Sermon for March 27th, 2013
It is an honor to preach in this sanctuary, where my sister and both of my brothers were baptized, where my grandparents, my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I myself have worshiped so many times throughout the years. It was a former pastor of this church, the Rev. Don Foresman, who was the first minister to recognize my calling and encourage me to pursue ordained ministry (although I think he, like my grandmother, had it in mind that I might become a Methodist pastor!). God works in mysterious and beautiful ways, and I am grateful for the ministry of Trinity-First, and the role it has played in my life and the life of my family.
21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26Jesus 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. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some 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. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
Judas Iscariot, Beloved Disciple
I have always been fascinated by the character of Judas Iscariot. To bring about the downfall and death of the very son of God -- that alone has to make him not only a "bad guy" but one of the baddest bad guys in all history. And since I watch a fair amount of television and a lot of movies, I think I'm reasonably qualified to comment on the characteristics of a bad guy.
For starters, the very best bad guys are evil. Pure evil. 100%, unrepentant, rotten-to-the-core EVIL! You don't have to ask "why" a bad guy does something. On the surface, it might be for profit, for pleasure, or selfish advantage of some kind, but when you peel back all the layers, at the most basic level a bad guy is motivated by some inexplicable hatred and loathing for everyone and everything.
Second, a truly top-notch bad guy is recognizable as the the bad guy. He's the one wearing the black hat, or even dressed all in black. Or engulfed in flames. He's the one with a deformed, possibly green face, or at the very least he's got a scar, an eye-patch, a vacant stare, or just really bad teeth. Everyone knows he's the bad guy.
Finally, a true bad guy is consistently bad. Someone who, no matter how hard you try, you can't reason with, you can't change, and you can't really love. He shows no remorse, and is by nature, unredeemable. If you're thinking that Darth Vader is an exception to this rule, you aren't thinking evil enough--in the Star Wars movies, the emperor is the true bad guy, and he's evil and unrepentant right up to the bitter end.
This is the bad guy code. There are exceptions, but only among the "lesser" villains. The really bad ones stick to the code.
Which brings me back to Judas. Because you'd think he'd have to be somewhere up there pretty high, along with Adolf Hitler, Lord Voldemort, or the Wicked Witch of the West.
In verse 22 of today's scripture passage, after Jesus announces to his disciples that one of them will betray him, we read that they "looked at each other, uncertain of whom he was speaking." Even after Jesus tells two of his disciples that it will be "the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish" and even after Jesus looks right at Judas and tells him to "do quickly what your are going to do" we read in the very next verse that "no one at the table knew" why Jesus said this. Judas had been part of Jesus' innermost circle for three years, and right up until the end, no one recognized him as a bad guy.
Yes, it's true that elsewhere, earlier in the gospel of John, Judas is referred to as a devil and a thief. But these are parenthetical comments, written years later with the benefit of hindsight, written by a disciple who was obviously still pretty upset with Judas about his betrayal. If we're judging Judas by his actions, by his appearance, by his "consistent badness" then right up until the last week of his life, there is nothing to judge.
Of course, God does not judge based on outward appearances, or even actions, but by the innermost intentions of the heart. And despite the comments added by the gospel writers in retrospect, when it comes to Judas' heart, we don't have much to work with, no basis for judgment, at least not until after Jesus' betrayal and death.
But there's another heart that may shed some light on Judas Iscariot. It's the heart of the one who called Judas out of his former life and into the life of discipleship. It's the heart of the one who taught Judas, broke bread with him, traveled across Israel with him, and trusted him with the common purse. It's the heart of Jesus Christ, the one who--I am convinced--loved Judas Iscariot as much as it is possible for anyone to be loved.
There are only three places in all of the Bible where Jesus' state of mind, or state of heart, is described using the greek word ταράσσω, which means "agitated," "distressed" or "troubled." The first is in chapter 11 at the death of his friend Lazarus, the second is in chapter 12 when he realizes that the hour of his glorification is at hand, and the third and final time is in our passage today, chapter 13, where he considers the one who is about to betray him. I don't think he is troubled for himself again here--he's already confronted that in chapter 12. I think this is more like the ταράσσω or troubling of his heart at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus is again showing passionate concern for a beloved friend, but this time...for Judas.
Right before Judas leaves, Jesus breaks bread (the familiar sign by which the disciples will later recognize him) for Judas one last time. He dips the bread into a bowl; I imagine it was probably a bowl of wine. We should recognize this act--Jesus offers his body and his blood...even for Judas. For what it's worth, we read in verse 30 that Judas "received" the bread before going out into the night.
In Matthew chapter 26, we read the last words Jesus speaks to Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, after Judas has betrayed him with a kiss: Jesus says to Judas, "Friend, do what you are here to do." You know what stands out to me in those final words? Friend. He called Judas friend. There is no doubt in my mind that when it came to Judas Iscariot, even after the betrayal, the heart of Jesus was filled with nothing but love for his friend.
So what about the heart of Judas? I said we don't have much to work with, at least not before Jesus' death. But there's another Judas story that does shed some light on the matter. We read in Matthew 27 that when Judas "saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented...brought back the thirty pieces of silver" and said, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood."
There are two words in ancient Greek that we translate as "repent." μεταμέλομαι and μετάνοια. μετάνοια is to turn around one's νοῦς -- or one's thoughts, one's mind. μεταμέλομαι is to turn around one's μέλο -- one's cares, one's emotions...one's heart. In Matthew 27, the repentance of Judas is μεταμέλομαι -- he changes his heart.
Unfortunately, Judas' sin weighs too heavily on his heart, and after this he hangs himself. I can't help but wondering what would have happened if, after his repentance and confession of his sin, what if he had waited a little longer? Peter denies Jesus, Thomas doubts him, and all the disciples abandon Jesus as he goes to the cross. So what's the difference between Judas, who hangs himself and ends up as the poster-child for treachery, and Peter, who hangs on, is forgiven, and leads the church into a new era? What's the difference? About three days. That's all.
We all betray Jesus at some point or another. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are all bad guys, created in God's image but marred and disfigured by the fall. On our own, we are unrepentant, unredeemable, and often unloveable, too. But the good news is this: If Jesus loved Judas (and he did, right up to the end) there's nothing that could possibly keep him from loving you and me just as much. If Judas could betray the very son of God and still find it inside himself to confess his sin and change his heart...then there's nothing we could possibly say or do that God cannot forgive. There is nothing keeping us from confessing our sins and changing our hearts today. There is in fact nothing--neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That's the good guy code. And there is only one good guy; Jesus Christ. His love is good news for bad guys.
Thanks be to God.