Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Judas In Here: A Sermon for Spy Wednesday

When I told someone a while ago that I would be preaching on Wednesday of Holy Week, I was amused at his suggestion that I might offer my sermon wearing dark glasses and a fake beard. As you can see, tempting though that was, I decided not to go along with it, even though today is known in the days leading up to the dramatic events of the Good Friday as Spy Wednesday. In our culture, the word ‘spy’ conjures up various connotations, from the iconic James Bond movies with their glamorous, daring and maverick MI5 agents averting global disaster before getting the girl and a light telling-off from Judi Dench, to the much more comedic ‘Allo ‘Allo which you may remember from the 1980s with the ridiculous British Officer Crabtree attempting to pass himself off as a French police officer, despite speaking terrible French and not much better English as he arrived on set saying ‘Good moaning’ scene after scene. Not all our ideas about spies are sexy or funny, though; in this age of heightened tensions amidst the kind of atrocious terror attacks such as those in Brussels yesterday, we are all too aware of our need for our security services and for the best available intelligence that might minimise the chances of such devastation recurring elsewhere.

The spy whom we are invited to consider today is, as you might have guessed, Judas, whom we heard in our reading from John’s Gospel eating the bread which Jesus offers before slinking out into the night to get his betrayal over and done with. Judas is, of all the dramatis personae of the Easter story, the one with whom we probably feel least comfortable; Peter might cause our consciences to twitch as we recognise within ourselves the all-too-familiar temptation to let Jesus down, but then John’s Gospel gives us that beautifully tender scene of reconciliation as Jesus forgives Peter and reaffirms him as one of his own, and our hearts are reassured. We might identify with Doubting Thomas, who questions the truth of Jesus’ resurrection but is invited to feel for himself the physicality of the cross, still etched onto Jesus’ hands and feet.

Judas is a much more troubling and, I would say, ambiguous figure. In John’s telling of the Holy Week story, the shadow of Judas as he disappears into the darkness from Jesus’ last supper table is almost the last we hear of him; he only makes one more fleeting appearance later on in the Gospel, this time surrounded by Roman guards and the religious leaders whom he has directed to the Kidron Valley, where he doesn’t even have to speak but rather stands in silence as Jesus himself steps forward and identifies himself.  The other Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles complete the story with a noose in a field and entrails bursting out of Judas’ body, but in John’s Gospel, there is no ending to the Judas story.

No wonder Judas has been such a reviled figure down through history. The second century Bishop Papias described Judas as physically grotesque; ‘his flesh [was] bloated to such an extent that he could not walk through a space where a wagon could easily pass. . . . His eyelids were so swollen that it was absolutely impossible for him to see the light…His private parts were shamefully huge and loathsome to behold.’ This visceral reaction to Judas has not faded with time; an old Polish tradition has an effigy of Judas being thrown from a church steeple and dragged through the streets before finally being drowned in a pond. Even in the supposedly secular realm of folk music, the name of Judas is a powerful name to invoke, and a hard one to shake off, as Bob Dylan suggested as he recalled the time when his choice of guitar led to him being called Judas. “The most hated name in human history,” he said. “If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try and work your way out from under that.” Try indeed; it’s taken Judas two thousand years so far.

So what do we do with such a hated person as Judas? He is part of the story we live out through this Holy Week; he is part of our story as Christians. How do we try and work our way out from that? The tragic answer is that through much of Christian history, we have taken the devastating but obvious option of distancing ourselves from Judas by casting him as the archetypal Jew, compounding centuries of anti-Semitism whilst getting Gentile believers off the hook. From the rather simplistic argument that his name, Judas, is a dead giveaway, which of course completely blindsides the fact that another of the twelve shared the same name, to the very swarthy Jewish-looking Judas in Caravaggio’s painting ‘The Taking of Christ’, to Nazi propaganda such as the infamous and influential 1940 movie, “Süss the Jew”, featuring a Judas-look-a-like moneylender who, along with fellow Jews, betrays the people of Württemberg for financial gain, Judas has become byword for, or maybe a scapegoat of, anti-Semitism. In doing so, we have done incalculable harm as we have ‘othered’ Judas over and over so that we don’t need to think too hard about what he might say about us. This leads me to wonder: who’s betraying whom exactly here?

In the Gospel reading we heard, the disciples glance nervously at each other when Jesus speaks of betrayal. Who will it be? Even after Judas has sloped off, they still don’t understand. It’s not that the disciples are dim that they can’t answer this question; it’s not that they are unobservant. I think that maybe it’s because they know in their hearts that Jesus could be talking about any one of them. He could be talking about any one of us.

That, I think, is what Spy Wednesday invites us to ask ourselves; not simply, who is the spy out there who will betray Jesus and lead him to suffering and death, but who is the spy in here, in our own hearts and minds? Who is the Judas in us who is driven by greed or maybe by need, who is terrified of those stronger and more powerful than ourselves and whose fear urges us into our own betrayals of Christ? Who is the Judas in us who sneaks off into the night because there’s something in us that can’t stand the warmth and conviviality of the shared meal? 

These are hard questions to ask, and hard questions to answer. But this week – this Holy Week – is an invitation to ask the hard questions, to face up to everything in us that betrays our faith. Only then, can we begin to understand the mind-blowing magnitude of the forgiving love of the cross. Only then can we grasp that the same New Testament word for ‘betrayal’ is also translated ‘to hand over’; that Judas’ handing over of Jesus to the authorities leads to Jesus handing over of the Spirit as he dies on the cross. Our betrayal becomes our redemption; our crime becomes our acquittal. Only then can we understand what it means that the same Greek word translated in tonight’s passage as ‘declared’ is ‘martureo’, the word that Jesus uses when he tells Pilate that the reason for his coming into the world is to witness to the truth, and the same word used to describe the deaths, the martyrdoms, of those who follow Jesus from the earliest times to this day. Jesus bears witness – martyrs himself as he says that he will be handed over; his body on the cross bears witness as he martyrs himself and hands over the spirit. This is the power of the cross, but we can only see it if we allow ourselves to see our need of it.

It’s too easy, and too destructive, to distance ourselves from Judas by committing the sin of anti-Semitism, to ‘other’ him and exonerate ourselves. It’s too easy, and too comforting, to think of spies as ‘other’, either glamorous or ridiculous.  It’s too easy, and too dangerous, to ‘other’ people in these difficult times of terrorist attacks, complex political questions, huge human suffering in the refugee crisis and austerity cuts, to blame whole groups of people and seek to build walls, either literal or metaphorical to keep the ‘other’ out. That will not do, the cross of Christ tells us. That will never do, because the ‘others’ from whom we are trying to work ourselves under, are our very selves. The only way we can be reconciled truly to the ‘other’ is to come together, to the foot of the cross, where our handing over of Christ becomes his handing of the Spirit to us, where our betrayal of him becomes our redemption and our crime becomes our acquittal, where his body on the cross bears witness to our great need, and to his even greater love. As we come now to Communion, we come as ourselves – our Judas selves. Amen.