During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry. Our second service on Easter Sunday included a reading from John 21:1-19, and we contrasted the ways that two of Jesus’ closest friends – Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot – returned to Jesus in the last week of his life.
As we begin this morning, I’d like to ask you to think about this: who has been the absolute worst person in the entire scope of human history?
Hitler? Pol Pot? Osama Bin Laden? Charles Manson? Joseph Stalin? Ted Bundy? Nero?
How would you go about measuring something like “absolute worstness”? There has to be a certain subjectivism involved, doesn’t there?
I did a little research this week, and have come to the conclusion that Adolph Hitler appears to be the current standard for absolute worstness. If you are really appalled by someone and want to really denigrate his character, you say, “Oh, that one? He’s another Hitler…” I mean, I don’t really want to say anything nice about any of these other folks, but how often do you hear someone referred to as “another Vlad the Impaler”?
Let’s focus it down a little bit. Who is the worst person in the entire Bible?
Jezebel? Cain? Herod? Abimilech? Maybe. But my hunch is that most of us pretty much use Judas Iscariot as our go-to in this department, don’t we? I mean, not only did he coldly betray the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Life…but he did so after having shared supper with him and after having had his feet washed by Jesus. Judas? That’s messed up.
Was Peter on anyone’s list for “worst person in the Bible”? The immediate reaction, I’d think, would be, “Hey, no, Pastor Dave! Not Peter! He plays for our team. I mean, sure, he was a little sensitive. Kind of a blowhard, really. But He was an Apostle with a capital ‘A’! He practically started the church!”
So. What did Judas do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.
And what did Peter do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.
I mean, we can spin it any way we want to but the fact is that on the very same night nearly 2000 years ago, for all intents and purposes, these two men did the same thing.
And if you’ll give me that, then how is it that on the one hand, Judas is often reviled as the greatest scoundrel in history and his mere name is synonymous with treachery, while on the other hand, Peter is the Rock Star of the early Christian movement and even today the most important church in the world is named for him?
Let’s talk about what they did – and I’ll repeat my thesis that I believe they did pretty much the same thing. In fact, you could say that Judas was a little smarter than Peter. First of all, Judas at least got paid for his trouble. 30 pieces of silver was about half a year’s salary – not too bad for one little kiss. Beyond that, of course, it’s possible to make a case that there was some mistaken nobility in Judas’ gesture. Let’s say he really believed that Jesus was the coming Messiah who would destroy Rome and liberate Israel. If Judas had him arrested, that would back Jesus into a corner and then he’d have to unleash the masses and the heavenly host and bring about the kingdom, right? Because if he really is the Messiah, he won’t die, right? I’m not saying I buy that logic, but you have to admit that at least on one level, it holds together.
Peter, on the other hand, is just pathetic. And it’s not just one little kiss – it’s three times, yelling and cursing and crying and huddling pathetically there by the fire.
Come Friday morning, both Peter and Judas were aware that they had been tragically wrong. At some point in that long, cold weekend, it must have dawned on each of them that they had just done the worst thing they’d ever done in their entire lives.
So if you can accept my thesis that each of these men hit the absolute bottom sometime on Thursday night, why do we remember them so differently?
I would suggest we remember them because of the choices that they made on Friday and Saturday.
Judas, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw that Jesus refused to call in the big muscle in order to save himself; when he saw his friend being led like a lamb to the slaughter…well, something snapped. He was filled with shame and remorse and he allowed that to drive him into isolation. He reacted with anger and desperation. Lonely and embittered, he took his own life, believe the worst about himself – believing that he was unredeemable, unforgivable.
Peter, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw how Jesus was unwilling to save himself; when he got a glimpse of Jesus looking right at him through the crowds…when that rooster crowed, he was filled with shame and remorse. The pain was so great that he…that he was driven back to the rest of his friends. He returned to the other ten, and sought consolation not in self-destruction, but in the company of the community. And because he allowed his failure to drive him more deeply into the web of the community, he was in a position to encounter Jesus on that first Easter.
Don’t you think that Jesus would have greeted Judas, had Judas have been there? Or do you suppose that that’s the time Jesus would have chosen to get out the lightning bolts and mete out a little cosmic justice? I can’t see that happening. The only reason Jesus didn’t greet Judas is because Judas wasn’t there…he was hanging by the neck in his own personal hell somewhere.
But Peter was there, wasn’t he? And in the passage from John that you’ve just heard, we see the resurrected Jesus leading Peter gently through to the gift of forgiveness.
You know the essence of the story, I think: Jesus goes out looking for Peter. He stands on the shore of Lake Galilee and he calls to him, exactly as he did on the day that they’d met. He welcomes Peter, and then he invites Peter to share what he has brought. He calls Peter by name – not once, but three times. And in the process, Jesus gives Peter the chance to embrace the forgiveness that Jesus has offered. He asks him three questions, and allows Peter to reaffirm the depth of his love three times.
Do you see? Christ wants Peter – Peter, who only days earlier had done his worst – to share in the power of resurrection. Jesus gives Peter a job – the same task he’d assigned Peter earlier in his ministry – to lead the church. For Peter, resurrection life began that day. Peter was brought back from the dead a long time before he was ever hung on a Roman Cross because he wouldn’t stop talking about the grace, love, and power of Jesus.
Judas could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him to hopelessness, despair, and death.
Peter could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him into the depths of the Christian community, who helped him to experience grace, forgiveness, and resurrection.
And what about you? What will you do when you do your worst?
Please note, I’m not asking what is the worst thing you’re liable to do. I mean, that would be a fascinating conversation and probably very interesting, but it’s not really germane to our worship this morning. What I want to know is, whenever you do whatever it is that is the worst thing you’ll do, what will you do next?
Oh, come on, Dave, you don’t mean to suggest that I am like Judas? I mean, seriously, I have my moments, but…
No. And I am serious. You will fail. Some of us have already failed. More than once. All of us will fail again.
I don’t know, and don’t particularly care right now, what will be your worst. I am simply here to guarantee your upcoming failure. And I’m not going to try to rank them as to which is worst – is it the affair or the addiction or the theft or the lying or the inability to treat other people well or selfishness or violence ? Is it interpersonal or academic, work-related or hidden on the internet? For crying out loud, it doesn’t matter. You are going to screw up. You will fail. You will hurt someone else, and you will be hurt.
The question I have for you is not how will you do your worst. The question I have is, in which direction will you turn when you find that you have, in fact, done your worst?
The Good News of Easter is this: Death is turned to life. Sin is forgiven. Your worst is no match for his best. There is therefore no reason to continue to live in that worst, and less reason to wander into isolation, pain, and death.
You know, don’t you, that the reason we’ve had this book for 2000 years is that Jesus was not simply having a conversation on the beach with an old friend. He was not only talking with Peter. He was talking with me. He was talking with you.
Take a look around the room right now (and I can tell you, this works in church and in bars and in the stadium and anywhere else…). Look at these people. Some of them would say that beyond a shadow of a doubt they are at the best place of their lives right now. And others are a red hot mess this morning. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.
Thanks be to God, we can all know the gifts of hope and new life because of the fact that Jesus is alive, walking the beaches of our own lives, calling out our names, and inviting us to bring ourselves to him.
He is risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah. Amen.