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

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Dear friend...wonderful. I love this sermon. Light, darkness, all a Carravaggio painting! I was thinking of you as you prepare for Ethiopia. Have fun and know you are blessed! ~Stuart