Matthew 26:14-16, 20-25, 47-50; 27:1-5; John 20:19-23
In 1968, Fred Rogers heard Francois Clemmons singing in church and asked him to become the police officer on Mr. Rogers’ children’s television show. Francois Clemmons is African American, and growing up he’d only known to fear police officers in his neighborhood during the Civil Rights Era, so he wasn’t so tickled about portraying one on TV. But Fred insisted that was the role he wanted him in, and Francois agreed. In one episode, during the sweltering hot of summer, Mr. Rogers was sitting in his backyard with his feet in a kiddie pool, trying to keep cool, when Officer Clemmons stopped by to say hello. Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to have a seat and put his feet in the pool as well, stating that just taking a few minutes to cool one’s feet can make all the difference in the world. The two talked for a bit, and then Officer Clemmons began to take his feet out of the pool to end that segment of the show. Mr. Rogers handed him a towel, and the two of them began to dry Officer Clemmon’s feet. In a time in which it was illegal in some states to for a white man and a black man to dip their feet in the same water, this was quite a statement.
Fred Rogers, a Lutheran Pastor by training, had just shown the world what it means to truly be a neighbor— to love your neighbor as yourself. Later, Clemmons, would tell the story of how one day he was standing offset watching the show wrap up, and Fred looked at the camera as he always did, and said, “I love you just the way you are,” except that this time Francois felt he was looking straight at him. After the show, he went up to Fred and said, “Fred, I felt like you were saying that just to me today.” And Fred replied, “I’ve been saying it to you for years, Francois, but today, you heard me.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObHNWh3F5fQ)
As cheesy as it may sound, there is a part of me that aches for Judas to have been able to hear those words from Jesus— the words Jesus had been telling him for three years as they walked together. Judas is a complicated character that we know very little about. He is one of the 12 disciples— one of Jesus’ inner circle, and yet we know little about where Jesus was when he called him or how he interacted with the rest of the group. It makes me wonder if the Gospel writers left his story out after knowing he betrayed Jesus. Throughout Christian history, some people have desired to make him into a greedy monster, choosing money over faithfulness to Jesus. Some people think he must’ve been an outlier— one of the 12, but not super close to Jesus, coming onto the scene with the prime motive of stealing from the disciples. But the Gospels do not make either of those claims, and I think to do so minimizes what Jesus was trying to do. After all, Jesus invited Judas to be his disciple. Like all the disciples, Jesus loved him, trained him, spent time in prayer with him, and nowhere do we have any evidence that Judas’s relationship with Jesus was any different than any other disciple. The most common theory is that Judas was a Zealot, someone who believed that the only way for any change to happen would have to come through force, someone who got impatient with Jesus and thought that by turning Jesus in, he would force Jesus’ hand and Jesus would have to make his move and cause a rebellion. Judas refused to accept Jesus as he was and tried to make him what he wanted him to be. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew, however, seems to not care about Judas’ motives at all. What we do know, is that somewhere along the way Judas decided to betray Jesus.
It is clear in Judas’ decision to betray Jesus that he missed out on knowing that Jesus loved him just the way he was. But in many ways, I’m not so sure he was so different than the rest of the disciples. After all, within a span of a few days some of the disciples would be arguing about who would be first in Jesus’ Kingdom; some would fall asleep in the garden during Jesus’ greatest time of need; some of them would run away as he was arrested; one of them, Peter, would deny every knowing him at all. All of them would huddle in fear and confusion. But only Judas, after his act of betrayal, would so miscalculate God’s love, as to take his own life out of shame and loathing. As William Barclay put it, “Judas enters his own kind of hell before he dies— the hell of realizing the terrible consequences of his sin.”
It doesn’t take much looking around in our world to see the consequences of sin— to see both individual acts that hurt others, and also communal acts of sin that hurt this world and its people. We all know how quickly we can move from being kind and patient to being angry, punitive, manipulative, and petty. There’s actually probably no better examples of this than in the Bible, where families are torn apart by sibling rivalries, abuse goes unchecked and affects generations; people turn from God and live lives that do the opposite of honoring themselves and who God made them to be. It’s important to recognize this about ourselves. Maybe you’re different than me, but I can be very delusional about my own sin— I can defend it ferociously, because it’s mine and I’ve gotten used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sin.
And that’s where we get stuck— we think we can dig ourselves out of our own problems; we think we can muscle through until we find a different solution. And we get deeper and deeper until, like Judas, we despair at having betrayed the One we loved.
But God has not abandoned us, even then. In fact, if we trust the God of the Bible, then oftentimes by the time we find the courage and grace of God to confess our own sin and to turn around towards God again, God has already forgiven us.
The last interaction Jesus had with Judas before Judas betrayed him in the garden, was to eat with Judas. In three of the Gospels Jesus eats with him at the Last Supper and offers him bread and wine, telling him, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” And then in the Gospel of John Jesus gets down on his knees and washes Judas’ feet, along with the other disciples. We are told that Jesus already knows what Judas is going to do. But Jesus does not throw him out; he doesn’t ask him to leave. It’s not until after they’ve eaten; after he has washed their feet; that Jesus tells them he knows what Judas is going to do. Jesus has already forgiven Judas for all that he has done, and all that he will do.
So when I hear the stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples after the resurrection— coming to them when they are huddled in a locked room for fear of the Romans and telling them, “Peace be with you.” I am struck by all that Judas missed in this life. Jesus comes not just offering them peace of mind or comfort in their fear; Jesus comes offering them the peace of reconciliation— the peace of knowing that he holds nothing against them, that all is forgiven.
And Judas missed it in this life. He missed seeing Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and wide embrace.
But just in case we are tempted to believe this is just about Jesus offering us grace, Jesus doesn’t end there. He says to them directly, Your role is to go out into the world and forgive others. If you forgive the sins of any, they will be forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they will be retained.” What an amazing thing to say at this moment, this moment when they know they have been forgiven! This moment, when they are filled with gratefulness and would find it impossible to see anyone else’s sin as bigger than their own.
In The Message Bible, Jesus says it this way, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive them, what are you going to do with them?”
Isn’t that a great question? If we don’t forgive each others’ sins, what are we going to do with them? Jesus didn’t seem to find a use for collecting sins. He forgave them all. What will we be missing out on if we choose not to receive and give forgiveness?
William Barclay’s Gospel of Matthew Commentary Interpretation Commentary on Matthew by Douglas Hare WorkingPreacher article on the Gospel of John passage by Karoline Lewis The Book of Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu The Way of Forgiveness by Marjorie Thompsen Youtube video of an interview with Francois Clemmons