“Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (John 6:64).

Judas’ Betrayal, Fresco by Fra Angelico

Sermon for Proper 16
14th Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018

Scriptures: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 • Psalm 34:15-22  • Ephesians 6:10-20  • John 6:56-69

The Sermon begins at 4:30.

Below are my sermon notes for Sunday, August 26, 2018. This is a rare occasion where I typed out the full manuscript. Often I hand write it in my notebook, and then pull only the relevant quotes (if I quote anyone verbatim), and include them with an outline. You can see the way that this sermon both differs in some of its details from the sermon I preached, but how it also displays the same structure and primary content.

Jesus knew from the first, who were the ones that did not believe, and yet he taught them and worked miracles among them. Some commentators indicate that the Gospel of John is talking about the crowds here, or the larger group of disciples, and not the twelve, and yet, we know from Mathew’s Gospel, during even the post resurrection appearances, they worshipped him, “but some doubted.” Even if this specific reference in John is talking only about the people in the crowds who did not believe, and not the disciples themselves, but we know that the disciples sometimes wavered in their faith.

More dramatically, even if the Gospel is not including any of the disciples among those who did not believe, we know beyond a doubt that Jesus knew that Judas, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

This reality hit me squarely between the eyes a few years ago when I first read a book entitled A Brutal Unity by Episcopalian theologian Ephraim Radner. Radner emphasizes the nature of the church and issues related to church division in his work, and he’s been pretty influential on my own thinking about Christian division. But this section is about more than the formal divisions between churches–the official and sometimes white washed theological arguments and sometimes fossilized practices and habits that keep us apart. This is about something deeper: a choice that Jesus makes early in his ministry with knowledge about the evil in the heart of one of the disciples, and yet he embraces him as one of his inner circle anyway.

This challenges us not only at an institutional level, but on a personal one, and it is for that reason that I wanted to share it with you. It will get us at something of particular importance in our Gospel text this morning. Radner writes that:

A central question involves the fact that Jesus “chose” Judas as one of the Twelve (Luke 6:13-16; John 6:70-71; Luke 22:3, 47; Acts 1:16-17). Jesus chose the one he “knew” would betray him yet placed him among the Twelve around whom the heavenly Jerusalem would be built (Rev 21:14), though, of course, his place would be taken by another. The issues of predestination and foreknowledge—as Augustine and Calvin and Barth all understood—were implicated in this fact. But just as importantly, and because of this, comes the issue of Jesus’ own willingness, in all deliberation, to take to himself one whom he understood to be bound to “Satan” in some fashion (and even Peter too had this about him), that is, to be his “enemy” (cf. Luke 22:13). Thus, the notion, driven by readings from the alternative traditions about Judas recently made popular, that there was a “secret” pact between Jesus and Judas, in which Jesus himself orchestrates his own arrest with his friend’s cooperation, have no foundation in the Gospels themselves—Jesus did not make an agreement with Satan as his ally! But there is an unsettling and perplexing problem at work, nonetheless, in how Jesus could tolerate and even embrace one whom he could not trust because of the latter’s certain and ultimately immovable opposition.

Yet Judas had a constructive role among the Twelve—he went out, he was commissioned, he preached and healed and exorcised, returning with joy to report the successes of his ministry, along with the others. He kept the funds of the group as they traveled along and distributed alms from the common store. And he was a thief as well, in all of this (John 12:6)! An embezzler, a wolf among the sheep. Nonetheless, “chosen” not out of ignorance, but in full knowledge. Jesus chose his enemy to be his companion and friend—betrayed, in the end not by a torrent of lies or by the rage of rejection but by a “kiss.”

Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity,  Kindle location 2,647  

How many of us could, or would even consider, embracing someone as a friend whom we knew would betray us? Who could even lead us into a situation that would result in our death?

And yet this is exactly what Jesus does. Radner points out, in fact, that Judas isn’t the only one “bound to Satan” in some way, but Peter is too (remember, Jesus actually refers to Peter as Satan when he opposes what must come to pass). It may seem extreme to talk this way about Peter, but I think it is revealing not only about Peter and Judas, but all the disciples: that Christ had perfect knowledge of what was to come, does not mean that every one of the disciples wasn’t equally capable of such betrayal. Indeed, Jesus’ own actions demonstrate a sense in which everything is not determined, as he tells Peter after predicting his three denials, “…I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

In some sense two paths are held out before us. Two examples. The path of Peter, which leads to redemption out of failure and betrayal–we could call this the path of hope–and the path of Judas, which can admit no opportunity for redemption, for forgiveness. We could call this this path of despair.

But if Judas despaired and lacked both belief and hope, had he always lacked them? Was Judas always wicked? This is a contested question in the church of the first four centuries. Some, like Augustine, will say that Judas was always wicked and bound for destruction. Others, like Origen and–perhaps–John Chrysostom, argue that there are turning points at which Judas chooses the evil over the good.

Origen will argue that Judas could not always have been wicked because he was trustworthy enough to have been given the common purse, to be the one entrusted with the distribution of alms for the poor. Like Radner, Origen sees Judas’ role among the twelve as constructive in many ways. He goes forth with the seventy and cast out demons, heals the sick, and rejoices upon his return. Additionally, he is among the disciples who react with frustration at the request the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, makes of Jesus, that her sons sit on his right and left when he comes into his glory. Origen writes that “while he was among the indignant, the devil had not yet put it into his heart to betray the Lord. He was still one of the apostles.”

So Judas’ apostleship was legitimate and true, and he was faithful–except when he wasn’t. And isn’t this like so many of us? And Jesus knew who would betray him, and yet he gave Judas a chance. The how of this is a mystery–we could go far into the weeds about what God’s foreknowledge means for human choice and freedom, and we could likewise discuss the different ideas about what exactly Jesus’ foreknowledge means, that is, how his divinity interacts with the limits of his humanity–but we’ll leave those for another time. The key for us today is that Jesus knew, and yet he still put it all in Judas’ hands. He somehow had hope for Judas, and called him anyway, knowing how he would fail.

And this is good news for us. Because each of us fail. Each of us, if we’re honest, could see ourselves in this passage from John: “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (John 6:64). Who among us has never doubted? Who has never struggled with disbelief? Who has never betrayed their core convictions, their better angels–who has not at some point looked around to find themselves a betrayer of Jesus, dead in their sin?

And yet, Jesus did not simply choose Peter who would come to repent and return, or Judas who would betray him and see no room for reconciliation or restoration, Jesus chose you and me. Jesus has hope for us. Jesus gives us the space we need. And what we do with it, is on us, but not on us alone. Jesus isn’t going to force us, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ is with us every step of the way. That’s part of what it means to abide in Jesus’ love. It means to experience the grace of God and to therefore await with hope and eager longing for the fulfillment of God’s will in our own lives, and in the life of the world.

God gives us the space we need to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. And the question arises, why doesn’t God just save us all. Why couldn’t God save Judas? The humble answer is to say that not only could God, but God still might. But another aspect of humility is to admit that God may not. We are not the first to ask these questions. The great preacher and Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom wrote about this and said: 

“Why then, you say, was He Who won over [many sinners] not able to win over His disciple? He had the power to win over His disciple, but He did not wish to make him good by force or to forcibly draw him to Himself. Then [he] went. In this “went” there is not a little matter for contemplation: for he was not summoned by the chief priests, he was
not constrained or forced. Rather, of himself and of his own accord, he gave birth to his intention and brought forth his treachery, without any counselor in his wickedness.”

The mystery in all of this is that Jesus embraced people he knew would disbelieve him, question him, and even betray him. He embraced them, empowered them, taught them, and made them part of his ministry and his body. And this is good news for us, because God does the same thing for us in Christ. 

In last week’s sermon I emphasized the importance that we never put our ultimate trust or faith in any human or human institution, including the Church, but only in God, only in Jesus Christ. If that sermon seemed a bit dark to some, this is the counterpart to it. Counterpart, but not counterpoint. They aren’t contradictory, though we would like to make them so. The reality is that our call to follow Jesus is risky. We are called to Love God and love our neighbor. That is Jesus’ summary of all the law and the prophets. That’s risky business that we’ve been commanded to take part in. Loving God can be risky–we never know what God is going to call us to do after all–but the riskiest thing about loving God is the call to love our neighbors. Loving other people is dangerous. Trusting other people can set us up for disappointment. This is one of the core places, I believe, where we have to embody Jesus’ admonition to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We never lose sight of our own sinfulness, our own capacity for evil. And we all have it. The sin that temps me may not be the sin that temps you, but we are all tempted to sin, and from time to time–perhaps from time to time to time–we succumb to temptation. Usually, if we’re honest, those sins have hurt someone, or would if they knew. Being humble and keeping in mind our own propensity to sin, can help us relinquish judgement we might hold over other people, but it will also keep us mindful that indeed, Jesus is the one in whom we’re to trust. That the Church has to establish safeguards, and we would be wise to as individuals as well. And yet. It’s risky, because we’re called to hope in other people whom we know to be sinful, whom we know to be broken, whom we know to be apt to wound us if we love them.

And we’re nonetheless commanded to love them.

There’s only one way we can ever hope to accomplish this–to hold on to the reality of our own sin and the sinfulness of others, while simultaneously extending to them the same benefit of the doubt, the same grace that God has extended to us–and here we work back to the beginning of our gospel text–the only way we can do this is by abiding in Christ. By putting our faith and trust and hope in Jesus, and by receiving again and again the grace of God in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, by hearing over and over again the word of God that inspires us, and calls us to faithfulness. I love the word abide.  It can simply mean to dwell, or it can mean to patiently endure, ore it can mean to await with anticipation. When we abide in Christ, there are going to be things that we can only patiently endure. We re going to await the coming of Christ with holy anticipation. This is what we’re called to, for Christ to dwell in us and we in him. This is what empowers us to take the risks we need to take on each other as Christian.

Even though Jesus knows perfectly, he withholds judgement and gives all the disciples–even Peter and even Judas–an opportunity to walk faithfully and to do good. If God, who knows perfectly what is in all hearts, provides such space, how much more should we who judge only in our limited capacities, by what our eyes see or our ears hear, provide such space to each other? But we can only find the strength and the means to do this, to take such a risk on each other, and for our own growth in faithfulness, by abiding in Christ, and through Christ abiding in us. Amen.