Judas, Easter life, and your place here

7th Sunday of Easter (17May15)

John17:6-19; Acts1:15-26; 1John5:9-13

Near the end of this Easter season of resurrection life and new beginnings, we drag back into the midst death and destruction and tragic endings.

Maybe it takes this long to be up for it. On Easter Sunday everything is bright, golden celebration (if not totally erasing death’s confusions). As the season progresses, dwelling deeper in newness of life, living into it, we can risk asking with Thomas about scars and lingering nail wounds, and how Jesus is made known in breaking the bread, and about those who aren’t part of this flock, and what we should be doing to stay connected to Jesus in the meantime.

With all of that, with seven weeks of Easter under our belts, we can finally muster the courage to be able to consider the worst, to look back to the night in which Jesus was betrayed, at last now to confront Judas and to ask who is excluded, left out, condemned, who doesn’t receive the good news of Easter.

After all, Judas comes up in two of our readings today. And, even though the lectionary for our 1st reading would’ve skipped the hardest verses, and the very point of the reading was to exclude him from the group of believers, still we need to understand the vital question of how he fits in.

In the gospel, Jesus refers to Judas as “the one destined to be lost.” A more direct translation would be as “the son of destruction” or might be paraphrased for us as “the biggest loser.” As the son of death, Judas there might be contrasted with Jesus the Son of God.

Yet for all of his infamy, the guy isn’t really a major character in the story. During Jesus’ life, Judas was just in the mix with the other 12 disciples. And after Good Friday he’s mostly not in the picture anymore.

But that disappearance presents a hard question for us as we gather here. While we may not place ourselves exactly in the same camp as Judas, at some point we have to ask: if he could blow it and get himself excluded or damned, eternally separated from God’s goodness, destined for destruction, well what would it take to lose our place? Just how much unlike Judas are we?

For that, we may ask what makes Judas so bad, what corrupted him. Maybe he betrayed Jesus because he wanted the 30 pieces of silver, he was greedy. Or it may be he didn’t agree with everything Jesus was doing. (Judas was critical of Jesus’ ministry once and it’s often assumed that he wanted Jesus to be a mighty military messiah.) Evaluating ourselves by those standards, we can indeed be greedy and make poor choices for really a trifling amount of gain. We also turn away from Jesus’ mission and want power and dig in our heels when things don’t go our way.

There’s one other description of why Judas betrayed Jesus: the devil made him do it. To me, that’s more terrifying because it’s so helpless. It isn’t about willpower or making wise decisions, but is entirely out of our control. We can fail hugely and suffer the consequences just because we get trapped in evil. We’re captive to sin. We’ll return to the question of how permanent that trap is, how much our wrongs imprison us or separate us from Jesus.

To continue with the story, though, Judas agrees to betray Jesus, and does it with a kiss. That alone could fill a sermon, on how our affection is warped and perverted to accomplish the opposite of love, how we can be two-faced, how when we get the closest is when we can do the most damage.

After that kiss, Judas mostly disappears. When Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas repents and tries to return the silver. Of course, they don’t want to take it back. So Matthew says Judas goes and hangs himself.

Acts instead has this peculiar story of Judas using the money to buy a field and tripping and having his guts burst out. The ugly scene portrays a sense that our problems are visited back on us, with a further notion that the curse spreads, to those around us and even infects the land. That’s probably both fair and nasty.

That there are these two different stories of Judas’ death I believe means the Bible writers were trying to deal with this hard subject in all of its disappointing awkwardness, trying to come up with explanations: Would his friends and fellow followers of Jesus have ever been able to welcome Judas back after he handed over to death their teacher and our Lord? If he wasn’t part of the community any more, what would’ve become of him? Would he have found a different leader to follow? Would he have lived out his days lonely and sorrowful? Did he suffer more directly for the wrongs he perpetrated?

Christian history has inflated this to ghastly proportions, degrading Judas to be the worst person who ever lived, worthy of punishment only secondary to the devil. In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is in the lowest pit of hell, suffering the fate of being eternally clawed at and gnawed at by the devil’s sharp teeth, stuck headfirst in one slobbering, painful mouth of the grand demon. That image is literally being trapped in sin forever, without escape and no end in sight.

Not only does that raise bleak prospects for considering our own sins and failings and associations with evil. It’s also a pretty miserable destiny for one who, we’d have to admit, brought to completion the story of salvation. After all, without Judas, would Jesus have been arrested? And without that, then no crucifixion, and no resurrection! Without Judas doing wrong, Jesus cannot overcome wrong. Without the sin, would there be forgiveness?

That’s not to praise Judas, but to recognize first that he isn’t simply excluded from our story. He’s not like Voldemort as he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter. He’s not like Haman, the villain in the book of Esther, whose name is shouted over and drowned out whenever that book is read in Jewish assemblies. Even if the Bible writers tried to write him off, Judas remains part of our story, and in that way part of our community. Even if we’re not ready to confront it, still Judas shows up weekly as part of our gathering in the reminder of the words “On the night in which he was betrayed…” a meal which, after all, was given to Judas and is given to us precisely for the forgiveness of sins.

That also reminds us God can work wonderful things out of our worst actions. Certainly we label current events that hopeful way: that sin or tragedy may yet be turned to something good, that a benefit may even come through death.

Much more, though, here you know your existence is centered by a God in Jesus who brings new life out of death, who confronts sin with forgiveness, who reciprocates to the kiss of betrayal with a kiss of peace. To all that would threaten to exclude you from community and dismember you from this body, Christ Jesus re-members you into being here.

So this isn’t just a hypothetical question for Judas, of whether God could possibly forgive him or if he irreparably destroyed his place among the church crowd. No, this is a word for you. A word of forgiveness, of restoration, of remembering, of bringing you into new life, even if it means restoring ruptured pieces from the old life.

That association with Judas is important for us, vital for us to recognize. See, we often picture ourselves as the do-gooders, as those trying to do the right thing, as so helpful. Flip through our hymnal and the words pile up about how we feed the hungry or care for the distressed, about how we bring light to dark places.

But this is even more important for the other side. This is a word for when you know you’ve done wrong, when you’re the one needing help, when you’re not good enough, when you’re in the dark (which, after all, is at too many points in life and at its end). It’s for when you can’t be or aren’t part of this assembly, when you’re excluded from church. It’s a word for when you’re lonely and feeling abandoned and in danger, when things just won’t go right, when you’re in what sure feels like hell and that damned Satan is gnawing on you.

Here is this vitally essential word for you once again: there is no curse, no wrong that can separate you from the love of God, from the blessing and life of Jesus our Lord. Our faith proclaims that Jesus has toppled the gates of hell. In these very words I proclaim to you, he has freed you from the shackles of your sin and throws away the key. He fills your dead lungs with the Spirit of new life.

In one fun mark of the reversal that you yourself will proclaim, instead of guts bursting out as a sign of punishment, notice that in our hymn we’ll be singing that is “shouts of holy joy [that] outburst.” That’s the only way for it to be. After all, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done (ELW #366)

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What’s to prevent you being part of this story?

5th Sunday of Easter (3May15) Acts8:26-40; 1John4:7-21 John15:1-8

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian official is lively and helpful, but with it, it may be helpful to do a little travelogue, a trip through the book of Acts with a view of the countryside and surroundings.

1

Acts is part 2 of the Gospel of Luke. They’re written by the same author and have similar themes and all. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus. Acts is the next part of the story. Although we call it the Acts of the Apostles and tend to focus on the human characters, the real story and main character in Acts is the Holy Spirit.

2

As the story picks up in the 1st chapter, Jesus is just about to exit the picture. (I love images of the Ascension, which show him exiting and only his feet sticking down.) Jesus is handing off the reins, saying that his followers will share the good news. They’ve been hiding out in Jerusalem since Good Friday and Easter, afraid to take a next step or say peep, but Jesus says that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem and on to the surrounding regions called Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. 3We’ll be coming back more to the “ends of the earth” later on.

For now, it’s interesting to note that Jesus has sent them, has commissioned them, has committed them to spread the news far and wide, so they whole-heartedly decide to hunker back down.

Instead of getting to work, they hold a committee meeting, with the sole purpose of selecting a new member of the committee.

4God forbid they’d share the work among the whole crowd of 120 men and women who were there together. No! They just want to fill one single spot vacated by Judas (who, it says in the story, had used the money he got for betraying Jesus to buy a field and tripped in the field and his guts burst out. Another version says he hanged himself. Thus this weird picture).

5At any rate, Judas isn’t amid the crowd of witnesses eager to talk about Jesus, so they want to fill his place and get their core group back to 12 members.

They have a nice hiring process, with a list of qualifications, a narrowed field of eligible applicants, a good prayer.

6Then, to top it off and make certain they’re doing it right, they cast lots, drawing a name out of the hat.

With all of that careful discernment and pious consideration for getting that 12th disciple into his role, the guy goes on never to be mentioned ever again. Because we turn the page.

7Chapter 1 ends, and chapter 2 of Acts tears off immediately in a new direction, letting us know it wasn’t about keeping an original team of 12.

8Instead, on Pentecost, here comes the Holy Spirit, to blow open those shut doors, and to open those shut mouths, and suddenly instead of 12, the ranks are filled with 3000 witnesses added in one day. That continues to expand exponentially, by leaps and bounds in the coming weeks.

But growth also has uncomfortable downsides.

9The crowds create new problems. See, in this early church as we heard a couple weeks ago, sharing was super important. That was a prime mark of what it meant to be a Christian, to give and receive as any had need. But that’s more difficult with big groups, as we’re also aware in society’s work of caring for those in need. It’s not so simple as sharing the bag of potato chips or tearing your sandwich in half.

10In this case, some people missed out. The only criterion was supposed to be having need, but we also tag on other emotion-filled qualifiers, labeling some as lazy, not meeting the requirements, as cheating the system, abusing the safety net, squandering their resources on other things, as drug addicts, as being too different, not speaking the same language.

You’ll notice just as our society still holds obstructive prejudices, so also then, some of the widows weren’t getting their food. 11The central 12 disciples again enter the picture. Like any good leaders are apt to do when a problem is identified, they listen, carefully weigh possible solutions, and then pass the buck. They say, “don’t trouble us with this. We’ve got more important things to do. Take it up with somebody else.”

So the church chooses deacons, 7 faithful people to serve food, to run the pantry, to make sure everybody was getting what they needed. St. Stephen was the first and foremost in this faithful group. Philip, too. (A side note: it’s wonderful that we continue to embody Stephen’s example of sharing for the hungry. Thank you for your Mountain of Food support!)

12In the story, though, just as things again seemed to be settled and the central committee’s solutions were being implemented and all was proceeding according to plan, of course again at that point the Holy Spirit shows up for a change to new direction.

So the 12 apostles had said, “we’ll take care of the preaching, thank you very much.” The very next thing is that Stephen the waiter, Stephen the food guy, Stephen chosen strictly and solely to hand off things to the hungry, all of a sudden, in defending his faith, gives the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. So much for the 12 being the only preachers.

13We might say Stephen preached a terribly effective sermon that touched an emotional nerve, because they kill him for it. They stone him to death. He is a martyr, the first, bearing witness to his faith and trusting life in the Lord Jesus even into death.

He wasn’t the only one. It says that after his death persecutions spread, so the Christians fled out from Jerusalem. Well, that also meant they were taking the message with them. Even through adversity, the Holy Spirit was still working. So Philip, another non-preacher food guy, winds up taking care of Jesus’ words from chapter 1, about being witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

14See, it says Philip goes to Samaria. Then he’s out on a road to Gaza, which is amid Judea.

15And finally is today’s reading about an Ethiopian official traveling home. He’s headed all the way back to the ends of the earth, the farthest country away from Jerusalem. And he’s going to take this news of Jesus with him.

Besides living far away, one other detail about this Ethiopian is essential, with a really amazing, beautiful outcome. It says he was a eunuch, meaning castrated or unable to have sex. It’s odd that it says he was worshipping in Jerusalem, because Jewish law explicitly forbid somebody with his condition from being in the temple.

16He was legally an outcast. When he asks, “What’s to prevent me from being part of the body of Christ?” the obvious answer, the correct answer should have been, “What prevents you is that your own body is broken and wrong.”

17And yet Philip goes ahead and preaches to him and then baptizes him, incorporating him into the good news of the resurrection and of the body of Christ.

Well, the story of Acts doesn’t stop there. The Holy Spirit has some more surprises up her sleeves, but it’s time for us to ask, “so what?”

Maybe we first can see ourselves in this story with the Ethiopian. We’re far from Jerusalem. We have no birthright to be blessed by God. We by all rights should be excluded from worship—we’re sinners and outcasts and all with our own kinds of brokenness and imperfections, either born that way or inflicted on us. Yet the good news of life in Jesus is for you, too. It will come and find you on your wilderness roads, amid confusions and any place the Holy Spirit has to seek you out. She finds you like six-month-old Evelyn Rose in her baptism this morning, who has done nothing to earn or understand this blessing. But what’s to prevent it? With the abundant life of Jesus and the ever-expanding mission of the Holy Spirit, nothing can prevent it. The good news is, indeed, for you.

And for all. That maybe makes us see ourselves with Philip, as unlikely witnesses to this abounding grace. God’s word still shows up on your lips, even if you don’t claim to be officially chosen for that sort of thing. It comes from baptismal sponsors and parents and grandparents and Mari Mitchell’s English essay this week including a reference to unconditional love and 1st Corinthians 13. It’s in cards the Swenson sisters send, and in all your own ways. It’s the “hymn of all creation,” as we sang in the canticle of praise and about our voices together in the opening hymn. Indeed, the reason we sing hymns is to put the sermon in your mouth. So this work of the Holy Spirit and proclamation of love is on the loose!

Which also corrects and blows open today’s other slightly-too-restrictive Bible readings. In the community of 1st John, the focus seems to have been about looking out for others at church. But the Holy Spirit—who won’t let 12 disciples stay behind locked doors but presses thousands and now billions of us onward and outward to the ends of the earth—must surely be about broader love than just what happens in small church gatherings. This is a bigger family, without bounds or barriers. It’s God’s crazy care on the loose.

18So the Holy Spirit compelled us to speak at advocacy day this week, with the voice of hundreds of Christians and other faiths from our state calling for prison reform and supporting the social safety net and looking out for immigrants, speaking up on behalf of others, those in need in our family.

19We also recognize the expanded care of this family all the way on the other side of the world in the candlelight vigil Confirmation class participated in because of the earthquake in Nepal and in your support and offerings today to help with Lutheran Disaster Response.

20Maybe a notch harder, the Holy Spirit is also ahead of us in Baltimore. She is pressing us beyond our tired old divisions of race and class, obstructions of prejudice and of injustice to see things from a new perspective, to see our whole hurting world as held in the embrace of a rejected God who has holes pierced in his hands and shame on his brow. There’s nothing that will stop the work of this God who keeps chasing after you and spreading the life of Jesus everywhere.

We see this enormous family not only with sisters and brothers who look like us or live near us, not only those endeared to us or beneficial for us, not even only as humans but the whole family of creation, caring for all life. When we pollute and plunder against planetary wellbeing, nevertheless the Holy Spirit breaks in and asks, “What’s to prevent the blessing of waters and the sustenance of life? What’s to prevent the resurrection being made alive in you and shared with all the world? What’s to prevent it? What could possibly stop God’s work and Jesus’ life and this wild Holy Spirit? What could prevent it?” Nothing!

After all, she’s already out preparing the way ahead of you and Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song (ELW #403)

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a wedding sermon

With those very nice Bible readings (1Cor13:1-8a; Col3:12-14; Matt5:13-16), I also want to drop in one more huge thought from a little Bible verse we’ll hear tomorrow in worship, which is also a pretty good mark of what this day is about. It says, “God is love.” (1John4:8. 16)

Now, that’s about the most helpful direction and overarching sort of statement I could think of. I mean, try to picture other things that God could be. We might imagine that God is Power. Or that God is Controlling and in control. Or that God is All. Or that God is Justice, about right and wrong and following rules and punishing offenders. Or that God is in heaven.

As much or as little as any of those might be true, they aren’t what we have in the statement God is Love. And I think I don’t prefer them. I’d be scared of a God who is only about power and might. I have questions about defining God by control; because what does that have to say about the earthquake in Nepal or about our own stubborn sinfulness, even to those we have said we love? I’m not helped by a God who is off in heaven, or a God who is inconspicuously a spark inside of everything. Those aren’t what I need.

A God of love, though, of compassion, a God who is with me in my needs, a God who won’t forsake me or forget me.

The problems are that sometimes we’d prefer something more than love or something other than the hard work of love. A God of power wouldn’t have died on a cross. A God of purity wouldn’t have hung out with the screw-ups and the failures and certainly wouldn’t tell us to love our enemies and those who are hard to love (especially a word for weddings of those closest to us). A God of black and white, right and wrong, simple answers wouldn’t have created a complex, hard, sad world, which is also a wonderful, beautiful, delightful world.

That somehow says this God is true for your relationship as well, Carrie and Jake. It’s not about perfection or wedded bliss. It’s not about everything being easy. Rather, your love and your relationship are about coming together, about supporting each other in spite of or even because of the hard times, and trying to figure out your differences and complexities, and continuing to work at it, because you matter to each other. Plus all the joys and delights of meals and great music at concerts and the Badgers and good times with Cadence and trips to Port Washington and enjoying Duluth and all the other stuff. It goes together as one package, the good and the bad and somehow all better because of love.

That’s an amazing thing, but also intimidating. This is big stuff. See, as you love each other, you are doing God’s work. As you commit to love in your wedding vows, you are committing to a godly task. As you strive to love each other, and to love each other’s families, and to continue growing in love and loving the world, you are embodying our faith, acting as the body of Christ, representing God who so loved the world. It’s big stuff.

And it could seem nearly impossible. That list in 1st Corinthians is quite a chore – to be patient and kind and never rude or insistent or selfish, to be able to bear everything and endure all things. Oof. It says that love never ends, which sounds exhausting.

It makes the other reading from Colossians sound better, that you clothe yourselves with compassion and humility and love. Clothing yourself and putting on Christ sounds easier and more sporadic. Like putting on a jacket or a pair of boots, you just could do it when you need it and take off love other times. Except we know that’s not really how it works, either, to be only occasionally loving. We may have moments of better or worse, but it isn’t something we get to stop.

So, for all of that, the real blessing today, of your shared commitment, of being in love, is that you’re not at it alone. It’s not only that you need to try harder to do what’s godly and good for each other. It’s also that God’s love abides with you. You cannot make yourself light or make yourself salt, as Jesus said. You are made bright and salty, you are made loving, by God’s presence. That is what unites you, what binds you together in a union, what sustains your life in blessing. The greeting we offer as we start worship isn’t just a wish or a suggestion. It is the reality you live in, for each other and for all: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit is with you. Amen

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