Sermon: Betraying Jesus

A Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields

April 2nd 2023

Matthew 21:1-11; Matthew 26:14-25

Watch the whole service on YouTube

It’s one thing to deny knowing Jesus, it’s quite another to betray him. Saint Peter is well known for denying him, but Judas is the one known for betraying Jesus. Denial and betrayal are not the same thing. If we deny Jesus we are not living up to being the sort of person we should be. If we betray Jesus we are choosing to be the sort of person we know we should not be.

It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Judas. He enjoyed a close relationship with Jesus. He was one of the twelve with whom Jesus chose to sit down for that last meal, just prior to his arrest, suffering, and crucifixion. (26:20-25) He and Jesus were friends (John 15:14-15), though Jesus expected his friends to behave in the right way. Judas, however, certainly did not.

Unlike Peter, who was caught on the hop when suddenly confronted with questions about his connection with Jesus, and failed to live up to his own expectations about his loyalty to Jesus (26:25), Judas, was much more intentional. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Judas went to the high priests, not they to him. (26:14) He went looking for money in return for betraying Jesus: ‘what will you give me if I betray him to you?’ (26:15)

He accepted those thirty pieces of silver – cash in advance – committing himself to future action. We’re told that ‘from that moment he looked for an opportunity to betray him [Jesus].’ (26:16) His betrayal of Jesus was no rash action; it was premeditated. If a judge today was sentencing Judas, such premeditation would be seen as an aggravating factor.

And not only did Judas seek out and accept the now proverbial ‘thirty pieces of silver’  he followed through on his part of the bargain. He did so with his equally proverbial kiss of betrayal. He had pre-arranged this, as a signal to others, identifying Jesus for those who were out to arrest him. It was not only premeditation then, but also conspiracy; yet another aggravating factor in how one might judge Judas: ‘Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one that I kiss is the man; arrest him” … [he] kissed him. Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.’ (26:48, 49, 50)

Is there any plea of mitigation we can make on behalf of Judas? Perhaps he did not do it just for money. In Matthew’s Gospel, just prior to Judas going to the high priests, we are told about a woman anointing Jesus with costly perfume. Matthew tells us, ‘when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘why this waste? For the ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’’ (26:8-9)

In John’s Gospel, the account of that same event focuses more on Judas than on the other disciples, suggesting that it was he who was at the forefront of the protests. Maybe, at least in part, Judas felt that Jesus’s priorities were now wrong, though John’s Gospel also suggests that his protest was more self-interested than selfless. (John 12:6)

It’s very hard to find an argument that gets Judas off the hook for betraying Jesus. In fact, even Judas himself, it seems, could not do so. When Jesus was condemned, Judas tried to take it all back, returning the money and proclaiming Jesus to be innocent. (27:3-4) But when this had no effect on the events in which he had played such a significant part, Judas killed himself. (27:5)

All in all it’s a very depressing story. It began with excitement, but concluded with horror. Jesus had paraded into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, with an excited crowd of people all around him, calling out for God’s salvation: ‘ Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens!’ (21:9) It all seemed so positive, though the Gospel writer hints that all might not be well. Jesus’s followers were celebrating, but, as Matthew tells us, ‘the whole city [of Jerusalem] was in turmoil.’ (21:10) Different people had different views about this, ‘prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’ (21:11)

Crowds can be fickle. Perhaps the way in which Judas turned from following Jesus to betraying Jesus was part of a wider phenomenon, Perhaps some of those who were shouting their hosannas were also, a while later, shouting ‘let him be crucified’ and demanding that Barabbas go free. If so, such a turnaround qualifies as betrayal of Jesus. These were not people running away from Jesus when the going got tough, but people turning upon him.

If betrayal of Jesus is not unique to Judas; if Judas’s betrayal is but one terrible incidence of a wider phenomenon, then perhaps we might find such betrayals going on in the here and now. I might be tempted to widen this out to claim that the whole of humanity betrays Jesus through the way we conduct our lives in relation to others, at individual, community, national and international levels. I’m not sure that works though. Judas’s betrayal of Jesus depended on them being friends in the first place. Most of the population of the world are not aware of being his friends in the first place, so they can hardly be said to betray the friendship.

No! Where contemporary betrayal of Jesus is concerned I’m thinking about the Church. When, recently, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church enthusiastically endorsed the invasion of the Ukraine that struck me as a betrayal of Jesus. Patriotic fervour and a desire to secure the place of the Church in contemporary Russian society led the Patriarch to deny the truth, which betrays Jesus. Of course, Christians in the UK can only take the moral high ground as long as British churches have never endorsed wars out of patriotic fervour or in order to stay on the right side of the government.

Or when churches – and it’s really not only the Roman Catholic Church I’m talking about here – oversee the abuse and misuse of children, then seek to conceal that in order to protect the “good name” of the institution, that’s a betrayal of Jesus too. When tele-evangelists use their position to reward themselves with big houses, private jets, and other luxuries, financed by extracting donations from followers who have little money to begin with, that’s another betrayal of Jesus.

And I name them as betrayals, not denials. That’s because we, the Church, have chosen to be what we know we should not be. Sadly, we, the Church, can be Judas-like. But, unlike Judas, that does not lead to our death. Why not? Because this moment of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, terrible as it is, is an element in the process by which God deals with that within us and around us which leads us to deny and betray all that is best – even our best friend Jesus.

Yes, here on Palm Sunday, entering into what’s called Holy Week, his betrayal, suffering and death detract from the excitement of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.

Betrayed by Judas, Jesus is heading for  suffering and death. At the same time, though, his suffering and death is used by God to deal with that in us – call it ‘sin’ – which would make us betray another, whether ‘we’ are an individual, a people, or even the Church. Our human propensity for betrayal is a sad story, but this particular sad story, with Jesus at its centre, heading to the cross, is also a story of hope – hope for rescue; hope for being cured of what ails us; hope for life, not death, which is a hint that what happens on Good Friday will not be the last word.

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