Sunday, May 28, 2006

Walk On

Psalm 1
Acts 1:15-26

“The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”[1]

This sentiment is taken from Marc Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a play which portrays perhaps the only betrayal that rivals in infamy that of Judas’. While Anthony makes this statement in reference to Caesar, such a statement could just as easily be said for Judas. Whatever good Judas may have done, teaching and healing he practiced at Jesus’ side, the acts of kindness he performed, his share in the disciples’ ministry as they followed this rabbi from Nazareth, is lost to us. But the evil that he did has certainly lived on after him.

The kiss, the 30 pieces of silver, even his name have become part of our lexicon for ultimate betrayal. While Pilate and the chief priests certainly had their hand in Jesus’ death, it was the part Judas played that is viewed as most heinous of all. While many hurt Christ, failed Christ, it is this man who was part of the inner circle, this man who sent his friend to death with a kiss, this man who is the chief villain of the piece.

Arch-villan is how much Western popular culture has seen Judas throughout history. He as appeared shadowy figure Da Vinci’s Last Supper, is condemned to the lowest circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno[2], and has even been turned into another villainous archetype, Dracula, by contemporary filmmaker Wes Craven.

Our church culture has reacted in similar ways (though as far as I know, there are no claims about Judas really being a vampire). One Easter-tide tradition that was once practiced throughout Europe and is still practiced in parts of places like Greece, Portugal, Mexico, and Venezuela, is the burning of Judas. In some Orthodox and Catholic communities, an effigy of Judas is hanged on Good Friday – drawing on Matthew’s version of Judas’ death – and then burned on Easter Sunday.

While there are certain exceptions, most of Western and later Christian history has painted Judas as the ultimate in human evil. But it’s not that simple. Judas did a horrible thing to be sure, but was he filled with nothing but evil as many have insinuated and believed? Probably not. He was called by Christ, after all, and served as a disciple for sometime before the big betrayal. While we don’t know of the good deeds he did, it would be hard to imagine there were none. Indeed, it would be impossible to imagine that there was no good within him. For while Judas betrayed Jesus, yes, he was not some pure demon who infiltrated Jesus’ closet circle. He was a man, he was human. He was one of us.

Perhaps that is why we often paint Judas the evil villain, complete with top hat and handlebar mustache. Because the more extreme he becomes, the less we can see ourselves in him. For Judas begins like we do – he hears a call to follow Jesus and he answers. He, like us, is a disciple of Christ, a disciple who does not fully understand all that God is doing in his presence, all that God envisions and plans beyond what he himself can see. And he ends like we hope not to end, as someone who turns against the one who has called him, taught him, loved him.

We are fascinated by Judas in part because his is a cautionary tale to future disciples, to us. Perhaps this is why Peter, as he is speaking to the crowd of believers, indeed as he is addressing the yet unnamed one who will be chosen to fill the betrayer’s place, speaks of Judas and his fate. Judas’ path is complicated, telling a truth that contradicts the suggestion that people are clearly good or bad. His life is one that has seen both ways, both the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. His story could be our story, or so we fear because we all have known what it is to stumble in our walk with Christ, what it’s like to stray from the way of righteousness.

We are not the only ones to be so fascinated by this man, not the only ones to struggle with the question of how could someone, someone called a disciple, betray Christ? From the beginning, Christian communities have sought to make sense of this difficult question, to understand this troubling figure.

Within the gospels, Judas himself can be interpreted as many things. In Mathew and Mark Judas might be understood as a man who began good but was seduced to the way of the wicked by worldly thoughts of money or power.

The other two gospels suggest Judas was brought low by something much more otherworldly. The writer of Luke-Acts states that Satan entered Judas before he went away to plot with the chief priests to betray Jesus. Perhaps within his community, the community our Acts text was written within, the only way to make sense of what Judas did was to think of demonic forces at work.

In the Gospel according to John, however, Judas is not turned from good to evil by Satan. While Satan does enter Judas, he was bad from the very beginning. He was a thief; put in charge of the group’s money purse, he took a little for himself now and again. John’s Jesus is not ignorant of his disciple’s less than honorable heart nor does he wait until the Passover seder which became his Last Supper to announce it. Though he does not name him, Jesus vocalizes Judas’ true nature to all his disciples at the start, saying “Did I not choose you twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.”[3]

The gospel writers and their communities are certainly not the only ones within the early Christian movement to try and understand this complicated person of Judas. By now I would imagine most of you have heard about the Gospel of Judas, the manuscript of which current resides not too far from here at the National Geographic Explorers’ Hall in D.C.

Textual clues and references in other documents, suggest that this Gospel was written prior to 180 B.C.E., perhaps even as early as 130 B.C.E. This means the Gospel of Judas was written perhaps even as close as a few decades after the canonical gospels. While the communities of those gospels read and believed in a Judas who betrayed Jesus, the community of the Gospel of Judas was reading and believing in a Judas who did not betray Christ, indeed, in a Judas who was so obedient to Jesus that he turned his master over to the authorities out of love and devotion. For in the Gospel of Judas, Judas is Jesus’ most beloved disciple, who receives special teaching and a special assignment. Jesus wants Judas to turn him over, tells him to. True, others will not understand and Judas will be hated, but one day he will be rule over the other generations for what he has done.

While this text surely strays from canonical interpretation, it is interpreting the same events found within our four gospels in order to make sense out of the tradition of Judas’ betrayal. Clearly the writer of this gospel and the community he wrote in and for had trouble understanding how one called by Christ to serve could turn against him.

And yet it is curious that all these communities should wonder “how” Judas could betray Christ; curious that in trying to understand, some of these communities would interpret his actions being inspired by Satan or even go so far as to suggest Jesus really wanted Judas to turn him over.

It is most curious for us today if when we look within our text at the one who is speaking to the crowd of early believers about Judas’ betrayal and fate. Peter is certainly not a sin-free man. Though appointed “Rock” of the early Christian movement, Peter’s own disciple record leaves room for improvement. While Jesus called Judas a devil, Peter is the one who was rebuked with “get behind me, Satan.” And while Jesus foretold of Judas’ betrayal, he also spoke of Peter denying him not once but three times. It could be and has been argued that Peter’s denial of Jesus was just as much of a betrayal as Judas’ kiss. Just like Judas, Peter did not trust in Jesus’ promises, his teachings, didn’t fully believe and understand Jesus as Messiah.

Peter denied Christ, betrayed Christ, and yet it is Peter who is telling the believers and the soon-to-be new disciple Matthias of Judas’ fate. Peter who understands that it is indeed possible and all-too-easy to stray from the way of the righteous to the way of the wicked is telling these followers of Christ the cautionary tale of Judas. Peter who perhaps realizes that the real warning found in Judas’ story is not his betrayal, rather, it is what follows.

For Peter knows as well as any of us that greatest thing Judas is remembered for is not all that unique. While none of us will ever likely do so in such theatric fashion as Judas, we will each, have each, turn against God. For what are we doing when we sin but betraying God in our own way. When we sin, we - like Judas - betray the good work God is doing within us. When we sin, we – like Peter – deny that we know God and God’s way. We may wish it were otherwise, hopefully strive for it to be so, but the truth is this: we are all sinners, all deniers, all betrayers.

And yet we are not all like Judas. For while Judas’ infamous act may not be what we are warned against, his life does still speak to those who would follow Christ. For while he, like us, like the believers, like Peter, is a sinner, he is – hopefully – different from all others. What sets Judas apart is not his kiss of betrayal, is not his turning against God, but it is his turning aside from God.

Peter’s description of Judas includes a narration of his death. Judas’ death and the details surrounding it is where we find our warning, where we may learn from and not repeat his history. For what does Judas do before he dies? He buys a field. A seemingly innocuous action until you think about what that field represents. When Jesus calls his disciples, when he speaks about being a disciple, he makes it very clear – to follow him, walk with him, you have to leave behind all you have, your fish, your friends, your fields. You have to be willing to go where he will lead you, go where the Spirit sends. Judas, at one point in time, did that. He heard the call and he answered it; he began to walk with Christ. But now from Peter, we hear that Judas buys a plot of land. He becomes fixed. This purchase isn’t about investment or livelihood – it is a statement, one that says his journey with Christ, both figurative and literal, is over. He is finished walking.

Judas has turned aside from God to go to his own place. He hasn’t just sinned against God, he has given up on his journey with God, given up on his walk of faith. He allowed his betrayal, his sin, to overwhelm him, to stop him from walking. The Matthew account of Judas’ death makes this even more clear. In it, Judas actually repents, gives back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests, because he is so distraught by what he has done. He repents and then hangs himself. He repents and then does not allow for what may come from that repentance. He does not trust in forgiveness, he does not believe in grace. Instead, he turns aside from God.

This is what we are being cautioned against. This is what we should think of when we think on Judas. We do not know what God may have done with Judas, the good God might have worked through him, because that good is interred with Judas’ bones. That good was lost when Judas gave up. While his betrayal may have captured the attention and imagination of so many generations, it is his ending that should capture ours. For his betrayal warns against sin, against the way of the wicked – something we certainly should be concerned with but will never be able to completely avoid. We will stray, for we, like Judas, sin.

But we, unlike Judas, do not have to give up on our journey with Christ. We, unlike Judas, should trust in God’s grace, in the power of God’s mercy. We, unlike Judas, must believe that no matter how much we turn against God, no matter how greatly we betray our Lord, we can find forgiveness.

No sin – even Judas’ – is too great for God’s grace, too awful for God’s forgiveness. No sin means that we must give up on our journey of faith. No sin, no straying, no denial, no doubt means that God has given up on us. So listen to Peter, learn from Judas. Never give up on your journey with Christ. Whether in small steps or in large strides, keep walking with the Lord. No matter what, keep on walking.

[1] William Shakespeare. Julius Caesar. III, ii, 77.
[2] Along with Cassius and Brutus, the two men who conspired against Caesar.
[3] John 6:70

Friday, May 26, 2006

Friday Five

One of the web rings this blog is on (RevGalBlogPals) has a "Friday Five," where folks list five of whatever the prompt is. This week, it's to name five things you believe, silly or otherwise. Here is my Friday Five - I'd love to know yours.

1. I am a beloved child of God and so is everyone else.

2. Road trips are a necessary part of life (especially with good friends who get more than a little punchy the longer you're on the road).

3. Poor spelling is a sign of genius.

4. Loving community is the key to happiness.

5. God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.


I'm going to Ethiopia in June. I'm going to Ethiopia in June. I'm saying this over and over because it's just now starting to sink in. On June 14, four representatives of Covenant (of which I am one) are flying out to Addis Abbaba and then on to Bedele. That just a little over 2 weeks away. I'm excited, nervous, filled with wonder and hope for what this trip will be. I hope that it will strength the bonds between our churches, that it will make real a place and a people we pray for regularly, that it will inspire our team and fill us with a passion for our ministry together in Christ.

I'll probably be reflecting more on this as the time draws closer. For now, I'm content to keep realizing that yes, I'm going to Ethiopia in June.

Monday, May 15, 2006


1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

One of the greatest blessings of my adult life is the relationship I have with my sisters and my brother. We though we all live in different states and don’t get to see each other but a few times a year, we are a great support system for one another. When we do get together, whether we’re on some adventure my mother has planned for us or just sitting around watching a movie, we have a heck of a lot of fun just being together. While we drive each other occasionally crazy, we really enjoy spending time with each other.

Yeah, it wasn’t always that good. Oh boy, it wasn’t. My sisters Neli and Dawn didn’t join the family until a few years ago, so growing up, it was just Beth, Ted, and me. And the three of us – well, we fought – and fought dirty. I won’t bore you with all the details, but we each had our tactics for getting what we wanted (one of Beth’s favorites was being so melodramatic about Ted’s or my “mistreatment” of her that our parents would rush to her defense – oh, she was good!). We each knew which buttons to push on the others and how. We rarely ganged up against each other, only because we were too busy fighting to form any sort of alliance.

My poor parents. It was a rare day that all three of us were getting along. I have no idea how they survived the day to day, let alone listening to us fight on those long family road trips. The folks never forced us to be the best of friends, to have Brady Bunch moments, but they did make us put up with one another. Whenever one of us went too far in our little battles, we got in serious trouble. And whenever one of us was expressing extreme frustration with a sibling, Mom or Dad would help us to see (even if we didn’t want to) where our sibling was coming from, helped us to see the other side. My parents never demanded that we smile and like each other, but they did make sure that under all our bickering, we had respect for each other, that we loved each other.

My folks taught that lesson well. When I was a kid, I would pick on my siblings all I wanted – but if an outsider even cast a disparaging look at them, it was over. That person was in for a severe tongue lashing the likes of which they had probably never seen. Because while Beth and Ted might drive me crazy, they were my sister and brother. I may not like my siblings all that much, but I loved them.

While I know the author of this epistle wasn’t referring to our biological brothers and sisters, it is in part because of this undercurrent of love I had for my sister and brother, even when they drove me up the wall by getting in my stuff, or – horror, of horrors – tagging along, that I can appreciate when the writer of 1 John says: “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” If I want to be able to say “I love the Lord!” I have to be able to say, I love the Lord’s people. Because if I truly do love God, God who is love, I will follow God’s commandment for me, I will love my neighbor, my brother, my sister.

It’s not that hard of a commandment to follow. At least when the brother or sister you have to love is one that is just a pest. Loving because God first loved you is easy enough when those you are to love’s greatest flaw is that they are occasionally annoying. You can just roll your eyes at their behavior and think “I love you, I love you, I love you.” But following that commandment isn’t always that easy. When those we are called to love act in ways that make it challenging to understand how they too could be God’s creation, it gets hard. Very hard. I read in the news about people whose actions distort the image of God within them, those who reject others’ and even their own humanity, and wonder: how can I feel towards you any semblance of what I call love?

As hard as it is to follow God’s commandment with people like that, I believe there is even a greater challenge. Greater because it deals with what we face much more regularly. Most of us don’t go to school with or attend community functions with or even sit in the same church pew with mass murderers. We haven’t seen those brothers or sisters. But we have seen and do interact regularly with people who have personally hurt us or frustrated us. We do go to school, to work, and church with those whose beliefs strongly contradict our own. And the challenging questions for us is what do we do when the people we see in our day to day, the people are called to love, are the people who have hurt us with words or actions, people who do disagree with on issues close to our hearts? What do we do when we are supposed to love those who disdain the beliefs and values we hold as the core of who we are?

These are the kinds of questions I would imagine the Johannine community would have had after getting this letter. For the community that was originally told: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” and “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” was a community dealing with deep division and suffering the sorrow of schism. This was a community where feelings were hurt, insults hurled, relationships broken because of strongly held and sharply differing beliefs.

Within this Christian community, there was a group that had broken away. This group differed with the Johannine Christians we would see as more orthodox on issues like who Christ was and on the importance of his salvation. While Johannine Christians argued that Christ set a moral standard in the way he walked, the way he lived, this breakway group argued that it was just enough to believe in the Word, what you do isn’t important just as what Christ did wasn’t important. Content to simply believe, they weren’t interested in living as disciples. We don’t know for sure but this group may have been a forerunner for the Gnostic Christians – those who understood this world and the flesh as false, who saw the purpose of life as pursuit of special knowledge from God.

We don’t know exactly how this schism developed. We don’t know who the leaders were, who may have said what about whom. Even though we don’t know the details on this particular division, given the reactions over such similar situations over whole course of our church’s history, it’s probably safe to assume it wasn’t pretty. When there is such passion, it doesn’t take much for disagreements to get personal. And this community isn’t just a bridge club, this community is family. And whatever happened, things got so bad that family split.

In the midst of the most passionate, personal of disagreements, of differences, where things got so bad people just broke off relationships and left, is this letter and its reminder that we are commanded to love our brothers and our sisters, that we are to love because God first loved us.

And so I can only imagine that this community was left with the same question we have – one we have whether faced with someone we vehemently disagree with or someone who has personally hurt us: how do you love?

It’s a good question, a hard question, a question I know I want the answer to. But before we can try to answer that question, there’s this voice inside that reminds me we have to ask another. Before we can talk about how we manage to love those we find it difficult to, we have to ask ourselves what we even mean by love? We talk about loving our brothers and sisters, struggle sometimes with that love, but what exactly are we talking about, struggling with? What is love?

Now that’s an even bigger question. There was a whole course at my college dedicated to that question. Now, trying to understand love for us today, I didn’t run out and take a college course on love, but I have been doing some research. Look love up in the dictionary and you get several, interesting answers. The most appropriate one I found was “unselfish concern and benevolent concern for the good of another.” That sounds good. In fact, it sounds quite similar to a definition for agape, the Greek word for love which used in this passage, which is often translated as something like unconditional, self-sacrificing love. That sounds pretty Christian, like something the writer of this epistle would be in favor of. We should all be able to get on board with that. And yet, I am not completely satisfied with that definition for love because but while interacting with our brothers and sisters in unselfish concern may sound like a beautiful thing, I think it can – on occasion - be problematic. As people who have found themselves in abusive relationships of one kind or another might tell you, sometimes you need to be a little more selfish and a little less self-sacrificing in your concern of certain others. Our understanding of love – if we are to love all our brothers and sisters, has to be broader than even our definition for agape love.

So along with looking up various definitions of love, I’ve been immersing myself in a little bit of pop culture. Even though we’re well past Valentine’s Day, love is at the forefront of much of our culture. So I’ve been beeping my eyes and ears open for any definitions or descriptions that seem to just fit. I’ve heard some good ones (according to my yoga tape love is what’s left when we let go of everything we don’t need) and some pretty ridiculous ones: (love is like pizza, when it’s good it’s really good, when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good). The best descriptions and definitions, though, seem to come from music, not surprising when you think that most songs on the radio seem to be about falling in or out of love. I’ll give you a few of my favorites
Love is more than just a game for two.
Love is a battlefield.
Love is the groove in which we move.
Love is real, real is love.
Love is just a fancy word for compromise.
Love is a piano dropped from a four story window.
Love is just like breathing when it’s true.
Love is but a song we sing.
Love is sacrifice.
Love is all there is, it makes the world go round.
Love is like sweet dark chocolate.
Love is not some victory march, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.
Love is the saddest thing when it goes away.
Love is seldom what it seems.
Love is blindness.
Love is a temple – love a higher law.
Love is bigger, is bigger than us.

Now these are great lyrics, good definitions, and I don’t much disagree with anything they say about love, but still, none quite encompass all we need love to be if we are to love all. So where do we find our definition of love? Where do we find the answer to our question of how to love?

Well, as John Calvin said “the word of the Lord is the sole way that can lead us in our search.” In other words, in my search for understanding what love is, I never should have left the text. And what does the text say about love? “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent the only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” Our love, which comes from God is known in the Son. It was right that no one definition or expression of love, or even a combination of several, could completely satisfy me. For when we are searching for what it is to love as God commands us, we are not searching for a perfect definition, we aren’t searching for the best understanding, we are searching for God who is love. We are searching for the one who came as proof of love, as love living. For whether the person we are to love us one that just annoys us, one that has hurt us, or even one that we struggle to see as human, we can find what that love is within Christ and we can find the strength to love in Christ.

And Christ’s love is not a fixed definition. Christ’s love is not a static love, is not an immovable, unchanging love. Christ loved in different ways because he loved different people, he loved all people. He loved those who were his disciples, his friends; loved those whom he healed, he taught; he loved those that argued with him; he loved those who were threatened by him and threatened him. He loved all. And in his love, he would offer kindness and compassion; in his love, he would challenge the ways people thought and acted; in his love, he would be disappointed and even angry. In his love, whether it was gentle or “tough,” Christ moved people toward becoming the whole souls – what he called fruit bearing branches - God longed for them to be.

This love, Christ’s love, is the one we are to have. A love that may take on as many different definitions and forms as there are love songs. We are called to love our brothers and sisters but we are not called to love them all in the exact same ways. The love we offer is a love that – as did Christ’s – moves people toward being whole, love that will help them bear much fruit.

Knowing that the love we are offer is Christ’s love, we can too know and believe how it is we do love. For Christ tells us that “those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from you can do nothing.” We can bear much fruit, can be true disciples and lovers of the Lord, because we abide in Christ. We can and do love knowing because we are not alone in our love. When we love, truly love, we draw on the strength of God, the wisdom of God, the courage of God. God commands us to love but does not leave us alone as we strive to do so. We can love and do love only because God first loved us and because God lives in us as we love each other. For God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.

Love truly is bigger, bigger than us and for that we can all be thankful. Amen.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

a dialogue of interest

A friend of mine recently directed me to a transcript of a talk that Tony and Peggy Campolo gave at North Point Chapel about ten years ago. Though an old speech/conversation, I found it remarkably poignant. Entitled "Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?" this transcript sees both Tony and Peggy make different cases on the issue of same-gendered relationships but offer a similar - and compelling - articulation of how the church is called to serve our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

As our church faces such similar questions and issuez - particularly at General Assembly this June - I think it is most critical that no matter what we believe on particular issues we do not let people become just an "issue." I become deeply troubled when I hear the various camps dehumanize those with whom they disagree. I'm currently working on a sermon for this Sunday based on a text that say, among other things, that if we say we love God but do not love our brothers and sisters, we are liars. Our call is to minister in love to all and when we do not - when we let our differences, however deeply seeded, divide us and keep us from our ministry of love - we are not loving God.

This transcript offers a wonderful call to ministry of love that can affect those with varying opinions about homosexuality. I invite you to read it and let it reside with you for awhile, to wonder if any of Tony or Peggy's statements ring especially true for you, if any cut you to the quick. Think about what ways our church - both Covenant and the greater church - can be a place of love where those who have felt that the church (or church people) despised them - and this goes beyond gays and lesbians. Think about these things - and then act, in small moments, in larger ways, act. The church will only become a truly loving community - Christ's community - when its people move past fears, prejudices, or whatever holds us back and strive to love.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


I've recently taken up walking in the park (almost) daily. It's good to get some exercise but I really love the chance to people watch, listen to music, and/or spend time with God that walking for an hour or so gives me. I've been so good at keeping up with this practice that my body starts to crave it during midday. My muscles get excited - "come on, Amy, use us!" - and I just can't wait for my walk. When days are too busy (like today, for example) and I really can't fit a walk in, it's tough. While my brain may be fully committed to whatever I'm doing, the rest of my body is trying to get me outdoors and moving. It's kinda nice to know that the time I spend walking has become so integral to my day that I'm experiencing withdrawls! A good reminder that taking time for yourself is a necessary thing indeed.