Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
Today I want to talk about grace in-between the lines. I’m sure we could all come up with stories about how grace – a full-out, unwarranted, undeserved, wonderful thing – happened in your life. The birth of a child, falling in love, being forgiven by a friend, getting an unexpected windfall at just the right time, feeling completely in tune with life and with God –are examples of the kind of grace we could name and celebrate. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the grace that’s there even when we don’t know it’s there, that is in-between the lines of the stories of our lives and we could easily miss it – or just as easily believe it isn’t even there at all.
Martin Luther wrote this in his commentary on the Book of Romans: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times.” Let that sink in for a moment.
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times.”
When I read that, I couldn’t help thinking about a man who got up and spoke at a seminar that was supposed to help religious leaders learn how to minister to returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Speakers had addressed the spiritual and moral wounds of war and the fact that most veterans were unlikely to enter our churches. There is a variety of reasons for that, but what this man had to say was the most heart-breaking. He was a therapist who counsels vets, and he described the inability of many veterans, in light of things they had seen and things they had done, to get back into ‘a state of grace.’ Imagine being in that dark and lonely place and hearing Luther’s words. Faith as “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times” might seem like an impossible dream.
Another example is the man I used to visit in a skilled nursing facility. He would often reminisce in great detail things he had said in anger or mistakes he had made – over 50 years ago. He ruminated about these things all the time, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t let go and enjoy the living, daring confidence in God’s grace available to him.
And that brings me to Judas. Now- don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to compare veterans – or anyone else – to Judas as a betrayer. I know that as soon as we hear the name, we think of words like villainy and treachery. But that’s not where I’m going. So stay with me for a bit.
Let’s go back to today’s reading from Acts where the early Christian church was having its first organizational crisis. The disciples had to call a congregational meeting so they could hold an election to fill the vacancy left by Judas – because somewhere, somebody had decided there had to be twelve apostles to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. And now they were down one apostle. Verses 15-17 give the explanation for the vacancy; 21-26 explain the nomination and election process.
But notice that there are some verses missing in the passage from the lectionary. Where are verses 18-21? What happened in between verses 18-21? Well, what happened was the death of Judas, the gorier of the two accounts of his death. In between the lines of the story is a desperate act of disbelief in God’s grace.
But wait a minute. Why should we care? Don’t we believe in the wickedness of Judas, his utter unredeemability? How could we think there could have been any grace available to him in between these lines? Aren’t we supposed to accept some version of the horrific picture painted by Dante of the ninth circle of Hell, where Satan gnaws on Judas for all eternity?
Maybe not. There are some other possibilities for thinking about Judas that not only see the historic Judas as redeemable, but also his name which for so long has been synonymous with traitor.
One of the most convincing arguments is that in the earliest writings of the church Judas is not a treacherous character at all. In the letters of Paul, the first one written around twenty years before the first gospel, there is nothing hostile about Judas, at least by name. Paul does write about “the night in which Jesus was betrayed,” but says nothing about it being by one of ‘the twelve.’ Also, when Paul described the experience of resurrection, he said that Jesus was seen by ‘the twelve’ – not the remaining eleven. So Judas is still among them, according to Paul.
Where Judas begins to take a hit is in the gospels. Starting with Mark, the first gospel written, you can see the image of Judas becoming increasingly negative. By the time John wrote, Christianity was breaking away from being a sect within Judaism, and we can read the hostility in John’s references to ‘the Jews’ – of whom he was one, but of a different church body (and we know how nasty church fights can be).
The other thing that had happened was the Roman crack-down on the Jewish uprising of 66 CE. They attacked and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, not one stone left upon another. The nation of Judea existed no more. All Jewish resistance was crushed. Those who managed to escape retreated into the desert to a fortress named Masada, where they held out until the year 73 when, knowing that if they would be crucified if captured alive, engaged in an act of mass suicide so that not a single Jewish soldier was alive when the Romans entered the fort.
The Romans blamed all Jews – not just the Temple authorities who had supported the guerrilla fighters, for starting the uprising. They didn’t distinguish one from another. Jews who were followers of Jesus – like John and his community – tried to distance themselves for the sake of their own survival. And what better way than by shifting the responsibility for the death of Jesus away from the Roman officials to the Temple authorities, the High Priest and the Sadducees? And making the villain of the Jesus story someone who bore a name very similar to that of the Judean nation?
One of the most insidious results of all this is that it planted the seeds of anti-Semitism in western Christianity. Even our own blessed saint, Martin Luther, was not immune from delivering horrific rants and the calling for the burning of synagogues. And to this day, we have to be very mindful of how we read the Passion story on Good Friday, with lines such as from Matthew of the crowd crying, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
All this is to say that it is a good possibility that the reputation of Judas can be cleared. You may have heard of The Gospel of Judas that was found in the 1970s in a cave in the desert near El Minya, Egypt. Dating to the 2nd century, it portrays Judas as Jesus’ best friend, and is asked by Jesus to betray him in order to fulfill prophecy and liberate his soul to ascend to heaven. That’s how somebody made sense of the story.
In modern times, you may be familiar with last year’s bestselling novel, The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd. She’s the author of The Secret Life of Bees, among other books of fiction and non-fiction. This latest novel begins with the main character introducing herself: “I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus.” In the author’s imagining, Ana lives in Nazareth with Jesus, his brothers, and their mother, Mary. They, of course, live under Roman occupation. They also live amidst the volatile resistance to occupation. One of the resistance leaders is Ana’s brother Judas.
It’s a modern work of fiction. But not so unlike the newly discovered manuscripts that show us the many ideas that were circulating in the early church, not always in alignment with the narrative that was eventually codified.
All this asks us to consider other scenarios for Judas and to wonder – even if he did betray Jesus, even if he denied him or ran away – would he be beyond any hope of getting back into a state of grace? The answer has to be No. No more so than the veteran or my friend in skilled nursing.
In between the lines – those places where we think there is no redemption, no forgiveness, no mercy, no hope – grace abides. And faith is the daring confidence in that grace that is so sure and certain that you’d stake your life on it. And it’s free. I was waiting to get my hair cut yesterday and was wandering around the beauty supply shop. I came upon a display of products called ‘Grace.’ “How cool was that,” I thought. “Maybe I’ll buy something to use in my sermon – or at least inspire me as I was writing. But when I turned over the smallest item and saw the price tag – that was the end of that. and I thought, “I’ll stick with God’s free grace, thank you very much!”
But how do we come to know this extravagant gift? Think about the between-the-lines places in your story? What is the thing that you have done or said or not done or not said that lurks in that space? The thing for which you cannot forgive yourself, cannot let go, cannot allow it to see the light of day, let alone the light of grace. Do you have the kind of confidence, the kind of faith that can allow grace to permeate even those secret spaces and heal your soul?
It’s hard to do, right? Easier said than done. That’s why I like the version of Judas’ story in which he’s not consigned to the ninth circle of Hell. Because if Judas can be redeemed, if Judas can be forgiven, if Judas can be in a state of grace – then anyone can. And what would it look like if we lived our lives all the time with that living, daring confidence? Can we live like that all the time? No. We forget, don’t we? But if faithfulness is our spiritual path, then this confidence is our goal.
What would it look like if we were a church that showed people what this amazing grace looks like and how to find it for themselves?
This past week I’ve been watching videos from the Courageous Church Summit. I registered for it last year, too. It was very good, but it was recorded right before COVID hit. I kept wondering what the speakers would have said differently in the midst of a pandemic. Well, this year I found out. Although by now, as we can see a light at the end of the tunnel, there’s a lot of reflection about what we’ve learned in these fourteen months and where the church might be going from here. By the way, all of these videos are available for us to watch at any time.
The first speaker was Diana Butler Bass, best-selling author and commentator on contemporary religion and spirituality. I just got her most recent book, Freeing Jesus and can’t wait to read it. In an earlier book, Christianity after Religion, she talks about the necessity of revising the three B’s of the church: believing, behaving, and belonging. The basis of the institutional church has been 1) believing (creed and dogma), 2) behaving (rules and techniques), and 3) belonging (membership and choice). One result of this is many people thinking that Christianity is all about getting the answers right, living by the rules, and passing the test.
She says that while the three B’s are still important, we would be wise to “reverse the order to belonging, behaving, and believing. Jesus did not begin with questions of belief. Jesus’ public ministry started when he formed a community.” Shifting the emphasis changes from what you believe to how you believe, from what you do to how you act and from what is your membership to who are you? This change results in a focus on relationships and community.
At the end of every video in the Courageous Church Summit, the moderator asks each interviewee the same question: if you could tweet something and you knew that all people of faith everywhere would see it, what’s the message that you would tweet or what’s the thing that needs to be said that is clear to you that might not be clear to the rest of us?
Diana Butler Bass, with no hesitation at all, said: “Oh, I think I’ve tweeted it. It’s just love. I mean, it sounds so corny and so, you know, shallow and, you know, maybe like a song or something, I don’t know. But you know, God is love, love your neighbor, love yourself, love the world. And that’s it.” I think she’s onto something.
The second video was with John Dorhauer, who currently serves as president of the United Church of Christ. He was asked the same question. Again, no hesitation: “I would plagiarize Rob Bell. My entire ministry has been one articulation after another of some version of the simple phrase, Love Wins. If I had the capacity to invite the world to believe one thing and one thing only that would be it.”
As we move closer to being able to gather in person, I’ve been wondering what Love Wins will look like on the corner of Burlingame and Channing. How will we invite others into belonging, behaving, and believing? How will people passing by know that this is a place where grace can be found – even in those secret, in-between places?
Lots to ponder. In the meantime, we continue in our confidence in God’s grace. And in our best moments, when we are truly living it, completely in tune with the unity that Jesus talked about – then we will exude that confidence and we will convey it to those who do not yet believe they can return to a state of grace.
But our faith, our living, daring confidence, will be our gift to them in between the lines of their stories. So that they too can know: love wins.
ACTS 1:15-17, 21-26
One day Peter stood up in the midst of the believers, a gathering of perhaps a hundred and twenty. “Friends,” he said, “the saying in scripture, uttered long ago by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David, was destined to be fulfilled in Judas, the one who guided those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and had been given a share in this ministry. It is necessary, therefore, that one of those who accompanied us all the time that Jesus moved among us, from the baptism of John until the day Jesus was taken up from us, should be named as witness with us to the Resurrection”
At that, they nominated two – Joseph, called Barsabbas or Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, “O God, you can read the hearts of people. Show us which of these two you have chosen to occupy this apostolic ministry, replacing Judas, who turned away and went his own way.” They then drew lots between the two. The choice fell to Matthias, who was added to the eleven apostles
I have manifested your name to those you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me; and now they have kept your Word. Now they know that everything you’ve entrusted to me does indeed come from you. I entrusted to them the message you entrusted to me, and they received it. They know that I really came from you; they believe it was you who sent me. And it is for them that I pray – not for the world, but for these you’ve given me— for they are really yours, just as all that belongs to me is yours, and all that belongs to you is mine. It is in them that I have been glorified. I am in the world no more, but while I am coming to you, they are still in the world.
Abba, holy God, protect those whom you have given me with your name – the Name that you gave me – that they may be one, even as we are one. As long as I was with them, I guarded them with your name, which you gave me. I kept careful watch, and not one of them was lost, except for the one who was destined to be lost in fulfillment of scripture.
Now I am coming to you; I say all this while I am still in the world that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I gave them your Word, and the world has hated them for it because they don’t belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I don’t ask you to take them out of the world, but to guard them from the Evil One. They are not of the world, any more than I am of the world. Consecrate them. Make them holy through the truth, for your Word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world; I consecrate myself now for their sakes, that they may be made holy in truth.