Every Monday morning like clockwork, I walk into Tudor’s Biscuit World, go up to the counter and order my usual (decaf) coffee. Then I sit down at a table with several folks. We share food, and conversation, and then we open up our Bibles. We’ve been going through the Gospel of John for the past I don’t know how may weeks. Sometimes it feels like forever. In fact, I can’t even remember what we studied before we decided to dive into John! John’s writing is heady and dense. Jesus is far more philosophical and verbose in this fourth gospel than he is in the other three. We’ve spent ages talking about Jesus’ identity and the failure of those around him to truly grasp the nature of that identity and the kingdom that Jesus is working to bring about.
We sit in the midst of people coming in and out of the restaurant – ordering their food, having conversations, and then going on about their day. We sit in the midst of TV screens flashing the latest news and workers doing their daily tasks. We sit in the midst of a world that is meant to be growing toward the kingdom of God.
Today, we started studying John 13 – where Jesus gets down on his hands and knees and washes his disciples’ stinking, dirty feet. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s not a job for the master. It’s not a job for the guest of honor. And yet, it is what Jesus does because it is who he is. And in washing his disciples’ feet, he shows them the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a kingdom of humility and servanthood. It is a kingdom of messiness and vulnerability.
It’s no coincidence that immediate following the footwashing, Jesus and his disciples gather around a table and Jesus speaks of the one who is to betray him, Judas Iscariot. Judas has always been a controversial figure in Christianity. Was it inevitable that he would betray Jesus? Was Judas damned for his actions? What motivated him to betray Jesus? We don’t fully know the answers to any of those questions, but I have some speculations about what led Judas to betray Jesus, and I think it has something to do with this common theme we find throughout John and the Synoptic Gospels – that even those closest to Jesus fail to grasp the nature of the kingdom that he has come to inaugurate.
Perhaps Judas betrayed Jesus because he just could not grasp a kingdom characterized be servanthood and sacrifice. After all, that hardly translates well into a world of empire and oppression. How in the world is humility supposed to overcome the forces of the world? How is it supposed to overcome a powerful emperor and an even more powerful army? I suspect that Judas was getting impatient with Jesus, wondering when he’d start getting to the business of overthrowing Roman oppression and establishing a new rule for God’s people. Even though Judas had been present for Jesus’ miracles and teachings, he did not understand Jesus’ work in bringing about the kingdom. Now that they had entered Jerusalem, maybe Judas thought it was time for Jesus to stop messing around and to get down to the work of building a revolution – of showing his power and using it to subjugate Rome.
But Judas had it all wrong. He completely ignored the fact that time and time again, Jesus refuses to exert power over others. Jesus has demonstrated consistently that his kingdom is about giving up power, not grasping after it. Judas’ betrayal may have been motivated by what he thought were good intentions. But when it comes down to it, he failed to trust Jesus and the mission to which Jesus called the disciples: to wash one another’s feet, just as Jesus washed theirs.
All of this talk about Judas and his betrayal got me thinking today. It made me think about what it means to be faithful to Jesus and his kingdom. The temptation to grasp for power is great, and Christianity has a muddy history when it comes to seeking and exerting power. Whenever Christianity has become entwined with empire, this happens. And whenever Christianity becomes entwined with empire, it betrays Jesus and his kingdom. We like to demonize Judas for his betrayal of Jesus, and yet our own history as a Church is bursting at the seams with the same betrayal. It has been happening from the forced conversions of the Christian Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Inquisition, through today. We live in a time and place where Christianity continues to grasp for power – we see this in the constant talk of trying to make America a Christian nation by force – by political manipulations and rhetoric, and through the legislation of morality. And we do it through backroom deals and for exchanges of money and power. Like Judas, we may have good intentions of wanting to see a Christian world, and yet our striving for and exertion of power subvert the very kingdom Jesus set out to establish.
I can’t pretend like my thoughts are totally fleshed out. That’s the nature of studying Scripture and of Christian discipleship. Our theology is never complete. And yet, as I dwell on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and Judas’ betrayal, I can’t help but think that we, I, am not so different from Judas. I struggle to imagine the alternative of Jesus’ kingdom in the midst of a world filled with violence and unjust power dynamics. I struggle to understand the way of the cross when I perceive that exerting power might be the only way to stop oppression and injustice. I’m just like Judas in that way. So I ask God to do this: May God work in my heart so that I may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, living his way, working for his kingdom, rather than the kingdom I think he should bring. May he teach me to learn and live the way of footwashing and faithfulness.