Easter 7 (after Ascension) Sermon

24 May 2009 09:30 Eucharist

I imagine I am not alone among ministers in having from time to time encountered souls who, having done something they consider with hindsight to be particularly wrong, have begun to wonder whether they have placed themselves beyond the forgiveness of God - whether, in fact, they have committed what is sometimes referred to as "the unforgivable sin". The very act of asking that question, for me, proves that they have not! But the question they raise has a very serious point - is there was any crime or sin that was so awful that it put one beyond the hope of redemption or forgiveness. Could we ever, for example, envisage the possibility of Adolf Hitler being forgiven and redeemed?
I begin there because as I read the readings for today I was struck by one sentence in our gospel for today:
I guarded them, and not one of them was lost, except the one destined to be lost, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
Judas is one of the most enigmatic characters in the New Testament. One recognises, of course, in his portrayal, elements of scapegoating and also the suggestion, as here, that there was an inevitability about what he did. And yet we must always remember that he was chosen from among the wider group of followers of Jesus to be one of the inner twelve. He was, according to John, the treasurer of the group and Eastern sources indicate that he once stood far higher in the list of the disciples of Jesus. Jesus certainly must have seen possibilities of nobility and great usefulness in him. (Which quite irrelevantly reminds me of the Management appraisal of the Twelve I once saw which suggested that Judas was the only one possessing outstanding management potential - a dead cert winner of The ApprenticeThe Apprentice is a BBC programme in which Sir Alan Sugar fires candidates successively until one of two left is hired: the format taken from Donald Trump's programme in the USA in fact.).
And yet he betrayed his master to his enemies! Why? I suggested a possible reason for that in the sermon I preached on the Wednesday morning in Holy Week. What I suggested then was that Judas became increasingly frustrated by Jesus' actions. That Judas was one of a group of the followers of Jesus who saw him as a political Messiah figure, one who would, in the words of one the two men on the Emmaus road on the evening of the first Easter Day, be "the one who would set Israel free". That is, the one who would lead his followers to rise up and drive the hated Roman rulers from Palestine. In handing Jesus over to his enemies Judas was hoping to force his hand and make him act.
But it didn't happen like that - and hence possibly the despair and suicide of Judas. The Church had to grapple with the problems his failure left, and hence the decision to fill his place, with Matthias being chosen by drawing of lots after prayer, as we heard in today's reading from Acts. But note in that account that the apostles made the decision to replace Judas after reading the Scriptures and finding the verses from Psalms 69 and 108:
Let his habitation be desolate,
And let there be no one to live in it.
His office let another take.
The early Apostles had no other Scriptures apart from the Old Testament, and they clearly read those Scriptures in the light of their experience of Jesus - finding passages that "spoke" to them of what had happened to Jesus. As they reflected on the story of Jesus these Old Testament passages at times influenced , even shaped, the way they told the story of Jesus (as, for instance the great use made of Psalm 22 in the account of the Crucifixion of Jesus). And so it was that when thinking about Judas they turned to passages such as Ps 41:9, which speaks of someone being betrayed by his bosom friend. And so they came to believe that what Judas had done had been predicted by Scripture.
In a sense once the early Church had decided that all that had happened to Jesus must have been "according to the Scriptures", then there was an inevitability about those conclusions.
But for us, who see the story of Jesus in a different light, and who do not understand the relationship between that story and the Old Testament in the way that they did, this must pose serious questions. We cannot believe, I hope, that Judas was chosen by Jesus just as a pawn to bring about the fulfilment of an Old Testament passage! Nor do we have to believe that the choices Judas made were ones he inevitably had to make. For if we did see things like that, then there would be point to the charge implied in the words of the poem Judas Iscariot by Stephen Spender, where Judas asks:
Betrayed whom? Who had foreseen
All from the first? Who read
In his mind's light from the first day
That the kingdom of heaven on earth must always
Reiterate the garden of Eden,
And each day's revolution be betrayed
Within man's heart each day?
Who wrapped
The whispering serpent round the tree
And hung between the leaves the glittering purse
And trapped the fangs with God-appointed poison?
Who knew
I must betray the truth, and made the lie
Betray its truth in me?
If we believe that all things have been destined by God - and that Judas must do his deed so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, if we believe that, then I think God has a case to answer! There are some Christians who do see things like that - but I cannot; I will not!
Rather, if we believe that human beings are, to a large degree at least, free agents, then Judas made the choices he did without his being predestined to make them.
But make those choices he did - and I have tried to suggest a possible scenario within which Judas was acting out of a mistaken belief in Jesus as a particular kind of Messiah - far more political than religious - and desperately trying to make his hopes happen. And in doing that Judas was very definitely fully responsible for the choices he made, and for the consequences of them (unforeseen by him at the time of making them). We, too, all make wrong choices and do wrong things, maybe in a moment of madness- and are responsible for the consequences of them and must live with them. Consequences that affect our whole future, or maybe, the whole life of our family for the future, or the lives of other individuals; or, in the case of Hitler, with whom I began, the destruction of millions of human beings in the gas chambers and the plunging of the world into six years of turmoil and suffering.
Is it possible that Hitler could be redeemed? That, fortunately, is not a question that I am called upon to answer! All I will say is that it may be possible to make so many choices for evil that ultimately it becomes impossible to recognise good and respond to it. That is a terrifying possibility, which I pray will be the fate of few - but we cannot rule it out. But for Judas? I tried to suggest a scenario in which Judas acted not from pure evil but from a mistaken understanding of who Jesus was and with wrong expectations of him. Might we not find it possible, in the words David quoted on Easter morning from Edwin Muir's poem The Transfiguration (I had lent him the book with it in during Holy Week), might we not find it possible to envisage at least the possibility of Judas being redeemed?. In that poem Muir envisages that the grief, death, failure and betrayal that Good Friday represents will be undone:
...In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled -
Glad to be so - and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother's knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.
That must be a possibility and a hope. For I believe deep down, as Scripture affirms in many places, that God is not justice or vengeance, but Love - and that in the end that love will conquer all things.

Rev. Gordon Plumb (web page by Adrian Worsfold)