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.


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.


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