I am Judas

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The story of Christ’s crucifixion confronts us with the dark-side of humanity. Having coming back from a visit to Rwanda last week, where I visited the genocide memorial in Kigali, where close to 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, this potential for darkness and evil is especially prominent in my mind. We each need to own up to the role that we played in the murder of Jesus Christ – a man who had nothing but immense love for the world.

Judas Iscariot is arguably the most tragic character in the Bible (John 13:21-32). He walked with Jesus for three years, but ended up betraying him into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities for just a few coins. Too late, he recognised the horror of what he had done and attempted to repent and undo his evil deed. In despair he took his life.

We cannot blame Judas for Christ’s death, because we too betray Jesus and we too contribute to his death. And so, I suggest that we need to say “I am Judas” in recognition of our partnership in the execution of the Son of God. (I have adapted the ‘Je suis Charlie’ icon that was created after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 – ‘Je suis Judas’.)

But , where Judas approached the religious leaders for forgiveness, we should rather approach Jesus, whose capacity for forgiveness is eternal. And where Judas was unable to forgive himself, we need to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and allow ourselves to be set free from sin and guilt. Thus, we can also say, “I am not Judas” (‘Je ne suis pas Judas’).

Being God’s Beloved: Day 35: Divine Forgiveness

When humans decided to execute the only Son of the living God, they perpetrated a terrible crime. And a terrible crime is deserving of severe judgement.

Let us not diminish the terribleness of this crime by saying that actually it was God’s plan that Jesus should die, making it seem that humans were merely God’s agents in God’s plan, and that Jesus’ crucifixion is somehow okay or even good. From every angle, Christ’s death was a dreadful crime against God.

And let us also not stand back and say that we were not somehow involved in his murder. Of course we were not present and active on that terrible day. But it is not just those individuals who were responsible for Jesus’ death. It is the sin of all of us – those before Jesus’ time, those during his time, and those who came after him. Jesus carried the sins of the whole world, including mine and including yours: “[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). We must each accept our part in his death.

How do we make sense of this crime and of God’s response to it?

In Mark 12, Matthew 21 and Luke 20 Jesus tells a parable that bears an eerie resemblance to his own death. A landowner builds a beautiful vineyard. He really invests in setting it up. Then he rents out his land to some farmers, to tenants, while he went away on a journey. At harvest time, the landowner sends his representative to collect rent, but the tenants are happy to use the land but unwilling to acknowledge the landowner’s rights. They treat the representative badly and send him back with nothing. So the landowner sends another representative, but this one they assault. For a third time the landowner sends his representative and this time the tenants kill him. The landowner continues to send many representatives, but all are ill-treated, assaulted or killed. Eventually the landowner decides to send his only son, his beloved, thinking that surely they will respect and listen to him. Alas, they beat and kill the son also.  This terrible and personal assault is too much for the landowner. He comes in person and destroys the tenants and gives the vineyard away to others.

The parallels are striking, aren’t they? God delegates the care of the garden to Adam. God commissions humanity to rule over the world, taking care of it on his behalf. Humans are happy to use and exploit God’s blessings, but all too often we do not pay homage to God, we do not acknowledge the source of the blessing, we carry on as if God did not exist. God sends prophets as ambassadors to speak God’s mind, God’s heart. But all too often, the prophets were reviled, ignored or even killed. But God persists over hundreds and hundreds of years to get God’s message across to us.

Eventually, some two thousand years ago, God sends the Son, the one and only, the Beloved. Surely we will listen to God incarnate? Surely we will respect the Son of God? Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows, however, the extent to which Jesus’ message was not heard. He was attacked, criticised and ridiculed. On several occasions people plotted or attempted to kill him. His message was twisted and distorted. And precious few recognised and accepted him for who he was – God’s son.

And then we killed him. We killed the Son of God. We killed the second person of the Trinity.

How will God respond?

Perhaps God will respond with Divine Wrath. Perhaps God will wipe humanity from the face of the earth; burn up the earth; obliterate all trace of the creation.

And rightly so, don’t you think? What else could be an appropriate response to a crime as massive as the murder of God? I don’t think any of us could deny that that would be an appropriate and fully justified response. Divine retribution. Divine judgement.

I have a 15 year old son – my only child. Occasionally, in a darker mood, I find myself imagining what I’d do if someone hurt him. I think I’d go insane – I cannot imagine how I would hold on to my mind. I think I would become a raging homicidal monster. I’d like to think I might be heroic and forgive. But I don’t think I am that hero.

How our murder of Jesus must have hurt and enraged God. And how terrible that rage would be for us if God chose to vent it. We have seen God’s wrath at times in the Old Testament, but I imagine those times would pale in comparison to this.

But…

God’s wrath does not descend. There are no fiery balls falling from the sky. No shattering earthquakes. No volcanic eruptions. No lakes of burning sulphur. No tsunamis.

Indeed, there was no response at all. On the second day after the crucifixion, the Saturday, the cosmos held its breath, waiting. What would God do? Waiting… waiting… no response. It was as if God was grappling, as Christ had grappled in the garden of Gethsemane. God, grappling with emotion, God weighing up the options, God deciding whether or not to live out what Jesus had told in that parable. Holy Saturday is the day we wait on God, to see how God will respond. We wait, silent, by Jesus’ grave.

And on the third day, the Sunday, early in the morning, Jesus comes back. He comes back! The Son, whom we killed, is returned to us. He returns with words of grace and peace, with words of encouragement, with words of salvation. We move past Lent and Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and encounter a glorious Easter Morning!

How is that possible? How is it that God, the triune God, would return to us after we had murdered the Son? How is it that the parable of wrath and judgement is not fulfilled? How is it that we are not forever Godforsaken?

Jesus’ resurrection is evidence of God’s forgiveness!

God’s grappling on Holy Saturday between divine wrath and divine forgiveness resolves into forgiveness. As we have seen so often before over the past 34 reflections, God’s inclination is towards love, towards forgiveness. God remains true to God’s heart, which is full of love. Even in the face of the greatest crime against the very being of a God, God chooses to forgive. God chooses love over wrath.

And the most powerful way that God can demonstrate forgiveness of our choice to kill the Son is to return the Son. The resurrection is divine forgiveness.

Jesus’ resurrection does not make the cross something wonderful or beautiful or glorious. Rather, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God’s love is wonderful, beautiful and glorious!

There has been no greater demonstration of love than the resurrection. God created out of an abundance of free love. The incarnation demonstrated the selflessness of divine love desiring intimacy with humanity. The cross is a sign of divine love willing to risk everything in the hope of salvation. But the resurrection is the decision of God to forgive and reconcile in the wake of the ultimate betrayal. The ultimate sin requires ultimate forgiveness; ultimate forgiveness requires ultimate love.

If ever you are in doubt of God’s willingness to forgive your sin, look to the resurrection. If ever you need assurance that God has not forsaken you, look to the resurrrection. If ever you doubt God’s love, look to the resurrection. The resurrection is divine forgiveness.

Meditation for the Day

Put yourself in God’s shoes on Easter Friday. What would you have done? Consider the resurrection. Consider its message. Consider the resurrection as divine forgiveness. What is God saying to you?

Prayer for the Day

God of infinite love and mercy, I give you heartfelt thanks and worship for the great gift of your return to us after we had murdered your only begotten Son. Thank you for that ultimate forgiveness. Empower me to honour your gift in how I live my life.

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Being God’s Beloved: Talk 5: God’s Love Revealed Through The Cross

This is the fifth and final talk in the series on “Being God’s Beloved”, presented at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Irene, South Africa, on 9 April 2014. We conclude the talks by focusing on the Cross and Resurrection, and the way in which the sequence of events over the Easter weekend reveals God’s love to us.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 29: Jesus and Judgement

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

On Day 17, when we reflected on God’s Love and God’s Standards, we saw how Jesus, in fulfilling the Law, actually raised the standards by requiring not merely outward compliance with Law, but a whole-hearted, authentic expression of Love. This culminated in his command for us to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Given these tremendously high standards, where there is no place to hide, we might expect Jesus to be perpetually disappointed in us and quick to judge. After all, with such high standards, we all wind up failing much of the time. Yet, Jesus’ ministry frequently combines judgement and forgiveness, high standards and generous love.

The narrative that perhaps most strongly juxtaposes judgement and forgiveness is the story in John 7:53-8:11 of the woman caught in adultery. This narrative was incorporated rather late into our Bibles, and most Bible scholars are in agreement that it was not written by John.[1] However, most scholars are also convinced that it is an authentic account of Jesus’ ministry and therefore it has been accepted in our Bible. We can, I believe, have full confidence in the veracity of this story as reflecting Jesus’ ministry and voice.

Here Jesus presents himself as the forgiveness of sins – “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11a). But he also requires and empowers the woman to change – “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11b).

This woman is brought by the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees to trap Jesus. They present him with a seemingly impossible challenge – if he says they should not stone her, he violates the Law; if he agrees that she must be stoned, he violates his principle of Love. It was a clever ploy.

In doing this, however, they perpetrate a terrible crime against this woman. They dehumanise her. They disregard the fact that she is created in the Image of God. “They made her stand before the group” (John 8:3) suggests that she was standing in the middle of a circle of men – Jesus, perhaps some of Jesus’ disciples and the teachers and Pharisees, with probably a gathering circle of onlookers around them. This in itself is profoundly humiliating – she has no place to hide, no support, no dignity. And we may rightly ask, as many have, where was the adulterous man? It takes two to commit adultery. Why just the woman? This story has therefore been seen as a key example of patriarchy and misogyny in the Bible – of the subjugation of women by men.

Let us be clear, that the Old Testament takes a strong stand against adultery, something contemporary society has all but abandoned. Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel” (see also Leviticus 20:10). But note that the judgement is against both the man and the woman. So the teachers and Pharisees’ statement, “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women” (John 8:5), is a half-quote, which further points to their exploitation of her – their objectification of her – to achieve their own purposes.

Jesus is thus faced with two human problems, both deserving of judgement: the woman has committed adultery and the men have dehumanised one of God’s beloved.

Jesus chooses to address the men’s sin first, and then the woman’s.

“Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger” (John 8:6b).

What is this writing about? There have been many theories,[2] though in truth, of course, we don’t know. If we physically act out the scene, however, we find a possible explanation.

The Pharisees arrived full of zeal and bluster, angry at the woman, eager to trip Jesus up and fully expecting to succeed. But having presented to Jesus their case, there is a moment of silence – they hold their breathe to hear what he has to say; she is standing in the middle, clutching her robe and wishing to die; the crowds are drawing closer in anticipation of something exciting. And Jesus bends down and starts to write in the ground.

It is as if time is suspended. The men are in shocked disbelief. The woman is so dissociated she is oblivious to what is going on. The crowds are whispering to each other, “What’s going on? What is he doing?” Indeed, what is he doing? Some of the men come up behind Jesus to peer over his shoulder, to see what he is writing. Is he writing down the Law of Moses? Is he writing down the woman’s sin? Is he writing down their own sins? What is he writing? They can’t make out what he is writing, so they stoop down themselves, to get a better look, screwing up their eyes to make it out.

Jesus has created a pocket of suspended time; a moment of stillness in the midst of the fervour. The woman is, for now, forgotten, saved from the hostile glares – Jesus’ writing is now the centre. The peering men lose confidence in their assumption that they will beat Jesus, and begin to experience doubt and uncertainty. Inevitably, they begin to fear that Jesus is writing something about them. Perhaps they too have some sin that is worthy of stoning. Perhaps they, like her, will be publically humiliated. What if he knows what they are hiding in their hearts, their secrets?

Some of the men continue to question Jesus. He suddenly stands up and says the famous words, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). And then he stoops down again and continues to write on the ground (John 8:8).

Jesus’ doodling in the dust[3] has prepared the soil for the confrontation, not of the woman, but of the men. They are ready now to recognise their own sin, the injustice of their actions, their ill-treatment of the woman. In the face of such an invitation, how could they stone her? Perhaps, they think, this is a good time to abandon this ploy and get away. Fortunately, Jesus has gone back to his doodling, so they can escape without him watching, judging – a moment of grace. The older ones are the first to recognise that they have no legs to stand on; the younger ones take a little longer to let go of their pride and self-assurance, but even they do, until they have all dispersed.

By this point, Jesus has saved the woman from public humiliation by drawing attention off her, confronted the men with their own sin by his doodling and statement (which is a form of judgement), and invited them to repent by not watching as they give up on their ploy go home (which is a form of forgiveness). All who are now left are Jesus and the woman.

He stands up, and asks her two questions: “Woman, where are they?” and “Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10). He speaks to her with dignity, “Woman”. He does not judge or attack. He asks her questions, in order to engage with her as a human being. Jesus is humanising her again – recognising her worth as a person, her dignity as a creature of God, her value as a woman.

She says, “No one, Sir”; and he says, “Then neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11a). Jesus was the only one there who was without sin – he was the only one with the right to stone her. And yet, he withholds judgement. He could condemn her, because he is sinless and because she has indeed sinned by committing adultery. But he elects to not condemn. This is a statement of forgiveness. Even though he does not say it straight, “I forgive you your sin”, these words of forgiveness are inevitably implied in his words.[4],[5]

And finally he says, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11b). He does not pretend that she is sinless. Forgiveness is not about acting as if someone has not sinned. She was, indeed, deserving of judgement. Nevertheless, notwithstanding her sin, Jesus forgives. In the tension between judgement and forgiveness, condemnation and grace, love always wins, because love is at the heart of God.

“Jesus does not condone her sin – he specifically calls it ‘sin’ – but he does forgive it, and as all forgiven Christians know, this free, undeserved pardon is the single greatest incentive for new and improved behaviour.”[6] Jesus’ words convey a sense of empowering her to not sin – it is more than just an exhortation or instruction; it is also an equipping for a life of purity.

Judgement is present when we sin. Jesus in no way condones, permits or even tolerates sin. Sin is everything that goes contrary to God’s desire and vision for us. But it is also entrenched in the character and values of God to reconcile, to forgive and to empower. In this story, we see Jesus doing all of this with both the men and the woman. All are convicted of their sin, and in this way judge themselves. And all are forgiven and given a chance to live a life that is worthy of God’s love for us.

We are all God’s beloved ones. God finds creative ways to mediate between offenders and victims that remind all of us that we are sinners in need of grace, and that we are loved-ones in need of forgiveness.

Meditation for the Day

Think of those times that you have relied on God’s forgiveness – where judgement was warranted, but you still asked for and accepted forgiveness. Think also of those times when you have been reluctant to forgive someone else – where judgement has had the upper hand.

Prayer for the Day

Merciful God. Thank you that you are always willing to forgive, even when I am deserving of judgement. Infiltrate my heart and mind with a culture of forgiveness and generosity.

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[1] Bruner, pp. 507-508.

[2] Bruner, pp. 505-506.

[3] I am of the view that he was just doodling, not writing. His doodling was intended to draw attention off the woman and onto the men, and to invite introspection and doubt.

[4] Bruner, p. 509.

[5] I am reminded of a beautiful song, by Michael Card, called Forgiving eyes, sung from the perspective of this woman, recounting her experience of this encounter. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laPFkFnHGlM

[6] Bruner, p. 507.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 3: Sin, Love & Wrath

This is the third in the five-part series on “Being God’s Beloved”, delivered at St Martins Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa, on 26 March 2014. Today, we explore the relationship between human sin and divine love and wrath.

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