Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wednesday after 1 Lent

February 20, 2013

St. Mark's Lutheran Church

Luke 21.34-22.6

+ As some of you know, I am huge film buff. I watch some very bizarre films occasionally. But a film that I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with, is the film The Last Temptation of Christ. Some of you might have remembered when it came out in 1988—25 years ago.  It was a very controversial film. There were protests by people who never actually saw the film. There were debates about its merits.  Everybody was talking about it at the time.
It was directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the great living film directors. And it was based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the great Greek novelist who also wrote Zorba the Greek.

The book and film are controversial for the fact that, while on the cross, Jesus is tempted by a very angelic, sweet looking Satan. It is a story of “what could’ve been.” What could’ve happened if Jesus came down off the cross, which he could’ve done at any time in those three hours he was nailed there. What would’ve happened? How would his life have been difference? How would our lives be different?

Of course, the film explores coming down off the cross, getting married, having children, dying an old man, while Christianity still goes on. But probably the most interesting relationship, for me anyway, is that between Judas and Jesus.

In this story, Judas is conniving, yes. Judas betrays Jesus, yes. But Judas, played by none other than Harvey Keitel in the film, is not the person we have made him into in our popular understanding of Judas. In The Last Temptation, he becomes almost a hero. He only betrays Jesus because Jesus commands him to betray him. In fact, when Jesus actually does that commanding, Judas demands from Jesus whether he would do it if he were Judas’ place.

Jesus replies, "No, I couldn’t. That’s why God gave me the easier job [dying on the cross]."
We find ourselves sympathizing with Judas in a way none of us probably have before.

The point of all of this is actually quite simple: Judas is essential to the story of the cross. Without Judas, there would have been no opportunity for Jesus to die as he did.
Now, whether we agree with Kazantzakis’ interpretation of these events, Judas is important to the life (and death of Jesus), and for us as well. I think the reason we all find Judas to be so compelling when we hear about Jesus’ betrayal and death is that I think we see a bit of ourselves in Judas. As quickly as we say, no, I would never have done that,  Judas himself, in our place, would’ve said the same thing.

The fact is, we, like Judas, betray Jesus all the time. We betray him whenever we act in an unChristlike manner. When we no longer embody Christ, when we act arrogant, and self-centered, when we nag and try to control things, when we coerce and try to get our own ways, we are acting like Judas , and we are betraying Jesus. We are hindering  Christ’s Kingdom in our midst.  And we’re all guilty of this.

I certainly have been guilty of this in my life. And because I have, I have found myself not only relating to Judas, but, dare I say, sympathizing with him?

But whenever this might happen, whenever we do find ourselves acting like Judas, whenever we do find ourselves acting in such a unChristlike manner, we do have the ability to do something Judas obviously did not.

Judas responded to his betrayal with despair. He went off and hung himself. We don’t have to do that. For us, as Christians, that isn’t an option. Despair is not an option for us who follow Jesus, even if we have betrayed him some awful way. We know, full well, that, even despite our betrayals, Jesus still loves and will forgive us.

Judas, overcome by the Devil, as we hear in tonight’s Gospel reading, simply refuses to believe that. For him, he has betrayed Jesus and Jesus now is dead, or about to died, depending on when in the chronology of events Judas actually hangs himself.  There is, for Judas in that moment at the tree, no opportunity for reconciliation. The love of Jesus seems, to Judas, as dead as Jesus seems dead.

But even then, the story does not necessarily have to end on this dark note. No story regarding Jesus ends on a dark note.

As some of you know, certainly those who attend the Holy Saturday service at St. Stephen’s during Holy Week, know that one of my favorite topics to preach on and ponder in my own spiritual life is the so-called Harrowing of Hell, or we probably know it better, the belief that Jesus descended to hell. This descent to hell is referenced in 1 Peter 3:19–20 and we, of course, profess it in the Apostle’s Creed. Many early theologians of the church certainly believed in it and even Martin Luther, in 1533 at Torgau, preached a sermon about Jesus’ descent to hell.

Gary Wills, a contemporary Roman Catholic New Testament theologian, once wrote about his belief that as Christ descend into hell, the first person he met—and no doubt forgave—was none other than Judas himself.

I love that scenerio. I love it because, as someone who has been in the place of Judas, I want to know that, even though I have betrayed Jesus, even though I have turned away from him, even though I have given him the kiss that betrays him to those who will harm him, no matter where I go, no matter to what depths of hell that betrayal will send me, even there, he will come to me and find me and forgive me and welcome me.

I think without that final note of forgiveness, the story of Judas is not finished. His hanging from a tree, his burial in the potter’s field his silver helped to buy, is not the end of the Judas story. The end of the Judas story is that moment when he is embraced by Jesus and forgiven. And in that moment, the Judas story truly becomes our story as well.

There is no simple black and white in any of our lives. None of us are purely and fully bad, nor are any of us purely and fully good.

It is easy for us to demonize Judas. It is easy to imagine the end of his story hanging from that tree.  But that is not seeing with the eyes of Jesus. Seeing with the eyes of Jesus means, seeing that final moment, that final reunion in that dark place to which Jesus descends. Seeing with the eyes of Jesus means going even there and seeing redemption.
That, I think, is a great message for this Lenten season. No matter where we are, no matter to what ends of despair we might find ourselves, even there, Jesus will find us and embrace and lead us back.  
I’m going to close tonight with a poem. I don’t normally like to inflict poetry on people. Luckily it’s not one of my own poems, so…it won’t be so bad. This poem comes from one of my all-time favorite contemporary American poets—a poet who actually lived here in Fargo very briefly for two or three summers in the 1960s, while he taught at Moorhead State.

His name is James Wright. He died in 1980. Truly one of our best American poets. And he wrote a poem about Judas that, I think, sums up our thoughts on Judas very nicely:

Saint Judas

by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.


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