Monday, April 25, 2022

The Second Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter.

The Second Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 20:19-31

Today’s reading takes us back to last week and to Easter Sunday. On the first day of the week, the women who travelled with Jesus and the apostles have been to the tomb where Jesus had been buried on the Friday before and have found it empty. When they told the apostles, Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb to see for themselves and found it just as the women had reported it. After the others have gone, Mary Magdalene, one of the women who have been involved in the day’s dramatic events stayed on alone in the garden emotionally distraught at the loss now of Jesus’ body after having lost Jesus himself.

As we saw last week, while in the garden weeping, Mary has an encounter with the Risen Lord, who sends her to the apostles with the news that he is ascending to his God and their God, his Father and their Father (John 20:17). Mary went and announced to the disciples that she had seen the Lord and repeated what he had told her. Quite what they made of it, we are not told.

In our reading for this week, St John tells us that the disciples are gathered on the evening of the first day of the week behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’. Jesus appears to them and shows them that it is indeed him and that he is alive. St John writes simply that the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus, however, wastes no time in commissioning them for the work that lies ahead. Jesus says to them:

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21)

After this, Jesus breathes on them and says:

‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20:22-23)

The disciples are sent by Jesus as he had been sent by the Father. As Jesus explained to them in the Upper Room just a few days ago, they do not go alone, they now have the Holy Spirit living in them. In sending them, Jesus gives them the authority both to forgive and to retain people’s sins.

As Jesus had also explained to them in the Upper Room when he gave them the Meal to remember him by, his death was all about obtaining the forgiveness of sins. It should, then, come as no surprise to them that their mission is all about telling people that they can find forgiveness of their sins in Christ. Without labouring the point, this is not something you would realize listening to many church leaders this Easter. There is plenty of talk about political issues of current concern, but very little about the need of each one of us for forgiveness.

One person, however, is missing when Jesus appears to them and that is Thomas, who has the nickname, ‘the Twin’. For Holy Week and Easter, we looked at four characters involved in the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of our Lord: Judas, Peter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. Thomas is a character best known for his involvement in the story after the resurrection. He has, however, been involved in Jesus’ ministry from the beginning, and he is included in all the lists of the apostles in the Gospels and Acts (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).

When Thomas is told by his fellow disciples that they have seen the Lord, he refuses to take it on trust. The result of him very sensibly being cautious has earned him another nickname, that of ‘Doubting Thomas’. This, I think, is grossly unfair. But we like to think that Thomas had doubts; it comforts us in our own. That there was more to Thomas than a person who found it hard to believe in something most people still don’t believe in is suggested by the fact that Jesus chose him in the first place and by an event that happened shortly before the crucifixion and which anticipated the resurrection.

While Thomas appears in all the lists of the apostles in the first three Gospels, nothing much is said about him. However, he makes a cameo appearance in St John’s Gospel towards the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been teaching in Jerusalem, but he has had to leave Jerusalem because people there wanted to kill him and had even got as far as picking up stones to do so (John 10:31). St John describes how, for safety, Jesus goes back to where John the Baptist had previously been baptizing (John 10:40).

It is while here, in this safe place, that Jesus receives the news that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is seriously ill (John 11:3). Jesus deliberately delays returning, but when he tells his disciples that he is going back, his disciples are shocked. Bethany, where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary live, is just two miles from Jerusalem. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to go back there. The disciples say to Jesus:

‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’ (John 11:8)

Jesus explains that their friend is ill and needs them. Thomas then says to the other disciples:

‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16)

Whether this is bravado or resignation on his part, we don’t know, but he and they go, nevertheless. Before Easter, I tried to show that the disciples were not cowards and that they were under no illusion about the danger involved in following Jesus. I wanted to try to dispel the popular impression we have of them as weak cowards. They are particularly criticized for abandoning Jesus when he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is, in fact, Jesus himself who asks those who come to arrest him to let his disciples go. St John writes that when those who have been sent to arrest Jesus arrive in the Garden, Jesus admits to being who they are looking for and says to them:

‘I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.’ (John 18:8)

Once Jesus is arrested, the disciples have little choice but to hide. Looked at from their point of view, Jesus himself was largely responsible for this mess. He had entered Jerusalem, on what we now know as Palm Sunday, fully aware of the risk in doing so, and he had been provocative in both what he did and said once inside the city. From the disciples’ point of view, this would have all been justified if it were part of a plan to bring matters to a head and to start the rebellion they were hoping for. But then, when the moment came, Jesus refused to act and the Jerusalem authorities made their move against him. What were the disciples supposed to do once Jesus had given himself up?

Even so, notice that the disciples don’t try to get as far away from Jerusalem as possible. What is more, with the obvious exception of Judas, they all stick together. Quite what they thought would happen next, we again don’t know, but they haven’t just split up; it isn’t every man for himself. The disciples also get criticized for not being at the Cross when Jesus is crucified. But, as Jesus’ closest associates, how could they be? It was different for the women, as they would not be seen as a threat. As it was, the Beloved Disciple was taking a big risk going there with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

The events of these past four days have been an emotional roller coaster ride for the disciples. After all that has happened, Thomas, not unreasonably, wants more than words before he is willing to believe that Jesus is alive. Who can blame him? ‘I need to see him for myself’ is his reaction. It is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Most of us would have felt the same way.

We, of course, know the outcome. A week later, the apostles are again shut up together and again Jesus appears in the room. Thomas has said he will only believe if he sees the wounds and puts his hand in Jesus’ side. Jesus tells him that now is his chance. We are not told whether Thomas did so; we are, however, told what he says. Thomas says simply:

‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28)

What doesn’t always get commented on is that this is the most profound statement of faith in the Gospels. Jesus says to Thomas to stop doubting and believe. But believe what? That Jesus is alive? There’s more to it than that. Thomas gets the implication of believing that Jesus has risen from the dead and it is that Jesus should be worshipped. Jesus acknowledges Thomas’ faith and worship, but says:

‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20:29)

Thomas has believed because he has seen the Risen Lord. Many, however, will have to believe without seeing, and, St John explains, it is to them - to us - that his Gospel is written. Jesus performed many signs, St John writes, in the presence of his disciples, but St John has selected the signs he has described in his Gospel especially for us that we may see something of what Thomas saw and respond like him. St John writes:

‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)

So, what does this have to say to us today?

1. Doubt

Jesus himself tells us what it should mean to us. Jesus said:

‘Do not doubt but believe.’ (John 20:27)

This will not be the message of many sermons on this passage today. Instead, preachers will tell congregations that doubt is a good thing and that they should not be afraid to doubt and to question. At least, that is, they should not be afraid to doubt and question anything to do with believing in God. When it comes to believing in ourselves, well that’s a different story. We must, we are told, have faith in ourselves, have confidence that we can ‘just do it’, and we should view doubt in ourselves as the enemy. It is as if Jesus said, ‘Doubt me, but believe in yourself’.’ We have got it completely the wrong way round. We should believe in Jesus and doubt ourself.

Tell people to doubt themselves, however, and wait for the protest. You won’t have to wait long! That we react so strongly to any suggestion of doubting ourselves shows how removed from reality we have all become. Why should we doubt ourselves? Look in the mirror! We constantly fall and fail. Even when we are at our best, we don’t know all the answers, we make the wrong decisions, and generally just mess up. We all know this, but still we believe the popular hype about how there is nothing we can’t do if only we have faith in ourselves. I am sorry, it is God, not you, who can do the impossible.

This, ‘doubt God; believe in yourself’ philosophy has become so popular and generally accepted, even in the Church, that we are shocked when it is challenged. It is St Catherine of Siena’s feast day on Friday. To read her writing and that of the saints in the past is to enter another world, and I don’t mean historically. St Catherine loves God and hates herself, she trusts God and doubts herself, she is sure of God’s strength and knows her own weakness.

But we do doubt God. We can’t help it. We should be honest about our doubt and our questions, and it is true that doubt can be a good thing IF it leads to faith and certainty. I hesitated before writing the word, certainty, for certainty, at least where faith is concerned, is seen as dangerous and destructive. We are certain of that. Jesus, however, tells Thomas to stop doubting and to believe. Not to believe in the sense that we hope it’s true, but in the sense that we can be sure it is. St John wrote his Gospel to help us to believe in such a way.

This doesn’t mean running away from challenges to our faith or refusing to face up to the difficulties, but it does mean that as we do so our goal should be to find faith and answers, not to live in a constant state of doubt and questioning.

It is, perhaps, just as well that I have been a priest for a number of years because if I was to say this as someone wanting to become a priest, it is unlikely I would be allowed to be ordained. To question questioning and to doubt doubt is to be seen as both pastorally insensitive and spiritually na├»ve. But I will tell you what pastoral insensitivity is, it is to leave people under the illusion that their doubts will save them. They won’t. It is by believing that we have life in his name.

There is nothing to be gained by pretending we don’t have doubts and questions, but we should not stop there. We should bring our doubts and questions to the Lord, and we should seek a way through them. Those of us who are priests and pastors, then, should be helping people to face their doubts and questions and to come to terms with them. Instead of encouraging people to live with their doubts and questions we should be trying to answer them when we can or explain why they are not an obstacle to believing when we can’t. Rather than glorifying doubt, we should be encouraging faith.

2. Fear

The disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jerusalem authorities. What are we afraid of? What doors are we hiding behind? Our doors, of course, are metaphorical ones, but they are no less real for that. I have argued that the disciples’ fear was entirely justified. They were at real risk from the authorities. Jesus was arrested as a rebel; and crucified as one. Peter, their leader, had violently assaulted the High Priest’s representative. They were in undoubted danger. It is not surprising that the disciples were behind closed doors; what is surprising is that they were still in Jerusalem.

We fear all sorts of things when it comes to believing in Jesus. For a start, there is what people will think of us. Unlike the disciples, we probably won’t be arrested for believing in Jesus, but even that is not a certainty, plenty of people are arrested for their faith. There’s certainly a chance we will be made fun of or ridiculed for believing in such outdated ideas. We may even be unpopular.

As well as fearing what others will think of us, we also fear the demands that having faith in Jesus and in being his follower may make on us and on our time. Our lives are demanding enough as it is without complicating them with all this church stuff. What is more, this is before we mention all the changes we are expected to make in how we think and behave as a result of what we believe.

Then there is our fear of losing our personal freedom and independence as we have to submit to the will of God rather than our own. Ironically, we are one of the least independent generations there have been. We are even, for example, having to scan our vaccination records before being allowed into church and Google already knows more about you than you know about yourself. Despite this - or is it because of it? - we cling to the idea that we can be free and independent when it comes to issues of faith, and so we fear the loss of it to a Lord who demands 100% commitment to him.

There are many more fears besides these. Faith in Jesus is not going to prevent what we fear from happening. I have said that the disciples were afraid of arrest and that they were right to have such a fear.

We see just how right in our first reading today (Acts 5:27-32). It is now some time after the resurrection and the events of Easter, and the Jerusalem authorities have arrested the disciples for speaking about Jesus in public. While he was still with them, Jesus had told them:

‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!’ (Luke 12:4-5)

Before the crucifixion, as devout Jews, the disciples had feared God, but they still feared those who could harm them physically. Now, quite simply, they don’t. They are not afraid of the Jews anymore. So, what has changed? Not the reality of the threat to them, that if anything has grown as they have spoken out for Jesus; what has changed is not the threat to them but their attitude to it. Their faith has become more real to them than their fear.

So yes, becoming a follower of Jesus may get us laughed at. It may make us unpopular or even get us arrested. Our faith in Jesus will make demands of us and often it will be difficult following Jesus in a world that is hostile to him and his teaching. And it will mean an end to our independence, if by independence we mean not having God in our life.

It won’t take away our fears completely. We are weak and sinful after all, but it will give us the strength to face our fears and to overcome them. In the Bible, people are often told not to fear. You only say that to people who are afraid. Jesus doesn’t tell us it is wrong to be afraid; he does show us the way to overcome our fear and that is by trusting in him.

3. Believe

Finally, we come to Jesus’ words to Thomas and to us, ‘Do not doubt but believe.’ This is easier said than done. As we have said, we do have doubts; we can’t help it. The world around us bombards us with doubts and hostile questioning. We do have fears. How are we to have faith?

Part of our problem in believing lies in how we think of faith. Faith is not primarily about what we think. Now don’t misunderstand me. What we think matters, but we will always be vulnerable to doubt, and we simply don’t have the mental capacity to know and understand all the answers. That’s true in every area of our lives. What is more, being human and mortal means we misunderstand, make mistakes, and commit sin. If faith is about our ability to think and understand, then we are in trouble; faith will ever allude us.

Believing in Jesus, however, is not primarily about thinking and understanding but about committing. It is about a personal faith, that is, our commitment to the person of Jesus. This is not an unthinking commitment, but it is one that we make while admitting that we don’t fully understand or know all the answers. It is a commitment we make believing that in Jesus all our doubts and questions have their answer. St Paul writes:

‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The more we grow in faith, the more we will understand. In this life, however, we can never hope to understand completely. There will always be questions we can’t answer and problems we can’t solve. Nevertheless, what we do know and understand gives us the confidence to believe that one day our questions and doubts will be resolved. They will cease to matter. For ultimately what matters is not what we think about God, but what he thinks about us. The amazing thing is that despite knowing everything there is to know about us, God has loved us in Christ: ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). God in Christ has given himself to us; he now asks that we give ourselves to him.

The thought of giving ourselves totally to God and of what it will mean may seem frightening and overwhelming, but faith is committing ourselves to him despite our doubt and weakness, our fear and our failings. Faith, quite simply, is allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the presence of God in Jesus. It is saying to him in worship, ‘My Lord and my God’.

In the first century, the Roman Emperor himself wanted to be seen as ‘Lord and God’, and many did indeed see him that way. Many other rulers have also wanted to be seen this way since. We today receive constant demands for our worship whether it be from people, systems, or things. There is much in this world that attracts us and seeks to exert control over us. By confessing Jesus as our Lord and our God, we reject all their claims and demands for our worship.

It doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting them as evil and wrong. Rulers are the servants of God, and we pray for them. The world is created by God, and we give thanks for it. The material things of this world are gifts of God, and we use them as God intended. But we refuse to give the rulers of this world or any created thing the worship that belongs to God alone.

Faith is based on trust. Jesus, when he first appeared to the disciples in the locked room, said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ This was the common greeting at the time. But St John wants us to hear in this more than a polite hello. Jesus repeats the greeting after he has shown them his wounds and they know it is him. Then, when Jesus appears to them a week later with Thomas present, he says it again. In this threefold greeting, Jesus offered peace to those who were gathered behind closed doors with their doubts and fears. He offers us the same peace. Not a peace that answers all our doubts and questions, but a peace that gives us the confidence to trust in him despite not knowing the answers.

Today, may the peace which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ: our Lord and our God.

Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter Sunday

This is the lightly edited version of the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday

Reading: John 20:1-18

We have come today to the last of the four characters I want to look at for Holy Week and Easter this year. I have chosen Mary Magdalene for today both because she features prominently in our Gospel reading and because she was the first witness of our Lord’s resurrection. Mary Magdalene, however, is probably the most difficult of the four characters to talk about, not because of what the Gospels do – or don’t – say about her, but because of the common distortions to her image. These distortions make it harder to understand her as a person.

The first reference to Mary Magdalene in the four Gospels occurs in St Luke’s Gospel. It is worth quoting in full:

‘Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.’ (Luke 8:1-3)

This is not only the first reference to Mary Magdalene, it is the only reference to her until we get to the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion. Mary herself would, of course, have been known to many of the first readers of the Gospels. Firstly, she would have been known personally to some of them. The characters in the Gospels didn’t cease to exist after Jesus’ death and resurrection apart, that is, from Judas who hanged himself. They would have been members of church communities, and people would have known them. Secondly, others would have known about her from the stories they had heard about our Lord’s death and resurrection. Notice that I say stories about our Lord’s death and resurrection. The Gospels’ concern is with Mary Magdalene’s part in the story of Jesus, and it is her relationship to him that is the key, as we shall see, for understanding her.

But first we need to bring Mary Magdalene’s image into focus and deal with the various distortions to it. St Luke, in the passage I have just quoted, is describing a preaching tour of Jesus through the cities and villages of Galilee. On this tour, his closest disciples, known as the Twelve, are with him as well as, St Luke tells us ‘women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities’. These women ‘provided for them out of their resources’. This may mean that Mary Magdalene was from a wealthy background, rich people get ill and possessed as well much as anyone else, but it may denote other types of service as well. As with other background details in the story of Jesus, we are not told because that was not what the Gospel writers were interested in, and initially in the history of the Church much of the background to the story would already be known to the first audiences of the Gospel stories.

That Mary Magdalene had been severely disturbed is clear, and we are meant to understand that it was Jesus who healed her and the two other named women, Joanna and Susanna. Also clear is that Mary Magdalene travelled with Jesus and that the journey took her eventually to Jerusalem, where she is one of those who watch Jesus being crucified Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49; John 19:25). The Gospels also list her as one of the women who first visit the tomb where Jesus was buried and find it empty (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:2). After finding the tomb empty, the women we are told all report back to the apostles, who go to the tomb and also find it empty just as the women have reported. St John then alone has this account of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene.

So far so good. The problem is, however, that, after this, understanding Mary becomes difficult because of how what we know of her is distorted by those who wish to use her image for their own purposes. In the same way that the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels had to have seven demons cast out of her, there are seven distorted images that each need to be banished if Mary is to be presented to us clearly today and we are to hear what she would say to us.

1. Mary the Name

The distortion begins with her name itself. The demon of historical inaccuracy brings with it all the other demons of distortion, and we can see the distortion beginning even with the speculation about Mary’s name. At first it seems harmless enough, but it opens the way for more harmful distortions to come.

As we have seen, Mary was one of the most popular girl’s names at the time. To distinguish her from all the other Marys at the time, and the many who appear in the Gospels, she was known as Mary Magdalene. Magdalene refers to Magdala, which was a busy fishing village, six miles south of Capernaum. Magdala means ‘tower’ in Hebrew and it most likely got its name from the geography of the area.

Recently there have been significant discoveries and excavations at the site of ancient Magdala. It is now one of the most exciting archaeological sites in Galilee, and not one, but two synagogues have been discovered there. Some of us have been following the virtual Pilgrimage for Lent led by a member of a wonderful church community there, known simply as Magdala.

This you would think is all straightforward enough, but recently there have been, what are best described as ‘sentimental speculations’ that Mary was called Magdalene not simply or so much because of where she came from, but because of her own ‘towering faith’ in Jesus. Magdala being seen as referring to her faith rather than the place. It’s good sermon stuff, and, at first sight, harmless enough, but once we have started to leave historical accuracy behind in favour of our own imaginings, it is hard to stop, and we see how it can take a more harmful turn in the next distorted image.

2. Mary the Prostitute

Historically, the most popular image of Mary Magdalene has been that of a prostitute, and this image of her still persists in popular culture. It would not matter if Mary had been a prostitute. Jesus welcomed and forgave prostitutes, as he welcomed and forgave all types of sinners. It just happens not to be true. Belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute was the result of a confusion and conflation of characters that, ironically, a Pope is partly responsible for. Mary Magdalene came to be identified with Mary of Bethany, whom we thought about for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and the ‘sinful woman’ of Luke chapter 7 (Luke 7:36-50). Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) himself made this identification in a sermon, although it is one that was already around at the time. Pope Gregory, however, in confirming it, gave authority to it.

The image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute stuck, and it is still with us. People love this image of Mary Magdalene, and it is deeply rooted in popular culture. It is an image that has been the basis for paintings, books, films, and even musicals. ‘I’ve had so many men before’, the character of Mary Magdalene sings in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and that’s how people often identify her.

It is, however, a false identification. Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany are two different people, and neither of them is the sinful woman of Luke chapter 7.

3. Mary the Submissive Woman

As well as the image of her as a prostitute, who not only has demons cast out of her by Jesus but is also forgiven by him, the next image sees Mary Magdalene as having gone on to become a kind of female groupie on the road with Jesus.

Those of a more traditional type of faith would not, of course, describe her like that, but, in their portrayal of her, she certainly doesn’t appear as an independent person in her own right. In the best versions of this particular distorted image, she is depicted looking after Jesus and offering support to him and to his male disciples. More sinisterly, those who take this approach often use image of Mary Magdalene and others like it to argue that women should submit to men and take a role in society that is subordinate to men. A recent book by a woman on the Catholic understanding of the role and place of women argues just that. It is called tellingly, ‘Ask Your Husband’.

While it is true that the women did minister to Jesus’ needs, this image is also used to imply there are limits to the sort of ministry that women should allowed to perform today. Specifically, it is an image that has been used in the past to justify women not ordaining women or allowing them to preach.

The question of what role women should have in ministry is one that the Church has different views on. Anglicans, for example ordain women as priests; Roman Catholics don’t. The fact, however, that Mary Magdalene took a supporting role to Jesus, as opposed to being one of the Twelve, doesn’t offer support one way or another to views on women’s ministry today. Jesus himself was with us as one who serves. As we saw on Maundy Thursday, washing his disciples’ feet was one of the last things Jesus did before his arrest (John 13:1-11). We are all called to serve. The question of how women are to serve today is not answered by how Mary Magdalene served Jesus and the apostles during Jesus’ ministry.

4. Mary the Wife of Jesus

A twist on Mary the Prostitute image is that of Mary the girlfriend or wife of Jesus. This has become popular in recent years thanks not least to works of fiction such as the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Brown suggested in the book that Mary and Jesus were married and that Mary had given birth to his child. Fearing for the safety of her child, she had fled with her child to France. In some versions of Mary the Wife of Jesus, the wedding at Cana of Galilee was the marriage of Jesus and Mary. This particular demon can have a field day with this distortion, and people are attracted to the image and the story that accompanies it because who doesn’t love a good romance?

But it is romantic fiction. Dan Brown tried to argue that while he was writing fiction, it was fiction all based on fact. Sadly, if you tell people a lie often enough, they will come to believe it, and we know whom Jesus himself described as the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44). It is perhaps, then, little wonder that this particular lie is so popular.

There is, of course, no reason theologically why Jesus shouldn’t have been married, and every reason to suppose he found women attractive, and they him. Jesus was fully human and, if sexuality is part of being human, Jesus must also have been a sexual person. Believers may get nervous at this sort of talk, but probably this is simply because we have a deficient understanding of the incarnation and what it means. The incarnation really does mean Jesus becoming like us in every respect (Hebrews 2:17; 4:15).

But while there is no theological reason why Jesus could not have been married, there is no evidence that he was. It is just pure fantasy, and a dangerous fantasy, because it takes our minds off the story of Jesus and what he came to do, and domesticates it, turning it into a story of romantic fiction. But, again, it is just that: fiction.

5. Mary the Apostle

Exorcising the demons that have given us the different images I have described, although not easy is, nevertheless possible simply by looking at the evidence for them or rather the lack of it! But there are now new distorted images that are, if anything, even more difficult to get rid of, even if they are no more historically based than before. So far, these different images of Mary that I have named, all, in their different ways, have Mary as being dependent on and subject to men. But that is no longer the spirit of our age. So, it is perhaps not surprising that the nature of the distortions of Mary’s image should have changed to make her image conform to that of the world we now live in.

One of the most popular images of Mary Magdalene in the Church at the moment is that of Mary the Apostle. It was St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century who described Mary as the ‘apostle to the apostles’, even if he didn’t mean by that phrase what more modern users of it mean by it. Ironically, it is another more recent Pope who has given support to this image. Pope Francis elevated the memory of Mary Magdalene to the status of a Feast on July 22, 2016 in order to stress her importance, affirming in the process her title as an apostle.

People now find this image of Mary Magdalene an attractive one because, again, it is one we want to believe in. It is an image of Mary that has been seized upon to justify women’s ordination and to argue for the elevation of women to positions of leadership in the Church. But again, the image itself says more about us and the age we live in than it does about Mary Magdalene herself.

In the same way that it is wrong to use the submissive image of Mary as a justification for restricting women’s ministry, so too it is wrong to use her image to justify removing all restrictions on it. Those who want to use this image of Mary Magdalene to promote their view of women’s ministry claim that Jesus valued men and women equally, which he did, and that he commissioned both men and women to be apostles, which he didn’t. The Risen Jesus in our Gospel reading told Mary Magdalene to go and tell the disciples what he had said to her, and this shows trust. He did not tell her to go and preach the Gospel. She is not even called a disciple in the Gospels, however legitimate we may feel it is to describe her as such.

6. Mary the Assertive Feminist

In the same way that the image of Mary the Submissive Woman builds on the image of Mary the Prostitute, so too this image of Mary the Assertive Feminist builds on that of Mary the Apostle. For many, Mary has become a feminist icon. They see her as strong, independent, confident, and able to hold her own as an equal to the men. Feminists in the Church find inspiration in this image for their attacks on traditional understandings and approaches to women. They look to her for support in dismantling what they see as patriarchal structures in society and the Church.

In the same way that those who are attracted to the image of Mary the Prostitute are not bothered by a lack of historical evidence, so too those attracted to Mary as an Assertive Feminist are not too bothered either. Mary was doubtless strong, but she certainly does not fit the image of someone who broke free from the limitations that a patriarchal society places on women or even that of someone who would want to. What would that even look like in the first century? Quite how we get from someone providing for the men out of her resources to being a feminist icon is, however, perhaps a question for another day.

The fact remains that as much as we may not like it, the society Jesus lived in was patriarchal. And as much as we may today want to change social structures and free society from patriarchy, we should not do so by changing the image of Mary to fit our own modern-day prejudices and beliefs.

7. Mary the Saint for Today

And so, we come to the ultimate exaltation of Mary Magdalene. Now no longer the female prostitute, submissively following Christ, not even simply a disciple equal to the other disciples. The image of Mary for today is not just as the ‘apostle to the apostles’, in the sense that she was the one who took the message of Christ’s resurrection to the apostles, but the ‘apostle of the apostles’, in the sense that she is the standout apostle among the apostles! To quote from one reputable website:

‘Her status as an apostle, in the years after Jesus’ death, rivalled even that of Peter.’

No evidence is given for such a breath-taking assertion, but who needs evidence when it’s what you want to hear? Mary has become what one British newspaper described as the figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era (Independent, April 2019).

It has been quite a journey for someone whose image for many years was that of a previously possessed prostitute who provided for Jesus. But whether the image is that of repentant prostitute or divinely appointed apostle, they are distortions that hide rather than reveal the Mary of the Gospels.

What is clear is that at different times these different images have made Mary Magdalene attractive to different people for different reasons. We find ourselves irresistibly drawn to her or, more accurately, to the image we have of her. It will need another sermon on another day to explore the reasons for this.

Having attempted to banish the distorted images, which prevent us seeing St Mary Magdalene as she is, I want to offer three words that I think describe her as she is presented to us in the Gospels, and so allow Mary Magdalene herself to speak to us about our relationship with the Lord.

1. Faithful

Something that Mary Magdalene shares with the Blessed Virgin Mary, who we looked at on Good Friday, is that she is faithful. Sadly, today the two women are seen to be in contradiction to one another. The website I have just quoted also says this:

‘Christians may worship the Blessed Virgin, but it is Magdalene with whom they identify.’

For many, Mary Magdalene is the complete opposite to the Blessed Virgin Mary. While the Blessed Virgin Mary is commonly portrayed as submissive and sexless, Mary Magdalene is seen as strong and sexy. Of course, a generation obsessed with sex is going to prefer a woman it can portray in its own image to one who seems to sit in judgement on it.

The truth is that both women are being misrepresented by many who claim them for them own. Mary Magdalene submitted herself to the will of God no less than the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the sexuality of either woman is of no interest to the New Testament writers, not because it is unimportant, but because they had other more pressing concerns and saw in both women, not models of sexuality, but models of faith.

Again, as we saw on Good Friday, the Blessed Virgin Mary willingly heard the Word of God and kept it. Mary Magdalene did exactly the same. Both women experienced both joy and pain as a consequence. Both were united in faith as together they watched as the one they loved and served die an agonisingly painful death, and both were rewarded by our Lord for their faith and commitment. The Blessed Virgin Mary, by being given to the Church as its mother, and Mary Magdalene by being given the privilege of being the first to witness and announce the resurrection.

Both women are a precious gift to the Church and models of faith. They both give us an example and a challenge. An example of acceptance and submission, which perhaps men more than women need to see and learn from, and a challenge to us all to turn away from the constant search for self-fulfilment that our own age is so desperate to pursue, and instead to devote ourselves to the service of him who gave his own life for others.

2. Devoted

We would expect someone who had been so severely disturbed as Mary Magdalene had been to be devoted to the one who healed her. In whatever way we understand demon possession today, what Mary was suffering from before Jesus freed her was obviously extremely serious. On being healed by Jesus, she became part of a group of women who were deeply attached to Jesus and who, within the confines of the society of their day, sought to support him and those closest to him in his work. To do this meant travelling with him and being with him in Jerusalem for the last days of his life.

They watched him die, which in itself must have been a distressing and deeply disturbing ordeal. Mary Magdalene was not the only woman there at the crucifixion, nor is it true to say that there were no men present. Yet again, as we saw on Good Friday, the Beloved Disciple was there with the Blessed Virgin Mary. What is true is that the women weren’t there primarily because of what Jesus taught, or because of what they hoped he would do, or even simply out of a desire to be obedient to God’s word, but because of what he meant to them. Their commitment wasn’t to a political or religious ideology or code of ethics, but to Jesus himself.

The women continued to show their devotion to Jesus after his death. They were not the only ones to do so, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were the first (John 19:38-41), but the women did so without hesitation or reservation, and, in doing so, they demonstrated their personal devotion to him.

It is, I think, fair to say that it is still the case that women are more open and consistent in their commitment to Jesus. I realize that this is a sensitive and controversial subject, and that anything said can easily be misunderstood or cause offence. However, it has certainly been my own experience that it is often women who keep the Church going and who are willing to perform tasks which are important, but which the men are often unwilling to do. Women, in turn, have often found in Jesus a person they can relate and respond to. It was true during Jesus’ ministry, and it seems to have been true historically. In the second century, for example, a pagan philosopher called Celsus made the accusation that Church’s message was only attractive to ‘the foolish, dishonourable, and stupid, only slaves, women and little children” (Cels. 3.44). It seems always to have been the case that women have been disproportionately attracted to the Church.

In the mystical tradition of the Church, which puts a strong emphasis on the presence of God and entering a relationship with him, women are especially represented. The four women doctors of the Church are all mystics: St Catherine of Siena, St Hildegard von Bingen, St Teresa of Avila, and St Therese of Lisieux. They each expressed a devotion to Jesus that also characterized Mary Magdalene in her relationship to Jesus.

St Mary Magdalene challenges both women and men to a similar devotion to Jesus.

3. Intimate

Which brings me to my final point, and here it gets dangerous. Dangerous, that is, because of the risk of being misunderstood. It is, however, a risk worth taking because it is risk that St John himself takes in Gospel our reading.

Mary Magdalene has been to the tomb with the other women as it is described in the first three Gospels and referred to in the fourth. They have told the men of their experience there and how they have found the tomb empty. The disciples all rush to the tomb to see what the women are talking about. St John describes the Beloved Disciple looking into the tomb and Peter going in. They both see the linen wrappings lying there and the tomb empty.

No-one knows what to make of it despite what the angels have said to the women. Two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus later express their confusion:

‘Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there …’ (Luke 24:22-23)

We should not blame them for being confused. All this is outside their experience and unlike anything they have ever come across before. St John writes simply that that they did not understand the scripture. I can’t imagine we would have been any wiser.

After the disciples have all left and gone to their homes, Mary Magdalene remains alone in the garden. She stands outside the empty tomb weeping. As she weeps, she looks into the tomb still weeping and sees two angels where Jesus’ body has been lying. They ask her:

‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ (John 20:13)

Her reply expresses her deep, personal sense of loss:

‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ (John 20:13)

She turns and see the One she is looking for, but, in her distress, she mistakes him for the gardener. Jesus asks her:

‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ (John 20:15)

She asks him if he is responsible for taking him away and asks him where they have laid him. Jesus’ reply is incredibly powerful. He simply speaks her name:

‘Mary!’ (John 20:16)

She turns to him and recognizes him. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep, and who now calls them each by name. Jesus said:

‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)

Mary must have thrown her arms around him in joy, for Jesus tells her not to hold on to him, but instead she is to go to his ‘brothers’ and tell them he is ascending to his Father and their Father, to his God and their God.

Mary Magdalene understands his meaning. She goes, not to his physical brothers, but to his disciples, to those who ‘hear the Word of God and keep it’. This is the first time Jesus has called the disciples his ‘brothers’. In the Upper Room at the Last Supper, he had called them ‘friends’ (John 15:14-15), now, however, as we saw on Good Friday, they are family.

We too are invited to join the family, but before we can, we must meet its head. He must call us by name, and we must hear and respond in faith. Not intellectual faith, not even simply obedient faith, but with a personal faith. This is about relationship.

In the Gospels, it is the women who seem to understand this the most, and especially the three Marys: Mary, the Mother of our Lord, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene. But this is not only an experience for women; women may lead the way but, as the Beloved Disciple shows, we are all invited, women and men, into an intimate relationship with the Risen Lord, a relationship he has made possible by his death for us and his blood shed for us.

We may be looking for a cause to be committed to, a philosophy or creed to believe in, or a club to belong to, but what we are offered is a person to know and to love.

Today, it is Mary Magdalene with the demons of distortion cast from her who shows us what such a relationship looks like. It is not about power and position, but a person. It’s about the One who died for us, but who is alive and who calls us by name as he called Mary. Today, Mary, the Mary who saw the risen Lord in the garden, announces to us as she announced to the disciples:

‘I have seen the Lord!’ (John 20:18)

May we rejoice at her words and announce it to others.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, alleluia.

Amen.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Good Friday

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for Good Friday.

Good Friday

Gospel Reading: John 18:1-19:42

On one occasion, Jesus is teaching about demon possession and a crowd is gathering to hear him. A woman in the crowd cries out:

‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ (Luke 11:27)

Jesus’ reply is direct:

‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (Luke 11:28)

Jesus never gave easy answers or let people get away with things. His concern was with bringing the Word of God to them. We don’t know who this woman was or what exactly was on her mind when she cried out. It seems that she was impressed by Jesus. If she was a mother herself, perhaps she thought how proud Jesus’ mother ought to be of her son and of herself for raising him. We say similar things today. We will say to a mother that she must be very proud of her son or daughter. Or to a son or daughter that their mother has done a good job in bringing them up. Or to put it more colloquially, we might say to a mother that she is lucky to have such a good son! The woman who cries out is saying that Jesus’ mother must be very happy at giving birth to Jesus. Mothers, for their part, will often be proud of their son and daughter if they do well, even if they don’t always understand what it is that they do!

For Jesus, however, all this is very much besides the point. What matters to him are not human ties or praise but whether people hear the Word of God and keep it. Jesus has said things like this before. On a previous occasion, Jesus’ mother and brothers have come looking for him, but can’t get to him because of the crowd. Jesus is told that they are outside, Jesus answers:

‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ (Luke 8:21)

So why am I talking about this today of all days? During Holy Week and Easter this year, I am looking at four of the characters involved in the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. We looked at Judas on Palm Sunday and Peter last night for Maundy Thursday. Today, for Good Friday, I want to consider the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ask what she might have to teach us as we think especially today of our Lord’s death.

On Easter Sunday, we will be thinking about another Mary, St Mary Magdalene. There are a lot of Marys in the Gospels! We thought about yet another Mary, St Mary of Bethany on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. In our Gospel reading, St John writes that there were three Mary’s standing near the Cross: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; and Mary, the wife of Clopas. It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Mary was the most popular girl’s name at the time. One estimate is that a quarter of all girls in the Holy Land at this time were called Mary. In the Scriptures, Mary (from the Greek version of her name), or Miriam (from the Hebrew and Aramaic), was the sister of Moses, hence the popularity of the name. It can, though, get quite confusing!

I have spoken quite a lot about the Blessed Virgin Mary in recent months in the sermons for the Feasts of the Annunciation, Assumption, and Immaculate Conception. I don’t want to repeat what I said in them. [The sermons are still available online for those who may be interested!]

You may, however, be wondering why I am speaking about the Blessed Virgin Mary at all on Good Friday. Indeed, many Protestants would argue that the two incidents in the life of our Lord that I have just mentioned suggest that we shouldn’t be talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary at any time, except perhaps to give her a mention when we think of the birth of our Lord at Christmas.

Those who think like this, have, ironically, more in common with the woman in the crowd, who cries out that the one who bore and nursed Jesus is blessed, than they might imagine. They think Mary did her bit by providing her womb and nurturing Jesus at her breasts when he was a baby. Like the woman in the crowd, they think it is her physical usefulness that Mary is blessed for, but that and nothing else.

Others would be prepared to credit Mary for her obedience and admire her for her faith, but only in the same way that we admire those other figures in the Bible who showed obedience and faith. Mary herself, they think, has nothing more to offer us now. Our concern, they argue, is not with Mary, who is just another human being no different to us. What matters now is hearing the Word of God and keeping it. What they forget, of course, is that the incarnation took place precisely because Mary heard the Word of God and kept it. Mary is blessed for her faith and obedience, and not only for her womb and breasts.

What is more, if Mary has no further relevance to us now, what we have just read in our Gospel reading this morning seems a bit strange. St John tells us that as Jesus is dying, the last words he speaks directly to anyone are to his mother and about his mother. As Jesus hangs on the Cross, seeing the Beloved Disciple and his mother standing nearby, Jesus says to his mother: ‘Woman, here is your son.’ And then to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ (John 19:27)

Many are resistant to seeing anything in this other than an understandable, but purely human concern, of a son for the welfare of his mother. But is it really so simple? Has the Blessed Virgin Mary got no further part to play apart from being the one who bore and raised God’s Son? Many sincere believers are convinced that this is her only role she and that there is certainly now no ongoing role for Mary in the life of the Church and the individual believer.

Today, the last thing the Blessed Virgin Mary would want is for us to have an argument about her and her role. But St John’s Gospel, of all the four Gospels, is a Gospel with many layers of meaning, and St John loves to use symbolism to convey truth. It is legitimate to ask about whether there is a deeper meaning to Jesus’ words than Jesus simply wanting to find somewhere for his mother to live when he has gone.

After all, Jesus did have four brothers and some sisters (Mark 6:3), so if it’s his mother’s physical welfare Jesus is concerned about, you would think he would entrust her to them. Instead, Jesus entrusts his mother, not to any physical relative, but to the Beloved Disciple, who, we are told, from that hour took her into his own home (John 19:27). The Cross is Jesus’ hour (John 12:27). It is what he came for. His hour is also the time when his family, the Church, begins to come together as his Beloved Disciple and his mother live with one another.

There are two traditions about what happened next. The first is that the Apostle John and the Blessed Virgin Mary stayed in Jerusalem and that the Blessed Virgin Mary lived another 11 years until the end of her earthly life. The second is that she went with the Apostle John, who is identified as the Beloved Disciple, to Ephesus. I personally incline to the Ephesus tradition, but it is impossible to be sure.

Regardless of whether they stayed in Jerusalem or went to Ephesus, in any culture, but particularly the culture of the time, that it was not a family member who looked after Jesus’ mother after his death would seem a bit odd. Why the Beloved Disciple?

In St John’s Gospel, the Beloved Disciple is both one of Jesus’ disciples and someone who is representative of all those who hear the Word of God and keep it. He is one of those that Jesus describes as his ‘mother and brother’. The first mention of the beloved Disciple is at the Last Supper. In most of our translations the Beloved Disciple is described as reclining next to Jesus at the Meal (John 13:23-25). Reclining was the normal posture at a formal meal. The translations, however, are all being a little coy when they translate it as ‘reclining next to Jesus’ or ‘by Jesus’ side’. A more literal translation has:

‘There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.’ (John 13:23 NASB)

In these highly sexualized days, we can understand the translators’ concern about translating it literally, but again, I think that St John wants us see another layer of meaning here. Jesus will tell his disciples later during the evening that they must ‘abide in him’ (John 15:1-11). The Beloved Disciple, the ‘one whom Jesus loves’, is the one who abides in Jesus and who has Jesus’ word abiding in him. He represents all those who hear the Word of God and keep it.

As I have said, it is Mary herself who is the first to keep the Word, keeping it in faith before keeping him physically in her womb. When the Blessed Virgin Mary is told by the angel that she will ‘conceive in her womb’ and will bear a son who shall be called the ‘son of the Most High’, Mary’s response is:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist says to her:

‘… blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:45)

Blessed is she indeed!

We have no idea what life was like for mother and son during the years in which he was growing up and working in Nazareth. Was there no conversation between them about his identity or at least about his intentions? Maybe there was more than we imagine.

After Jesus has gathered the first disciples around him (John 1:35-51), Jesus goes, St John tells us, three days later with his disciples to a wedding at Cana in Galilee, where his mother is also present (John 2:1-11). It is his mother who tells him that they have run out of wine. Why tell him? Understandably, Jesus asks his mother what it’s got to do with them. His mother knows and understands her Son. She says to the servants:

‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.’ (John 2:5)

Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and do it!

After this his first miracle, Jesus goes with his mother, brothers and disciples to Capernaum (John 2:12), the home of Peter, where he now makes his own home (Matthew 4:13). Jesus’ physical brothers, St John will tell us, do not yet believe in him (John 7:5). They will, but for now, Jesus’ disciples are his spiritual brothers, the ones who will be his witnesses and continue his work after he returns to the Father.

Before his death, Jesus gives two gifts to his disciples. We thought about one of them last night, the gift of a Meal in which he gives his body and blood to remember him by. Today, Jesus gives his mother to be the mother of all those who, like the Beloved Disciple, abide in him and keep his word and who, in the Meal and the Mother they share, together form his spiritual family.

Today, as we gather at Cross, Jesus invites us to join his family with his Mother, the Beloved Disciple and all those who hear the Word of God and keep it. Put that like that, it sounds like an invitation we cannot refuse. But before we rush to join, we need to pause and consider the head of the family for he is the One who is nailed to the Cross and who is bleeding to death.

Secretly, we respond by saying to ourselves that that’s OK. In three days’ time, we will be able to forget the blood and the nails, the crown of thorns, and the pain and suffering of the one who wears it. We will have flowers back in Church, the altar will once again be adorned, and the talk will all be sweetness and light.

I am sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not the family we are being invited to join. We are being invited to join a family who every time they sit down together for a meal, remember Jesus’ death and feast on his body given for them and his blood shed for them. Forget it? He has made sure we remember it. We cannot live without it.

Simeon said to Mary when she and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple, that a sword would pierce her own soul too (Luke 2:35). The family we are invited to join is a family that knows pain. But again we ask, ‘Isn’t that over now that Jesus has suffered and died?’ I am afraid not. Jesus said:

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (Luke 9:23-24)

Being a part of the family of the Crucified One means taking up our Cross, denying ourselves, and dying to self. Jesus’ death shows us what our life should look like. But who would want to join such a family? Those who hear the Word of God and keep it, says Jesus.

To keep it, though, we need to understand it, and that means understanding why his death is so important and so central. St Paul writes to believers in the Church at Corinth:

‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures …’ (1 Corinthians 15:3)

St John writes:

‘… but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:7)

His death matters to us, because without it our sins can’t be forgiven and we can’t be cleansed.

We, however, don’t like all this talk of death either our Lord’s or our own. This is why today will be a day many will want to pass by quickly and leave behind. We can’t wait to begin preparing for the Easter Sunday and to celebrating Jesus’ resurrection rather than his death. Of course, the resurrection matters. Discussions about which is more important Jesus’ resurrection or his death completely miss the point. It is in his death that his work was accomplished. The resurrection is the God’s vindication of the work Jesus has finished on the Cross. It is God who raised Jesus from the dead. If Christ is not risen his death has been in vain. But his death was not in vain. Sin has been defeated, evil conquered, and his Church born.

As we will see on Sunday, the Risen Christ will tell Mary Magdalene to go to his brothers and say to them:

‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ (John 20:17)

Mary Magdalene will go to his disciples, his brothers who hear the Word of God and keep it. They will be hiding behind closed doors ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 20:19), but the time will soon come that, as they are gathered there with the mother of Jesus (Acts 1:14), the Holy Spirit will fall on them as he fell on Mary, and the family of those who hear the Word of God and keep it will begin to grow.

Without realizing it, the Pharisees and scribes got it right when they said of Jesus, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2).’ Today, Jesus welcomes us sinners. He welcomes those whose lives are messed up, who have made mistakes, and who are struggling with guilt for the wrong they have done; he welcomes those who are hurting, who are suffering because of the wrong that has been done to them, and those who want more from life than what a materialistic society can offer.

He welcomes them at the Meal that he gave and, as we sinners eat together and have fellowship with one another, we proclaim his death until he comes, the death that offers us the forgiveness and peace we long for. It is in this his family that we find the strength we need to serve him and others, and in losing ourselves and dying with him, that we find our life.

St John writes that the Word of God came unto his own but his own received him not (John 1:11). On Good Friday, we see him rejected. But St John continues to tell us that as many as received him he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12).

As the Word of God completes the work he came to do, he invites us sinners to find forgiveness in him and become children of God as members of the family of those who hear the Word of God and keep it.

May we today respond in faith as Mary did: ‘Let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38).’

Amen.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Maundy Thursday

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for Maundy Thursday.

Maundy Thursday

Reading: John 13:1-11

For the sermons for Holy Week and Easter, I am thinking of our Lord’s death and resurrection in the light of four characters. On Palm Sunday, I looked at Judas. Tonight, for Maundy Thursday, I want to think about Peter.

Peter is an interesting character to look at after Judas. Judas betrayed Jesus; Peter denied him. In the eyes of many, Judas and Peter are essentially guilty of the same crime; the difference being that Peter found a way back after it. Their crime was that they both failed Jesus when it mattered. Their respective failure is seen as a matter of degree, betrayal being worst than denial, but, nevertheless, still of a similar nature to it. It is, I think, more complicated than that – isn’t it always? Despite it ending with his denial, Peter remained faithful to Jesus until the moment Jesus seemed to betray the faith Peter had in him, even then Peter didn’t so much lose faith in Jesus, as get lost in the confusion of what was happening.

Let’s go back to where it all first started.

When we think of where it all began for Peter, we probably think of Peter with his brother Andrew and their partners as fishermen, James and John (Luke 5:10), sitting by the lake in Galilee, mending their nets (Mark 1:16-20). Jesus seeing them calls them to follow him. In the way we often imagine it, this is the first time they meet. It is a sort of ‘love at first sight’ type of encounter. Again, it’s more complicated than that.

St John tells us in his Gospel that some of those who became Jesus’ disciples were originally disciples of John the Baptist (John 1:35). Peter and his brother Andrew were among them. St John tells us that they came from Bethsaida (John 1:44), although, by this time, their home is in Capernaum. Philip, another of John’s disciples who becomes a disciple of Jesus, also comes from Bethsaida. These are people who know one another and who share the same beliefs and convictions.

That these fishermen had already left their nets to follow John the Baptist gives us an idea as to what their beliefs and motivations were. John spoke of the coming Kingdom of God and the One who was to come. According to John himself, the reason that John baptized people was so that the One who was coming would be revealed to Israel (John 1:31). These disciples were, then, deeply devout Jews who were committed to the God of Israel and who were looking forward to the day when God’s Messiah would appear and the promises of God to Israel in the Scriptures would be fulfilled.

Believing in the promises of God to Israel, as I have said many times, meant looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’ (Luke 24:21) that is, her liberation from pagan forces and the restoration of the kingdom to her (Acts 1:6). When John identified Jesus as the One whose coming he had been talking about, these disciples of John left John to follow Jesus. St John writes that it was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, and another unnamed disciple who makes the move first (John 1:40). Andrew, although he is the first to respond to Jesus, is identified as Simon Peter’s brother, even though Peter hasn’t himself been mentioned yet. Andrew then, brings his brother to Christ with the words, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (John 1:41). It is a life-changing moment for all of them, but for Peter especially. Not only is Peter’s life about to change, his name is to be changed by Jesus too! Jesus says to him:

‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).’ (John 1:42)

The name ‘Cephas’ is a significant one. Cephas is Aramaic for ‘rock’, which is petros or Peter in Greek. Jesus right away sees Peter as someone he can rely on and upon whom he can build the community of followers he intends to establish. Jesus makes clear that this is his intention later in his ministry (Matthew 16:13-20).

From the moment Peter becomes a disciple, Peter becomes the leader-designate of the disciples, and he will often speak for them. With James and John, the three will become the inner circle of Jesus’ closest disciples, known as the Twelve. Previously partners in fishing, they are now partners in faith. Peter, James, and John are allowed to share moments in Jesus’ ministry that even the other disciples who are part of the Twelve are excluded from such as the ‘Raising of Jairus’ Daughter’ (Luke 8:40-56) and the ‘Transfiguration’ (Luke 9:28-36).

Jesus not only relies on Peter, Jesus trusts him. He credits Peter with having unique spiritual insight (Matthew 16:17)). Peter, for his part, is rock solid in his support for Jesus. It is Peter who leads the disciples in remaining loyal to Jesus when many decide to give up and abandon Jesus (John 6:68).

There is clearly a close bond between them. So much so that after the wedding at Cana of Galilee, where Jesus performs his first miracle in the presence of his disciples (John 2:1-11), that Jesus moves the family home to Capernaum with Peter’s house becoming a base for Jesus’ movement in Galilee (John 2:12; Matthew 4:13). We know that Peter was married with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law being one of Jesus’ early miracles (Luke 4:38-39).

The only area where it seems there was a problem between them was that Peter had more faith in Jesus than Jesus seemed to have in himself. After Peter tells Jesus that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah, the One that John said would come, Jesus appeared to have a crisis of confidence in himself and shows signs of severe self-doubt. Peter tries to encourage Jesus to believe in himself, but Jesus will have none of it (Matthew 16:23).

We blame Peter for being spiritually dull, but Peter in his reaction to Jesus’ apparent self-doubt is simply reflecting what devout Jews had come to believe about the Kingdom of God and the Messiah who would inaugurate it. Jesus said he was going to suffer and die. That could not happen to the Messiah. We shouldn’t be too hard on Peter or the disciples for only believing what it was generally believed the prophets themselves had said.

Essentially, the difference between Jesus and Peter was over a matter of Biblical interpretation. It appeared that Peter believed in the Scriptures and Jesus didn’t. Jesus’ understanding of the Scriptures was new and novel. There was nothing new in how Peter understood them. Peter seems to have been able to live with Jesus’ self-doubt. He possibly thought that when it all kicked off Jesus would see that he, Peter, had been right and all would be well.

Again, we need to see that when it came to his understanding of himself and his mission, Jesus seemed to give people mixed signals. On the one hand, Jesus did everything that the Messiah was expected to do and more, and he encouraged people to believe he was the Messiah, the One that John the Baptist spoke of (Luke 7:22-23). But then, on the other hand, Jesus was hesitant in it being talked about in public as well as openly expressing his fears about where it was all going to end.

As I said in the sermon for Palm Sunday, Judas seems to have come to the conclusion that Jesus was not the Messiah after all and decided to cash in on it. Judas was to regret betraying an innocent man (Matthew 27:4), but despite regretting his action in betraying Jesus, Judas doesn’t appear to have changed his mind about Jesus not being who he had originally thought him to be. Jesus may have been innocent, but he was not the Messiah. In despair, Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).

Peter, however, remained convinced to the end. The events of what we now know as Palm Sunday would have done nothing make Peter think otherwise. Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, as the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would, must only have reinforced what Peter believed about Jesus (Zechariah 9:9; Luke 19:28-40). How could it not?

The atmosphere and tension amongst the disciples in the days after Palm Sunday must have been electric, and it all came to a climax at the Last Supper. The disciples must have been wondering what Jesus’ next move was going to be. When would he declare himself King of Israel and start the rebellion? Would it be during the Passover?

As they gathered in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover and Israel’s liberation from pagan oppression in the past, they must have been incredibly excited. It would, then, have come as something of a shock to them when the one they believed was going to lead them to freedom in the present started washing their feet. This was something only the lowliest of slaves would do (John 13:4-5).

When Jesus gets to Peter, Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet. Peter knows how completely inappropriate this is. Jesus tells him that unless Peter allows Jesus to wash Peter’s feet, Peter can’t join with him. Peter’s response again expresses his absolute commitment to Jesus. His response is to ask Jesus to wash all of him, if it means they can be in this together. Jesus’ reply indicates he knows that he is about to be betrayed (John 13:6-11).

[The Meal in the Upper Room is described by all the Gospel writers with each adding details of their own (Matthew 26:20-35; Mark 14:17-31; Luke 22:14-38; John 13-17). St John does not have Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup, but he does record Jesus’ teaching during the evening in what is known as the Farewell Discourse (John 14-17). St Paul also gives an account of Jesus’ words at the Meal (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).]

As they sit down for the Meal, the disciples are in for another shock. Jesus reinterprets the Passover Meal to refer to himself. The bread, he says, is his body given for them. The cup of wine is his blood of the new covenant shed for many for the forgiveness of sins. They are to continue to do this ‘in remembrance of him’. For good measure, Jesus adds that one of them is going to betray him.

Quite what the disciples made of this at the time, we are not told. Given that believers since haven’t been able to agree on what Jesus meant, the disciples probably wouldn’t have known quite what to make of it either. St Luke records that they then had a discussion about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24-27). Jesus reminds them that he is amongst them as one who serves, and they are not to think of greatness the way the pagans do.

Having seemed to have ruled out being the sort of Messiah they thought he was, Jesus then, as he does consistently, goes on to say something that suggests the disciples are right in the way they are thinking, after all. St Luke writes that Jesus says:

‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (Luke 22:28-30).

The Kingdom, of course, would first have to come if the disciples were to eat at Jesus’ table and sit on thrones in it. We can perhaps begin to understand why the disciples were confused!

But Jesus has another shock in store, this time for Peter himself. Peter has expressed 100% commitment and devotion to Jesus. When Jesus says that one of them will betray him, Peter says that even if all the disciples abandon Jesus, he will not. He is ready to go to prison and to death for Jesus. Jesus tells him that before the cock crows later in the morning, Peter will deny him three times.

Jesus said more at the Last Supper, and St John, in particular, writes that Jesus said a lot more. Something that St John records Jesus as saying, though, is, I think, especially interesting. Jesus speaks of how ‘sorrow’ has entered the disciples’ hearts because Jesus has said that he is going to leave them (John 16:6). As the Last Supper draws to a close, do the disciples at last begin to see that Jesus really is going to die and that things are not going to work out as they had hoped and expected?

Jesus and the disciples leave the Upper Room and go as was Jesus’ custom to the Garden of Gethsemane, a place where he often met with his disciples (Luke 22:39; John 18:2). It is a fatal move. The Jerusalem authorities have been unable to arrest Jesus because they have been unable to get at him without a crowd being present, and they fear a rebellion will break out if they try to arrest him in public (Matthew 26:3-5). Judas, however, knows Jesus’ movements and, with Judas’ help, this gives the authorities the opportunity that have been looking for. Jesus, meanwhile, also knows that this is the moment it has all been building up to. It doesn’t, however, make it any easier for him and, as is well-known, Jesus is in great distress at the thought of what lies ahead.

Of the Gospel writers, St Matthew, St Mark, and St Luke each describe what happens in the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus’ arrest each again adding their own details to the account (Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39-46).

Jesus has taken the disciples with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, he now takes with him just the three who are closest to him, Peter, James, and John, and moves some distance away from the others. Jesus tells them to stay awake with him and to pray. Jesus then moves away from them too and prays on his own. When he finishes, they are sleeping. St Luke says they are sleeping ‘out of sorrow’ (Luke 22:45). It is same word that St John tells us Jesus uses to describe how the disciples were feeling at the end of the Meal. The disciples are overwhelmed and exhausted. The events of the past few days, and of this evening especially, have caught up with them.

The evening, however, isn’t over yet, and events are about to take a very serious turn for the worse and for Peter, in particular.

As Judas arrives, and those he has brought with him move to arrest Jesus, St John tells us that it is Peter who leaps into action. Peter draws his sword to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of the slave of the High Priest. St John tells us the slave’s name was Malchus (John 18:10). We don’t know what was going through the mind of Peter at this point. Did he think that this was the beginning of the rebellion that would lead to the coming of the Kingdom of God or was it the last desperate fling of a man who could see that things were going against them?

Whichever it was, Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away. Jesus heals the servant’s ear and goes with those who have come for him without any struggle or resistance whatsoever. Psychologically, this must have been devastating for the disciples. This was not how it was supposed to have ended and not how they thought it was going to end just hours earlier. And the fact it does end this way means that Jesus can’t be the one whom they thought him to be. They leave Jesus and flee. If Jesus won’t fight and he won’t let them fight, what else can they do?

Peter, however, still hasn’t deserted Jesus. Peter and another disciple follow those who have arrested Jesus to see where they are taking him. Where else, but the High Priest’s house? This is not a good place for Peter to be given that he is Jesus’ right hand man and has just attacked one of the High Priest’s slaves. The other disciple is able to get them both into the courtyard. Peter is brave to go there. Before we criticize Peter for what happens next, we need to see how dangerous a situation this is for Peter.

All Peter’s hopes have been dashed tonight. Jesus has failed him and let him down badly. Jesus refused to put up any fight and has put them all, as his followers, in great danger. Peter is now in no state of mind for bravery, particularly not bravery that will get him killed. So, when Peter is challenged about being one of Jesus disciples, the inevitable happens: Peter denies knowing Jesus three times and the cock crows. St Luke writes:

‘The Lord turned and looked at Peter.’ (Luke 22:61)

We can’t know what was in either man’s mind at this point. It is, however, a desperately sad moment for them both. Peter leaves and weeps bitterly, as did Judas when he realized what he had done.

There is, however, a difference. Judas had stopped believing in Jesus. Peter, despite everything, hasn’t. He is confused. He is not capable of publicly standing by Jesus. But he still loves Jesus. He loves Jesus, but he is helpless to know what to do. Jesus had failed him and now, he has failed Jesus.

What, then, can we learn from Peter? Normally, when we look at the life of Peter, the message we take away from it is that even if, like Peter, we fall and fail, there is hope and forgiveness. In other words, we are quick to move from the story of Peter before the crucifixion to the story of Peter after the resurrection. We do this seeking to find reassurance for ourselves as we see Peter forgiven and restored to be once again the leader of the Jesus movement.

But this a story for after Easter. Where we are tonight with Peter is still before the resurrection. What can we learn from Peter before he finds his way back?

The Devil is Behind Him

Firstly, we saw with Judas that there was a satanic dimension to what Judas did. There was with Peter too. When Jesus seems to be having doubts about what it means to be the Messiah by talking about how he is going to suffer and die, Peter tries to reassure Jesus. Peter rebukes him with the words:

‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ (Matthew 16:22)

Jesus’ response is well-known. Jesus says to Peter:

‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16:23)

Satan, however, doesn’t leave either Jesus or Peter alone. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells Peter and the disciples:

‘Simon, Simon, pay attention! Satan has demanded to have you all, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ (Luke 22:31-32)

Jesus says that Satan has demanded to have all the disciples to sift them like wheat. Jesus tells Peter, using Peter’s original name, Simon, that he has prayed for him. Looked at positively, what Jesus says means that Jesus hasn’t lost faith in Peter, and Jesus expresses confidence in him and his conviction that Peter will be able to find his way back after his denial and spiritual collapse.

What Jesus says, however, is a warning to us of how real the influence of Satan is, even amongst those who follow Christ. The early Church was aware of this and frequently warned against it. They took the Devil seriously. We, however, do not.

Jesus tells the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to ‘stay awake’ and to pray that they do not enter into temptation (Matthew 26:41). This sounds like the Lord’s Prayer that we pray regularly. We pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. The phrase ‘deliver us from evil’ comes from the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:31). It can be translated either ‘evil’, as we say it today, or ‘evil one’, meaning the Devil. Whichever way it is translated, Jesus teaches us about both the reality and the danger of evil. St Peter will write to believers after the resurrection:

‘Be sober and alert. Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour.’ (1 Peter 5:8)

St Peter knew how that felt!

When we think of the Devil and of being tested and tempted, however, we naturally think of specific sins and weaknesses that we might have and how we are tempted to do things that are contrary to God’s Law. Sin is serious, but, truth be told, we don’t need much help and encouragement from the Devil when it comes to being selfish and doing things we know to be wrong.

The key to understanding the way the Devil attacks us, both as individuals and as a Church, is to realize that, when the Devil can’t snatch away the Word of God and prevent us from coming to Christ (Luke 8:12), he will always want to get us either to deny Jesus or to have a wrong view of him.

Many find doctrine, teaching, and thinking about our faith boring. It’s too much like hard work. We would rather be doing things or having experiences that focus on how we feel. But there is a reason why the New Testament focuses on what we think, for, as with Peter, what and how we think can provide the Devil with an entry point into our lives.

A Petrine View of Jesus

Secondly, when it comes to thinking about Jesus, we in the Church often have what can, perhaps, be called a Petrine view of Jesus. This was the view of Jesus that, before the crucifixion, Peter and the other disciples all shared. We today know that Jesus had to suffer and die; we can’t really argue about that: it happened. Ironically, however, now that it has happened, and we are this side of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we have gone back to seeing Jesus in the way the disciples saw him before it. We think that the message of suffering and death are now all behind us and that, instead, we can talk of victory and life. We can’t wait to move on to Easter Sunday.

Peter didn’t think that Jesus, as the Messiah, could suffer and die. Jesus’ Kingdom for him was about power and glory. This Petrine view of the Gospel expresses itself today in a number of different ways. One way it expresses itself, which is all too common in the Church, is in what is often known as the ‘prosperity Gospel’. This teaches that believing in Jesus and being faithful to him will make you both healthy and wealthy. Preachers of this Gospel boast of how much money they have and of the material possessions they own.

Most of us probably don’t express what we believe in this way, but we do still think that believing in Jesus should make our lives here and now, in this world, better materially. You only have to listen to what people thank God for in their prayers. We thank God, for example, when things go well in our lives, when we have success at school or work, when we find healing after sickness, or overcome difficulties that were making us unhappy. We see all these things as a sign of God’s blessing. But we begin to doubt and question him when things don’t go well, when we get ill, or experience hardship in our lives. The difference between how we think of the spiritual life and how the preachers of the prosperity Gospel think of it is often only a matter of degree.

And what is true of us as individuals is true of us as a Church. For us as a Church, the Devil’s temptation is also for us to see success in our ministry in material terms. So, when we thank God for blessing us as a Church, we think of how many members we have, the number of people who turn up for our services, the amount of money we get in the collection, the number of people we have on the staff, and how big our buildings are. Jesus said to the Church of Laodicea who thought like this:

‘For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.’ (Revelation 3:17)

When it comes to our mission as a Church, we also think in the way the Devil tempted Jesus to think and in the way Peter did think. We see our mission in political and material terms. This isn’t just about feeding the hungry, healing sick, and helping those in need, which is something we should do, but about gaining power and influence in our world. We tell ourselves, of course, that we want that power and influence so we can do good and advance God’s Kingdom on earth, but the history of the Church tells another story. When, in the past as a Church, we have had political power and influence, rather than us using it for good, it has corrupted us and led us, not to do the work of God, but the work of the Devil. Jesus said that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), but, like Peter and the disciples, we refuse to listen.

It all comes down to who we think Jesus is and what it is we believe he calls us to do. The Devil will seek to persuade us that Jesus is not who he claimed to be or, failing that, that Christ is someone different to the person described in the New Testament. The Devil will tell us that we should worship Jesus by seeking power and glory now, in this world, with the result that when we find it, it is not Jesus we are worshipping, but the Devil himself.

Peter thought that what he believed about Jesus was right. He was trying to be true to Jesus but ended up being false. We need to be careful that Jesus doesn’t have say to us what he said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan’.

Following Jesus, as Jesus explained, is not about leaving the Cross behind and focusing instead on the empty tomb, but about taking up our Cross and following Jesus on the way of suffering and of death. It is those who follow Christ on the way of the Cross who win his praise (Revelation 12:11).

The Way of the Cross

Finally, tonight, we remember that the last thing Jesus did before his betrayal and death was to have a meal with disciples. Jesus tells them that that he has earnestly desired to eat this Passover meal with them before he suffers (Luke 22:15). It was, in other words, important to him. It should, in turn, alert us to how important this meal should be to us.

At the Meal, Jesus says that the bread is his body and the cup of wine, his blood. They are to do this, he tells them, ‘in remembrance’ of him. Jesus puts the Eucharist at the heart of the Church and its life. Tonight, on Maundy Thursday, we think especially of this gift.

Even those churches that make the Eucharist a regular part of their church services, however, find themselves shying away from the significance of it. This Meal is about Jesus’ death. This is his body sacrificed for us. This is his blood shed for us. When we share in this meal, we are not primarily celebrating the gifts of God in creation, we are celebrating the gift of his Son in dying for us. More specifically, we are celebrating the death of his Son for the forgiveness of sins: our sins.

Yes, Christ gives us life and the power to live life to the full, but it is his death that makes this life possible. It is his blood that washes us clean and gives us life. St Paul writes to the Church at Corinth:

‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:26)

Every time we share in this Meal, we proclaim Christ’s death. Whenever we are tempted to leave all thought of his death behind, we are brought back to it by the Meal he gives us and in which he gives himself to us. St Paul writes, again to the Church at Corinth:

‘… but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles …’ (1 Corinthians 1:23)

The idea of Christ being crucified was a stumbling block to Jews like Peter. It didn’t fit with their idea of who Christ was. To Gentiles, says St Paul, it was just foolishness. Who would want to believe in a crucified failure? And we too are tempted to move on and forget his death, but Christ tonight calls us back to it: this is my body; this is my blood; as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

We are not being morbid in proclaiming Jesus’ death, for it is in his death that we find hope. For we too are tempted as Peter was; we too, like Peter, fall and fail; we too deny Jesus; and we too are ashamed and afraid to admit to being his disciple. But it is in the death of Christ that we find forgiveness and the strength to keep going despite our failure, faithlessness, and fear.

Being Christ’s disciple is not easy. Jesus never promised it would be. Carrying our Cross and becoming like him in his death is demanding. As Jesus warned Peter and the disciples at this his last meal with them, those who carry the Cross will not be liked, they will not be popular, the world will hate them as it hated him. In the world, Jesus tells them, they will have trouble. Jesus’ last words to them, however, before they leave the Upper Room to go to the Garden where Jesus will be betrayed are words of encouragement and of hope. Jesus says:

‘… take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (John 16:33)

Peter was to discover that courage and become the rock Jesus knew he would be.

May we find the same courage and follow Jesus faithfully as we proclaim his death until he comes.

Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Palm Sunday

This is the lightly edited transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday

Gospel Reading: Luke 22:14-22:62

Today is the start of Holy Week. This year, all our services will be Broadcast Services. We will have services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as well as on Easter Sunday. For the sermons for each service, I want to consider our Lord’s death and resurrection by looking at four of the characters involved in what our Lord describes as his ‘hour’ (John 2:4; 12:23). Each sermon will be self-contained, but I hope you will want to listen to all four! The four people I have chosen are Judas, St Peter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St Mary Magdalene in that order.

It would also be interesting to include some of the other characters such as Caiaphas, the High Priest, but maybe we can look at them next year - if the Lord allows.

Judas Iscariot: Introduction

Just about everyone has heard of Judas Iscariot. The name Judas is now synonymous with betrayal. Judas is universally known as the person who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus, at the Last Supper, describes Judas, literally, as the ‘son of destruction’ (John 17:12) and speaking of him says:

‘For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’ (Mark 14:21)

Despite this damning assessment of him by our Lord, there have been attempts in recent years to see Judas in a more positive light and even to rehabilitate him altogether. Some of this is just perversity on our account. Being sinners ourselves, we are naturally drawn to the darkness and to those who represent it. Interestingly, some Gnostics in the late second century also had a positive assessment of Judas. The Gnostics were amongst the first heretics in the church. It was Gnostics who produced the fictional so-called Gospel of Judas that received some publicity a few years ago. In it, Judas is portrayed as the only one of the disciples who understood Jesus. There really is nothing new under the sun, and certainly not when it comes to false teaching in the Church.

While we shouldn’t rewrite history where Judas is concerned, we should try to understand Judas’ role in Jesus’ death and ask why it was he betrayed Jesus. In doing this, we need to be careful not to indulge our imaginations. The only historical information we have about Judas is in the Gospels, and they largely limit themselves to describing Judas’ action in betraying Jesus.

Chosen by Jesus

The first thing to say about Judas is that he was chosen by Jesus, and chosen not just to be a disciple but to be one of the Twelve, the inner circle of Jesus’ closest and most trusted disciples. The Twelve were chosen by Jesus to be with him during his ministry and to be his ‘witnesses’ to continue his work after he returned to his Father. When, after Jesus’ ascension, the remaining eleven choose a replacement for Judas, Peter says of Judas:

‘ … for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ (Acts 1:17)

In choosing someone to replace Judas, it has to be, again as Peter puts it:

‘… one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us …’ (Acts 1:21)

What perhaps we don’t always appreciate is that during Jesus’ ministry, as far as everyone was concerned, Judas appeared to be someone who was in every way committed to Jesus and was trusted by him. The reason we don’t appreciate this is that we know Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus and, whenever he is mentioned in the Gospels, the Gospel writers refer to him as the one who was betray Jesus. However, while Jesus himself knew that Judas was going to betray him, and while we know, no-one else at the time knew until the betrayal took place.

Indeed, as late as the Last Supper on the night that Judas betrayed Jesus, the disciples all still trusted Judas as one of them. When Jesus says to the Twelve at the Supper that one of them will betray him, they all ask each other who it is (Luke 22:23; John 13:22). Even when Judas leaves the Supper early, after Jesus tells him to do what he has to do quickly (John 13:27), no-one suspects Judas of anything. They all think he has legitimate reasons for leaving (John 13:29). When Judas arrives with those sent to arrest Jesus, the sign he has agreed with them to identify Jesus for them is a kiss. A kiss was chosen presumably because this was Jesus and Judas’ normal method of greeting; it is the greeting of those who are friends.

This means that for over three years Judas was in every way like the other disciples. He heard Jesus teach, he saw Jesus’ miracles, healings, and exorcisms, helped distribute the food at the feeding of the 5,000, and was in the boat when Jesus calmed the storm. What is more, Judas was one of those sent out by Jesus to preach, heal and cast out demons (Luke 9:1-6). In all this time, there was nothing in anything Judas said or did that gave rise to any suspicion. He showed no sign of not being fully committed to Jesus. In fact, in the synagogue at Capernaum, when many of Jesus’ disciples find Jesus’ teaching too hard to accept and decide to abandon Jesus, Judas is one of those who stays loyal and refuses to go (John 6:66-68). Judas is now so defined by his last days of betrayal that we forget his previous years of loyalty.

The question, of course, we would like to ask is why Jesus chose Judas, and that, quite simply, is something we are not told and cannot know. We can, perhaps, instead ask why Judas originally became a disciple and what made him change his mind.

Why did Judas become a disciple?


Although we are not told why Judas personally became a disciple, we are given sufficient information to make a reasonable guess. Judas’ motive in becoming a disciple is likely to have been the same as that of the other eleven who collectively with him formed the group of Twelve.

They believed that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring about the Kingdom of God. They may have had various ideas as to what this meant, but at the very least it would have included the overthrow of the Romans and Jesus becoming the ruler of a renewed Israel. St John, for example, at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry, describes the calling of the very first disciples. Andrew tells his brother Simon, known more commonly now as Peter:

‘We have found the Messiah [St John then explains] (which is translated Anointed).’ (John 1:41)

Nathaniel, who becomes a disciple at the same time says to Jesus:

‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ (John 1:49)

It is sometimes suggested that Judas was a ‘zealot’, that is, one of those who believed in using violence to overthrow the Romans. The second name given to Judas in the Gospels, Iscariot, is sometimes appealed to as evidence for this. The name is explained as coming from a Greek or Aramaic word meaning assassin or bandit.

The name ‘Iscariot’, however, is more likely to be a reference to where Judas originally comes from. St John describes Judas as the son of Simon Iscariot (John 6:71; 13:2, 26). The name Iscariot then comes from Judas’ father and as both Judas and Simon are common names adding the place of origin helps to identify them. Some manuscripts even read ‘from Kerioth’. If Iscariot does refer to Judas’ hometown, its precise location is not clear. The Old Testament identifies a town in Moab with this name (Jeremiah 48:24, 41; Amos 2:2), as well as a location called Kerioth-Hezron (Joshua 15:25).

While Judas may not have been a zealot, he and all the disciples would have expected the coming of the Kingdom of God to entail violence to end Roman and pagan rule. It is hard to see how an end to Roman rule could be achieved without it. The need for violence seems to have just been assumed by the disciples. St Luke, for example, describes what happens when those sent by the Jerusalem authorities, led by Judas, to arrest Jesus arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane. St Luke writes:

‘When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear.’ (Luke 22:49-50)

St John tells us it was Peter who struck the slave (John 18:10). Jesus tells them to put their swords away and what the disciples had thought would be the beginning of the rebellion and the coming of the Kingdom of God ends in a moment. Jesus is arrested and taken away.

Why did Judas betray Jesus?

So, what went wrong? Why did Judas who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and who shared in his ministry become the one who betrayed Jesus? Looking at it from a human point of view, we are not told why Judas decided to betray someone he had previously been so committed to. Exactly why Judas became a traitor is, then, a question we need to be careful in trying to answer, and we need to be cautious in the motives we attribute to him.

I think, however, that it is not unreasonable to suggest that, by the time Jesus and his disciples arrived at Jerusalem for the final Passover, Judas was feeling disillusioned with Jesus. Jesus had repeatedly told the Twelve he was going to suffer and die, but this was not something that they seemed able to process.

That there would be suffering and death is something they would have expected, and all the disciples seem to have been willing to accept it for themselves. The problem they had was with the idea of the Messiah himself suffering and dying. The turning-point for Judas, St John seems to suggest, was what happened at Bethany, a village two miles from Jerusalem, just six days before the final Passover (John 12:1-8).

I looked in detail at this incident last week for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. When Judas criticized Mary of Bethany for anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume, Jesus defended Mary of Bethany, justifying such an expensive gesture by saying that Mary was anointing his body for burial ahead of his death (Matthew 26:12). This may have brought home to Judas that Jesus was serious about having to die. Realizing that events were not going to turn out as he and the others had thought, Judas may have felt that self-preservation was called for and that he needed to act quickly. If Jesus was arrested, then the disciples too would be at risk. It is one thing dying heroically for God, another altogether to be completely humiliated and shown to have been foolish for believing in someone now exposed as a fraud. A defeated messiah was a contradiction in terms.

The incident at Bethany has also suggested to people a financial motive in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. St John tells us that Judas was the keeper of the common purse and use to steal from it (John 12:6; 13:29). Judas’ love of money, they suggest, is what led him to betray Jesus. If this was his motive, he didn’t make much from it. If 30 pieces of silver is 30 denarii, then it was only one tenth of what the perfume used by Mary was worth. We are talking about one month’s wages for the average worker. What is more, Judas even ended up giving it back.

My own opinion, and it is only an opinion, is that Judas was genuinely committed to Jesus, but became disillusioned with him when he saw where it was all heading. Consequently, Judas decided to protect himself and make money out of it at the same time.

The tragic conclusion to all of this is that having successfully betrayed Jesus, Judas bitterly regretted what he had done. We obviously don’t know the precise nature of his regret, but that he returned the money and then killed himself suggests that his regret was genuine (Matthew 27:3-10; Acts 1:18-19). Judas’ actions after the betrayal also confirm that his previous commitment to Jesus had also been real even if he now thought it had been mistaken.

The conclusion to all of this is that, chosen by Jesus, Judas was a devoted disciple, who was also dishonest and became disillusioned and disloyal. There is, however, another even darker dimension to the story of Judas and that concerns the role of the Devil.

Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus asks the Twelve if they too will go away, Peter answers for them that there is no-one for them to go to as it is Jesus who has the words of life. The Twelve have, says Peter, come to believe and know that he is the Holy One of God (John 6:67-69). It is a good response, and it should have been an encouragement to Jesus. Jesus, however, responds:

‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ (John 6:70)

St John explains:

‘He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.’ (John 6:71)

St John begins his account of the Last Supper by telling us:

‘The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.’ (John 13:2)

St John describes how, during the Meal, after Jesus has given Judas a piece of bread, Satan enters into him (John 13:27). Jesus’ action with he bread is intended to indicate that he knows that it is Judas who will betray him. Immediately after receiving it, Judas, unsuspected by his fellow disciples, leaves the Meal early. St John writes simply and symbolically:

‘And it was night.’ (John 13:30)

St Luke also emphasizes this dimension to Judas’ betrayal.  St Luke writes that it was as the Passover drew near that Satan entered Judas’ heart (Luke 22:3). At the moment when those sent by the Jerusalem authorities come to arrest Jesus, Jesus comments on how they haven’t arrested him in public when he was teaching in the Temple, but have come out for him as if he is a bandit. Jesus says:

‘But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’ (Luke 22:53)

The word translated ‘betray’ is, in Greek, paradidomi, which is better translated as ‘hand over’. The word occurs regularly in the New Testament, often in connection with the arrest of Jesus and specifically with Judas. So, for example, St Luke tells us that Judas offers to hand Jesus over to the Jerusalem authorities who are pleased at his offer because they have been looking for an opportunity to put Jesus to death but haven’t been able to find a way to arrest him because of his popularity (Luke 22:1-6).

Although Judas hands Jesus over to the Jerusalem authorities, there is a very real sense in which he is handing Jesus over to the Devil and the powers of darkness.

St Luke describes how Jesus in the wilderness is tested by Satan, after which St Luke writes that Satan departed from Jesus ‘until an opportune time’ (Luke 4:13). That time arrives at the final Passover. Jesus refused to worship Satan in the wilderness and now Jesus is handed over to him and will pay the price of his refusal. The events of the crucifixion have both an earthly and a heavenly dimension to them. St John records how Jesus said that he had lost none of those the Father gave to him except the ‘son of destruction’, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled (John 17:12).

It isn’t simply that the Scripture has foreseen Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but that the Scripture reveals what God’s plan is for him. Peter on the Day of Pentecost addresses the crowds who have gathered to see what is going on. Speaking to them of Jesus, Peter says:

‘ …this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.’ (Acts 2:23)

St Paul writes:

‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Satan and the powers of darkness hadn’t realized that Satan’s greatest moment of triumph in getting Judas to hand Jesus over to the Jerusalem authorities had all along been planned and ordained by God to be the moment of Satan and the powers of darkness’ defeat and downfall.

All of which, of course, raises the question of how much Judas was responsible for his actions and how much he was following a plan for his life over which he had no control. Was Judas just an innocent victim in a cosmic power struggle between God and Satan? The New Testament itself never portrays what happened like this. It holds Judas personally responsible for his actions as well as seeing him as being influenced by Satan, as he carries out the plan of God.

It is not possible to say more today on the subject of human freedom and responsibility. What the story of Judas does tell us, however, is that even when Satan and humans join forces, they only ever succeed in fulfilling the plans and purposes of God. This should give us hope when evil seems rampant and the powers of darkness appear to be in control. Quite simply: they are not; God is.

What, if anything, then, can we learn today from the story of Judas himself? We are rightly wary, given the enormity of what Judas did, to draw any conclusions for ourselves. While it is right to be cautious and sensitive to the historical circumstances of Judas’ life and his betrayal of Jesus, there is a danger in thinking that what Judas did was so uniquely evil that there is nothing at all that we can learn from him. We are not like him, we think; he was not one of us.

But Judas was one of us. Not only that, he was one of the Twelve, chosen by Jesus, and given authority and gifts by him. If Judas can go wrong, we certainly can. Judas and what happened to him is something we need to take seriously.

1. The Enemy Within

Satan targeted a member of the Twelve, one of those closest to Jesus, in order to get near to Jesus and destroy him. St Paul sees Satan as having a playbook, which he uses consistently. Writing to the Church at Corinth, St Paul identifies people who are claiming to be apostles and teachers in the Church and who are troubling the Church as agents of Satan. St Paul describes them as disguising themselves as ‘apostles of Christ’. He is not surprised that they are doing this. St Paul writes:

‘And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds.’ (2 Corinthians 11:14-15)

Satan’s tactic is to attack the body of Christ from within. The Risen Christ in a letter to the Church at Thyatira accuses some of those who are members of the Church there of having learned the ‘deep things of Satan’ (Revelation 2:24). St John in his first letter warns the believers he writes to that they should ‘test the spirits’ for many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1).

Judas is a warning to us of the danger that can come from within the Church and from those who seem in every way to be followers of Christ, as Judas was. Now, we need to be careful and guard against paranoia and the temptation to see the Devil everywhere and in everything. We should not blame the Devil for things where the blame lies firmly with us ourselves.

Most churches, however, are not in the remotest danger of giving way to such paranoia. We have largely dismissed the very idea of spiritual powers and the existence of the Devil. In warfare, armies want to do all they can not to appear on the enemy’s radar. When it comes to spiritual warfare, we in the Church have simply switched the radar off, thereby giving the Devil the freedom to work as freely as he likes.

Of course, we should not overestimate the Devil’s power or the threat he poses to us. St John, having warned those he writes to of the false prophets that have gone out into the world, reassures them that he who is them is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). We should not think of the Devil as having more power than he has, but nor should we be casual or carefree about the threat he presents to us as a Church and to us as individuals. St Peter writes:

‘Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith ...’ (1 Peter 5:8-9)

2. We need to stay close to God

If I am on the right lines in suggesting that Judas was a ‘devoted disciple, who was also dishonest and became disillusioned and disloyal’, then Judas provides a real warning to us in our own lives and relationship with God.

The spiritual life doesn’t just happen; it needs working at and protecting. It is all too easy for us too to become disillusioned or just fed up, and in doing so to leave ourselves vulnerable to spiritual attack and failure. Being a follower of Christ is demanding and requires determination.

The amount of work and energy required is often more than many are willing to give. They get tired and give up. Many people don’t turn against Christ in the way that Judas did and do great evil as a result, they simply just lose interest.

With others though it is different. They become prone to doubts or resent what being a follower of Christ demands of them. In turning from Christ in this way, they lay themselves open to the Devil’s deceits and deceptions. The Devil is good at identifying our weaknesses. Judas’ weakness seems to have been money. As Judas began to have questions about his relationship with Jesus, it was a weakness the Devil was able to exploit.

The spiritual life requires discipline and self-awareness. We need to be honest with ourselves about where our own weaknesses lie. The desire for money, sex, status, or power are common weaknesses, but so too are a lack of forgiveness, jealousy, and resentment towards others. Whatever our weakness, the Devil will use it as the opening he needs to enter our hearts, as he entered the heart of Judas.

This can sound frightening, and in many ways it is. It should not, however, lead to a fear that overwhelms us, but to one which makes us aware of the need for honesty and vigilance. St Paul tells believers in the Church at Corinth that he has forgiven any in the Church who have wronged him. He writes:

‘And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.’ (2 Corinthians 2:11)

More than anything, we need to stay close to God and take our relationship with him seriously. It is all too easy to take God for granted, to neglect prayer, to have no interest in reading our Bible, and to stop meeting with other believers to receive the body and blood of Christ at the Eucharist.

What we need to do to stay safe spiritually is not complicated, but we do need to do it. It takes time and it takes effort. St James, the brother of our Lord, writes in his letter:

‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.’ (James 4:7)

3. Anyone can fall

Of course, there is a real danger that we think that none of this applies to us. We are not remotely like Judas, or so we believe. But Judas knew Jesus in a way we do not; he was after all chosen by Jesus, and yet still he fell.

St James in the verse immediately before the one I have just quoted writes:

‘But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”’ (James 4:6)

Judas’ act was unique. But we need to be careful not to think that Judas was himself so uniquely evil that that his sin of betrayal could not be repeated by us. We need to guard against the pride that makes us confident in ourselves.

Tragically, many church leaders have thought themselves safe and not at risk only to be overcome by evil and to succumb to temptation. It happens all too often. When a church leader falls, it hits the headlines, but it is something that can happen to any believer who thinks themselves safe and free from danger. We see others fail, and instead of feeling a sense of humility that there but for the grace of God go each one of us, we instead congratulate ourselves and thank God that we are not like them. All of us, however, without exception are vulnerable to the temptation to have confidence in ourselves rather than in God.

Judas fell with terrible consequences, but what happened to him was something that had happened to others in Israel’s past, not least to one of the most famous figures in her history.

In the Scriptures, David is seen as Israel’s greatest King. It is David who the Messiah is descended from and whom people believed the Messiah would be like. David is described in the Scriptures as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). Yet David succumbed to adultery and murder, and he was to suffer himself badly because of it.

It would be comforting to say that no matter how far or hard we fall there is always hope, but that would be to offer a false hope. The writer to the Hebrews writing to people in danger of giving up their faith writes:

‘For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.’ (Hebrews 6:4-6)

The writer warns those to whom he writes of the very real danger of falling away and of not being able to find a place of repentance and the way back to God. He continues to say that he is convinced that this is not how it with those to whom he writes, but he wants them to know the great peril they are in.

Conclusion

All this may seem a sombre, not to say dark, note on which to close. It is, though, perhaps appropriate today, in a sermon on Judas, that we should end this way. We will see on Maundy Thursday, when we think about St Peter, that there can be a way back for those who fall, but for today, it is right that we should not finish thinking about Judas by minimizing the seriousness of what we are about as followers of Christ.

Nevertheless, even so, we should not give way to despair. St Paul warns:

‘So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.’

But he continues:

‘No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’ (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)


Our hope never lies in ourselves but always and only in God, and God, as St Paul writes, is faithful.

May God grant his grace to each of us that we may always be faithful to him.

Amen.