Listen, Even When You Don’t Like What You Hear: John 13.1–33

2018 Maundy ThursdayDelivered at First United Methodist as part of the annual ecumenical Holy Week services, shared by First United Methodist, First Christian Church, and Ames UCC.

Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

The details of this story do not make sense.

It starts out coherently enough with Jesus washing everyone’s feet, then explaining that no one is better than anyone else and that they must be servant leaders.

Then Jesus becomes vague in his teaching.

Jesus tells the disciples that the person who takes bread from him will betray him. This is a reference to Psalm 41.9:

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

The disciples are confused because they don’t know who that will be. Fair enough. Jesus makes a startling statement that someone will do an unspeakable act yet withholds the most vital piece of information: who.

So, Simon Peter asks the beloved disciple to ask Jesus who it will be. Maybe we should take this as a sign of just how rattled Peter is that he does not ask for himself.

The beloved disciple says, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus then gives the bread to Judas and tells Judas “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Here’s where the details don’t add up: The scripture says no one understood what Jesus meant by that. Was he telling Judas to go do some shopping? How is it that no one understood what Jesus meant when, having said he would be betrayed by the person who took bread, he then gave bread to Judas and told him to go do it?

Were they not listening?

Jesus longs to be heard:

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. (John 10.16)


My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. (John 10.27)


‘…For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (John 18.37)

If there were any group of people, any sheep of Jesus’ fold, who would pay close attention to his every act of speech, and could have understood that speech about betrayal, it should have been the disciples.

But no.

Not even when Jesus tells them what will happen and then moments later it does happen, not even then do they grasp what Jesus has spoken.

It seems to me, then, that Judas isn’t the only betrayer in this story: He is joined by those seemingly willfully deaf disciples.

I’m not sure we can even count Judas as a betrayer. He has no will to hurt Jesus; the story says that the devil made him do it. In John’s version we don’t have Judas going to the priests and negotiating a price for Jesus’s head, as in Matthew and Mark. Jesus hands Judas the bread, the ha-satan enters Judas, and away he goes to the local authorities.

Judas was marked for this possession by Jesus’s own act; Judas is a mere vehicle for what is wrong in our world.

But what about Peter, the beloved disciple, and the rest? They have no supernatural excuse for their deafness. And what about us?

This Lent at Ames UCC I’ve been bringing the work of the great poet, pastor, and professor Howard Thurman into our worship.

If you are not familiar with Thurman, he was the spiritual mentor of Dr. King and a whole generation of civil rights leaders. In 1944 he gave up tenure in order to found the first intentionally racially integrated church in the United States. I believe his book, Meditations of the Heart, should be required reading for all Christians. But it his collection of sermons called Temptations of Jesus that informs my own meditation on betrayal tonight.

In it, Thurman explores what Jesus might have been thinking and feeling at key moments, at crossroads when he may have been tempted to walk away from all that God was asking of him. Here’s an excerpt from Thurman’s imaginings of Jesus’ inner thoughts:

If I go home, then I can die in my bed. And how long I could live doing good, helping, teaching. The world needs somebody to teach it…Just a little time I’ve had. So many possibilities I see now. If I could work a little longer doing this or that or the other…If I had time. I need time.1

But Jesus let that time go. Jesus trusted the guidance of God. As Thurman explains, Jesus’s trust in God may have been his greatest triumph over temptation:

To be able to give up the initiative over your own life; to yield at the core of one’s self, the nerve center of one’s consent to God…to trust God….is the most difficult dimension of the spiritual life.2

Trust in God is the most difficult dimension of the spiritual life.

I don’t know that the disciples really trusted Jesus, the God in Christ. No doubt they wanted more time with him, more time to do good, help, learn from him, and teach together. This is natural, and understandable. Yet that desire to keep Jesus close seems to have kept them from hearing that inevitably he would go.

We say how difficult it was for the disciples to learn the lesson of the washing of their feet. The greater struggle, the greater test of their faithfulness, is accepting that Jesus will not always be who and where they want him to be.

The same is true for us.

When we cling to Jesus because of the ways he gives us comfort and inspiration, yet resist his disquiet and challenge, we are betrayers, too, we are faithless, too.

Judas was a pawn. We are not. We are the ones who are to rejoice when God comes to us at the basin or at the table. We are the ones who are to joyfully bring the basin and the table to others. We are to be the sheep. Sheep who intentionally and devotedly seek out the voice of God in Christ and allow it to so imprint on our ear drums that it vibrates in our souls.

And then trust that voice. The details may not always make sense to us, but we are to trust that voice so much that we resist the temptation to turn a deaf ear even when it speaks a truth we do not want to hear.


1Thurman, Howard. Temptations of Jesus. (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1962), pp. 60–61.

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