Sermon for Palm Sunday
We’re reading three portions of the Gospel according to Luke today. We’ve already heard the stories of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and of his final meal with his disciples, and at the end of the liturgy we’ll read of the Garden of Gethsemane, ending with the arrival of the soldiers. Together these narratives prepare the church for the telling of the Passion story on Good Friday.
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In all of these narratives Luke’s focus in pretty squarely on Jesus, but I want to train the camera just off to the side and invite you to consider two other key characters: Peter and Judas. It can be tempting to demonize Judas, and in fact both Luke and John do reference the role of the satan in what Judas does, but here I’d want to be cautious. If we make Judas a monster who has been taken over by the demonic, then we make it difficult to see anything of ourselves in him. To say as Luke does that “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” is not to say that he’s been taken over in the way that Hollywood portrays demonic possession in movies such as The Exorcist. Judas remains an actor here, choosing this troubling course of action for his own presumably equally troubling reasons. But remember, he was one of the twelve invited by Jesus to “follow me,” and like the others he’d left behind the security and familiarity of home to go out on the road with this compelling Galilean teacher.
And like Peter and the others, Judas is there in that celebratory procession into Jerusalem, perhaps crying out along with the others, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maybe caught up in it all, his hopes could run a bit high that day; maybe he has not yet entirely in the place where he’d be prepared to turn on his teacher for the sake of some silver; maybe he’d not entirely lost himself yet…
And like Peter and the others, Judas is there at the Passover supper in the upper room. By this time he’s made his unholy deal with the temple authorities, and things are in motion toward the betrayal in Gethsemane. But he is there, partaking in the meal in which Jesus takes the Passover bread and wine, and speaks a new meaning into them. That’s a piece of the story that is picked up on by the theologian Michael Welker:
Yet nothing, absolutely nothing, suggests that Judas is hindered in participating in the communal celebration of the meal. This is likewise the case for Peter, who will betray Jesus three times, for the disciples who will fall asleep in Gethsemane, and for the disciples in general, who will become embroiled in controversies over rank, and who ultimately will all abandon Jesus and flee.
This “last supper”—from which every Christian communion celebration of the past 2000 years flows—was not shared by a company of upright, worthy, and righteous believers with clean hearts and clean consciences. Quite the contrary, it is that same old rag-tag bunch of disciples, with those same thick heads and apparent giftedness for missing the point. And it includes Judas the betrayer, and Peter the denier. And though by this time Judas is so utterly distant from the self who first heard Jesus invite him to follow—is so utterly bent on this strange plan of betrayal—he’s not turned away from that meal. From its very inception, in other words, there is something almost scandalously hospitable about this meal we call communion.
The story rolls forward from there, as Jesus says, “see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table,” to which Peter boldly responds that of all them certainly he would never betray his Lord. No Peter, you’re not the betrayer, but yet this night you will deny that you even know me…
And then to Gethsemane, and somewhere along the way Judas slips away to put his plan into gear. What, finally, is his motive? Traditionally two answers have been offered. The first is that Judas was simply greedy; according to John, “a thief who kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” The other is that he was carrying a deep-seated envy; that all that had at first so powerfully attracted Judas to Jesus was now experienced only as a resentment that he, Judas, will never be like this Jesus. Unexamined and unchecked, his resentment has become hatred. He will put an end to this Jesus movement, save his own skin, and take the thirty pieces of silver as a repayment for the lost years he’s spent wandering with the peasant rabbi from Nazareth.
The events roll forward, the arrest is made, and the disciples flee into the night. There are two accounts of what happens with Judas, and they’re actually not easily harmonized. In the first chapter of Acts we’re told that he “acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” The other tradition comes to us from the Gospel according to Matthew:
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)
He repented, Matthew tells us. For a moment at least it seems as if Judas is wracked with remorse and guilt over what he’d done, and so he tried desperately to undo it. But it was too late to change anything—“What is that to us?” the priests and elders say to him. “See to it yourself”—and so throwing down that blood money right there in the temple, Judas went out and hanged himself. What he is faced with is no longer the question of “what have I done,” but rather “what am I, that I have done such a thing?” As I read it, his suicide is an act born of a deep shame over who he is.
And what of Peter? As soon as he hears the rooster crow he comes to the realization of what he has done, and his response, the gospels tell us, is that “he went out and wept bitterly.” Peter the rock solid follower, who is so often the first one to step up, and who would never betray Jesus… Who am I, that I could have done that?
David Bently Hart offers a fascinating insight on the tears of Peter. He writes, “[I]n some ways, taken in the context of the age in which the Gospels were written, there may well be no stranger or more remarkable moment in the whole of scripture.”
To the literate classes of late antiquity, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice.
Yet the Gospel writers notice, because the Gospel writers are a part of this new faith—this new and revolutionary way of being in the world—which insists that the tears of a fisherman matter; that Peter’s life counts, as do the lives of the rest of that motley crew of disciples and of those of the women who were counted as Jesus’ friends. In this strange economy of the gospel, all human lives matter; all tears are to be noticed. The gospel writers know too that shame—crippling, killing shame—is trumped.
It is the thing that Judas could never quite bring himself to believe, certainly not about his own self. It is something that many still find hard to believe, and of course if we’re honest about ourselves we know that there are days when we have acted in ways—said things, done things, thought things, neglected things—for which we might rightly feel guilt, perhaps even shame. On such days it can be hard to believe that our tears count for much. But they do.
I want to read to you a poem by Luci Shaw, called “judas, peter” from her collection God in the Dark. First, the judas verse:
because we are all
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
Though ashamed by his own betrayal of Jesus, Peter doesn’t hang himself. He stays with the other disciples, in hiding in Jerusalem through those days of the crucifixion and burial. He stays with them, perhaps weeping through those hard days, telling them again and again what he’s done. But he stays. And on the third day… well, that’s getting ahead of ourselves… Yet maybe I do need to get us ahead of ourselves, if only for a minute. There is this resurrection scene at the end of the Gospel according to John, where Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him “Do you love me?” Three times the question is asked, echoing the three-fold denial, and while Peter clearly feels a bit hurt that Jesus keeps asking the same question, there is this sense in which right relationship is being restored, and Peter’s shame is being overwritten and replaced with a call to get on with the work of being a shepherd leader. And so Luci Shaw’s poem continues:
but if we find grace
to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask us each again
do you love me
May these coming days of Holy Week confirm in you a sense of the presence of the Christ who comes “to ask us each again, do you love me?” And who, when we weep, comes close to dry our tears and see in them great dignity, not shame.