18 March 2008

But not today! John 13:21-33, 36-38

Today's readings are both moving, and challenging. Not really surprising as we move through the most Holy Week of our liturgical year, and see reflected in Judas and Peter our own less-than-human capacity for betrayal of self, God, and others. In the first lection Isaiah reminds his subject that as wondrous as his vocation to service in restoring Israel is, he (and we!!) are called to a weightier vocation: to be a light to the nations, and to bring God's own salvation to the whole world!

Jesus reminds us that this same vocation is quite simply to be friends of God, not mere servants. Of course, he calls us friends, naming us this way, and it is a wonderful thing, but he also calls us TO REALLY BE friends of his. It is the summons which constitutes the most fundamental challenge and task of our existence. We are to love God with our whole heart and mind and soul, and in fact, we are quite literally called upon to give our lives for him in whatever way the Kingdom of God requires for its fulfillment. This is what the love of friendship, as Jesus demonstrates the real thing, is all about.

But today's Gospel reminds us how difficult this vocation is. Not only must we be taught what it means, but our poor hearts and minds are dense and divided, our wills weak and unfocused, and often we are simply too frightened, or too ambitious, too greedy, or simply too caught up in a different vision of reality, a different idea of what our vocations are (if, indeed we even think in terms of vocation!) to really give ourselves to this summons and the one who makes it. Afterall, if we are really to give ourselves over to this call, we must be empowered to do so; we cannot do it of ourselves!

One of the things which most struck me about today's Gospel was the tug, the apparent clash or tension between Jesus' prediction of Judas' and Peter's betrayals and what they are really called or meant to do. I have heard this passage read as though once the predictions are made, once Jesus hands Judas the morsel dipped into the bowl, or told Peter what he will do that night in spite of his self-confidence, neither man has a real choice left: they are seen as destined to do what Jesus has said they will do. I think that sometimes we get ourselves into similar predicaments and interpret these situations in the same way: we may have a pattern of failure in a certain area, weakness or frailty --- including illnesses --- which make certain things unavoidable, or almost unavoidable in the long term, or at least from time to time. We may get ourselves enmeshed in situations from which we see no real way out, or where we are simply too afraid to do what is demanded, and so perpetuate and exacerbate those situations in our blindness and lack of nerve. And of course, in terms of failing to be friend of God, betraying his own love for us, there IS an inevitability about it. Jesus IS speaking to us, just as he was speaking to Judas and Peter: "this day one of you will betray me!" or, "before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times!"

But in light of the Palm Sunday gospel from Matthew, something else was also clear to me. Both Judas and Peter remained free NOT to betray Jesus, even after the predictions were made. Each man's actual fulfillment of Jesus' predictions took place in stages, steps, or increments and AT ANY POINT they COULD have turned back, they COULD HAVE RETURNED TO JESUS or (after Jesus had been arrested) to their witness to Jesus and to the love which he bore them and desired them to reciprocate. Each man remained completely free to take a different course IN SPITE of their weakness, cowardice, avarice, ambition or whatever. Would it have been difficult to turn away from a course of action already begun, an enmeshment already established to whatever degree, a pattern of collusion and betrayal already begun? Absolutely. But would it have been possible? In the power of Jesus' love, I have no doubt whatsoever that it would. Repentance means a change of course, a shift in our minds and hearts and a turning from one path to another. We are surely always free to repent!

So how do we reconcile in our own lives this seeming contradiction between the inevitable and what we are free to change? Afterall, I don't think we can deny that betrayal of God's love for us, and repudiation or betrayal of our friendship to and with him is inevitable or (even apparently) "destined". I suggest we keep Peter and Judas in mind: remember the increments and steps involved in any significant betrayal, any really serious sin. Remember there ARE those stages and let us remind ourselves that at any point, if only we have the courage, we can take a different course to SOME EXTENT OR OTHER. Afterall, we are weak and changeable, but God's love for us is strong and constant; it is there to empower us at every moment and mood of our lives if only we will allow it! Remember that while betrayal is inevitable, it does NOT have to be this night! Failure will occur, but it does not need to be THIS failure. Yes, I who have drunk from the very cup he offers, and taken the morsel he hands me daily am going to betray my friendship with God; I am going to fail him. It IS INEVITABLE, but NOT today! Not this morning! Not here or NOW.