20 April 2011

Not Put to Shame:

A Sermon for Wednesday in Holy Week A

In this week, Holy Week, we retrace the events from Jesus' final arrival in Jerusalem to celebrate his last Passover on earth to his death by judicial murder and his resurrection. It can be a very painful time, because during this week we come face to face with the worst that men and women can do to one another and with the contrasting grace and love of God in our midst. And at no time is this more true than on Friday, when we commemorate Jesus' trial and execution, and today, when we confront the betrayal and broken relationships that set up His arrest and condemnation.

We don't know why Judas acted the way he did -- the evangelists don't really tell us -- any more than we know why Jesus chose Judas as one of the Twelve in the first place. These are not the questions that were important to the evangelists, so they don't tell us what we'd need to know to answer them. What mattered to them was the fact of Judas's betrayal, and how it set the stage for Jesus' arrest and all that came after. Even in purely human terms it is a compelling story -- the picture of the small band of men dedicated to a leader and a cause who are betrayed by one of their own is a mainstay of fiction and drama. It resonates with us because, in one way or another, we have been there -- in our human brokeness we have been in the course of our lives betrayer and betrayed. But what lifts this story beyond the purely human, what makes it the Good News that in that brokeness we are always seeking, and never more so than in this week?

We will find that Good News not in the story of Judas that exerts such a fascination for us, but in the way that Jesus responds to betrayal. We see that very clearly both in today's Gospel and in our first reading, from the book of Isaiah. That lesson is the third of the four Servant Songs of Isaiah, the words of the otherwise unnamed prophet we call Second Isaiah and of his followers.

It's clear from Jesus' own words, quoted in the gospels, that he relied heavily on the book of Isaiah to understand and express what it meant to be the Messiah, God's annointed one. Jesus radically redefined the role of the Messiah not as a royal ruler, the heir of David's heroic feats and vast kingdom, but as the Servant of God. Jesus uses the words of Second Isaiah to accomplish this redefinition. From the very beginning the church has followed his lead, using the Servant Songs in particular to guide us and deepen our understanding of what God the Father was doing among us in the saving work of Jesus both in his lifetime of teaching, healing, and service among us, and in his death.

Second Isaiah came to see his own role not just as being a prophet but in becoming the Servant of God, serving both his own people and the nations by doing God's will. And in ways that foreshadow the later life and death of Jesus, we learn through his own words and those of his followers how he suffered persecution and death because of his resolve to answer God's call to ministry as God's Servant. In this lesson we hear how the Servant, taught by God, is not rebellious, nor does he turn back. Instead he accepts shame, insult, and mistreatment as part of his task as Servant. Confident in God and God's help, the Servant can face pain and disgrace without flinching, indeed without betraying a reaction. It is an action of faith and courage that few could aspire to.

Jesus however has modeled his ministry on the Servant; he and later his followers will use the Servant's words and the Servant's followers' words to explain who he is and what kind of a Messiah he is. In the epistle, taken from the letter to the Hebrews, the author reminds us that Jesus 'endured the cross, disregarding its shame', surely drawing upon this Isaiah passage. It is with those ancient words in our hearts that we much turn to the gospel reading for today. It is taken from John's Gospel, from the account there of the Last Supper -- John does not relate as Matthew, Mark, and Luke do how Judas went on the day before the Last Supper, and arranged matters with the authorities. Instead he tells us about an event at the supper itself.

Jesus knows that he is going to be betrayed and he knows who is going to do it -- our reading begins with Jesus' revelation of that fact to the disciples at supper. I don't think that this knowledge depends in any way on Jesus being the Son of God -- I am sure that in so small and intimate a circle as Jesus and the Twelve it was really not possible for Judas to undergo so basic a change in his feelings and to do what he had done only the day before and appear unchanged to Jesus. But however he knows, Jesus knows, and in a curiously intimate little conversation (for only Jesus and Judas know what Jesus is talking about) Jesus sends Judas off into the night to carry out the role Judas has chosen for himself. And then comes the really extraordinary thing. Jesus says to those that remain: 'Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.'

Sending Judas off essentially to 'get it over with' seems understandable -- as we might want a painful and difficult surgery or treatment to just get started, so Jesus wants the now-inevitable betrayal and its consequences to begin to unwind. We recognise in this action the same spirit as the Servant, who accepts pain and disgrace when it is inevitable and relies upon the help and vindication of God. But how can anyone speak of glory in this situation? If Jesus knows that he is about to be betrayed to his death, then he must know what a painful and shameful death it will be. Nothing appears to be further from glory than a Roman crucifixion. And yet the author of Hebrews also speaks of the joy that was set before Jesus as the reason he endured the cross.

What is this glory, this joy? Jesus reveals his oneness with the Father and the Father reveals his oneness with Jesus -- this is the glory to which Jesus' death is the gateway. Why? Because in the daily acts of obedience and faithfulness that brought him to that death Jesus revealed his Father, his Father's love for the world and humankind, the life of love that Father and Son share with the Spirit. By revealing it and by showing us the way of obedience and faithfulness, Jesus invites us also to share in that divine life of love. So having set his feet inrevocably on the path to Calvary, 'the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.' Now the final three days can begin -- everyone knows their role, everyone has made their choices. The saving work of Jesus is about to reach its conclusion and we are invited not just to watch, but to take part, to claim a share in the divine life that Jesus has opened to us. That is the good news in this gospel and in this and every Holy Week.