Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts
‘The Place where we are Right’, by Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
As we journey through Holy Week together, we have been considering the title: The Kingdom is Now: Fear and the unlived life, and using the Gospel passages set for this week to consider how fear can stop us living the life God intends for us.
Today, we are faced with the prospect of betrayal. Although Judas has no speaking part in the passage we’re about to hear, he is the focus of this day traditionally known as ‘Spy Wednesday’.
So this evening I’d like us to consider ‘Fear of love’. The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch asserts that ‘love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.’ We can, on the whole, rely on ourselves – and even if not, there is a familiarity with our own feelings and actions. But to love another, and to allow ourselves to be loved by another, is properly, profoundly risky; an acknowledgement that there are feelings, longings, actions that are entirely beyond our control and wholly – sometimes appallingly – real.
With this in mind, here is John 13, verses 21-32:
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.
Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
All four Gospels contain some account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but they differ in their consideration of his motive. John, as we’ve just heard, and Luke suggest he was possessed by Satan; Satan, the adversary, the dark within us that compels us to act contrary to our God-given purpose.
Matthew states he did it in exchange for money; although it seems unlikely to me that this was the sole reason, not least because what we’re told he was paid was a relatively paltry sum, we would be wise not to underestimate the power of greed, the desire for more, and the false sense of control that money can give us, albeit temporarily.
Mark – the earliest Gospel – doesn’t give a motive at all, which feels to me like it might be the most honest account: often we don’t know, or fully understand, why we betray one another.
But what we do know is that we can only be betrayed by those we love and trust. When we’ve shared our deepest self with another, benign let-down turns into betrayal. I read recently that, of all the reported physical and sexual abuse, more than 60% of cases were committed by a partner or family member. Intimacy and betrayal are closely linked, and the story of Judas is a puzzling, sobering, and terrifying demonstration of this. He was a loved and trusted disciple, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus believed in him, chose him deliberately, saw all his gifts and potential. He, like the other disciples, was ready to sacrifice everything for the bigger vision; he rose up, left everything, and followed Jesus for three years.
It must have been an extremely close, familial group: they would have known one another’s foibles, strengths, vulnerabilities. And yet, in the account we just heard, no one seems to have suspected Judas was the betrayer. They knew and loved him, too. Instead, each of them, in a kind of panic, suspected himself. Life can be perilous, and we can feel so frail; surely we, too, can sometimes whisper, ‘Lord, is it I?’ Before we condemn Judas, let us have the courage to look into our own hearts, our own experience of betrayals committed, and received, and acknowledge how risky it can feel to love.
Here is a poem which I think captures the delight but also the agonizing fear of love. ‘Colours’, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko:
When your face
appeared over my crumpled life
at first I understood
only the poverty of what I have.
Then its particular light on woods, on rivers, on the sea,
became my beginning in the coloured world
in which I had not yet had my beginning.
I am so frightened, I am so frightened,
of the unexpected sunrise finishing,
and tears and the excitement finishing.
I don’t fight it, my love is this fear,
I nourish it who can nourish nothing,
love’s slipshod watchman.
Fear hems me in.
I am conscious that these minutes are short
and that the colours in my eyes will vanish
when your face sets.
Why was Judas afraid of love? Because we all are, however we might long for it, seek it, fantasize about it. Because it’s risky. Because it means we depend upon something which is outside our self, and therefore beyond our control. Judas feared that this Jesus manifesto based entirely on love was going nowhere, other than the gallows. He feared that Jesus’ compelling love was not going to be enough to save him, to save them. He feared that his love for this man would result in disaster. So perhaps he pulled himself together, made a clinical decision, ignored his heart, and sold out.
I believe it was this fear of love that destroyed Judas eventually – betrayal was merely the terrible outworking of his fear. Fear of being let down; fear of it all coming to nothing; fear of being loved less than he hoped; fear of what the future seemed to hold for his beloved Jesus and his brothers. Fear stops love dead in its tracks.
How devastatingly appropriate, then, that this betrayal comes in the form of a kiss, enacted by an expression of love. The kiss of death for himself and his Lord; the kiss of life for the rest of humanity.
And yet, and yet… Judas’ heartbreak on realizing what he’d done shows that love, however denied, however perverted, however betrayed, does not simply disappear. The despair and agony he felt shows the depth of his character, and his love. And in that, there is hope. Judas’ fear might have got the better of him initially, but nothing could destroy the love that, if we will acknowledge it, casts out all fear. We will hear tomorrow that ‘having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’. Fear, betrayal, even death does not eradicate the eternal, unconditional love of Jesus.
If this can be so for Judas, it can be so for you, and for me.
To end, a poem, ‘The Ballad of the Judas Tree’, by Ruth Etchells:
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified.
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair.
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm;
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept.
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept.
In three days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemn him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.