Sadao Watanabe, "The Last Supper", 1977After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, "Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me." The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples — the one whom Jesus loved — was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?" Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "Do quickly what you are going to do." Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the festival"; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Being a disciple is a complicated business, it turns out. And never more complicated than when you're caught between your desire to follow Jesus and the incessant tug of your own human flaws and faults.
There are many things that happen in today's reading. First, Jesus declares that one of the disciples will betray him, alluding to Judas's betrayal. Already, we as readers feel confused, because we know that there will actually be two betrayals: Judas and Peter. Moreover, when Jesus says this, his disciples look at one another with uncertainty. Does this mean that they grew suspicious of one another? Or does it mean that each felt fearful that they would be revealed as the betrayer? It says something important about our sinfulness and our flawed humanity, that each of the disciples and each one of us recognizes that we are as likely to betray Jesus as each of the other faithful followers sitting near us. So, not surprisingly, the anxious disciples sitting near Jesus begin to pester him about who the guilty one is. We can imagine that they ask because they want the assurance that the betrayer is someone else and not them. Jesus refuses to point to anyone or to call out names. Instead, he puts on a cryptic charade of dipping bread into a dish and handing it to his betrayer. This gesture seems like an overly-elaborate way of sharing information that could have just as easily been shared with a pointed finger or a spoken word.
But Jesus chooses to identify his betrayer by handing over a piece of dipped bread. According to ancient eating customs, people eating together would eat from a common dish. Bread would become a utensil, of sorts, to scoop up and eat food from the common dish. For a host to dip his bread and hand it to another guest would be a sign of great honor, love, and esteem.
Jesus handing the bread to Judas is a striking symbol. It could, on one hand, be interpreted as the mother of all guilt-trips. "Here, Judas, to identify you as betrayer, I'm going to show you the biggest, best gesture of love and honor that I can." But it is more likely that Jesus identified Judas with this paradoxical gesture in order to remind all of us that his death and resurrection are loving gestures of God's grace toward sinners; Jesus didn't die because we are perfect - he died because we are all betrayers.
The disciples and their uncertainty remind us that we each can and do betray our faith on a daily basis. We fall short, and continue to fall short, and know that no matter how hard we try, we are destined to fall short. We may try to live good lives, but they will always fall short of being perfect lives. Nevertheless, Christ hands over the bread of his own body to even the worst betrayers among us, in order to show us that his death was for the lost and the least. When the church celebrates Christ's last supper tomorrow evening, let us remember that the bread and wine of communion are being given to us - simultaneously betrayers and guests of honor! - by Jesus, our gracious host.