Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said, "Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me." And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one to say unto him, "Lord, is it I?" Matthew 26.
The event we come to celebrate tonight concerns a meal. The meal did not take place in a palace or in one of the earth's great houses. Rather, it took place in the upper room of a house of which we know neither the name of the owner, nor the condition, nor the address. There were thirteen people present at the meal, and only one of them had any public reputation at all and even he was not known beyond a radius of 150 miles from his home town. Moreover he was killed the day after the meal as a disturber of the peace. The other people who attended the meal were young laboring men whom nobody had even heard of before or expected to see again. So it was not a banquet; this meal consisted of the bare necessities of life, bread and wine.
And yet, this meal, so hidden, so apart from the great stream of events, so obscure, so apparently local and transient, this meal is now being celebrated and remembered and participated in by people in practically every country in the world. This is extraordinary!
But let's look again at the atmosphere of this last meeting together. Jesus knows the keen inner sharpness of forlorness and loneliness which always accompanies us in our most trying and decisive moments. The disciples no doubt are cognizant of the fact that all is not going well and that something is about to happen. Just prior to this occasion, Jesus has been saying strange things about the last days of judgment and the coming of death and he has hinted that he himself is about to die. Suddenly, Jesus shatters the already tense atmosphere with the terse statement which I have chosen for our text tonight. And all the disciples say one after another. "Lord, is it I?"
Notice that St. Matthew, who records this in the 26th chapter of his Gospel, is careful to point out that they all began to say consecutively, "Lord, is it I?" If we look at this text closely, we will observe that such a response is both foolish and uncalled for. Surely the betrayer knows his own identity. And since he does, why should all the disciples be so anxious to ask such a ridiculous question as, "Lord, is it I?" Yet the very fact that they all feel compelled to ask such a question, and to ask it at the same time, suggests the need of consciences wanting to be at ease, and implies very strongly that there was a universal feeling of guilt on the part of all. Perhaps when confronted with such raw truths, all of the disciples recalled those frequent moments when they may have betrayed Jesus and his teaching in their daily lives. This is the point of this seemingly useless question, and this point is borne out, for the Greek in all the texts is "Lord, is it I?" instead of the way it would normally have been rendered, "Surely it is not I, Lord" thereby expecting the answer of no!
Lord, is it I? is not just a question of merely academic and biblical interest, it is one of the burning questions of ancient times and modern life. This matter of corporate guilt was of great concern to Ezekiel, the great prophet of the Exile.
During the Exile in Babylonia, some of the Jews there were claiming that they were being punished by God for the sins of the nation. They said that they were not the only ones who has been guilty. They said, their ancestors had caused much of the trouble and they were caught in a situation for which they were not entirely responsible. And then they asked the question, "What about our children?" They asked, "Are they going to go on paying the penalty for three or four generations for the wickedness and folly of their ancestors?" It was at this point that Ezekiel came on the scene and said, "The Lord is not going to hold your children as outcasts because of your sin." But, your children are going to be affected but what their father have done. Ezekiel knew that people do suffer as a result of the sins of others as well as for their own. For examples, the people of the little countries in Europe suffered in World War II more than Americans and the British, yet they were less responsible for the war than America and Britain were. And again a man may commit some crime and be sent to prison. He will suffer but his wife and children will suffer, too, though they may have no share in what he did.
The truth which Ezekiel proclaimed is this: That guilt cannot be passed on from one generation to another. God holds each generation responsible for its own sins. Yet, though guilt cannot be inherited, consequences are. And God gives each generation power to face these consequences and to master them. I don't need to recount for you here the issues of corporate guilt which has been raised in connection with the holocaust and its relation to contemporary people of Germany as well as with slavery and the majority race in the United States.
In all these matters we need to ask the question of ourselves: "Lord, is it I?" The old hymn says:
Who was the guilty, who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
So dear friends, on this Maundy Thursday let us ponder this corporate and universal betrayal of our Lord. And, while you are thinking about that, ask yourself why you are here tonight at the Lord's Table and what is your intention, and , how many times and in what ways will you betray him before tomorrow night this time?
Let us tackle these concerns, being honest with ourselves to admit, as did the writer of the 12th Psalm, that "there is not one Godly person left" and that when we all ask the question, "Lord, is it I?" we must be prepared to hear the painful reply, for we are all, essentially corporately and existentially, guilty .
Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat he said, "Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me." And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, "Lord, is it I?"