“A Love We Can Grasp”
**Originally preached at the Jazz service at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago on March 22, 2015. This sermon is part of a Lenten series called “Were You There?” which follows particular characters that Jesus encounters on his way to the cross.
Matthew 26: 14-16, 47-50
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ At once he came up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.
In the Gospel according to Disney version of Jesus’ story, we would know Judas is the bad guy right from the start. We would be able to tell because he’d look a little less sunny than all the other disciples. He would probably have shadows under his eyes and a slight frown permanently plastered onto his face just like Scar from The Lion King or any number of other Disney villains. And so from the very beginning, long before Judas’ act of betrayal, when he was just another follower of Jesus hanging out with his friends, we would take one look at him and say, “That guy is trouble.”
In fact, that is more or less the way he is presented to us in Matthew. The first time this gospel mentions Judas is when the twelve disciples are summoned and sent out by Jesus. They are named one after another—Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, Phillip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, another James and Thaddeus, Simon and then, finally, Judas—described to us as “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”
The moment he enters the scene, he is pegged as the villain. We perceive every moment of his story through the lens of the betrayal we know he will eventually enact. So much so that we might begin to wonder why Jesus even kept Judas around. “Can’t you see he’s the bad guy? Look at those shadows under his eyes and his constant frown! Isn’t it obvious?” To us, Judas is only ever one thing: the betrayer. And as far as we’re concerned, nothing else about him matters.
Except that, Jesus doesn’t have the Disney version of his story—or even the Matthew version. And long before Judas commits the heinous act that will ultimately subsume every other facet of his identity and make his name synonymous with betrayal, he is first just one of Jesus’ followers. He is one of Jesus’ friends.
I wonder about the Judas that Jesus knew. An ordinary man who summoned within himself the courage—along with his fellow disciples—to cast off the trappings of his ordinary life and follow a radical young rabbi. I wonder if he was good at making jokes to lighten the tension when disagreements broke out among the disciples, or if perhaps he was the deep thinker, always critically considering problems they encountered from every angle before offering up a pragmatic solution. I wonder how many other genuine kisses of greeting preceded the one that he gives Jesus in the garden that fateful night? How many times did he sit up late with a weary and troubled Jesus in a borrowed house, and offer the solace of quiet company?
I wonder about the Judas that Jesus knew. Because he was more than a betrayer. He was so deeply broken, but he was more than just that brokenness. He was a friend and a follower. He was a human being. Just like us. And just like Jesus, who loved him.
The risk, I think, in only seeing Judas as the Betrayer, is that it makes us think that that—betrayal—is what his story is ultimately about. But it’s not. The story of Judas—human, complicated, broken, just-like-us Judas—is ultimately a story about love. The love that Christ has for him—the same love that Christ has for all of us.
In the garden, Judas offers Jesus a kiss and calls out to him, “Greetings, Rabbi!” His final word to Jesus is “Rabbi” which means teacher. It is as if, even in this dark moment of devastating deceit, he is asking Jesus for one more lesson. And Jesus offers one. He replies to Judas, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Even after Judas has become the betrayer—even in the exact moment of his most grievous transgression—Jesus names him as friend. The final message that Jesus leaves his wayward disciple with is “you are, above all, beloved.”
There is not a moment when Judas is left alone in his despair. The greatest tragedy of his story is that he can’t feel this truth—he goes to his grave drowning in his own brokenness and grief, not being able to understand and know and receive that he has already been forgiven. Jesus’ message to him is clear in these final words, even if he can’t hear it. “I know you are going to hurt me, I know you are going to mess up in the worst possible way, and I still love you.” Jesus’ love for Judas is truly a love that bears all things—even the very worst thing. And it is the same love that Jesus has for Peter in his denial, for all the disciples in their flight, and for all of us—no matter our brokenness. It is the love that drove Jesus’ ministry, that gave him strength to face all that Good Friday would bring, and it is a love that, ultimately, endures and transcends death itself.
This is an amazing love. But perhaps the most amazing thing about it is, this is a human love. So often we describe the love of Christ as this divine love beyond all comprehension. But it is essential to everything that Jesus Christ was that even as he was indeed divine, he was also absolutely, fully human. That is why it is so important to look beyond our archetypal understandings of this story—beyond betrayer and divine savior—and see that there in that garden was a young rabbi and his dear friend and a deeply human, messy, painful love that would somehow overcome the most destructive kind of hurt and brokenness. This is the kind of love Jesus has for us. And it is not a love that is beyond us; it is a love that we can grasp.
We miss something deeply important when we think that loving Judas and us comes easy to Jesus because he is the Son of God. Jesus was a human being standing in that garden, watching one of his closest friends hand him over to death. Let us not doubt for a second that it hurt like heck. That it was hard. But Jesus does it anyway. Forgives Judas. Offers grace and mercy. Not because it was easy or because he was God, but because in his genuine, organic, blood-pumping heart, he loved Judas too much to ever turn away from him.
The love that claims us and never abandons us is real, tangible, human love. This is a love we can understand and feel in our bones and it is even a love we can embody. We know what this love feels like. Think for a moment of a time when you were loved in spite of something you’d done. Now think of a time when you loved someone else in spite of something they’d done. This is deep, powerful love. It is the way that Jesus loves us and it is the way we are called to love each other.
We’ve seen this kind of love. I’ve seen this kind of love.
This past Tuesday evening, I was sitting in this very sanctuary listening to a well-respected scholar named Diana Butler Bass speak about hope and love and a new great awakening in the church. This lecture was a part of the NEXT Church Conference, a yearly gathering of Presbyterian faith leaders and others who come together to share and dream about the new ways the Spirit is at work in the church and in the world. In the middle of this woman’s talk, word came through that our Presbyterian denomination had voted to embrace marriage equality for same-gender couples.
This move came through an amendment to our governing document which would clarify our definition our marriage as “a commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” This shift began in earnest with an approval by our national assembly last summer, and required an affirmative vote from a majority of our regional church groups—called presbyteries. The 86th (and last necessary) presbytery—called Palisades in New Jersey—voted yes on Tuesday night. After a tense and silent 15 minutes in which more and more of us gathered received word from texts and tweets that the amendment had passed, someone finally interrupted Diana to announce the news and the entire sanctuary erupted into joyous cheers and a standing ovation.
That moment was one of the most powerful and life-giving moments of my life, and it immediately took me back to another pivotal experience only 9 months earlier. Last June, I also sat in a large room surrounded by Presbyterians. It was our national gathering, called General Assembly, and our commissioners were voting for the marriage amendment that would eventually make its way to presbyteries and finally be passed this week. That day, I sat in the back of the room with other non-voting observers in a section filled almost entirely with LGBTQ Presbyterians.
When the vote came through and it was announced that 71% of people had voted in favor of marriage equality (a larger margin that we ever could have dreamed) there was an audible sound around the room. For most it was a gasp of disbelief and celebration. But in my section of queer Presbyterians, that sound was intermingled with the weighty exhale of older LGBTQ Christians who were seeing this day after more than four decades of faithful struggle to be fully recognized and included in this church they loved.
That night I stood with many of them in a hotel suite, each of us taking turns to offer champagne toasts about all that had been accomplished, and the ever-brightening future that awaited us. As I listened to my forebears share stories about the years and years of work that had led to this moment, as well as the ordination of LGBTQ pastors only a few years earlier, I was overwhelmed by the enduring love they held for the church.
A love that once empowered gay Presbyterian pastor, David Sindt (who was later a faithful member of Lincoln Park Presbyterian here in Chicago), to show up at the 1974 national General Assembly and hold up a sign that boldy asked, “Is anyone else out there gay?” A love that compelled Rev. Janie Spahr to marry a number of same-gender couples even though doing so jeopardized her ordination and embroiled her in lengthy and painful judicial processes.
A love that has led More Light Presbyterians for years to enlist Presbyterian volunteers of all kinds to knit rainbow colored stoles, like the one I’m wearing in celebration today, in order to promote visibility and equality within our church.
It’s a love that compelled countless gifted queer people clearly called to ministry to give up their chance at ordination in order to speak truth in love to their denomination. And a love that compelled countless others to painfully hide deep essential truths of their identity so that they could continue to minister to the church they served. Such love has empowered so many beloved queer children of God to say to this church, “I know you will hurt me. I know you will mess up in the worst possible way. And I still love you.”
Looking in the faces of many of these faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Presbyterians that night last June, and remembering this week many, many others who died long before they ever saw any justice in the church to which they so committed themselves—I found myself more convicted than ever that the love Jesus Christ has for us and for Judas and for this world is an incredibly human love that we can grasp and even, God-willing, embody.
I’ve seen it. And it is powerful. That kind of love is the reason that I stand before you today as the first out openly bisexual woman ordained in my Texas presbytery. It is the reason I was one of the very first queer Presbyterians to begin and end my seminary process in a church that would ordain me. And now it is the reason I will never officiate a wedding in a church where I cannot also get married. This amazing love can transform the world.
It is the kind of love that sees the very worst brokenness in people, but doesn’t stop believing in the best that they can be. It is the kind of love that says “I don’t understand, but I’m not giving up on you.” Embodying this love doesn’t mean accepting injustice or withstanding abuse, but speaking and fighting against such things because we know that they make us all a little less human. Such love compels us to dream of a better world even when all we can see around us is pain and betrayal and destruction. It is the kind of love that death itself could not destroy and that will ultimately overcome everything that would seek to destroy it and us.
It’s not merely a happy coincidence that we can grasp and embody this love. In fact, Jesus stakes the coming of his kindom on his deep, enduring conviction that we can and will love each other as he loves us. So when Jesus and his love for us feel too far away, let us remind ourselves of that love by so loving one another. Let us find strength and inspiration in those who have set an example of such love. Let us trust in Jesus’ last lesson for Judas and for us and know, “You are, above all, beloved.” And let us trust that this love can transform the world and bring the kindom ever closer. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. What a gift that it is ours to grasp. Amen.