The Rev. Melanie McCarley
I fancy the originators of the Lectionary must have found themselves in something of a biblical quandary when it came to deciding where to begin today’s Gospel Lesson. In their wisdom they chose to begin at the thirty first verse of chapter thirteen: “At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said…” My guess is, that given the reputation of the disgraced disciple, there might have been some discussion about whether to include him in the reading or not—after all, here we are, in the fifth week of Easter. Who wants a reminder of a traitor when we have the resurrection to celebrate? Shouldn’t Judas be banished to Holy Week, where he belongs? In truth, these scholars and theologians could have begun the lesson with the second half of the verse—it happens all the time. So, this morning, the Gospel could have begun: “Jesus said:…”, thus sparing us any mention of the miscreant Judas. They chose differently; and I cannot help but think that this decision holds within itself a bit of grace for the one who betrayed the Son of God and perhaps, for ourselves as well.
Because…think about it….the primary lesson of the Gospel for today is contained in these words: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So, at once, we are reminded of Judas, who sidled out of the Last Supper with traitorous intentions in his heart and clearly didn’t have love for Jesus; but at the same time, we’re left wondering what obligation we might be under for loving others, as God has loved us—particularly if those “others” might be people of the same ilk Judas. What to do?
There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated that glimmer for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.”
The beloved Christian author, Madeline L’Engle writes: “I heard my son-in-law, Alan, tell this story at a clergy conference. The story moved me deeply. I was even more deeply struck when I discovered that it was a story that offended many of the priests and ministers there.
Should we be surprised that people would be less than charmed at the telling of this tale? From my perspective, speaking in general terms, people, love to have someone to hate, and it’s all the better when there is agreement that the person we dislike is deserving of our contempt. We divide ourselves into different camps all the time—Red Sox fans dislike the Yankees; Conservatives can’t talk to Liberals; Pepsi and Coke drinkers are seriously divided along lines of preference. But here’s something we can all agree on; everyone hates mosquitos—and Judas in turn.
And…why not? He’s deserving of our enmity, isn’t he? He’s earned our disdain? Why not relegate him to the villains of history and be done with him? Well… because we still have the rest of the Gospel lesson to deal with for today, where Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Here’s the thing—context matters. There, in that upper room, knowing he is about to be betrayed, Jesus is speaking directly to the disciples, and, in particular, he’s speaking of their relationship to one another. Oh, they could have reasoned—and perhaps they did--that Judas exempted himself from discipleship—and therefore, of love. They could have decided that what Judas did was simply too horrible to forgive. But then, it seems to me, they would also have to deal (all too soon) with their failure to stand by Jesus at the moment of his crucifixion. So, here’s the question with which we all must grapple—is anyone, truly, beyond the grace of God?
Our faith has a clear answer for this. “No.” And this, I suggest to you, is Good News! Today, at our 10:00 a.m. service, we will baptize Ellis Clark Burns into the Christian faith and life. This morning, he will begin his journey as a Christian. You might wonder what is required of him. Must he come to us with letters of reference, appeals of a good character, a minimum bank account balance, a good credit score, decent grades and unblemished skin? No, no, no, and no. None of this matters: not pedigree, nor wealth, the absence of previous convictions or establishment of permanent residency. None of it. God does not care. And nor, quite frankly, should we. Ellis comes to us simply as a result of his parent’s desire to offer him a life in which he can be assured of the grace of God. Grace, which is offered him at every turn. The most important part of his acceptance into this life comes with the response to these questions: “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Perfection is not what God is looking for in the perfect applicant—simply a desire to love and serve Christ, and a willingness to persevere in resisting evil and a decision to repent and return to the Lord in those all too frequent moments when we fail.
So….what do we do with Judas? Perhaps, in our best moments, we recognize him in ourselves, and we leave the judgement up to God—in the hope of a merciful ending. I think there’s something of the Gospel truth in the story told by Madeline L’Engle’s son-in-law. Our faith tells us that God is filled with mercy and compassion. Perhaps if there’s a surprise about this story about Judas, it’s not that he was thrown into a pit, but why it took him so long to decide to come out. And it raises the question: perhaps….perhaps it is the same with us all. Maybe the real rejoicing in Heaven arrives—not when those who are evil are securely contained in hell—but when all of us eventually respond to the judgement of Christ, which is filled with grace and truth, and make our way to the table that is truly set for all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.