Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Treason and Atonement

Sermon for Wednesday in Holy Week

On this Wednesday in Holy Week, we remember one of the most notorious characters in the Christian story. Throughout the centuries, no single person has been abhorred among Christians as much as Judas Iscariot. Just say the name “Judas” and the word “treason” immediately comes to mind. Judas’ name has even become a colloquial expression. You may have heard someone way, “So-and-so was a real Judas when they did such-and-such.” What a powerful and damning legacy to be known for all time for only one deed, and an evil one at that.

Judas’ treason is beyond the pale. After all, he had pledged personal allegiance not only to Jesus but to the cause Jesus proclaimed: the coming kingdom of God. And then he knowingly and willingly betrayed Jesus, helping to hand him over for torture and murder. Little wonder that Christians have almost universally regarded “Judas” as a dirty word.

Looking at the four gospels, it’s difficult to pinpoint Judas’ motives. The Gospel according to John – written well after Matthew, Mark, and Luke – says that Judas was motivated by good old fashioned greed (cf. John 12:6). He sold Jesus out for money.

Others speculate that Judas was motivated by hatred born from disillusionment. According to this theory, Judas was a zealous Jewish nationalist who was willing to use violence and murder to effect regime change in the Holy Land. When it became clear that Jesus had renounced the way of the sword for the way of the cross, Judas turned him in to the authorities. Jesus wasn’t the Messiah Judas wanted him to be, so Jesus had to go.

And then there’s the view that Judas didn’t intend for Jesus to die. Maybe Judas thought that Jesus was acting too slowly, so he struck a deal with the authorities and led them to the garden of Gethsemane in order to force Jesus’ hand. Maybe Judas betrayed Jesus to compel him to rise to the occasion and act forcefully and decisively as everyone knew the Messiah should. And then, when the plot backfired and Jesus gave himself up without even resisting arrest, Judas was so shattered by what he had done that he committed suicide.

Regardless of what really motivated him, Judas is an important part of the Christian story. His betrayal of Jesus and its tragic consequences powerfully illustrate an important truth of the moral life. God’s gift of freedom of the will entails the possibility of treason. Just as we can freely pledge our loyalty to a person or a cause, we can also freely betray that person and sabotage that cause. The aftermath of the betrayal doesn’t just injure the persons directly involved. It also damages community. Treason has ripple effects that touch the lives of countless persons, sometimes for years to come. And the damage can never be undone.

We don’t have to look for dramatic examples of treason to country to understand this. Just think of what happens when a husband is unfaithful to his wife, or a wife to her husband, and you get a pretty good idea of why some people maintain that treason is an unpardonable sin. Acts of treason lock us into what one philosopher calls “the hell of the irrevocable.”[1] Any deed we do – whether good or bad – becomes part of a past that can never be changed. If a person commits treason, no future good deed they do – no matter how noble or praiseworthy – can ever change the past. The traitorous deed stands as an irrevocable and eternal fact. Like a hot-iron brand, it leaves a painful and indelible imprint on the hearts and souls of countless people.

Judas’ story is a tragic example of what can happen to people who, in the aftermath of breaking fundamental bonds of trust, see no way out. Locked into the hell of the irrevocable, unable to forgive themselves and unwilling to receive forgiveness from anyone else, such persons may end up on a course of self-destruction.

What word of hope, what good news, is there for such persons? Can there be atonement for acts of betrayal and treason? Is there any way that our acts of unfaithfulness and disloyalty that become part of an irrevocable past can ever become a source of blessing rather than an eternal curse?

Christian faith answers these questions by saying “yes.”

But here’s the irony. Atonement for treason is only possible because Judas betrayed Jesus. A horrible act of treason was necessary to make atonement for treason possible.

Here’s where God’s grace enters the dark story of Judas. Through the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God used Judas’ treason as an opportunity for doing a deed that would bring salvation to the whole world. In Jesus Christ, God transformed the meaning – not only of Judas’ sin – but of all of our sins. Jesus Christ frees us from the hell of the irrevocable by transforming the meaning of a past that can never be undone, thereby bringing new life out of death and triumph out of tragedy. And this opportunity would never have arisen if Judas hadn’t betrayed Jesus into the hands of sinners.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t condemn acts of betrayal and treason? Of course not. Treason is still evil. Loyalty and faithfulness are still necessary and praiseworthy virtues. The point is that God can take even the worst things we human beings are capable of doing and use them to transform the world into an even better place than it was before the sin occurred. That’s what the cross – the symbol that sums up our faith as Christians – means. As the Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week puts it, by the passion of Jesus Christ, God “made an instrument an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life” (BCP, p. 220).

That’s good news because each and every one of us in one way or another has or will follow in the footsteps of Judas. If and when that happens, remember the good news. True, we can never change the past. It’s irrevocable. But the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is greater than our past. God is greater than our sins. And through Jesus’ betrayal, through his passion and death on the cross, God transforms human evil into good.

So there’s always hope. Perhaps even for Judas.

[1] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume I: The Christian Doctrine of Life (Macmillan, 1913), p. 263ff.

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