Wednesday of Holy Week, Bishop Michael Marshall
TEXT: After receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out and it was night. (John 13:30)
The scene for our meditation on this Wednesday evening in Holy Week, is that Upper Room, at the Last Supper, described in detail by John, who gives us a snapshot of the table plan on that momentous evening.
Formal dining in Christ’s, day meant reclining at a low table, picking up food from dishes centrally scattered around the table, with the right hand and reclining on the left elbow, close to the person on your left. So, ‘One of Jesus’ disciples, - the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to Jesus.’ That means that John would be on the right of Jesus.
But, who then was on the other side of Jesus? It was none other than Judas the first person to receive a piece of broken bread from the hands of Jesus, marking Judas out as the guest of honour. (Gracious, talk about loving your enemy!) Yes, Judas, who had already decided to betray Jesus and also whom Jesus already knew was going to betray him.
So Jesus with the beloved disciple close to him on one side and Judas his betrayer on the other, both alike sinners; both alike, chosen by Jesus three years previously; both alike, loved and nurtured as disciples by Jesus, and both of whom had just had their feet washed by Jesus. So, you might ask, but what on earth have John and Judas in common? I’ll tell you: they were both of a similar temperament.
At least that’s what we’re told in the New Testament. John together with his brother James, the sons of Zebedee, were known as ‘Boanerges’ – ‘Sons of Thunder’ – passionate, zealous, eager to be up front, sitting one on Christ’s right hand and the other on his left hand in Christ’s coming Kingdom, according to the Gospel record. But so also was Judas, a passionate zealot, ‘Iscariot’ – the nationalist party of the knives, (terrorists according to the 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus) who records how the ‘iscarii’ – (the nationalist party of the ‘knives’ for that’s what iscarrii means, knives) (I quote) ‘whose favourite trick it was to mingle with festival crowds, concealing under their garments small daggers with which they suddenly stabbed their opponents…More terrible than the crimes themselves was the fear they aroused.’
And there’s the difference. Both John and Judas were passionate, but while John gave his heart and passion to Christ and his Kingdom, Judas ultimately gave his passion to a political and ideological cause, for the liberation of an earthly kingdom. It’s one thing to loose yourself to a person but quite another – and indeed a dangerous other to loose yourself to an ideological cause.
But there is still the burning question: ‘’Why on earth did Jesus choose Judas in the first place? Surely, because Jesus could see the potential in all his disciples as God sees the potential in you and me. It’s as though he sees us with bi-focal lenses : short distance as we are now; long distance, as by God’s grace we can become. That’s how Jesus saw Simon – Simon the unstable erratic fisherman then, and Peter potentially, the rock man, as by God’s grace and in God’s good time, he would become.
You see, we must not fall into the trap of dualism, and divide people into all-good and all-evil; badies and goodies. That’s a very dangerous way to see the world. It’s an even more dangerous way to see ourselves, for truth to tell we’re all a mixed bag – good and bad, with a fine line between the two. (There are two sides to all of us – a ‘John’ and ‘Judas’. The good news is that God loves both sides of us, and draws them together in himself making of the the ‘two one whole man,’ )
And all, because you see, God doesn’t love us because we are good: God loves us because God is good and by his very nature, loves us unconditionally, making as Christ said, the sun to shine on the both the righteous and the unrighteous.
So the enemy is within and it’s within that the eternal struggle must take place. A dualistic world view of them and us, projects the potential evil within us on to some demonized scapegoat – that’s the motivating force for religious wars, witch hunts and crusades.
You see, the Gospel accounts hint at Judas as being a man of vision for his country and for the liberation of his people; a zealot. He had strengths as John, a son of Thunder had passion, strengths and vision as a young man. Christ does not seek to tame our passions, our zeal and our desires or to neuter us. Rather, he seeks to redirect them for the extension of his Kingdom and the common good.
So we read, ‘After receiving the piece of bread’, broken personally for him by Jesus, (paradoxically marking Judas out as the honoured guest), Judas ‘immediately went out and it was night.’ Judas chose to turn his back on Jesus, to turn from the light – Jesus the light of the world - and walk out into the darkness – darkness and light, that recurring motif in John’s Gospel.
True love, like true religion, can never compel, so the door from that Upper Room, like the doors of the Church or indeed the door into the heart of God, swings both ways, allowing free choice: either to enter into the heavenly light within, or to leave and walk into the hellish darkness outside, as we are told Judas did on that fatal night.
You probably know that famous painting of Holman Hunt, ‘The Light of the World.’ There are two original copies, one in Keble College Oxford and the other in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The text at the foot of the painting is from Revelation: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.’ It shows Jesus, lighted lantern in hand, standing outside the door of the human heart. Thistles and overgrown foliage around the door intimate that the door has been firmly closed for a long while. But – and of course, as you know, - there’s no handle on the outside of the door. By inference the handle is on the inside, and Jesus, ‘our courteous Lord,’ as Dame Julian calls him, will never enter uninvited: the handle to the door of your heart and mine is on the INSIDE.
Similarly with the door that night to that Upper Room. Jesus will not lock us into his church, refusing to let us out to walk whatever way we choose. But equally, thank God, he will never ever lock us out. The father left the door to his home open, leaving the Prodigal Son free to leave but still open for him to return.
Judas was free to leave that Upper Room and Judas is eternally free to return and to re-enter. And so with us. There’s no coercion either way.
So what about that perennial question of universalism – that is to say, whether, in the end, everybody will be saved.
Although I can’t answer that question, definitively, I have a few clues and insights from the lesson of our Holy Week pilgrimage. First, the only people in hell are those who have chosen to remain there. The door back into the heart of God – the Light of the world streaming from that Upper Room, - is always open for those who want to repent and return to the Lord – and it’s never too late for that, as for the penitent thief on the cross.
Secondly, God’s love for you and me, as for both Judas and John is unconditional and unchanging. We’re always free to walk out on God, but God will never walk out on us or anybody. ‘Behold whoever comes to me, I will in no way cast out,’’ said Jesus. (Indeed, I thank God for those words, not least when I’ve messed up!)
And finally, we have the reassurance of the beloved disciple himself, who right at the outset of his gospel, assures us in those immortal words: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.’ (Darkness, like hell is NOT the LAST word).
Like moths, I truly believe we are all instinctively drawn through the darkness of our night times of dark despair, whether self-inflicted or not, - irresistibly drawn through the darkness to the light and love and life of God. Whether radar or the instinct of homing pigeons or whatever – something is instinctively wired into us from conception, drawing us back to our home into the heart of God from which we came: we’re all homesick for heaven, including Judas.
Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Jesus, both alike on the same night. But the difference between Judas and Peter was, as we read, that after the cock crowed, Luke tells us, with devastating perception, that Jesus turned for a moment and looked at Peter. My God, what a look that must have been! And then we read: ‘Peter went out and wept bitterly.’ Yes, perhaps the difference is that whereas Peter could go out and weep, Judas couldn’t – so Judas also went out, BUT he hanged himself. Neither could forgive himself – but then neither can we – that’s our problem, and the bad news.
But the good news is, that the same unconditional love of Jesus for saint and sinner alike, also offers unconditional forgiveness once and for all. All we have to do is to, turn around, the Prodigal son, turning our backs on the darkness and walking towards the light, so that our Jungian shadow falls behind us, as we walk into the light of Christ’s healing, unconditional, all-embracing love, held out to the brokenness within us and to His broken world around us. (That same healing ministry is offered tonight: forgiveness, healing and unconditional love are a package deal held out to all of us. All we need to do is to utter a simple ’Amen’ of ‘Yes’ from the heart to receive it for ourselves).
Judas went out and it was night. I’ve no doubt that as he did so, Jesus turned for a moment and looked at the back of Judas as he left the light and walked away, in just the same way and possibly with the same look, as that day earlier in Christ’s ministry, when Jesus confronted and challenged the rich young ruler, who we’re told walked away from Jesus, but, as we’re explicitly told – Jesus immediately looked at that young man ‘and loved him’ – loved him so much, that he let him go.
Do I believe that that young man, never came back to Jesus? No. Do I believe that Judas never in all eternity, turned around and left the darkness to return to the light? No. All I do know is that the longer you leave it, the more difficult it is, for as Newman said: ‘Holiness is always easier NOW’.
Immortal Love, for ever full,
For ever flowing free;
For ever shared, for ever whole,
A never-ebbing sea.
The healing of his seamless dress,
Is by our beds of pain.
We touch him in life’s throng and press
And we are whole again.
Even so, some Lord Jesus.