7th Sunday of Easter

May 16, 2021, Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Lynn Pilcher, guest preacher, Luther Seminary first-year student

Good morning!  

I’d like to begin by thanking Pastor Arnold for saying yes to my request to serve as mentor these past two months and for introducing me to the justice and reconciling work being done in the state of Vermont and nationally on issues of race.  I also want to thank you, the members of this congregation, for your gracious welcome.  Your generosity, warmth, and love as a community are evident and felt even at a distance and through the internet!

When we were setting up my learning goals, Pastor Arnold encouraged me to preach and I’m glad that he did; however, you should know I haven’t taken any courses in preaching and have only just completed my second semester of seminary!  Any theological statements which don’t sound quite right should definitely be fact checked by Pastor Arnold, who, if my sources are correct, will have 41 years of ordained ministry under his clerical collar this coming October!  Congratulations, pastor!

Disclaimers aside, I trust that the Spirit is in and among us today and hope that the words and the music shared provide you with spiritual sustenance, comfort, and inspiration on your faith journey.  

So where are we in the church year?  If you’re like me, you may be finding that Covid and changes in our lives has warped your sense of time.  To ground ourselves, we are reminded in today’s Scripture that we are still in the season of Easter, this being the 7th Sunday of Easter.  This past Thursday was the day marking the Ascension of Jesus to eternal life with God and next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the dramatic entering in of the Holy Spirit as a strong wind, and the birth of the Church.

Our Gospel reading today, set at the time of the Last Supper, following the betrayal by Judas, and just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, reads as though Jesus is speaking from a place of having already risen from the dead.  In John 17, Jesus prays aloud to God, seemingly with one foot in either world: “I am no longer in the world” as the disciples listen nearby.  The essence of his prayer is to convey that his work on earth is complete, and he requests that God: “Protect them…, so that they may be one, as we are one.”  Indeed, our understanding as Christians is that Jesus’ life and ministry is fulfilled in reconciling us to God, gathering up all things in Christ, as One body and Creation.

This all sounds wonderful and fills us a sense of belonging and abiding in God, but during my preparation for today’s sermon, I kept thinking about Judas:  the one who was lost, the one who betrayed Jesus, the traitor.  He’s referred to in both Acts and in John’s Gospel today, in the casting lots for his replacement and in Jesus’ prayer, the only one who was lost.  Judas, as shown in Rembrandt’s painting, returns the 30 silver pieces, clearly an act of seeking redemption and forgiveness.  We can only imagine that he feels horrible about his actions, to the point of ending his own life.

Somehow, I wanted Judas to be included in Jesus’ work in the world and not discounted and simply replaced at the end of his ministry.  It probably says more about me than about Scripture, in my tendency to consider the other, the outcast, and those who don’t belong. 

Have we been too quick to discard Judas?  Do we condemn him because of his actions and as such don’t include him in the circle of love as brothers and sisters in Christ?   Are we quick to do similarly to people in our own life, not seeing their humanity when they’ve done something horrific?

I’m not suggesting that Judas become a saint, but I think the guy needs a break.  I was pleased to discover, having already felt this compassion for Judas in my heart, that in researching I came to learn that as recently as the 1970s, a leather-bound papyrus document entitled “Gospel of Judas” was discovered in Egypt, which may shed Judas in a bit more of a positive light.  It was carbon dated by the National Geographic as likely being written between 220-340 AD, the speculation being that it is a translation of an earlier text from 130-170 AD.  This Gospel of Judas is part of Gnosticism, which Irenaeus, one of the early church fathers, argued against as fictitious and as such it never became part of the church canon. 

According to Elaine Pagels, a well-respected religious historian, Princeton professor, and expert on the Gnostic Gospels, this discovery provides a more nuanced, contextualized understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and what may have been happening in those first few centuries and the beginning of the church.  Other scholars feel it hasn’t drawn any new information on either Jesus or Judas.  

The Gospel of Judas has been translated, and unlike other gospels in the canon, Judas is portrayed in a more positive light and one in which Jesus and Judas have a deep relationship.  The text doesn’t negate the actions of Judas as we’ve known them, but it does couch them as having been divinely appointed to fulfill the Scriptures.  Has it ever seemed curious to you that Judas identifies Jesus to the authorities with a kiss?

Maybe part of my empathy with Judas is that I think there is something of ourselves in him as well.  Judas’ life represents a complicated relationship with Jesus, on the one hand that of deep love and commitment and yet actions which appeared contrary and conflicted. My guess is that none of us has been prescribed a role as difficult as Judas had, to deny and condemn to death the one whom he loved so dearly, but perhaps we’ve had other struggles with which we can identify in Judas.

The prevailing message of today’s passages is that Jesus’ work is complete.  He has been the Good Shepherd, caring for the flock he was given, and through his life and servanthood and emptying of himself, he unites all people, indeed all of Creation, into God’s Kin-dom.  I’d like to think Judas is also part of that circle of love, as well as the parts of ourselves we may wish to cast aside.  God love, as the hymn states, is deep, broad, and high.  May we know it, live it, and rejoice in this Good News!