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Title: Judas’ Last Word
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: 5 April 2023 5.30pm
Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…
Throughout the Christian year, as we follow the calendar of the church from Advent onwards through Christmas, into Lent and then Easter, and onwards into the rest of the year, throughout the year we are used to celebrating saints’ days every so often. Today, on the Wednesday of Holy Week, we do the reverse. We remember – we do not celebrate – a non-saint’s day. For today is Judas’ day – and this day is often known as Spy Wednesday, for it was the day on which Judas struck his deal with the Jewish authorities to receive the infamous thirty pieces of silver in return for betraying Jesus.
And I believe that it is impossible for you and I, as Jesus’ disciples, I believe it impossible for us to work out our last word about the cross – our last word about the death of the Son of God – without us considering the actions of Judas Iscariot. Without us hearing his own last word on the subject.
The Judas story is a sad one, and a complicated one. The sadness is obvious enough, I guess – the complexity harder to deal with. For it is not enough to note that Judas betrays Jesus – surely, we have to ask why he does so. And so we move into the realm of speculation. And the most commonly held theory about Judas’ motive in betraying Jesus is that he was frustrated that Jesus was not being militant enough.
Judas is often portrayed as being the one who wanted to see Jesus make overtly political claims of Messiah-ship. Judas is the one who wanted to see some real action that might signal the end of the ungodly and sacrilegious Roman occupation of the Holy Land by the Romans, and bring in a new era with Jesus as a political Messiah. And perhaps Judas thought that by bringing about a great confrontation between Jesus and the High Priest, all this could and would happen. And if that is what he thought, then he was wrong – so very, very wrong.
And he was wrong, fundamentally, because Judas tried to pack God up into a box no bigger than his own intellect and emotions, with a nice clear label, to be placed on a particular shelf in his mental store-cupboard. Judas tried to make God, and God’s Messiah, an extension of his own desires. He tried to turn the teaching and preaching and ministry of Jesus into a tool for his needs and desires – however worthy these might have been – rather than offering himself freely as a disciple who would follow and serve selflessly wherever and however that might take him.
Judas thought that Judas’ agenda was better than God’s agenda – and he paid the most awful price. A price that echoes down through every generation – after all, what insult is more hurtful that calling someone a Judas?
And today, on Spy Wednesday, we hear again the account of Judas’ betrayal. But before we get too comfortable, gazing down our spiritual noses in distaste at what this man did, we need to work out what we make of his last word, and how it might affect our own last word on the subject.
During the two years that the the Irish writer Oscar Wilde spent in gaol for actions that, thank God, we no longer think of as criminal, there was a particularly black day in the prison, when a murderer was executed one morning. It led Wilde to reflect in a famous poem that
Each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look
Some with a flattering word
The coward does it with a kiss
The brave man with a sword
The account of the last supper which we have just heard tells us of the dreadful story of Judas…. but it tells us the story of ourselves as well. For when Jesus predicts his imminent betrayal, every single one of the Twelve guiltily look around at each other, uncertain of whom he is speaking. And Mark and Matthew flesh this out, reporting that they all ask, Not I, Lord, surely?
So, if those words were spoken, let us never forget that they were not merely a last word for Judas – they were words found on the lips of all of Jesus’ closest friends and followers, all of whom will desert Jesus and flee in terror only hours later. Indeed, as Jesus explains just a few verses further on, even Peter will deny Jesus, and will do so three times before the second cock crow. And the guilty look of betrayal and the guilty words of potential guilt are ours as well, all too often.
For there are times when we want to make God and to make his Christ instruments of our own will and personality. There are times when we want to parcel God up neatly into a box with a particular label on it, constantly forgetting that God is bigger than anything and anyone we can imagine, and that God’s agenda is broader and more wonderful than anything we can imagine.
And we do the same with Jesus. The gospel stories themselves demonstrate clearly to us that there are those who simply want to make Jesus a magician, or a physician, or a teacher, or a preacher, or a friend, or perhaps even a lover. And Jesus is none of these, just as he is none of the things that we try and make him. Jesus’ agenda was and is a bigger agenda than that of the Dean of York, or of anyone else gathered here.
Judas’ last word, that propels him into the terrible darkness of that Thursday night, is a reminder to us that our own last word needs to be big enough and broad enough to allow God to be God and Christ to be Christ, without making them conform to our own devices and desires. And that means, as the writer to the Hebrews understood, that we must run the race God has set before us with perseverance, and that we must look – and look properly and fully – at Jesus, who is none other than the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
For even if our gaze does remain fully focused on Jesus, our own sinfulness will still bring those moments when we nervously wonder if we have betrayed him, for such is human nature. But if we show the perseverance of which the writer to the Hebrews speaks so powerfully, then that Not I, Lord need not be our last word, and we may journey through the darkness of the Thursday night into the dazzling brightness of new life on a Sunday morning. Amen.
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