THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, April 9, 2017
Judas Is Our Middle Name
Throughout the dark night of his soul in the Gethsemane Garden, Jesus begged his disciples to stay up with him, comfort him, pray with him, support him. But they couldn’t do it. On the night that Jesus was arrested, all of his disciples abandoned him. And two of them actively betrayed him.
Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus only once, almost immediately regretted his action. He boldly marched back before the powerful, corrupt officials and proclaimed Jesus’ innocence to their faces, throwing their bribe money back at their feet for good measure. Peter, the other fallen disciple, betrayed Jesus on three separate occasions. He hid in abject fear of the officials and then ran off seeking anonymity and seclusion. Yet that first disciple, Judas, has been named throughout history as the prime example of all that is contemptible, corrupt and deceitful in human nature. (Do you know anyone named Judas?) That second disciple, Peter, is honored as the father of the church and is designated a “saint.” (I suspect you know several Peters. I do.)
How come we treat these two fallen, betraying disciples, so differently? Why is Judas’ betrayal of Jesus taken in such a different direction than Peter’s?
Any competent investigator will tell us that we have to begin with motive. Judas’ treachery seems to have been built on long running conflict of expectations. Jesus wasn’t the militant messiah that many, including Judas, expected. Perhaps Judas thought that if he backed Jesus into a corner with the authorities, Jesus would show the aggressive side of salvation. If Jesus didn’t come out fighting then he would be out of the way for someone else to be the hero people wanted. Judas’ plan was premeditated, calculated, even paid for.
Peter’s act of betrayal, on the other hand, was a cowardly, spontaneous burst of emotion that profited him nothing. He was prone to rash actions without thinking which exhibited both a childlike naivete and a cluelessness.
But it isn’t all that simple. Matthew reports the theory breaking fact that Judas returned the blood money, defended Jesus’ innocence before the tribunal, and realized his mistake. All this occurred while Jesus was still alive. In contrast, Peter sneaked back to the disciple’s fold as a mourner after the crucifixion frenzy had passed and the tomb was sealed.
The only real difference between these two betrayers – Judas and Peter – was their perception of how Jesus must see them. Judas was overcome with guilt. Although “he repented” (Matthew 27:3closeAn error occurred.), Judas could only envision a wrathful, judgmental Jesus declaring him cursed according to Deuteronomic law (Matthew 26:23-24closeAn error occurred., Deuteronomy 27:25closeAn error occurred.). In his despair, Judas blocked out Jesus’ forgiving gesture in the garden (Matthew 26:50closeAn error occurred.). Judas could only hear condemnation ringing in his ears, so he cut himself off from the healing capabilities of God’s grace and, in an agonizing fit of self-judgment, hanged himself.
Peter heard other voices. He replayed his three pitiful denials of Jesus over and over again in his head. Matthew says that Peter “cried uncontrollably” after leaving the courtyard (Matthew 26:75closeAn error occurred.). Peter recalled himself strongly promising Jesus that he would never deny him, even if it meant facing death (Matthew 26:35closeAn error occurred.).
Those weren’t the only conversations Peter remembered. There were some stored in his memory that gave him hope on that dark night. Peter was the disciple who had asked Jesus specifically about forgiveness. How many times should we forgive? Peter asked. Jesus declared “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22closeAn error occurred.).
Jesus had singled Peter, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter could recall he had boldly confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16closeAn error occurred.). Of greater comfort to Peter was the memory of Jesus’ response to that confession: “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you.” And then came Jesus’ playful pun, “I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it” (Matthew 16:17-18closeAn error occurred.). What a life-vest that must have been for Peter’s aching heart that night. Jesus had believed in him. Jesus had designated him to be something special in the life of the church. Whatever Peter had done in his past, Jesus had assured him he had a future.
Judas was no different from any of the other disciples and no different from any of us. We have all done it – fallen away from Jesus at some time or another, not for money but for safety, security, or anonymity. But Judas forgot one thing, the thing that makes a huge difference between life and death. Judas forgot that he wasn’t alone. He forgot that he was one person in a long, established, and distinguished tradition of God’s failed faithful. Jacob, Moses, Aaron, David, Elijah, Mary, Thomas, Paul all committed grievous acts of betrayal against God. But each one found their way back to God’s side through the back door of grace.
Judas died believing in his own heart that he was a betrayer. Why? Because he never even tried the door. He hadn’t gotten the message that Jesus had spent three years proclaiming: grace. Judas didn’t want a gift of grace. He wanted to be in control of his situation. With those 30 pieces of silver, Judas thought he could buy his way into God’s presence. Judas thought the messianic age could be hurried along by forcing Jesus’ hand by confronting him with the military.
Faced with the consequences of his catastrophic mistake, Judas then tried to buy his way out of his betrayal by throwing that same silver back at the feet of the chief priests. But Judas could not control the tidal wave of events his actions had unleashed. In panic, Judas’ final attempt to control things was to take his own life. He never dared to check that back door of grace that God always leaves unlocked – and even pushes open for us.
Every one of us has seen someone squirming on the viciously barbed hook of some life calamity. And we piously thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Would that we never say that. It’s okay to acknowledge the saving nature of grace in your own life, but to deny the possibility of its presence in the lives of others is a “Judas-ism.” It is not “There but for God’s grace go I.” Rather we need the redemptive cry of “There am I… with God’s grace” and then the missional cry of “There go I … for God’s grace.”
L. Alexander Harper makes a remarkable observation about Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical representation of the Passion story in the Saint Matthew Passion: “Judas’ question to Jesus had always been a solo in other cantatas, because Judas is an individual. Not so for Bach. Breaking all tradition, he has the whole chorus instead sing that guilty question, ‘Is it I, Lord?’ The chorus represents you, me, the whole world. Judas is within us all, not ‘out there’ or ‘back in history’ somewhere comfortably remote.”(1)
The message of the gospel is that God’s grace is available to all, that the back door to God’s loving presence is always open. Judas is the middle name of each one of us. And Judas becomes our first name not when we betray and deny Christ himself, but when we deny the redemptive power of God’s grace that Christ offers every one of us.
As we move through Holy Week, as our voices one by one give up the “Hosannas” and take up the call to crucify, as the skies darken and the clang of the hammers against nails assault our ears, may we know that “Judas” is our middle name. And may we know that Christ gives us a new name: filled with grace.