'Truly, truly I say to you, whoever accepts anything that I send accepts me, and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.'
I have to admit, so far as I know, I’m on my own in proposing this translation here. The other versions say something like, 'Whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me….' (not anything). The Greek word 'tina' allows for both senses, but I guess the reason that other versions have plumped for anyone is because it accords with similar sayings in the other gospels; that being so, it cannot be said that it doesn’t make sense. But the difficulty I have with it is that at this point in John’s gospel it doesn’t fit at all in with what Jesus is talking about here; indeed, to my mind, it positively clashes with it. It comes in the middle of Jesus warning to the disciples that one of them is going to betray him.
Jesus has just told them that his reason for warning them is that when the terrible thing occurs, however shaken they might be by it, they will not be so overwhelmed as to lose faith in him and his purposes. He obviously wants to prepare them for the coming shock. But he is not just telling them that it is going to happen; he is talking to them as if it were something that needed to happen, as a necessary part of why he came; what he meant by that is something I will come to, but for the moment let me say that this seems to me to fit in with the idea of being able to accept whatever he sends.
Recently, I received some shock news from a friend. A lady I know of has been running a local retreat centre that I have been to for day events; it is a most beautiful place with a stunning Tudor house and gardens and a finely designed purpose-made building for Christian events. She spoke to us at one retreat about how it was that she came live there and set this place up, and she stuck me as being a really lovely lady. But now I have heard she has left her husband, joined up with another woman, who also left her own husband, and they have set up house together as a couple. She has been stripped of her position of responsibility in the church; the house and gardens are being sold, and that seems to be the end of that.
Now it cannot be said that in the times we are living in now, this kind of thing is totally unheard of; we have been more accustomed to hearing about it. However, I have a picture in my mind of the sort of person who might be prone to this, and from the impression I had gained of her, I just couldn’t have imagined this lady as the kind of person who might do that. She had told us of how she experienced the way God led her to come there and open up her lovely property for others to be blessed by, and there was nothing that led me to feel any doubt as to the stability of her as a person or the sincerity of her story; I was rather warmed by it. This is what made hearing the recent news so painful for me.
Whatever shock I experienced would have been nothing compared to the shock for the disciples in relation to the actions of Judas. What strikes me reading the accounts is that the idea of anyone one amongst the close disciples betraying Jesus had been unthinkable to them, and even when Jesus intimated to them what one of them was going to do, they had not the slightest suspicion about it being Judas he was referring to - and they had been living closely with him. Sometimes you can get a gut reaction about some one who on the face of it seems an okay person but, for reasons you cannot pinpoint, something feels not right about them. I had felt this about some one I was friends with, and then when I was away, he got himself into big trouble with his close friends, ran off unannounced owing rent, and left the area under a cloud. But so far as we can tell, none of the disciples felt any sense of unease about Judas – not even when Jesus alerted them to what was going to happen.
It would be tempting when confronted with this kind of shock for people to think in retrospect that such people must have been complete fakes all along, managing to fool everyone whilst putting on a big act. Some people might be tempted to think that of the lady I have mentioned, but I don’t think of her in that way. I still look back on what I saw of her and see something genuine there, but I imagine there were serious issues going on under the surface that were not being addressed, and it only took a particular set of circumstances to bring them to the surface.
It is tempting to think of Judas as a straightforward villain, some one who must have been a fraud all along, or at least some one who at some point inexplicably gave themselves over wholly to evil. But he was picked as a close disciple for a reason; it would have been perverse to pick him simply on the basis of him playing the role of the in-house traitor; the other disciples would have spotted that something wasn’t right with him quite quickly if he had been picked purely in this basis. I see him rather as some one with genuine potential for good but with serious issues and misconceptions that he refused to face up to. The way he acted when he saw that Jesus was condemned to death doesn’t fit in with the picture of a man who had given himself over entirely to wickedness and was now sunk in utter depravity. It is rather the reaction of some one who experiences a sudden horrible awakening as to the enormity of what his thoughts and actions have led to, and is completely overwhelmed by it. The sobering lesson is that you don’t have to be bent on wrongdoing to do something that leads to disaster; you just have to have serious issues within you that don’t get addressed.
I said before that Jesus talked almost as if this was something that needed to happen. He said that it was so as to fulfil the Scripture, 'He who shares my bread has lifted up his hell against me' (Psalm 41). He is not saying that the psalmist predicted what was going to happen hundreds of years later, and that Judas was the man destined to be the man who did it in order that the prediction would come true. The psalmist was talking from his own experience about a situation we can all recognise: some one who you think is with you as your friend, or at least a fellow traveller, does something which destroys your trust in them, and makes you see there must have been something going on under the surface which you never saw. The truth has come out and it is not pretty!
This is a pattern of human behaviour, and Jesus is saying that the kind of thing that the psalmist was talking about must be made fully manifest and shown up in its fullest light with him - but why? Because Jesus’ whole mission was about bringing the full truth to the surface, showing up to the full light what had been lurking in the shadows; at times he seems to go out of his way to dig up the unsavoury things that have been there all along in people so as to bring them in to the open, and in a way that must have been quite scary to watch. His mission was to bring the truth to the surface because it is only when that happens that we can properly face it, and find a solution to it. It was that uncovering process that put him on the cross, and the cross is the place where we can face the truth about what is wrong within us and receive mercy and help. Judas’s moment of awful realisation could have been an opportunity for him to face the truth with God and receive forgiveness and restoration; but sadly he took his own life before anyone could help him to do that.
I came away from hearing my own shock news in quite a melancholic mood, thinking how horrible and depressing it is to see good things fall apart like that. But then a little voice seemed to speak within me 'Can you accept whatever I bring?'. This is not to take away from the reality that when bad things happen they really are horrible; but whenever the truth is not being faced, it needs to come out in the end; and it is part of God’s purpose that this is so.
Paul says in Romans that God has given all men over to disobedience in order that he might have mercy on them all. Just before he has talked about Israel being hardened into opposition against God’s purposes for his people. The hardening process is not about deliberately setting people apart so that they would reject God. It is about bringing up an inner opposition, a destructive pattern of thinking that has been all along, and making it come out to the full so that everyone sees it for what it is. It is only when we know where we really are that we can deal with things properly. You can’t come into the house if you are standing outside whilst thinking you are already in it.
But bringing things to light is a painful process. That is where the challenge comes to us when the pain hits: 'those who accept anything I send accept me'. We have to trust God’s purposes, however difficult and painful they might be at times, are ultimately for the good.