The Gospels have only one story – from the moment of Jesus’ birth, the cross looms on the horizon. His life and ministry are focused through the lens of that cross. His words are filled with the realization that the destiny of mankind hangs on his fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of his suffering and death.
But as with any story, there are the sub-plots – intertwined and precariously balanced with the story. And what those characters do in those subplots can well affect the outcome of the whole.
What an ironic beginning to an evening in which one disciple would betray Jesus to his enemies and a second would publicly deny he ever knew him. In chapter 22, Luke tells us about Jesus and his disciples eating that last Passover meal together. “Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.” (Luke 22:24)
They have eaten the Passover, Jesus has taken the bread and then the wine, and instituted a supper that will commemorate his love and sacrifice for his disciples. He then announced that one of them would betray him and they start arguing over which of them is the greatest!
At that moment, it’s not just the hearts of the disciples we get a glimpse into, it’s our own:
“Yes, Jesus, I know you suffered and died, but what about me? I’m pretty important.
Jesus, I know you gave it all up for me, but what about my needs?
I know you shed your blood to save me from my sins, but I just don’t get near as much appreciation as I deserve for everything I do in the church.”
When Jesus announces that one of them will betray him, I’m a little shocked. They all start looking around and asking who was going to do it and saying, “Surely not I, Lord?” I just always assumed they turned and looked right at Judas and said, “We always knew you’d turn out no good.” But they didn’t. In fact they didn’t have a clue – it wasn’t obvious. Judas didn’t have beady eyes and a snarl. In fact, it would seem Judas was the most trusted of them all – they put him in charge of their moneybox. Oh, looking back they all saw the signs – the selfish attitude, the deceptive heart, but at that moment no one suspected a thing.
Jesus says, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” This betrayal – not by enemies, but by one of his own disciples. Judas, how could you?
A third subplot enters the story – Jesus announces that he will suffer and die and Peter jumps up and says, “Even if all fall away, I never will . . . Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”
Peter has had enough of all this doom and gloom, he doesn’t want to hear any more about going away and glory on crosses. He is a man of action – he’s not going to sit idly by and just let this happen – he’ll fix it or die trying. Don’t you love Peter? Big heart, big mouth, short on follow-through.
How much like Peter some of us are – we talk big, have great intentions, but then – well, you know – it’s just hard to actually do what we say we’ll do.
And so here we are – twelve guys sitting around a table on the night before Jesus is going to die, arguing about who is the greatest, and two of them are struggling with the hardest decisions they will ever have to make.
I think it’s interesting that Jesus says something to these two that reveals that he knows more about them than they know about themselves. To Judas, he whispers, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” To Peter, he says, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” Words that let each of them know that he knows what is in their hearts, his agony over the decisions they are about to make, and his undying love for them, despite what they are about to do.
It’s in the garden that we next see Jesus. Judas has conspired with the chief priests to turn over Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
There’s all kinds of speculation as to why: Perhaps he was disillusioned with Jesus’ unwillingness to take charge and deliver his people. Maybe he thought he could force Jesus’ hand and make him act. He could have thought he was doing him a favor by getting him a meeting with the religious leaders. I don’t know – but I do know that Judas isn’t working alone – Luke writes, “Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.” Into the garden Judas leads the soldiers and in the darkness he walks over to Jesus and betrays him with a kiss.
It’s hours later. Jesus has been arrested and is being questioned by the high priest and Peter is in the courtyard outside warming himself by the fire.
The questions and accusations start, “You also were with Jesus of Galilee.” Peter quickly denied it, “I don't know what you're talking about.”
Another servant girl says, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don't know the man!”
A third person accuses him, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don't know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed.
It’s a tale of two disciples – both failed their master – one betrayed him, one denied him. How could you live with yourself? Look at their responses:
Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That's your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
That’s the end of the story. Jesus is dead and buried, two lives are ruined beyond recovery. Well, of course, that’s how Satan would have liked the story to end. But God always seems to have a way of rewriting tragic endings. Judas has hanged himself and they buy the field around the tree he hanged himself on and made a permanent memorial to his tragic ending – they called it Akeldama – “Field of Blood.”
But Peter is a different story. It’s been several days now since Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples are out on a boat fishing and Jesus appears at the shore. They all rush in, where Jesus has breakfast ready. Then after breakfast, Jesus and Peter take a walk along the shore.
“Do you love me?” “You know I love you.” “Feed my lambs.”
“Do you truly love me?” “You know I love you.” “Take care of my sheep.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
Some think Peter should have been put on probation. Others wonder, how you could ever trust a man like that again? We would probably have disqualified him from ever serving again. But Jesus takes a broken man and restores him, not just as a second class citizen, but fully into his love and into his service.
And a few weeks later, we see the result of that walk on the shore. Peter, a restored man, with a renewed commitment, stands up in the center of Jerusalem and tells thousands of those same Jews who had just weeks earlier cried out “Crucify him!” “This Jesus whom you crucified, God made both Lord and Christ.” And 3000 baptisms later, the church is born, and the world will forever be changed.
I think Simon the Pharisee had it right - Jesus asked him, “who will love more?” and he said, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
God has always been a God eager to forgive. He delights in giving second chances. Had Judas made a different choice, I feel confident that Jesus would have had a similar conversation with him. And Paul’s words might have been Judas’ words – “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I betrayed the Son of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” But Jesus never had a chance – it wasn’t God who gave up on Judas, but Judas who gave up on God.
How many Judases are there? – they haven’t hanged themselves – but a failure in the past has destroyed them – they could never forgive themselves and can’t see how God could either. Satan has won and a life is lost to God.
You may have some failure, some sin in your past that you think has robbed you of ever experiencing God’s love again, has disqualified you from ever serving him in any meaningful way. You may come to church every Sunday, but you live a defeated life, and Satan has marked you down in his “won” column.
That’s where Satan had Peter, too. It was a slam dunk. He was too easy. He sifted Peter and found his weakness and then he nailed him. Peter, you’re out of here – next!
But not so fast. Jesus isn’t finished. And Jesus brings Peter from the depths of despair and defeat to a new level of usefulness to God – not just back to where he was, but beyond – because now Peter truly understood the tremendous grace of God in his own life. That’s the nature of grace – and that’s the nature of God. Having experienced the grace of God, we can never go back to where we were before. In God’s forgiveness we experience something that changes our life forever.
This congregation is full of second chance stories. I wish every one of you could come up and tell how God has changed your life with a second chance, or forged your faith through some defining experience. Some of you have gone through amazing trials and heart-wrenching sorrow. Your faith has been plunged into the fire and has grown stronger. Some of you have gone through the furnace of cancer or disability or the death of your spouse. Some have lost your job or your home or gone through bankruptcy. Some of you have watched your kids rebel or your spouse betray you or your marriage fall apart. You have been faced with ethical or moral dilemmas and struggled with being the man or woman God has called you to be. You might have been the one who failed or betrayed or rebelled or walked out. But through it all, you experienced God’s grace and God’s strength. You’ve kept your eyes on Jesus and even when you were down, you were never out.
Yours might be the story yet to be written. You’re standing on the edge between Peter and Judas, struggling with which way to go. Choose God, let Jesus make a difference in your life.
Posted on Sun, August 14, 2016
by John Roberts