Wednesday, April 08, 2020

I Am Judas - A Sermon for Wednesday in Holy Week

Anxiety is a common emotion amongst many of us. For many of us, in these days of pandemic it will come in waves. We might be enjoying the opportunity to read a chapter or two of a novel each day that we haven't ever quite got to, or to immerse ourselves in a film we have always loved, but perhaps like me, you find that soon after that, anxiety washes into our inner lives as sure as the ebbing tide.

The thing that makes that anxiety so insidious at the moment especially is that it ebbs into our lives as we spend enforced periods of time in the place that should be our security and safety - our homes.

Anxiety has ebbed even in to Jesus' life as he sits with his security and sureity - his friends and closest companions gathered around a table for food; and that anxiety is there, like a taut drumskin before Judas does what he has to.

Judas gets bad press in Christian tradition. We know little about him. Judas, his given surname could mean that he came from Kerioth a town in southern Judea. Iscariot could also come from a dagger - the sicarius - and it could be a nickname 'dagger man' referring to Judas perhaps belonging to a Jewish terrorist cell - the sicarii. Iscariot could also be a corruption of the aramic word for 'red' and Judas is sometimes portrayed in red clothing or with a red beard in Christian art.

We do not know why Judas betrayed Jesus. Some say it was because he loved money. John describes him as a thief. But to me the way scripture describes him in those sorts of terms feel like an addendum - a naming of the way that Christian tradition has treated him. Two of the Gospel writer ascribe Judas' motives due to diabolic or satanic action.

We find him offensive because of what he did to his friend Jesus--he handed him over into the hands of his enemies. We are offended by that for most of us can identify with the pain of being turned on by a friend. The wounds inflicted by a friend seem to go deeper and hurt more than the wounds inflicted by someone who cared nothing for us. David said in the 55th Psalm, "It was not my enemy who reproached me, for then I could bear it, but it was my friend." So we are offended by Judas because of what he did to his friend.

Judas not only offends us, but he also frightens us, for Judas is an unpleasant reminder to all of us that on any given day a faithful follower, like you or me, could turn from following Christ and stumble out into the night, caught up in the power of darkness and be quickly led to our death.

He frightens us even more when we try to put distance between ourselves and Judas by pointing out all that was wrong and rotten about him. We say Judas allowed himself to be used by that one who is opposed to the things of God, but have we not all at some point in our lives been used by that which is antithetical (totally opposing) to God? We all at some point in our lives have allowed ourselves to be taken over by evil schemes, harmful suggestions, misguided intentions and ruled and guided by other forces and powers.

We say Judas lacked honesty and integrity for he stole from the money box over which he had been placed. But have we not all done some things for which we are now ashamed?

We say Judas was small-minded and mean spirited, for he complained when the woman anointed the feet of Jesus with a costly bottle of perfume--but we all have to pray from time to time and ask the Lord to help us not to major in minor things; not to drown in shallow water; nor to lose our soul behind stuff that doesn't amount to anything.

Well we say he was duplicitous and deceitful. On the night of the Last Supper when the Lord tried so desperately to reach him, Judas resented correction and resisted reconciliation. He was stubborn; once he made up his mind you couldn't turn him from his course. In a moment of empathetic truth, we see so much of ourselves in Judas.

And so, for whatever reason, Judas decided to walk out on Jesus. He turned from the light, lost his way, and stumbled out into the night. What could entice a person to turn away from Christ?  Some people turn away from Jesus out of disillusionment. They thought that faith offered immediate rewards, with little sacrifice, at no cost.

Some turn away from Christ when confronted with some unexpected loss or horrific ordeal in their lives. And because they were caught off guard, they think Jesus was also caught off guard or does not care. They seem unaware of the fact that nothing takes our Saviour by surprise, and that Jesus cares for us when no one else does. In fact, he loved us before we loved him.

And then, as strange as it may seem, some people turn away from Christ because they say they want more out of life. They believe they have outgrown the faith. They believe other avenues and interests can speak to their condition better than the claims of Christ. 

John says when Judas walked out it was night. When John says it was night he is not simply calling our attention to the clock, he is calling our attention to the condition of any person's soul when they turn from Christ. When Judas, by his own choice, turned from Christ, he cast himself into the worst darkness.

Judas is me. Judas is you. We, and especially in times of great stress - where our jobs are not secure, or our relationships are strained, or sickness lies at our door as in these days - can all behave uncharacteristically selfishly for our own ends. Judas is us.

When we are Judas we need to be told another story. We need to live another narrative. Even in days of anxiety and in and through our actions and words which betray Jesus, God's glory is revealed. Now, says Jesus, in days and moments like these, are ones that sodden and heavy with the Divine Presence.

Victor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, treated like a brute beast in the concentration camp, wrote about his refusal to accept this definition of himself by holding onto his belief in his humanity, his memories of being loved. He withheld his consent, refused to be an object, though he was unable to change what was happening to him.

We encounter Judas today in scripture, but each day in ourselves. This journey that Jesus willingly walked towards the cross is one that darkens as each step falls until it was night. But in the midst of the deepest darkness on the cross, the light and love of God could not be extinguished raised Jesus and reshapes our present and future renames us as much loved children of God.

The name Judas is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Judah, which means God is praised. When we find ourselves awash with anxiety or we betray ourselves of others, or that night is setting in, the light and love of God in Christ that cannot be extinguished still shines on and in and through us transforming our hearts and lives to be places - with Judas - where God is praised.

Save Us! The Prayer Of The Heart - A Sermon For Tuesday In Holy Week

On Sunday, as we recalled Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with its palm branches and shouts of praise, I remembered that the word ‘hosannah’ does not translate as ‘hurray’ but as ‘save us!’ And all of a sudden the story that we unfold this week takes on a very contemporary edge.

We cannot help but hear this tale through our own current experience of pandemic and social isolation. Yesterday Anne helped us ponder of the wastefulness or not of panic buying; of building HS2; or using venthilators on over 70 year olds with underlying health conditions at the moment; and of Mary of Bethany use of a year’s wages to buy perfume to anoint Jesus. In her case at least - that extravagance was an act of adoration and worship of the Jesus who had transformed her life and that of her sister by raising their brother Lazarus’ to life.

The same crowd that cried out to Jesus to save them in previous days, have generated some further, perhaps more in-depth enquiries of what that saving help might mean … but from the non-Jewish Greek community. They want to see Jesus.  Is He wasting his time giving them attention, or not?

Jesus doesn’t really answer their request for an audience - and as Greeks they might have expected wise words and rhetoric from this teacher - instead, Jesus seems to speak to Andrew and Philip about the hour having come for the Son of Man to be glorified. A strange response indeed. For St John, the verb to glorify comes over 20 times in his account of Jesus life beginning with “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The verb to glorify has a complex meaning. Glory, doxa, in the New Testament is a translation of a Hebrew word - kavod - which means heavy, honour, respect. Someone who has gravitas or authority. Glory, doxa, in Greek society meant common belief or popular opinion. To see the glory of God in the Word made flesh, for John, is about experiencing something of the profound extraordinariness of God in and through Jesus.

To me, Jesus is responding to the request for an audience with Him from those Greeks by reminding them what any time listening to his teaching or seeking to live lives as he has done means. Perhaps this may be the best way of understanding what the verb “glorify” means. To listen to Jesus means to learn and learning leads to following and following Jesus points ultimately on towards the cross. To glorify God, for Jesus, is not to appease God’s anger over human sinfulness, but because a death like his can be the means for bearing much fruit. I know that Archbishop Oscar Romero found great consolation in this verse when his own life was threatened and, in fact, his words have reverberated ever more strongly since his assassination.

‘Save us!’ is the prayer on every person’s lips in these days of pandemic. It’s a cry to our healthcare professionals; to our politicians; to scientists working on a vaccine.  

Save us! Is the same taunting cry from the thief crucified alongside Jesus and from neighbours and newspaper editors - why did God inflict this disease on us and how come Jesus is not acting?

In response to the request for an audience seeking wise words and lifestyle choices, Jesus instead points towards a weightier matter; a time and place where God will be honoured and people’s requests will be answered; where popular belief and common opinion will be confronted by the profound extraordinariness of God at work in Him - on the cross.

And in days where families and communities are shattered by grief, here we see a Jesus confronted by that same weight and fear - his soul is troubled; fearful in the depths of his being; to his very core. For Jesus to answer our cries for saving help still, and especially in these days, this is a road he acknowledges he needs to go down. 

In these days of pandemic, we will each be heavy with profound and puzzling questions and faced with the reality of death; but we journey these days with Jesus who willingly chose to walk to the cross and embrace it knowing that through it a new relationship with God will be forged for all people everywhere. At the cross we will be heavy with profound and puzzling questions and have to face the reality of death head on, but there we are confronted with glory and an offer of eternal - life transformed by the love and the glory of God in the now - is made still.