Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on May 24 2009.
Acts 11:15-17, 21-26.
You realize a life has been tragically misspent when a hangman’s noose and a fistful of coins are the icons for how one is remembered. Judas Iscariot, the pariah of the New Testament, was the disciple who strayed from his commitment to the handpicked band of brothers to follow Jesus. Acting as the agent of the Jewish Temple, he sold out his leader with a kiss. And for two thousand years we’ve wondered, how could this happen? A member of the inner circle, Judas’ disloyalty led directly to Jesus’ arrest, a spurious trial in the wee hours of the night, his brutal beating, and his death on a torturous Roman cross.
The lesson of his story haunts us every time we write off our own little betrayals pretending they don’t really hurt anyone. In those weak moments of character perhaps we remember Judas as the example of how what we say and do can matter to the hurt of another … and with that, we shudder to think we too may have a heart of darkness with the same capability to inexplicably betray the Lord. But for some of us, we have so demonized him we see Judas as beyond God’s willingness to forgive. “There must be a limit to grace,” we reason, and if there is, then Judas is the one surely beyond reconciliation.
When we think that, we are guilty of cooking the books of our own little betrayals, not recognizing them as disloyalties coming from the same nature to that of Judas. “Deny you? I will never deny you,” we say echoing the false bravado of Peter later that same evening. Judas sold Jesus out with a kiss in the garden and Peter denied three times he was one of his disciples or that he even knew him. The rest of them simply fled when the authorities took Jesus prisoner. In the end, they were all cowards. Can we honestly say we’re any different from them?
Nevertheless, the question haunts us. How could he do it? How could someone who lived the life with Jesus, someone who was there for all the miracles described in the gospels, someone who heard Jesus teach about the radical “kingdom of God,” someone that walked with Jesus and talked with him on a daily, intimate basis … how could someone that close to the fire turn on Jesus in such an coldhearted manner?
The Scriptures, written decades later turned its back on him and so we’re given the hints of his character well in advance of the actual deed. The hints about Judas are tossed out as a paper trail branding him as one whose character was tilted toward his own good. As the keeper of the common purse, we’re told he occasionally dipped into those funds for his own desires. Even his name, Iscariot, has been translated as “man of lies.” The shadows of his crimes hang over the story as it’s being told and we know the outcome before the event itself.
Curiously, when called by Jesus to follow him, we’re not given his story of how Jesus invited him to join the group. He appears on the list of disciples as one of the called and was given charge over the purse. On one occasion, Judas was openly peeved at the woman who poured the expensive vial of perfume on Jesus’ head complaining that it was wasteful and the proceeds could have been sold and given to the poor. At that point, the Bible tells us coldly that Judas’ concern for the plight of the poor was just a cold-hearted cover for he was known to pilfer the money on occasion for his own need. So throughout the telling of the early days of Jesus’ ministry, Judas’ character was exposed piece by piece in anticipation of the final few chapters that described Jesus’ death at Roman hands.
The church through the years has faced this same issue anytime a member of the inner circle falls away from the faith in some inexplicable twist of fate leaves the church and steps away. When their failure comes to light, once again we are forced to ask the hard questions and wonder why they left the mission we’re all called to support.
The church has endured the losses over the centuries as well as celebrating its victories. Let me state the obvious … sometimes today’s leaders are tomorrow’s dropouts. We all know the score on this; the disappointment of Judas’ failure has been replicated in each generation. Someone can be a committed follower of Jesus in one season but for one reason or another they don’t last. They fall by the wayside and the church watches painfully as they stumble and leave.
Some get tired and can’t we all agree that church work is often too many meetings, too much talk and not enough action, too much judgment, too little real love, too much shame and guilt and not enough human redemption to go around. And some simply decide to get off the merry-go-round that spins round and round but doesn’t actually go anywhere. So they leave and a gap exists where they once stood.
The church must determine how it will respond. Will someone step forward in his or her place? Will some new leader emerge simply because a need exists and they feel a divine tap on their shoulder indicating this job is theirs to fill.
After the Ascension, Peter gathered the remaining disciples after Judas’ death for a called meeting. For some reason, probably because of the significance of the number twelve for the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel during the Messianic Age, Peter puts forward the idea that an apostle must be chosen to fill Judas’ place. Peter also puts forward the requirements: One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us (Acts 1:21-22).
Two eligible witnesses were nominated, Justus and Matthias. They cast lots, which most commentators agree was not a vote, but the old-fashioned method of letting God choose by putting two stones representing the candidates in a basket and shaking the basket until one of them, the one God chose, fell out. Thus, Matthias was chosen. Chosen by God … chosen by the stones … chosen by whatever name we might call it, Matthias stepped forward and completed the Apostles’ band and the movement continued. Despite that choosing, the sting of Judas’ betrayal haunted the church as a cautionary reminder that any one of us is capable of such disloyalty.
Judas sealed the betrayal with a kiss in the garden. It was the simplest of signals and the means by which the soldiers knew who to arrest. That, in essence, was what Judas was paid to do, simply to tip off the authorities in the darkness whom it was they were seeking. All Judas had to do was to slink off into the darkness after having completed his end of the agreement. But that wasn’t what he did.
The gospels give different accounts of what it was he did. I think it’s obvious he tried to undo that which he had done. But some things cannot be undone no matter how much one wants to undo them. Like toothpaste squeezed out of the tube, some things can’t be reversed no matter what. Like the smell of burnt popcorn, once something has been set in motion and done, there’s no going back. That he committed suicide doesn’t seem to be in question. Why he did it is not even the mystery in this case as it is in most cases when someone takes his or her life. But there’s a tradition in the early church that his suicide was not based on despair, but on hope.
The rationale was built upon the notion that if God was just, then he knew for certain where he would be heading as soon as his last breath was stilled. If God was merciful, however, he knew there was no question that Jesus would be down there too in a last-ditch effort to save the souls of the damned as God’s reconciling son. Maybe in Judas’ heart-broken mind, Hell might be his only hope of making Heaven. How else to get there as quickly as possible than to tie a rope around his neck and launch himself into God’s mercy?
Anyway, as Fred Buechner writes in description of it: “It’s a scene to conjure with. Once again they met in the shadows, the two old friends, both of them a little worse for wear after all that had happened, only this time it was Jesus who was the one to give the kiss, and this time it wasn’t the kiss of death that was given.”
Such is the width and length and breadth of God’s reconciling love … wide enough for Judas … wide enough for you and me.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).