Lectionary Sermon for 17 May 2015 (Easter 7 b ) on John 17: 6 -19

The Judas effect
There is something almost therapeutic about great villains. To begin with they are not always easy to identify. Remember even Adolf Hitler in the period prior to the Second World War had many admirers in the West. Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg the US aviator, the humourist P G Wodehouse, even King Edward VIII were among many thousands who had many good things to say about Hitler in that period prior to the second World War.

Yet once the evil is identified and draws public focus there is a rush to condemn. This way whatever has gone wrong may be directed entirely at the identified sinners and our own sins can be quietly overlooked for the time being. I heard a second hand dealer in war memorabilia, after a trip to Bavaria, say that it was intriguing that although virtually every family in Bavaria had contributed in some way to supporting Hitler, that it was his impression as you travel around the Bavarian villages today that no-one is prepared to admit their family had anything to do with Hitler.

To many, Judas Iscariot is a villain in the same mould, one of the most talked about apostles and the most reviled, and yet remembered as one who has no characteristics admitted to be in common with the rest of us.

Many stage magic tricks rely for their illusion on drawing the attention of the audience towards an obvious distraction while the real action takes place elsewhere. It seems to me there is an analogy here with what I would like to suggest should be called the Judas effect.

So what is it we see when we look at Judas? The popular wisdom about Judas as the evil betrayer of Jesus, would have us think that here is a man who should never been chosen as a disciple in the first place. He, who after all that had happened, despite his seeing the goodness and wisdom of Jesus, betrays him for thirty pieces of silver to the High priest and the Sanhedrin and then, naturally as we would expect, overcome by his feelings of guilt at the enormity of his crime, he comes to a deserved end. Yet all is not quite as it seems. For example in Acts Ch 1 verse 18. We read: “With the reward he got for his wickedness Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out”. Then it says in verse 19: “Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this so they called the field in their language ‘Akeldema’, that is, field of blood”. Everyone in Jerusalem?… Well , perhaps not quite. Matthew in Ch 27 of his gospel claims that Judas was so upset he returned to the Priests and having failed to get them to take back the money, threw the money down at their feet and went out and hanged himself. In Matthew’s version it was the priests who used what they called “blood money” to purchase the Potters’ field for use for the burial of foreigners. I will leave it to wiser scholars than I to work out which account (if either) is the more likely to be true.

Perhaps in the interests of accuracy in scholarship I should even add to the confusion by reminding you that a Gnostic gospel called the Gospel of Judas written about the same time as the other gospels and rediscovered around the 1970s portrays Judas almost as a hero and gives an alternate version saying that Jesus himself had encouraged Judas to betray him to fulfil scripture. The Gospel of Judas also claims that Judas had a vision that the disciples would later persecute and stone Judas.

We may well see a deliberate sinner when we look at Judas, but Jesus finds something else. There is an interesting phrase in Jesus’ reported take on Judas in today’s gospel reading. He said “None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (John Ch 17 verse 12 b). Perhaps then Gospel of Judas might have contained a grain of truth and perhaps Judas had no real choice in his action.
It is certainly in line with the modern psychological finding that circumstances and background have far more influence on our decision making than we care to admit. For some, we now know that they are clearly predestined at least for the high probability of actions we often call sin. Think about it. The child brought up after being born with foetal alcohol syndrome, the child born with extreme autism, or the one born into a crack house or P lab. Are we really surprised that those have anti-social tendencies? Then there are those born into a family where a particular view of those considered to be enemies is frequently expressed. Is it any wonder children can be recruited to be suicide bombers if they are indoctrinated from an early age? Is it a judgment on them or us that society requires them to be condemned and punished to the full letter of the law?

This is relevant to those who wish to walk the Christian walk because it suggests we need to be very careful before condemning others for their actions. Modern psychology and brain chemistry show how a variety of factors beyond personal control influence actions, so the enjoinder “Judge not lest you yourself be judged” has support from science as well as religion. We might note in passing the Calvinists take a similar line in that they suggest that from what Jesus said about Judas in today’s passage that he had little say in it because he was predestined to betray Jesus.

It should also give us pause for thought that Jesus invited this same Judas to join the disciples, and that he was clearly trusted in that there is a verse reminding us that Judas was delegated to look after the disciples’ money. Perhaps he would have made a good parish steward. One Gospel story about Judas hints that he had a liking for money. You may well remember where Judas questions the wisdom of Mary Magdalene wasting expensive perfume on Jesus, yet is this so very different from the similar arguments are frequently heard when Church money is being discussed at Church leaders’ meetings? We would never have found ourselves in such a situation – or would we?

Some commentators have suggested that Judas’ surname suggests he was part of the Zealot rebel movement which might have meant he had an additional reason for abandoning Jesus in that the Zealots were trying to mount armed rebellion against the Roman invaders, and from what we read of Jesus, he was equally determined to tread a path of peace. I seem to remember that when George W Bush took America into the now unpopular war in Iraq there was almost universal support in the West for the violence considered at the time to be just. How many I wonder, remembered at that time they were also following one who had said: blessed are the peacemakers? Are some of the supporters of the US invasion of Iraq now even having second thoughts?  Maybe we are not so different from the Zealots after all.

Unfortunately the rush to judgment is a human characteristic. Other scholars remind us that, whatever the reason for different writers portraying Judas in different ways, that in all accounts, because Jesus was betrayed to Jewish authorities rather than to the Romans, this has provided an unfortunate excuse for picking on the Jews down through the centuries on the grounds that through their ancestors’ actions, as with Judas’s act of betrayal, they are judged to be killers of Christ. For the anti-Semitic thinkers (which at times encompassed whole populations), that Jesus himself was a Jew and that the other apostles were also Jews appears to have escaped attention.

Defending Jesus memory with acts of persecution in this way with a myopic eye-for-an-eye mentality is curious in that it is almost opposite to what Jesus taught. It is almost as if learning about Jesus has virtually nothing to do with following his teachings.

It is true there is no way that circumstances are likely to bring us to a direct betrayal of Christ, or at least not in the same way as Judas is reported to have done. Nevertheless there are reminders in this reading that we too might get tempted into another form of betrayal to Jesus message. Remember the reading starts with a Jesus talking of the need for obedience. The implication is that it is obedience to the way and acceptance of the message rather than the way of the world which presumably includes Judas’ natural preference of improving his lot that characterizes what a true follower is intended to be.

This then raises the awkward point that perhaps we too should ask if we give priority to improving our lot ahead of our intention to be loyal to Jesus’ message. The status commonly associated with success in the Church may not always sit well with Jesus’ words. The corollary to this is that obedience is actually not normally associated with successful leadership in the conventional sense. It is rather those who operate as servants who put obedience as a guiding principle. What does this tell us is required of us in our day to day dealings with others?

The Judas effect may draw our attention towards Judas’ sin and cause us to overlook our own weakness. Ultimately however, the description of what happened is not where the real action takes place. The important action takes effect when we realize that Christianity is not so much a passing acknowledgement of the stories of the Bible, but rather a genuine attempt to follow the teachings of the one at the centre of the story.

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