Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 29, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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A news story came across my e-mail recently with the title “The greatest challenge your pastor will face in 2017.” Can you guess what the challenge was? The author said that it is all of you.
He described how, on any given Sunday, the preacher may say one thing but congregants hear another. That’s a given in this style of teaching. We have a lot of teachers here, so I know you can relate. But the author predicted the phenomenon would be more pronounced in light of the presidential election.
So let me ask you this: How many of you here today want me to address the week’s news about refugees and walls and women’s bodies? And how many of you would be very frustrated if I did?
Group dynamics are always tricky, but even more so in a time of conflict and even in a space of faith. Just look at today’s story.
The first conflict is in the temples, which prompts a reminder before I get into the meat of my sermon. Beware our human tendency to conflate a few with all.
The greatest sin of Christianity has been to take the reported behavior of a few people who were Jewish, many years ago, as representative of people who are Jewish, for all time. The shock of those in today’s scripture, and their reprimand of Jesus, does not characterize all people who are now, or were then, Jewish. I know that you know this, but given the persistence of hate groups and speech against people who are Jewish by people who claim to be Christian, it bears repeating.
Now, let’s talk about Judas, the focus of our greatest conflict as Christians.
We know from the first moment that we meet Judas that he is a bad guy. He is THE bad guy:
- Matthew 10.4: “…and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”
- Mark 3.19: “…and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”
- Luke 6.16b: “…and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”
- John 6.71: “He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”
Judas never has a chance within our gospel telling to establish who he is beyond a traitor to God’s cause. Judas’ selling out Jesus’ location to the authorities, his very worst moment, is the only moment we allow to define him. And that’s usually that.
Theologians have, obviously, worked to explain why Judas did what he did and what God’s role might have been. How could he betray a man whom he loved? The conventional take is that Judas is a necessary evil. We cannot worry about his personhood and however much he sweated that decision because, the theology goes, somebody had to do the deed.
That understanding has some Biblical support. For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus predicts his betrayal, explaining that the traitor will be the one to whom he gives a piece of bread. Jesus then hands that bread to Judas and after Judas accepts the bread, “Satan entered him” (John 13.27). It is not clear to me whether the implication is that Jesus and God colluded with a devil to move the story forward or if Jesus merely sensed the growing evil and was simply calling it out.
Either way, Judas remains a bad guy. A bad guy alone in his evil, necessary or otherwise. But another narrative does exist; this is not the end of Judas’ story.
GOSPEL OF JUDAS
As we know, not all gospels made the final cut. There is The Secret Book of James, The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Thomas, The Secret Book of John, and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, among others. There is also The Gospel of Judas.
Judas’ gospel was likely written down about 100 years after Jesus’ ministry, murder, and mystery. That does not invalidate it, though, as none of the official gospels were contemporaneous to Christ, either. Judas’ gospel was well-enough known in its day that Ireneaus, an early Christian scholar, referenced it in his book on heresies.
Like all gospels, Judas’ shares the story of Jesus. It also pointedly grapples with how a loving God could want a blood sacrifice. It asserts that if that is our understanding, we are worshipping a false God and have murderous hearts. The unknown author names Judas as Jesus’ closest disciple.1
The Gospel of Judas, unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, refuses to demonize either Judas or God.
THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
Which only leaves one person, or persons, left to blame for Jesus’ betrayal: the disciples.
The disciples are the group of men and women who were with Jesus most often and most intimately. They receive teachings kept private from others and they are commissioned to heal and teach just as Jesus did himself. We know that they do not get along all the time. But even if you aren’t getting along, spending your every hour with a small group of people means you really get to know them.
So, if we set aside any interference by God and devil, can it be possible that Judas hid his intent from his sister and brother disciples? How likely is it that no one notices what Judas is thinking, that they don’t even notice him being gone from the group when he goes to the authorities?
The context of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his Way is a week of intense attention and pressure from law enforcement and the government. Crowds are frantic for a win, but the risk is high. Jesus pulls them all away for Passover. The disciples, exhausted, cannot even stay awake. The disciples are, probably, consumed by the reality of Jesus’ confrontation with human power. So maybe they didn’t check in with each other because they are afraid to reveal the betrayal born of self-protection they felt in their own hearts.
Group dynamics are always tricky, but even more so in a time of conflict and even in a space of faith.
Whoever Judas was as a human being, he is now a lesson for us about the risk of not attending to each other. The other disciples could have stopped to listen to each other, to be honest about their fears and fatigue. But because they did not, we now learn how lethal the secrets are that we can keep from each other and how easy it is for us to fail to claim the God of radical welcome as our own.
Because in the end, Judas wasn’t the only traitor. Just as John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus, Judas foreshadows Peter. Peter, the one whom Jesus names as his rock, denies his relationship with Jesus in the lead up to the execution.
We all have to resist Judas’ devils of self-protection and fear. We all have to find the holy stamina Peter lacked.
Maybe God had a role in Jesus’ death, or maybe not. But to cede all bad outcomes to a supernatural force is itself a betrayal of Jesus and all of the agency and power he showed his followers they could have if they would come together in the name of God.
The good news, from all of the gospels, is that we anyone—saints and scoundrels alike—can come together in the name of God. God is before us, behind us, beside us, above us, and below us—no matter who we are and where we are in life’s journey. Ames UCC is living that out so clearly that today four more seekers are formally stepping onto the Way with us here at Ames UCC.
And next Saturday we have the opportunity to hone skills of listening and sharing that make faith communities strong—and that can lead churches to be agents of beloved community for people who are Muslim, and female, and immigrants, and Black, and children. The lead organizer of AMOS, Liz Hall, will be with us for a workshop. It will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with lunch and child care. It is free. Because however we choose to respond to this new administration and executive orders, it must begin in speaking and listening to each other.
Whatever you came here today hoping to hear or hoping to avoid, hear this: When we are willing to reach out our withered souls to God, we know healing.
When we are willing to reach out to each other in the midst of the stress and fatigue and fears that all disciples experience we are not only refusing to contribute to our world’s problems we are taking part in its redemption.
1Pagels, Elaine and Karen L. King. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. pp. xii, xiv, Xvi