Monday, March 02, 2009

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/1/09, Matthew 26:6-50, 27:3-10)

Judas, Who Later Betrayed Him

Judas, you might say, has always been my favorite disciple. Maybe ‘favorite’ isn’t quite the right word for it. Judas has always been the disciple by whom I’ve been most intrigued. I’ve spent the most time studying him. The most time pondering who he is, why he did what he did, what his role was in the passion story. I’ve been fascinated by Judas. And I have to admit that it started with a crush. When I first went to see Jesus Christ Superstar in seventh grade, I developed a big crush on the actor who was playing Judas. He played the role for the next three years, and when I would go see the production, I would focus mostly on Judas! And so even though my crush was on the actor, I became really intrigued by the character. Jesus Christ Superstar is told from Judas’ perspective, in a sense. It is his story of Jesus’ last week, his relationship with Jesus that is central to the musical. And, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation, Judas, in the end, even after his suicide – well, his story continues.

One question became central for me to answer. As we heard in our gospel reading today, Judas committed suicide, hung himself, out of guilt for his actions, for betraying Jesus and putting him into the hands of his enemies. I had been taught that suicide was a sin that condemned someone to hell. An unforgiveable sin. But the way Judas was portrayed in Superstar made me wonder. Right there, in our text today from Matthew, we read this: “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented.” Judas repented. That word, the word used here – it’s the same word for repentance that Jesus and John the Baptist use when the first preach their message: Repent! If Judas repented, how could he be condemned to eternal punishment? And what’s more: In the gospel of John, Jesus talks about Judas’ betrayal being part of the plan. If Judas had to betray Jesus in order for Jesus to go through the suffering and death and resurrection, how can Judas be held accountable for his actions? Was he acting as part of his own free will, making his own choices, or was he predestined to betray Jesus? And if he was predestined, can he be judged for his actions?

I presented all of these questions to my Sunday School teacher at the time. Her answer to me was simple: Judas committed suicide, so Judas went to hell. I was not satisfied with her answer. I was just sure there had to be more to it. So I wrote a letter to a publication that used to exist called Youth! Magazine – it was just for United Methodist Youth, and I loved it. They had a column for questions like mine, and I hoped for an answer. My question never got printed, but the editor of the magazine wrote me back a long, wonderful letter, that I wish I could still find. In it, he said what I have come to believe is true – basically sharing with me a message from Romans 8 – nothing in life or in death can separate us from God’s love. He said God’s grace was so amazing that he was unwilling to put any kind of limits on God’s love, even for, or perhaps especially for – Judas. Needless to say, I found his letter very comforting. My Sunday School teacher, on the other hand, was not so excited to be so contradicted! And as I mentioned on Wednesday, my fascination with Judas carried me all the way through college, when I wrote my senior religion paper on the characterizations of Jesus and Judas in fiction.

So now you know why I’m so intrigued by Judas. But my questions haven’t changed much: Who is he? Why did he do what he did? The truth is, like many of Jesus’ disciples, we don’t know very much about Judas at all. We don’t know his family background, we don’t know what he did, we don’t know where he came from. I’ve read many different theories, but of course, most are conjecture, imaginings, really, rather than fact-based theories. And since we know so little about Judas, we also don’t know very much about his motivations for betraying Jesus. Only the gospel of John mentions that Judas is treasurer for the group of disciples, and suggests that greed for the payment of silver is the motivation for betrayal. But the other gospels never mention anything like this at all. As in our gospel reading for today, Matthew, Mark, and Luke segway with new interlude into mentioning that Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. Things get confusing, for me, to understand logically. Why would the religious leaders even need Judas to betray Jesus? They knew where Jesus was, and showed up to hear him preach and teach all the time. It wasn’t as though Jesus was in hiding and Judas led them to a secret location. We can’t imagine that 30 coins alone would have tempted Judas to betray Jesus – even though it was a hefty sum, it wasn’t enough make him set for life, a year, or even half year actually. What motivates Judas? I wonder, very much. But what we know for sure is that almost every time Judas is mentioned in the scriptures, he is called, “Judas, who later betrayed him.” We know that from Mark, the earliest gospel, to John, the latest written, Judas is increasingly portrayed as villainous and evil. And I can tell you that while Judas was always known for his betrayal, it was a few centuries after the birth of the church that Judas began to be seen as the sole disciple responsible for Jesus’ death. In fact, over time, Judas began to be a symbol for all Jews who didn’t accept Christ, and was a figure used by anti-Semites in their hatred of Jews. Judas, who later betrayed him.

Imagine if your whole life, you were called by a name that was based on one event, one action. Beth, you know, Beth who preached that awful sermon? Russell, who messed up the offertory. Joe, who couldn’t hold down a job. Marge, who really screwed up her kids. Bob, who caused that car accident. What if, your whole life, you had to carry descriptors of your mistakes, even your worst ones, as part of your name? Judas, who later betrayed him. What does it mean to betray someone? In the case of Judas, the definition of his actions which I found to best fit was this: "To prove faithless or treacherous to, as to a trust or one who trusts; to be false to; to deceive; as, to betray a person or a cause." (1) That fits, doesn’t it? Whatever Judas’ motives were, I think we can accurately say he proved faithless to Jesus. Why ever it was, whatever caused it, Judas ultimately did not have faith in Jesus. That’s the take of the song we heard today – a Judas who is having serious doubts about the path Jesus is going down, a Judas who thinks Jesus is out of control, a Judas who doesn’t see, doesn’t trust, the direction of Jesus’ ministry, and acts to stop Jesus.

What does it all mean for us? What difference does Judas’ betrayal mean for us? To me, in some ways, Judas is important in just the same way understanding every other text in the scriptures is important. We draw closer to God through understanding, and we understand by putting ourselves into the text, seeing ourselves in the story. Can we see ourselves in Judas, who later betrayed him? My biggest problem with how we’ve remembered Judas in the Christian Church is that by seeing him as so evil, we fail to see ourselves in him. Vilifying him makes us feel better. At least we’re not Judas, right? At least we’re better than Judas, the greedy traitor.

And yet, if we think of the definition of betrayal again, we have some hard questions to answer. To betray is to prove faithless to. Can you say honestly that you’ve never proven yourselves faithless to Jesus? We may find it hard to believe that after spending three years as a disciple following Christ from place to place that we'd then turn Jesus over to men we knew were trying to kill him. On the other hand, we may not find it so hard to think of ways that we betray Jesus, perhaps even on a daily basis. If to betray means to prove faithless, then we are indeed very much like Judas. Judas, for whatever reason, did not have faith enough to believe in the path Jesus was following. Do we have enough faith? Maybe, sometimes, more often than we want to admit, we don't have faith enough to believe that God has called us for plans beyond our imagination. We don't have faith enough to invest ourselves, our money, our time, and our gifts into God's care. We don't have faith enough to believe that God gives us grace, a gift there for the taking, without our needing to do something to earn it. We don’t have enough faith to actually follow Jesus instead of our plans for ourselves. And our lack of faith betrays Jesus as surely as Judas did.

But if we can let Judas be redeemed, if we can let Judas be more than the one who later betrayed him, if we can believe, like that magazine editor did, that God’s unconditional love is truly unconditional, than perhaps we can help Judas move beyond, as we move beyond. If we can see ourselves in Judas, if we can admit that our actions often betray the Jesus we claim to follow, then we too, like Judas, can repent. But we can also move beyond. Judas couldn’t move beyond what he’d done, and neither could those who would tell his story. I can’t imagine the grief and guilt he must have felt. And I wonder what might have happened, if Judas had chosen another path, if reconciliation might have been possible in his life on earth, as I believe it is always and everywhere possible with God. We are blessed always with the chance – the hope and promise really, that we can move beyond. We aren’t defined by our sins, but by God’s love and forgiveness. Beth, whose sermon made me think. Russell, whose music touched my soul. Joe, whose life God changed. Marge, who is really wonderful with children. Bob, who God loves. You, who proved yourself faithful to God’s love. Amen.

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