Friday, April 6, 2012

Betrayal: Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter

Good Friday (Year B) sermon preached at Christ Church Somerville on 6 April 2012, the Rev. Christopher Fike presiding.

“Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Yourself, Lord Jesus. Amen.”

During Holy Week, it’s often easy to focus on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. Here is a man who seems to be predestined to betray Jesus and set the crucifixion in motion. He was one of the twelve and I can’t help but wonder if Jesus knew from the beginning, from the moment he met Judas, that Judas would betray him? I can’t imagine trying to live that knowledge. Judas’ betrayal has been a topic of theological discussion for centuries – did Judas have a choice? Could Judas have said no? Was there a way out for him or was he always predestined to betray Christ? Was he simply an actor in a play – given a crucial instrumental yet undesirable role essential to the plot? There are no clear cut answers to these questions but it doesn’t hurt to take and moment to consider what might have happened had Judas not betrayed Jesus. Would another one of the twelve fulfill that role? Without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection and without betrayal, there can be no redemption.

In John’s gospel, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus with a kiss. Instead he arrives at the garden with armed soldiers in tow, seemingly aware of what he is doing. John doesn’t tell us what happens after that — Judas’ role is complete. He was the catalyst, his role is done, there’s no need to have him in the story any more.

I’d like to take us back to an earlier point in John’s gospel that wasn’t in tonight’s selection where he discusses the betrayal of Judas in Chapter 13(21-30):
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

John presents us with a Judas taken over by Satan: “After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered him.” Is it God who is the architect here, assigning roles to the various players? John’s gospel makes no mention of Judas being paid for betraying Jesus and no mention of suicide; only Matthew’s gospel account deals with what happens to Judas after he betrays Jesus. We’re left to speculate what happens to Judas but we often just run with what we read in Matthew. We understand Judas as a man who is consumed by guilt and regret after he betrays Jesus, who attempts to return the money he was paid for his deed, and who goes and hangs himself in a field.

We know so little about Judas yet we all know who he is. At times we vilify him, calling any traitor a Judas. If we think Judas was nothing more than a pawn in the passion narrative, we pity him, but we can easily forget that Judas’ betrayal is not the only one in the passion narrative. After Judas leads the soldiers to the garden where Jesus is, Simon Peter fulfills Jesus’ other prophecy about betrayal, denying Jesus three times. Moments after cutting off a slave’s ear in an attempt to protect and defend Jesus, Peter is overcome with fear and denies having anything to do with Him. Two of the hand-picked twelve have now denied Jesus.

And so I find myself asking are Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter really so different from each other? Judas who becomes branded a traitor for all time and Simon Peter who gets chosen to feed Jesus’ sheep and becomes the rock of the church. It seems these two could not be further from each other but I believe they’re not as different as we think. Both of them are overcome by fear, both of their betrayals are foretold — what changes? What makes one an infamous traitor and the other a saint and founder of the church is what happens after the betrayal.

Each of us, at some point in our lives, has betrayed or denied something or someone. It may been something small and minor or it may have been something larger, something we greatly regret. What do we do after that betrayal? Do we, like Judas, sink into despair and let ourselves be overcome by it or do we instead allow ourselves to be overcome by love and forgiveness, allowing grace to work in our lives and becoming better people, learning from our mistakes. The choice is ours — the opportunity for forgiveness and grace is always there.

Both Judas and Peter betrayed the man the loved, the man they gave up everything to follow the man they believed to be the Messiah, the son of God, yet their stories go in opposite directions. After Peter’s betrayal in John’s gospel, we see nothing more of him until Mary Magdalene runs to him on Easter morning to tell him that Jesus has disappeared from the tomb. No mention is made of Peter being present at the crucifixion. What can we make of this? Did Peter spend the weekend in despair wondering if his denial affected the outcome, wondering if he’d just ruined his chances? Peter might have been consumed by despair but nonetheless he waits and is able to see the empty tomb on Easter morning.

Judas, according to Matthew’s gospel, regrets his actions so much that he tries to return the money he was paid. He fears he has damned himself and believes that he is beyond any redemption. He has just betrayed his teacher, his Lord and will be forever blamed as one of the figures responsible for Jesus’ death. Even though he was among the twelve whom Jesus told he would and rise again, Judas gives into the despair and hopelessness. He sees no way out and he takes matters into his own hands. He can’t see beyond his actions, he can’t see the presence of God and he gives up – he kills himself, ending any chance of seeing Jesus’ resurrection. But what would have happened if he didn’t? What if Judas had waited? What if he had managed to see the resurrected Christ? I believe that Jesus would have embraced him and forgiven him. If I believe in God’s grace and unconditional love, I have to believe that Jesus would forgive him and be reconciled with him, just like he was with Peter. Perhaps Judas would have become the rock upon which the church was built. Anything is possible.

As we meditate on the death of Christ, let us take a moment to consider our own denials and betrayals. Where is it in our lives that we turn away from God, refuse to be associated with him? More importantly though, how do we respond? Are we Judas Iscariot or Simon Peter? Do we let ourselves become consumed by guilt and despair, giving up on hope and thinking ourselves beyond grace and redemption? Or do we manage to be like Peter, holding on through the unknown, believing in God’s faithfulness and grace? I think we all have our Judas moments, but the important thing is not to let ourselves be consumed by them.

Almighty God, we ask you to look down graciously upon us, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and to suffer death upon the cross and whose death we commemorate today. Be with us today as we stand at the foot of the cross and behold our Saviour upon it. Amen.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Life Divided

The journey of Holy Week continues as we rapidly approach the Triduum, my favourite time of the liturgical year. My previous post reflected on being willing to follow God’s will and how God will make us ready. Today’s picks up on a similar theme and started when a friend from high school emailed me the following quote:

”One who is content in what he has, and who accepts that [one] inevitably misses very much in life, is far better off than one who has much more but who worries about all s/he may be missing. For we cannot make the best of what we are if our hearts are always divided between what we are and what we are not.”
-Thomas Merton

This quote brought me to tears instantly, hitting me like a ton of bricks, particularly the second sentence: “We cannot make the best of what we are if our hearts are always divided between what we are and what we are not.” The quote seemed to mirror where I am in life — afraid to commit, to try for things because of the “what ifs?”. I’ve been burned recently and I’m just not sure if I can take that risk. If I commit to one thing, does that close the door on other possibilities and opportunities? I’m here in a self-imposed whirlpool of angst and indecision while each successive day only makes it worse.

Acceptance is the key to the first part of that quote. I’d take it one step further; it’s not enough to simply accept God’s will for our lives, to accept the path God is calling us to, we need to also embrace it. We need to say yes, to take the step forward and embrace the possibility. The second part of the quote, “We cannot make the best of what we are if our hearts are always divided,” seems to tie in well with another Thomas Merton quote that reads, “A life is either all spiritual or not at all. No [hu]man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you life for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”

A life divided is a life not lived out to the fullest. God wants us to flourish. God loves us unconditionally and has plans for us, plans to use our talents to our fullest potential. Our hesitation can prevent that, it can keep us from fully experiencing the love and joy of God — to be surrounded and even overwhelmed by that unconditional love. It scares us because it is beyond the realm of human experience. Can we even conceive of God incarnate embracing us, kneeling down to tenderly wash our feet, taking away all our fears, insecurities and sins, leaving us with a feeling of pure, unadultered love? I can’t. Not easily. The simple thought of it threatens to bring me to tears.

God does not ask us to do the impossible. God only asks us to give ourselves wholly to the possibility of what S/He might have in store for us. It is like a dance. To stand at the edge, listening to the music, feeling that tug, moving slightly to the music, but not quite participating. When God stops in front of us and holds out a hand in invitation, it is up to us to take it, to join in and get swept up in the whirlwind of the dance. We cannot worry about what others will think, of whether we’ll know the steps or not — there is no need to worry. God will lead us in the dance and we only need to follow, to let ourselves be spun around and grasped firmly in a loving, secure embrace before we spin out of control. Dancing is about trust, about letting go, trusting that your partner won’t drop you when they dip you, lift you, or flip you. Trusting that you won’t slip and fall —but if you do, God will be there to pick you up because the dance goes on.

When I was home for joint birthday celebrations two weeks ago (my grandfather’s 90th and my 30th), there were various pre- and post- parties at my parents’ house. During one of them, my cousin decided to change the music to something more danceable. I seized the opportunity and asked him to dance since he’d been the one to switch the music. After a bit of hesitation, he took the opportunity to lead me in a fast whirling, spinning dance to the music of Motown. There were a few near misses since we don’t get a chance to dance together often, but we quickly fell into sync, twirling around the living room like we’d always been doing this — as usual, I was barefoot. We hadn’t rolled up the rug beforehand as is custom in my parents’ house before the dancing begins and I joked I’d have rugburn on the bottoms of my feet from dancing barefoot, but I didn’t care. In the moments of the dance, I didn’t care about anything else —I couldn’t worry about the fact that I didn’t have a job or any of the other concerns weighing on my mind. Everything else disappeared because I needed to be fully present in the dance – to be led and twirled and dipped. At the end of the dance, there was no worry, no fear, no discontent. All that was left was the exhilaration and overwhelming joy of the experience. That is what I want for my life, for my relationship with God — an exhilarating, overwhelming, joyful experience dancing in the whirlwind.

I don’t want a life divided, I don’t want a life half-lived. I take this moment, on the eve of the Triduum, to say yes. Yes to the unknown. Yes to the possibilities. Yes to the mad, crazy, wonderful dance. I suspect that God will lead me to something beyond my imagination. I say yes.

As we approach the holiest days of the years, perhaps a bit of reflection is in order —what is got calling us to? Are we willing to end the division in our hearts and follow God wholeheartedly?

If we are willing, God will make us ready

It’s been a bit of a dry spell on this blog lately, but then there isn’t always much water in the wilderness. On Palm Sunday, I was fortunate enough to attend services at ”St. Paul’s Newton Highlands for a Passion service with music from JC Superstar (which is one of my personal Lenten traditions). For the vocals, St. Paul’s did a gender and age blind casting which I appreciated and interwove narratives from scripture with the songs from JC Superstar to craft a cohesive passion story. Hearing one of my favourite musicals in the context of a mass brought together two of my loves and made the service that much more meaningful. It was exactly what I needed. The liturgy was punctuated by a refrain from another of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musicals – a modified version of “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that went as follows:

Close every door to me, taunt me and torture me
Bar all the windows and shut out the light.
Do what you must with me, from dust to dust with me,
I’ll stay the course through the day and the night.
If my life were important, I would ask will I live or die,
But that’s not the question, the answer is love.
Close every door to me, throw stones and more at me,
Children of mercy/justice/freedom are never alone.
For we know we shall find, what God has in mind,
For we have been promised that we are God’s own.
-modified by Gretchen Grimshaw

The presentation of the Passion narrative was moving, but it didn’t prepare me for being blown away by Rev’d Gretchen Grimshaw’s sermon. The line that stuck with me most was “If we are willing, God will make us ready.” How many times do we plead unreadiness or unworthiness when responding to Gods call? As a child, I was taught that God answers our prayers in one of three ways: Yes, No, or Not yet. Do we give God the same responses?

I know there have been times when I’ve given God a very loud and resounding “No! Absolutely, positively not!” Have I moved away from that to a response of “Yes, but…”? I feel as though I’m trying to negotiate with God. Is that even possible? I want to be willing, I want to say yes, but I’m scared. I’m scared of what God will ask of me, I’m scare of what I might have to give up. I’m afraid of the unknown and yet at the back of my mind, I believe that saying yes wholeheartedly and accepting God’s invitation is the only way out of the wilderness. Mark’s gospel tells us that the angels were waiting for Jesus at the edge of the wilderness — are there angels waiting for me? Sometimes I think that it is my reluctance —my hesitation— that keeps me in the wilderness. Why should I hesitate to leave the wilderness when I don’t like it here — it’s difficult and I feel I’m approaching my wit’s end. Still, I can’t seem to give God an unconditional yes. I keep trying to arrange things my way. I know that no one except God can guide me out of this wilderness and all I have to do is say yes. But I can’t or I won’t. Though my friends, family, and mentors want to help and might be able to point me in the right direction, it’s up to me to take that step, to take God’s outstretched hand and say, “Yes, I love you, God. I choose you. Yes, I am willing.”

It’s often easier to say yes in the goodtimes. In the wilderness when we feel like Job — drained, spent, exhausted and with nothing left to give — we can find ourselves reluctant to say yes to the unknown because we feel we can’t endure much more. I find myself hesitant to relinquish the few things in my life that still give me security. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I feel I’ve lost so much this Lent that I’m reluctant to risk anything else. Instead of taking that step, taking God’s outstretched hand, I want to just curl up and attempt to comfort myself. It’s a hollow comfort but at times I nonetheless insist on it.

When God holds out that hand, I stammer and sputter, reluctant to take up the offer. All my knowledge and belief in a loving, supportive, and benevolent God flees in the face of fear. I insist on my lack of readiness and my unworthiness, claiming I won’t be able to do what God is asking me despite the fact that I hear God telling me, “I have made you worthy and I will make you ready. All you have to do is say yes.”

I want to say yes, but I’m not ready. My heart yearns for God’s embrace, but I’m dragging my feet. Today I still say “Not yet” and “Yes, but…” My impulsive streak wants to say “Forget it all. Why the hell not?” That isn’t equivalent to an unconditional yes though. There’s a difference in agency, in will. One seems to be an end to resistance, an acceptance of inevitability, almost akin to being an accomplice by association. But God asks us for more. A “yes”, freely and unconditionally given, seems predicated on an act of will and agency —it is a choice and an action. It is not simply a resignation and acceptance of something inevitable, it is choosing and moving towards that direction, towards God. It is the difference between active and passive. I’m not sure if there’s value to the “Why not?” response or if it’s closer or further from a firm “YES” however, I think (and hope) that I’m moving towards that unconditional yes and God’s unfaltering patience with my stubbornness comforts me. I can’t say yes just yet, but I’m inching in that direction, towards the unknown and out of the wilderness. If I am willing, God will make me ready.
-written 2.IV.2012