AN EASTER SERMON   

Rising to Life


Jesus was killed on a cross. Judas, on the other hand, consumed with guilt, hanged himself from a tree. For a moment, juxtapose the twin images of Jesus and Judas hanging on trees, one pinned to it with nails, the other dangling on a belt: so similar in appearance and yet so very different in meaning.

What makes for that difference in meaning? Obviously, the life that went before, and the spirit in which they each faced death. One took his own life; the other had his life taken from him. Judas was defeated by death. Death was defeated by Jesus. How can this possibly be? Because, when Judas died all that he represented died with him. When Jesus died all that he stood for survived and was even enhanced and given greater meaning by his death.

We can assert, with varying degrees of conviction, that death is not the end, but with absolute certainty only that we all will die. What we can learn from Jesus’ death is that we do not have to be afraid of it. Fear of death takes the sap out of life. If we do not fear death then death is defeated. The recent example of Keith Walker is an excellent one to illustrate my point.

Six weeks ago Keith and Lianne came to see me about wedding arrangements - and funeral arrangements. For Keith had cancer of the kidney and the prognosis was poor. The wedding took place at the beginning of February and the funeral four weeks later. Now the spirit of many people would be subdued by the certainty of imminent death. But not Keith’s. He visited friends, wrote them letters of appreciation, went on excursions, played his guitar and lived life to the full. He was one of the few people I know who tried to live the life of the Sermon on the Mount. He was a man of faith, and death held no fear.

If Crucifixion reveals the meaning of Jesus’ life, then Resurrection reveals the meaning of his death. At Easter we celebrate the fact that all that Jesus stood for lived on. The symbol for this is his resurrected body. We don’t know what kind of body the resurrection body is, but it is not like the body we have now. That is why, in the stories of those who meet Jesus after his death, they never recognize him from his physical appearance. In a certain sense, in so far as those who follow him live out his teaching, they - we - are his resurrected body.

I suggest that the overriding myth of the New Testament is ‘Resurrection’. Schweitzer held that for the early church the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was the dominant myth, which they expected Christ would soon return to inaugurate. When this did not come about, they then focused on the Resurrection as a way of making sense of their experiences. I want to say two things about this. Firstly, these do not have to be either/ors, either the Resurrection or the Kingdom. Secondly, these are not future states but present experiences.

Repentance

Let us now consider a crisis point in the lives of the disciples Judas and Peter. There is a moment, perhaps the briefest of seconds, when Judas is hit by the realisation that it is all going pear-shaped. Matthew says he is filled with remorse. He has made a big mistake. His stomach is turning somersaults. He becomes flushed. ‘My God, what have I done?’ he cries. In that split second his whole future is decided. Overwhelmed by guilt, he returns to the priests and asks them to take back the money, to halt the proceedings that are by now well under way. “I was wrong - I have betrayed an innocent man to death.” (Mt.27.3-4)

At his previous meeting with the priests they were friendly and grateful. Now they do not want to know. As far as they are concerned, his guilt is his problem. He flings down the thirty pieces of silver. Cold-bloodedly the priests discuss how it should be spent; it cannot go back into the Temple coffers because it is blood-money. Judas, desperate and driven by guilt, underwritten, perhaps, by the attitude of those to whom he had sold Jesus, kills himself. Such is the destructive, the fiercely corrosive, power of guilt.

Let us now put the spotlight on Peter. He also watches the trials and sees the inevitability of death for Jesus. The situation could mean death for him, too, but he cannot accept that and from cowardice denies that he is a follower of the prisoner.

But he also sees the spirit in which Jesus faces this terrible outcome. As, from a distance, he watches Jesus on the cross it dawns on him how deeply Jesus has drunk from a cup that he himself has hardly sipped. At this point, with a catalogue of failures behind him, he might have given in to utter despair about himself. Not Peter. Jesus has shown him the heights to which the human spirit may rise and Peter, who has fallen short so many times before, accepts the challenge: his life is transformed.

Now the suicide of Judas is, as it were, contained in the point of change. When the lightning hits, the house is not immediately destroyed by that enormous charge of electricity. But the fire which engulfs the house is contained within the charge. So, with Peter and Judas, we need to recognize that all else follows from the point of decision, the point at which all internal energies, positive and negative, come to a peak. We all experience these crisis points but we do not always realise how much may follow from one decision. This is true, whichever direction we are going in. ‘The longest journey begins with the first step’: within that step the whole journey is contained. Without it there can be no journey. ‘Resist the beginnings’: it is also true that the first small compromise with ourselves leads on to other and greater compromises. We have to choose when we have only the haziest notion of the consequences of our action. And we have to choose bravely, in the understanding that all things are possible.

  Imagine two teenage guitarists listening to Jimmy Hendrix. One says, ‘I could never play like that’, and signs up for a course in accountancy. The other is excited by the possibilities that are revealed and is challenged to go off and practice so as to become as good a guitarist. Both are brought to a point of decision by the experience of listening to Hendrix. The one who responds positively does not know whether or not he will become as good a performer as Hendrix. He puts in the practice with no promise of success. He travels in faith. There is, also, of course the third youngster whom I forgot to mention. He sits in his bedroom, plays his guitar like an accountant and imagines he sounds like Hendrix!

What Jesus on the cross shows Peter, as Hendrix showed the second guitarist, is his potential. Realising his potential he repents his own shortcomings and his life changes. That is what true repentance means. It does not mean writhing, guilt-ridden, in the dirt. It means seeing greater possibilities for oneself and wanting them with all one’s being.

Both Peter and Judas are free to respond positively or negatively to the events that confront them.

They both responded positively at another crisis point in their lives, when Jesus called them to follow him. But now, at this new crossroads, Judas takes a dark, descending path and Peter an open, but uphill, highway. The one we may call a pessimist, the other an optimist. But are these words ‘pessimist’ and ‘optimist’ descriptions of their respective natures? Might it not have been possible for Judas to accept that he had betrayed Jesus and vow to make up for it somehow? The answer, of course, is Yes and No.

Judas must have had a positive side to him, otherwise he would not have accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him, and Jesus, we can be fairly sure, would not have taken him on had he had no potential other than that of being a skeleton at the feast. Perhaps Judas was careful, which is why he was put in charge of the purse, and had a smiggott of puritanism, as we discover in the reprimand he gave to Mary for wasting her precious perfume on Jesus when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Perhaps he was lacking in imagination; perhaps he was no risk taker. Whatever it was, he either did not understand, or did not accept, Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness.

When we look at other people’s lives we can usually see an inevitability about them. We can also see, with a minority, a point at which an unpredictable change has taken place. And, of course, Jesus’ preaching is rooted in that possibility. We can all change. Paul, the persecutor of Christians, became their champion; Francis kissed the leper and it set him free; Schweitzer, inspired by the statue of a Negro, abandoned an academic career for the jungle; Van Gogh gave up preaching for painting… These were not career moves but total reorientations.

Because we all have the capacity for change it is impossible to say who we really are. The subject of Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyitch changes on his death bed. Had he been struck down by lightning a year before, a different man would have died. If Peter hadn’t been prepared to bet on Jesus he, too, might have ended up swinging from a tree.

Judas’ fault was not that he sold his master but that he did not accept the possibility of change. He denied the life, the creativity, the potential within himself. He saw death as final, as extinction, and he need not have done. Like the rich young man told to sell his goods and give to the poor, he had a choice. But he could not see beyond himself, he did not understand that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven except sin against the spirit. In his inability to accept that the spirit could work in him he did indeed sin against it.

Despair and Hope

As he contemplates the cross is not Peter at a point in his life similar to that of the Prodigal Son as he contemplates the pig swill? Neither repents because someone comes along and tells them how awful they are. They know how awful they are but they are driven, not by guilt, but by hope. It is not when we are riding high that we need, and are shown, the light but when we are in the pits. What good, after all, is a candle to someone flying near the sun? It is the person who is in darkness who prays for light. It is when we are in the depths that we discover in ourselves either hope or despair. The difference between Peter and Judas is that, even in his darkest moments, Peter sees a ray of light; Judas sees nothing but darkness.

When we give up on the belief that all things are possible; when we forget that our failures can teach us more than our successes; then we give up on life. Then we follow the Judas path and not the Peter path. George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, describes his own experience.

When I myself was in the deep, shut up under all, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows and my temptations were so great that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how He was tempted by the same devil, and overcame him and bruised his head, and that through Him and His power, light, grace, and Spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in Him; so He it was that opened to me when I was shut up and had no hope nor faith. Christ, who had enlightened me, gave me His light to believe in; He gave me hope, which He Himself revealed in me, and He gave me His spirit and grace, which I found sufficient in the deeps and in weakness.

(George Fox, An Autobiography, p. 83.)

Colin Hodgetts



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