The 95th Academy Awards, or the Oscars, as they are often better known, were this last Sunday. It’s always one of the most highly anticipated and watched TV broadcasts of the year – a must see TV event watched by millions. I am not one of them though. I can offer no meaningful commentary and opinion on any of the Oscar nominated movies or winners themselves, for I only and exclusively watch mediocre and unrefined comedies that will never sniff the Oscars stage. Which is fine, I guess.
Even still I have a basic understanding of the categories themselves, for acting, directing, writing, costume, makeup, animation, and the like. And one of the categories is best actor or actress in a supporting role.
Over these past couple months we’ve been slowly making our way through the final days of Jesus’s life, as Jesus heads towards his death and resurrection and as we approach Holy Week and Easter ourselves. And as for this Easter story, we know for certain who the main character is, it’s Jesus, and we’ve been following him closely. And yet along the way there are some key characters, real men and women who at various points in the story play a supporting role. We’ve seen the religious leaders at center stage trying to trap and embarrass Jesus, Jesus’s disciples, who are invited to share a final meal with him. And now, as we find ourselves moving deeper and deeper into a long and dark Thursday and final night with Jesus and as we get all the closer to Easter Sunday, we are introduced to a few more key people. There’s Pilate and Barabbas, the thief on the cross and Joseph of Arimathea, the women who encounter and empty tomb, and for today, we’ll zoom in on two of the most important characters of Easter, two of the original 12 disciples themselves, Judas and Peter.
And unlike your favorite Academy Award winning movies, the characters of Easter are not meant to be simply enjoyed or critiqued from the comfort of our living rooms, rather as each one is revealed and introduced, they in many ways reveal something about us. Look closely at any of them and like having a mirror held in front of you, you’re almost sure to catch a glimpse of yourself. And like it or not, I think that’s especially true of the two men we’ll look at today, Judas and Peter.
And so let’s jump in. And to do so, as we try to make sense of all that’s happening in the narrative here, we’ll work from the following framework. It’s a big idea of sorts in two parts, and that is,
The bad news is that we all have the capacity to be like Judas and the good news is that we all have the opportunity to learn from and be like Peter.
We’ll take a look at that big idea in two parts, as a way of doing two separate, yet related character studies. First, Judas, then second, Peter.
So, let’s begin with Judas. The bad news is that we all have the capacity to be like Judas.
That may be hard to hear at first, after all, no one likes to identify with the villain and for understandable reasons, you don’t hear of many parents naming their kids Judas these days. And yet we must recognize the sobering truth that we all have the capacity to be like Judas, because long before Judas broke bad and became a villain, an accomplice, a traitor, an enemy, he was first a friend, a follower, a disciple, a brother.
In other words, he was just like us, probably even more so, even more devoted. For Judas was one of the original 12 disciples, he walked with Jesus, ate with Jesus, learned from Jesus, participated in ministry with Jesus, until he … didn’t.
And what’s so particularly painful about the Judas story is that his heel turn comes with a devastating sting of betrayal. When we pick things up in verse 47, we read this, that …
47 While he [Jesus] was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them [the religious leaders]. He [Judas] approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
“Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
A kiss. What was universally known in Jesus’s day as a symbol of friendship was now being used by Judas on a dark Thursday night, so that he could reveal to the religious leaders whom among them was Jesus.
Here by Judas, felt by Jesus, was the devastating sting of betrayal.
And believe it or not, hard as it may be to hear the bad news is that we all have the capacity to be like Judas.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we are Judas, or even like Judas, but rather that we all have the capacity to be like Judas. To demonstrate this, we must ask a more foundational question about Judas himself.
And that is, why did he betray Jesus? What compelled him to do all this and turn away?
You may have noticed early on in verse 3 it says that “Satan entered Judas.” Then followed by saying, “4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.”
Put together, we might conclude that Judas here has no control of his actions or circumstances, that he’s a passive agent, functioning as Satan’s puppet. But yet, scripture seems to be clear that Judas is culpable here, that Satan and Judas both bear responsibility for Jesus’s death. And so we can’t simply conclude that with Judas that Satan made him do it anymore than we can say to our loved ones after we sin and hurt them that, “the Devil made me do it.” That justification just doesn’t pass the smell test. We’re each responsible for our own actions.
And yet, it still leaves this lingering question, “Why would Judas do such a thing?”
Some say he was a lover of money and motivated by greed. After all, that was the trade he made with the religious leaders. Judas would betray Jesus in exchange for money. And yet, the 30 pieces of silver that Judas negotiated for was not a life changing amount of money, and so, I’m not convinced that’s the full answer either.
Others believe that the Iscariot part of Judas Iscariot refers to where Judas was from and that where Judas was from there were expectations that Jesus as the long awaited Messiah would arrive as a powerful warrior king to overthrow the established Roman occupation and that when he realized that Jesus instead of immediate victory was headed towards suffering and death, he cut his losses.
Whether it was Satan’s influence, the power of money, or misplaced expectations, it’s hard to say why Judas did what he did.
And yet, I think we can reasonably and confidently conclude this, and where more than ever Judas is like a mirror before us and how we can begin to understand that we all have the capacity to be like Judas.
And that is, I think Judas saw Jesus as a means to an end, rather than an end in himself. In other words, I think Judas found Jesus worth following because of what he thought Jesus could give him, rather than the relationship itself. Or to quote one pastor, I think Judas found Jesus useful, when in fact, we are meant to find Jesus beautiful. I think when Judas realized where all this was headed, towards Jesus’s own suffering and death, he bailed, and even more than that, was an accomplice helping to expedite the process.
This is one of the temptations and traps for every follower of Jesus today. We can sometimes trick ourselves or convince ourselves into believing that by following Jesus, all these good things will come naturally to us, health, wealth, and happiness, you name it. And then, when they don’t, we become disillusioned, we turn away.
There’s an incredibly sobering statistic out there that 50% of students who grow up in church and in youth groups will never return after they graduate high school. I repeat, 50% will never return. That’s heartbreaking. Now, we might be tempted to point the finger at the younger generation, what’s wrong with them, why haven’t they come back, and yet, may I suggest maybe we who have been here the whole time take a long look in the mirror ourselves?
After all, sometimes us millennials are labeled as the participation trophy generation, we grew up receiving participation trophies for everything, which apparently makes us untested and unmotivated. But yet, do you know who purchased those trophies? Not us, but our parents! Our parents were the ones handing them out by the handfuls.
Maybe there’s a parallel to the church here. Maybe we’ve been handing out participation trophies of our own kind, promising or insinuating to our kids that if they grow up in the church and follow Jesus, everything will go well for them, that God will protect them from trials and hardships. And so when our kids face hardship or persecution, trials or suffering, they give up on Jesus because that’s not what they were told they were signing up for. All while, the way of Jesus is the way of suffering and death to self, it’s the way of the cross. And that the promise that Jesus makes to us upon receiving him by faith is not a long and happy life, but rather an eternal one.
All in all, I believe that, like many people today, Judas, saw Jesus as a means to an end, rather than an end in himself. Or as Pastor Daniel Darling writes, “Judas became an enemy of the cross because he saw Jesus more as a vessel for his own ambitions than a Savior for his soul.”
That’s part one. The bad news is that we all have the capacity to be like Judas. And yet, let’s now move to the good news of part two:
The good news is that we all have the opportunity to learn from and be like Peter.
Now, here you might be scratching your head in a bit of confusion thinking, “How is that good news that we can be like Peter?” After all, he’s the one who denies Jesus three times at a crucial moment in Jesus’s life and our passage this morning ends with Peter weeping bitterly. At first glance, who in the world would want to be Peter?
The answer, in part, lies in knowing that Peter’s story here is not the end of Peter’s story. Not even close. Through Jesus, there is a beautiful story of repentance and restoration coming. And though Judas’s life has an unbelievably tragic ending, ending in bitter remorse that leads Judas to commit suicide, Peter’s story has an unbelievably redemptive ending, which is ultimately why it’s good news to be like Peter, but we’ll save the final part of Peter’s story for the final part of this message.
First, let’s focus on that other part. We all have the opportunity to learn from Peter. And there is lots and lots for us to glean here.
We pick up Peter’s story in verse 31, where we find ourselves reading some of the conversation that happens after the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus says, “Simon, Simon [Simon Peter, that is], Satan has asked to sift all of you [all the disciples] as wheat.” In other words, Satan wants to use this pivotal moment of testing and temptations in the disciples' life to get not only Judas to fall, but all of them to.
And in response to this, Peter declares, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
To which Jesus answers by saying, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”
Which brings us to the scene of the crime, or at least where Peter begins to falter. The same Peter, who had just talked up a big game, boasting that he would follow Jesus to the end, now, as he’s gathered around the campfire, outside of the house of the high priest, where Jesus was put on trial, Peter denies him three times, in the literal and figurative heat of the moment, as he professes to never know him.
Saying, “Woman, I don’t know him.” “Man, I am not one of his.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about” when pressed about his relationship and connection to Jesus.
And so, we ask, why did Peter falter, why did he stumble? Why was it that when push came to shove, he distanced himself from Jesus?
To this, you might say, “C’mon now, that’s easy, it was an act of self-preservation, he chose his life and freedom over prison and death.”
And yet, why, when every other disciple has fled the scene, does Peter follow Jesus into enemy territory, to outside the house of the high priest? While every other disciple has gone missing, why is Peter still there?
Well, here again, I’m helped by Pastor Daniel Darling, who says that “Peter’s failure here was not one of cowardice, but of pride.”
Isn’t that interesting? “Not one of cowardice, but of pride.” I, for one, have always thought of Peter as a coward in this moment, here’s Peter, it says, following Jesus “at a distance” … he must be following Jesus because he’s a coward, not wanting to be seen with Jesus, all while every other disciple is long gone. Peter denies Jesus three times, it must be because he’s a coward, crumbling in the heat of the moment. And yet, Darling has me seeing this one differently now, Peter’s failure, not one of cowardice, but of pride.
For when you zoom out and remember the key moments of Jesus’s life, he was anything but a coward. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on water, it was Peter who had the courage to step out onto the lake. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who am I?” it was Peter who spoke up. When all the disciples thought the women had lost their mind when they told them about the resurrection, it was Peter who went to check things out. Was Peter impulsive at times? Absolutely yes. But a coward? On second thought, I don’t think so.
Rather, it was his pride that got the best of him. He thought he would not falter, but yet falter he did.
There are probably a number of lessons for us here, but let’s briefly look at a couple:
One might be “Pray that you don’t fall into temptation” You might recognize those words from last week’s message as Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he instructed the disciples, “Pray that you don’t fall into temptation.” And yet, instead of praying, Peter and the disciples slept. I suppose, who can blame them, exhausted after a long and emotional week. And yet it tells us something about the importance of prayer and where we find the spiritual power we need. We find it in part in prayer. Without it, our flesh is especially weak. Maybe our pride says we can do what we need to do on our own strength, and yet, as we shared last week, “When you need to do, what is hard to do, what you must do, is pray!”
That’s one lesson from Peter, here might be another. Acknowledge your and other’s propensity for sin. Truth is, we can fail at any moment. After Peter denied Jesus for the third time, it says the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And the moment absolutely devastated Peter. What I imagine was a look of loving disappointment on Jesus' face absolutely crushed Peter and had him weeping bitterly. And maybe those were good tears, the tears of someone who desires to honor and glorify Jesus, but sometimes our tears can be tears of shame and regret that lead us to turn away from Jesus rather than turn towards him. And parents, adults, let’s be careful when telling our kids or friends, “I can’t believe you would do such a thing.” Really, you can’t believe a fellow human is capable of sinning? Be careful in saying something that you think engenders confidence in a person, when in fact, it only drives them into further shame and away from seeking repentance and healing in Christ.
The bad news is that we all have the capacity to be like Judas and the good news is that we all have the opportunity to learn from and be like Peter.
Alright, we’ve got to wrap this up. I told you earlier that there’s good news in all of this because we know that Peter’s story here is not the end of Peter’s story. And at the risk of giving an additional sermon here, let’s stay within the passage itself, because we get this beautiful glimpse of what’s to come, when Jesus says,
“I have prayed for you, Simon Peter, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
I love this. Jesus prays for us that our faith may not fail. And yet, he tells Peter, “and when you have turned back” in other words, “I know you will turn away.” And yet “when you turn back, strengthen your brothers.”
This is life with Jesus. Turning away, turning back, turning away, turning back, and Jesus redeeming our failures and Peter’s failures to strengthen one another. We, like Peter, may not have the same happy ending as he did, one day preaching to thousands of people at Pentecost, leading the early church, writing two books of the New Testament, and yet we have a happy ending too, where though we turn away, we joyfully turn back, being welcomed by the loving embrace of our Heavenly Father, all while knowing that Jesus prays for us in it all.