This weekend, we start a new sermon series for Lent and Easter, in which we meditate on the characters who inhabit the Passion and Easter stories. I get to begin with Judas Iscariot.
Miss Duffell was my English teacher. Despite my goody-goody image at school, she was the only teacher I ever wanted to wind up. It wasn’t the way she tipped her cigarette ash into her coffee cup when having a discussion with pupils at break time, it was the fact that she taught English Literature. To my teenage male way of thinking, that was the most useless, irrelevant subject in the curriculum. Especially if you favoured the sciences, as I did.
It was only when I reached adulthood that I saw the worth of all those essays where we had to write character studies of people in the plays we were studying – Bluntschli in ‘Arms and the Man’, Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and so on. When I began to understand the power of the narrative in the Bible, then I started to appreciate the value in appreciating the characters. I learned that we might identify with a person or see ourselves in opposition to them, and through either reaction be caught up more in what the message the author of the story had for us. I might also end up going further than the original author intended, of course!
It’s with that experience in mind that I begin this new sermon series about the people we encounter in the gospel stories of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. If reflecting on a character in a novel or play can have a powerful effect, how much more so when we dwell on those we find in the Holy Spirit-supervised words of Scripture? Especially when we also believe that the same Holy Spirit is here to help us hear, understand, believe and respond.
So this morning I have not given myself an easy task by starting with Judas Iscariot. As with several people in this series, there were several Bible passages I could have picked. But these verses from John 13 get us to the core of what I want to share about him.
The first reference to Judas in this account comes in verse 2:
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
Our first reflection, then, is on Judas and the devil. Nothing like starting with a difficult and contentious theme, then!
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.
Although I know it is difficult for some people to believe in ‘the devil’, I cannot disbelieve in ‘his’ existence, given Jesus’ belief in him. I cannot reduce Jesus merely to a child of his time, however much he constrained himself in the Incarnation. He is still Lord, and what he says, goes. So rejection of the reference to the devil prompting Judas Iscariot is out for me.
But on the other hand, I know too many Christians who make too much of the devil. One Anglican rector friend of mine used to put every mishap and setback down to ‘the devil’, as if by a reflex reaction.
So when we read John’s careful words that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ (my emphasis), let us take particular note of that word ‘prompted’. It is not that the devil made Judas do what he did, but that he had sown thoughts in his head. Judas could then choose what he did about those promptings. Although John clearly portrays demonic activity at work here, human responsibility is still in play. We cannot absolve ourselves of our actions by saying, “The devil made me do it.” Neither could Judas.
We may find ourselves under pressure to sin through persistent temptation. In one respect, we can do nothing about that. It is the lot of all people. Being tempted is not a sin: Jesus was, especially in the wilderness. But in another respect, we sometimes lay ourselves open to those promptings, those temptations. We put ourselves in situations where we know we could be vulnerable to our weaknesses. The devil will exploit that. We deliberately sail close to the wind. The devil will exploit that. Later in this sermon, we’ll see how Judas did precisely that. But for now, let’s simply note that while yes, the devil prompts us with temptation, we still have a responsibility for our actions and we need to do what we can to put ourselves at a distance from circumstances where we know we are weak.
The second reference to Judas comes in the second half of the reading, in the conversation Jesus has with his disciples which begins with him saying,
I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfil this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ (Verse 18)
It continues with Jesus’ troubled admission that one of the Twelve will betray him, and when pressed about who that will be says,
It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. (Verse 26)
So this second reflection is about the astonishing fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with his betrayer.
I have often heard people observe, then, that Jesus even gave the bread to Judas at the meal where he instituted the Lord’s Supper. They then take it that we should not be judgmental (fair enough, in one sense) and that there should be no boundaries at the Lord’s table. However, that last statement is patently incorrect from a biblical point of view. Paul was at pains in 1 Corinthians 11 to remind his readers that self-examination was important before taking the bread and wine. Lax discipline at Holy Communion is not good practice.
I would rather see Jesus’ sharing of table fellowship with Judas this way. My current reading is the memoirs of a man who has written more profound books in recent years on what it means to be a pastor than anyone else I have come across. His name is Eugene Peterson, and he is better known for the popular paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. In his latest book, The Pastor: A Memoir, he talks about how when he began the Presbyterian church in Maryland that he went on to lead for thirty years, his early vision was to gather together a group of visionary Christians who were all passionate for what it really meant to be disciples and to be church in a New Testament sense. Instead, he found himself with a rabble, rather as David did at Ziklag when he was on the run from King Saul.
And I observe that I have seen some friends fall away from faith over the years. Each time, they have been those whom I might consider the least likely. In at least two cases, it was weakness to sexual temptation that began their decline. It reminds me that Paul warned his readers in 1 Corinthians 10 that any of us who believe we are ‘standing’ in faith should beware lest we fall. It could be you. It could be me.
Therefore, when we too come to eat bread with Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Soldiers of Christ, arise’ ‘leave no unguarded place’. Let us not simply be aware of our weaknesses so that we do not put ourselves in places where the devil might prompt us with temptation. Let us also positively ‘put on the full armour of God’, those godly qualities that are the very opposite of sin.
So what was Judas’ particular weakness? We get a hint later in the story, and this is my third reflection on him. After Jesus tells him, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” (verse 27), we read how the disciples misunderstood (verse 28) that statement:
Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (Verse 29)
Anyone who has read John’s Gospel cover to cover rather than in short segments will go back to chapter 12, when Mary anoints Jesus with a pint of expensive nard. There, Judas objected that the perfume would have been better used if it had been sold and the money given to the poor, but John reports that Judas didn’t care about the poor: he looked after the disciples’ common purse and wanted to dip his hands into the cash (John 12:4-6).
Judas’ weakness, then, was money. Here is where he failed to guard himself against the devil’s promptings to temptation. Here is where he thought he could stand in faith, but fell. No wonder his reward from the enemies of Jesus was thirty pieces of silver. That would have attracted him.
When the great contemporary spiritual writer Richard Foster wanted to publish a book about the major sins, is it any accident that he wrote about the ‘big three’? He called his book, Money, Sex and Power. These, he said, were the areas of human life with the greatest power to bless or to curse. Perhaps it is no surprise that monastic orders have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience – in direct contrast to these three great temptations.
And perhaps for some of us the way to avoid our weakness will be by a strategy of avoidance. A friend of mine knows that he is incapable of drinking alcohol in moderation. If he has one drink, he will end up having a lot, and getting drunk. So his strategy is to be teetotal. In doing so, those who choose to avoid weaknesses can also be witnesses to a world that believes you can’t be happy unless you’re smashed out of your mind, sleeping around, buying all the latest consumer goods or climbing the greasy pole at work.
However, avoiding our besetting sins is not always possible. And we can also be good witnesses by facing temptation and avoiding it. That, though, requires not a spiritual gung-ho attitude but prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit and fellowship. And by ‘fellowship’ here, I mean deep Christian relationships where we regularly hold ourselves accountable to one another. It’s exactly what some of John Wesley’s small groups did. They talked each week about which sins they had been struggling with.
There are similar approaches today. We can form ‘accountability groups’. We can do it in other ways, too. One way that people facing the temptation of internet pornography cope with it is to install a program on their computer called Covenant Eyes which reports to a friend the details of every website the person looks at.
Fellowship is more than camaraderie at the Christmas Bazaar. It’s a vital tool in avoiding the trap that snared Judas.
But, of course, all of this is to some extent rather gloomy. Temptation, sin, avoidance. All necessary to consider for Christians, but is there any good news here? I believe there is, and it comes in the fourth and final reflection. Allow me to introduce it with an illustration.
When I was young and suffering bullying at school, my Dad tried to teach me some Judo. He had learned it in the RAF, and had kept his instruction manual. He argued that the virtue of Judo was that it was not itself violent, but you used your opponent’s strength against them in order to win.
In the light of that, consider Jesus’ words at the end of our reading:
Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. (Verse 31)
Isn’t this what is going on here? Even the evil power at work as Judas gives in to his weakness and responds to the devil’s prompting is something God uses against his enemy for good, to win the victory over sin and death. Judas does not have the last word. Jesus does – in the forgiveness of sins through the Cross, and in the new life of the Resurrection.
Yes, here, in the murky, shabby story of Judas God the Father works his Gospel. He does not inflict violence, but he uses the violence and betrayal rendered against his only begotten Son to bring the salvation of the world. It is the truth of which Paul was to write,
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
In ‘all things’, even the treachery of Judas, God works for good. In ‘all things’, even the darkness of Calvary, God works for good.
And in all things today, God still works for good. The friends or acquaintances who betray us – God can turn it for good. The evil that affects us – God can even use that for good, as he uses the enemy’s force against him.
Allow me to conclude with a story. Members of the Church Council have already heard this, so I hope they will excuse hearing it again. Tomorrow, I return to a previous circuit to conduct a funeral. Sid was a proud Welshman – and his pride was not always his most attractive feature. He was married to Rita, an East German Lutheran Christian, whose response to Sid’s fierce Methodism was to vow never to become a Methodist, otherwise Sid would have won, in her words.
When I arrived in the circuit, he had just retired from a career in the Army and then some years in Civvy Street. That army background made him stiff and – yes – regimented. On one occasion when I had prepared an act of all age worship only to find the Junior Church not ready for it and going out after the second hymn, I received a stern lecture!
One thing Sid had never done, despite a lifetime in Methodism, was make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I told him that one day he would have to get off the fence.
Well, one Saturday night he did. Sid and Rita attended a concert by a Christian band and choir. He heard one of the musicians give a testimony, and he suddenly thought, “If it can be true for him, it can be true for me.”
The next morning at church, he took Holy Communion for the first time. The look of joy on his face as he knelt at the rail and looked at me is an image that will remain with me for ever.
In the wake of that commitment, he started to soften. He lightened up. He began to forgive, and to become more humble.
In January, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his health declined fast. Yet during his hospitalisation and treatment, he renewed his commitment to Christ, thanks to the witness of another Christian patient at the hospital.
Tragically, he had become alienated from one of his two daughters a few years ago, due to a terrible misunderstanding in a phone conversation. While he was in hospital, his other daughter said to him, “Dad, if you’re a Christian you’ve got to put things right with my sister.” The daughter in question lived in Germany, and Sid picked up a hospital phone and rang Germany. On his knees he sought reconciliation.
Sid’s suffering and death also led to another reconciliation – between his wife and the next door neighbours. When I visited, one of them was in the house, offering comfort.
The last sentence Sid uttered to his family was this. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but I’m glad I’ve got cancer.”
I don’t know if I could ever say that, but I will say this. That is the testimony of a man who knows that the Judas in his life – in his case, a terminal disease – was something that God was using to overcome evil with good.
For the Judases of this world and the devils do not get the last word. God does.
During our first summer as ministerial students, the college sent us all out on six-week placements in circuits. Because I came from an urban area of London not known for its wealth, I was not exposed to poverty as some students were. Instead of ‘Mission Alongside the Poor’, as a certain church campaign of the time was known, I was sent on what amounted to ‘Mission Alongside the Rich’ in Surrey. (So perhaps it was a good experience for our forthcoming move to that county!)
The church was large, and well-to-do. When I heard what the weekly offerings averaged, they dwarfed my home church.
Until I did some Maths, that is. I realised that in this wealthy church, the average giving per member per week was exactly the same as in my home church. It didn’t seem quite so impressive then.
It was a story that came back to mind this week as I read the account of Mary lavishing her expensive perfume on Jesus.
Imagine you are in the house where the incident happened. The first thing that would strike you would most likely be the aroma. A strong, pervasive smell has a powerful effect upon people.
When I visited the Holy Land on a special trip for theological and ministerial students, we were a mixed bag ecumenically, from free church types to bells and smells. One of our number was an Indian. He was a Syrian Orthodox priest who had been studying in the UK. One evening he took prayers in the chapel at the institute where we were based. Before the service began, the pungent smell of incense from the censers filled the chapel. I found it so overpowering that I couldn’t stay for the service. As a result, a friend dubbed me ‘low church by reason of allergy’!
But other smells greatly appeal to me. Freshly baked bread. Our breadmaker has languished in the garage during our Chelmsford sojourn, but to set it to work overnight and come down in the morning to that aroma was a joy. Maybe in the new house?
I think we are meant to understand the aroma of Mary’s perfume as a beautiful sensory experience in this story. It contrasts with the stench present elsewhere. Firstly, it stands over against the thought of Jesus’ death. He says that
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial (verse 7)
And you can see why it would be a contrast. The beauty of the perfume counters the smell of a corpse as it degrades. Remember that when Jesus brought Mary’s brother Lazarus back to life four days after his death, people were fearful of the smell that would emanate from the tomb. But here, the beauty of Mary’s act symbolically says that death will not end in defeat. Decay will not have the final word.
After all, Mary has only recently had a glimpse of what that might be, through the miracle of her brother’s return to life. In that story we learn that she and her sister already believe in the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the dead at the last judgment, but Jesus tells them he himself is ‘the Resurrection and the Life’, and then they witness him calling Lazarus from his tomb as a foretaste of what is to come. She may not have grasped that Jesus will be raised on the third day after his forthcoming execution any more than any of his disciples had, but she has had this glimpse of the kingdom coming. And the aroma of a perfume that quenches the stench of death is a suitable symbol. For that is what Jesus will bring to all who follow him.
Therefore we his disciples know here – as in so many places – that we need not be dismayed or discouraged by the prospect of death. There is plenty of stench around it for us, as we watch people suffer, or as we hear the taunts of militant atheists. But we have smelt a beautiful perfume – the Resurrection of Jesus – and we face death and suffering differently because of it.
That isn’t the only way in which the beautiful aroma of Mary’s perfume contrasts with a foul smell in the story, however. The miserable words of Judas, in despising her devotion, are words that stink, particularly when we hear what his heart was like when it came to money:
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) (Verses 5-6)
He hides behind a moral reason, but he isn’t going to get his hands on Mary’s cash, because it’s been spent on the perfume. It’s no surprise his loyalty will soon be bought for thirty pieces of silver. The perfume seems to represent the beauty of Mary’s devoted heart, in contrast to the polluted heart of Judas. Its beautiful smell here, then, becomes a warning that it is worth us examining our own hearts for unworthy motives that might grow into disloyalty to Christ. The story calls us to simple, whole-hearted commitment to our Lord.
Then there is the stench of the chief priests, so angry that people are beginning to follow Jesus because he raised Lazarus that at this point they don’t merely plan Jesus’ death, they plan an execution for Lazarus (verses 9-11). Here too are poisoned hearts, experienced religious people whose commitment has been twisted from the kingdom of God to personal empires. Why else would they be worried about desertions to Jesus? It’s like the spiteful comments you hear about different Christians and their churches in some parts of our religious world. Again, the contrast is with a woman who – by virtue of her sex – will not have had the education of these chief priests, yet she can outshine their commitment in one simple, beautiful act. All of which should make us pause to consider what our priorities are.
The second aspect of this story I’d like us to consider is that which strikes us so powerfully apart from the aroma. It’s the extravagance of Mary’s gesture. Her extravagance shocked people then, just as extravagant acts of devotion to Christ shock religious people today.
For example, you have heard me talk about a project I was involved in ten years ago. An Anglican rector I worked with in the last circuit had a vision for celebrating the Millennium. He wanted all the churches in Medway to close and gather together in Gillingham FC’s Priestfield Stadium to worship Jesus. I was one of a number of local church leaders who were willingly co-opted onto the planning group for the project.
From beginning our plans to the date of the event was two and a half years. We held a morning service with an orchestra formed from local Christians and masterminded by a local Salvation Army musician. The late Rob Frost came to preach. We brought a Ugandan gospel choir over to sing (and tour Kent). In the afternoon and evening we planned a concert with leading Christian musicians such as Noel Richards, Ishmael and Phatfish, with Roger Forster as the preacher. In the event, about two and a half thousand people attended that concert, and in the morning six and a half thousand local Christians gathered for worship. Of the ninety churches in the area, over seventy closed their doors that Sunday morning for that united service. A few insisted on keeping their doors open, one at least saying they were doing so ‘in case a visitor turned up’.
The budget was somewhere around two hundred thousand pounds. Fifty thousand pounds of that was for a special covering over the pitch to protect it, which we had to hire from Wembley Stadium. The debt was not cleared by the day of the event – that took the best part of a further year.
Some scoffed at this enterprise, and some of the reasons given – apart from the church that wanted to stay open for the mythical visitor – were rather like Judas Iscariot’s protests about giving money to the poor. But my rector friend kept coming back to this story: sometimes it is simply the right thing to make an extravagant act of devotion to Jesus Christ as a sign of our love for him. It is one aspect of loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
We do not stint from showing extravagant love to other human beings on certain occasions. I was utterly moved by the gifts and special things arranged by Debbie and my children for my recent fiftieth birthday. In one respect they really didn’t need to do it, and I would certainly have been happy with less than what they did. Yet somehow the fact that they went to such expense and effort was a touching sign of their love. Might something a little bit similar be true of our relationship with God?
Maybe part of the problem is that extravagant giving and devotion challenges us. The other day, I was reading another minister’s blog. She was reflecting on this passage, and included a powerful story. She told of a grumpy missionary surgeon who was invited to lunch by a lady on whom he had operated. The woman and her husband were poor. They owned an angora rabbit and two chickens. The woman combed the rabbit for hair and span it to sell for income, and their diet was the eggs from the two chickens. What went in the pot for the meal? The rabbit and the two chickens. Truly a ‘widow’s mite’ story, and also one of extravagant love, just as Mary spent a year’s income on the perfume (verse 5).
And I think the reason these examples are challenges to us is that they make us feel uncomfortable about our own grudging love for Jesus Christ. How many times have I heard people with an amazing testimony to God’s forgiving and transforming grace be dismissed as nutters or patronised as immature by other Christians? Too often, I’m afraid. Is Judas alive and kicking in some church circles? I fear he is.
What’s the difference between extravagant Mary and her detractors? Mary has not lost her simple, passionate devotion to Jesus who will die for her and be raised from the dead for her. Judas may well have started out with a commitment to following Jesus, but he found other things more attractive – money, for one. The chief priests have become devoted to religion and the institution, much in the same way that many of us become caught up with maintaining a building.
All of which amounts to a warning for many of us. Mary’s despisers were consumed with the very things that dominate our thinking at Church Councils and the like – finances and institutional matters. But Mary kept the main thing the main thing. For her, faith and live were about unswerving devotion to Jesus. May that be true of us, also.