20 April 2014
Fourth United Presbyterian Church
The world is shouting “Halleluia!” We’ve been anticipating this joyous day for 40 days and nights! Christ is Risen!!! The morning dawns, and all around Knoxville, sweeping across the country, and over the entire world of Christian communities, the sun rises over new landscapes as the world turns. And people are worshipping outside. We are all singing songs. We are so ready for this day!! All through the dark days and wanderings of Lent we’ve anticipated the Technicolor of Easter. We move quickly during Holy Week from deep grief and sorrow to loud celebration. Of course we can do this, because we have known the outcome all along. Our choirs have rehearsed the songs, the lilies have been ordered, the family trips planned. We are able to move past the shock of the crucifixion quickly, and into the wonder of new life.
But Lent was an unknown season to the disciples. The journey from darkness to light was, for at time at least, only darkness, as they coped with their grief and fear, then shock and confusion over the events between crucifixion and resurrection, between Palm Sunday and today. They did not know the songs, they did not buy the lilies, they had no practical reason before seeing their Lord in the flesh again to believe that there was any cause for celebration.
On that first Holy Saturday, the day before the Resurrection, the disciples were left with no Jesus. They had no new story. Only the memory of the horrors of the day before. Those who loved Jesus had only just seen him die on the cross. They had watched his arrest, and had seen his shame and his agony as the crowds taunted him. They had endured the vigil, watching Jesus’ labored breath become more difficult, until finally he breathed his last. On Holy Saturday, all of those who loved Jesus dearly were only just waking up to the shock of what had happened. Their grief was new, and raw.
A lot of how we experience Easter has to do with how we understand Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Even the zeal with which we celebrate Easter Sunday is informed and shaped by the remembrance of our attitude on Holy Saturday. Similarly, a lot of how we celebrate a new hopeful period or event in our own lives depends on how we coped in the uncertain days leading up to it.
When the chips are down, many behave in ways not necessarily becoming. When there is a waiting period, and the outcome is unknown, folks panic. They run, they hide, they deny things they have done and claim deeds they haven’t. People scramble to survive. It’s natural and human. The disciples were no exception.
We know that for fear many of them had locked themselves up. Possibly tying one on, in disbelief and sadness at what had come, and with great fear for their own lives. They could see the writing on the wall. When a civil rights leader like Jesus is slain, the air is popping with violence, and one wrong move can turn to wholesale slaughter.
In the midst of their grief on the morning of the third day, the women find that he is missing from the tomb and declare this to the others. On first hearing, this miracle sparked more fear, and more confusion. The disciples do not believe at first. And we see individuals from women, to disciples, to people along the road to Emmaus, responding to Jesus in their own ways. All had their own ways of coping on Holy Saturday, so all come to the Resurrection from a different space and different means to receive Him. As the story unfolds and the aftermath of the resurrection is realized, fear turns to wonder, and wonder turns to joy.
There is one who couldn’t make it through holy Saturday, his shame too great. Judas.
Judas: not a name we often hear on Easter Sunday. That disciple who sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver, who dipped his bread in with Jesus, who was know to be the betrayer even at the table on the night of the Last Supper. So near to his Lord that he was using the same bowl, sitting in a place of honor near the Master. He was, as Rev. Bruce Galyon told us on Thursday night, a trusted friend. Not only that, he was hand picked by Jesus himself to accompany him as a disciple. Rev. Galyon made the point that betrayal as deep as that of Judas is only possible if there is a close, trusting relationship to begin with. We are not betrayed ever by casual acquaintances.
Judas has been treated poorly throughout history: thought of as the worst sinner imaginable for his betrayal. Depicted in the 9th circle of Dante’s Inferno, Judas is remembered by poets and many theologians as no less of an evil than the devil himself.
Judas is not remembered much on Easter Sunday because he never made it to this day alive. Think of the agony he must have felt as he thought about facing the other disciples, or upon hearing the news of Jesus being tortured. The self loathing that came, probably only moments after Jesus was arrested. It is understandable that Judas might be overwhelmed with his grief to a point beyond that of the other apostles, to a point where he despaired of hope. Jesus had said of this betrayer, “Woe be to him, he would wish he had never been born. “ And he so wished it, that he ended his own life.
As a kid I always felt honestly sorry for Judas. What he did was necessary to the story and to the fulfillment of what Jesus accomplished, but he gets no positive credit. We refer to liars and betrayers as “Judas.” But he was not the only disciple to betray Jesus: the story is filled with betrayals, even from Peter, the Rock, who denied even knowing him when he was asked after Jesus was arrested.
The great tragedy is that the grief, shame, fear, and doubt of Holy Saturday overwhelmed til his own shame at what he had done overpowered and darkened any hope he might have had. Judas lost all hope, and that is a greater sin and tragedy than the betrayal itself.
John Cassian, a 4th century desert monk, had this to say about the depth of despair that caused Judas to move beyond betrayal to his own suicide: “there is another still more objectionable sort of dejection, which produces in the guilty soul no amendment of life or correction of faults, but the most destructive despair: which did not make Cain repent after the murder of his brother, or Judas after the betrayal, hasten to relieve himself by making amends, but drove him to hang himself in despair.”
Poor Judas. Dead on Holy Saturday. No Resurrection, no Easter, no more sunrises of any kind. It is not too hard to imagine the line of thinking that got him, the betrayer of Jesus the Christ, to the point of ending his own life:
I, Judas, have killed my friend. Oh God, I feel sick. I wonder, did he know the kiss I gave meant I’m sorry?? And now he’s gone, and everything has fallen apart, because of me. Because of ME! If I had just been a little bit stronger,, or waited a little longer…. But I was desperate for money and for all this crazy to stop. I mean, coming back into Jerusalem? That’s idiocy. And we marched right in with him. It was so stupid. But if it weren’t for me, things might have died down, and Jesus might be here, right now, telling another of his wild stories and making the government mad. Oh God. I loved him so much. And I’m the one who ended it all. All of it. Oh, man. I’ve got no place to go now. They’ll never take me back…why would they? They’ll never trust me again. And they shouldn’t. I am weak, and greedy. And I hate everything about myself. The world would be better off without me, and God knows I don’t deserve to live another minute. There is no alternative. I hate myself, and it’s time for me to die. At least then I won’t feel the pain any more.
Is there not still time to redeem Judas Iscariot?
Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and author, talks about the “Harrowing of Hell” in one of his sermons. This is a poetic interpretation of Holy Saturday which says that on that day after he had been crucified and died, Jesus went down to hell to rescue good souls who had been languishing there. Buechner says that one of Jesus’ tasks that day was to visit with an old friend: Judas, to tell him that things were alright between them.
I yearn for Judas to hear this good news. For him to know that joy that we celebrate today.
“I, Jesus, knew exactly who you were and all the things that you were capable of when I chose you, Judas. I knew you were intelligent, creative, ready for an adventure, a little bit jealous, ambitious, and that you could get scared easily. I knew some day it would be too much for all of you. And yes, I know you love me still. What you don’t know is that I love YOU still. And always have. Why do you think I sat and ate with you, even when I knew what you were going to do? I love you, Judas. When people are scared they do things they regret. You were desperate to get some sort of control over your life, and you felt I’d blown all of that for you by going back to Jerusalem. You are a smart man, and you know the ways of humans. You took a little money on the side, held it back, because it didn’t make sense to you to share it and give it like we did. You were just trying to survive.
Judas, it’s OK. You’re only human. And I know how bad you feel. Come with me and let’s start over. I want you to sit next to me again, dip your bread in the same bowl as mine, travel with me, walk with me, take risks with me, even though I know you might betray me again. If it means you’ll live in me, I want all of you. All of it. Every sinful, beautiful cell in your body and part of your soul. I love you Judas.
I came back for you.”
When you find yourself in a Holy Saturday time of your life, take courage and remember Judas. Because Jesus came back to bring new life to the Judas in all of us.