions, there will not soon be a greater opportunity – or a greater need – to share the good news of the new covenant among your friends, neighbours, and family.