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Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross: Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot

March 28, 2010
Sermon:  Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross:  Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot
Text:  Luke 22


I have been pastor here at for fourteen years.  During those years, I have often prayed for the birth of a new child into the Morningside family.  We place a red rose on the organ to recognize those babies and give parents an opportunity to participate in baby dedications.  During all those years, never once do I remember hearing of a baby named Judas. 

Each year, I write a Christmas story for the congregation of Morningside.  This past Christmas, I named the primary character Pete Gosnell.  It has never even occurred to me to give the name Judas to any character in my stories.  Dante does include the reference to Judas in his Inferno as being one of the two traitors frozen in a block of ice at the center of hell. 

I know of only one place where the name Judas is revered.  In Egypt, one of the earliest branches of Christianity, the Coptic Church, referred to Judas as St. Judas, saying that the passion of Jesus would have never occurred the way it did without this disciple.  That branch asserts that Judas was such a key part of the story that he ought to be considered a saint.  The name St. Judas does not even sound right, does it? 

The names Peter and Simon, however, are revered.  You hear the name St. Peter all the time.  We even refer to St. Peter and the pearly gates of heaven in jokes. 

I have previously shared with you some of my thoughts about these two disciples.  We often immediately make a great contrast between the motives and behaviors of Peter and Judas.  After doing considerable study in preparing for this sermon today though, I see that their spiritual pilgrimages were so much alike. 

We will begin at Luke, Chapter 6, beginning at Verse 12.  You get the picture that Jesus has prayed all night long. 

          One of those days, Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night  praying to God.  When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated as apostles:  Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Look at this list of twelve.  You see all of the names there, but I want you to pay particular attention to the very first one, “Simon, (whom he named Peter),” and to the very last one, “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”  Both Peter and Judas are an answer to prayer.  Jesus first prays and then chooses these twelve to be his apostles.  I do not know how that technique strikes you, but some background check should be conducted when choosing close followers.  This is the most improbable group, the most unlikely bunch you can imagine.  A checklist of some qualifications would certainly have eliminated most of these men.  All of the apostles except Judas were from the region around the Sea of Galilee, the place where Jesus himself lived.  Judas stands out because he is the only one of the twelve from Judea.  That exception is an important part of his story.

Many key events occur in Luke 9, making it a pivotal chapter in Luke’s telling of the Gospel.  We also find salted in this chapter experiences that help us understand something about the spiritual journey of these apostles.  Verse 1:  “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”

You will notice that Jesus did not send only eleven of his chosen disciples out to preach the kingdom of God.  He sent all twelve, including Judas.  Have you thought of Judas as a preacher, one who proclaimed the kingdom of God?  The Gospel says that Judas goes out with the others to proclaim the kingdom of God, to heal the sick, and to drive out demons.  Jesus gives all of them authority over demons in other people, but what about their own demons? 

Being a disciple of Jesus involves great danger.  Our greatest peril, a terrible mistake, is that we somehow think we are exempt from the regular wear-and-tear of the world, that we will not be tempted to fall into sin.  I can assure you that we have no exemption from temptation.  In fact, when we commit ourselves to Christ and work for him, it is more likely that we will be tempted.  Satan would love to pull any one of us down.  This is why the Apostle Paul says that when a spiritual person is caught in sin, those in the church should restore that person in a spirit of gentleness.  He also warns, “Look to yourselves lest you, too, be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).  Temptation is a danger for all of us.  Peter and Judas, along with the others, are given authority to drive out demons.  Temptation comes to them as well.

Scanning through this chapter, we see that the miracle of feeding of the 5000 is recorded.  Other than the incarnation and the resurrection, it is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels.  The Gospel writers apparently wanted to be sure that we knew about this event.  You remember that Jesus invites the disciples to go away to a private place, to a “lonely place” Scripture calls it.  Jesus himself is grieving because John the Baptist has been beheaded.  When they reach the other side of the Sea of Galilee, it is not a lonely place at all.  A huge multitude has gathered there.  The Scripture says that after Jesus steps out of the boat, he has compassion on them because they are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).  Jesus teaches the crowd and heals the sick.  How many of the apostles are there?  All twelve.  They all hear the teaching and observe the healing. 

When it is time to feed the crowd, Jesus says to all twelve – not just a few – “You feed them.”  None of the disciples has the resources to do that until Andrew finds a young boy with a lunch of five loaves and two fish, a meal that is about the equivalent of two McDonald’s big fish sandwiches.  Jesus blesses that food, breaks it, and multiplies it.  Jesus, however, does not distribute the food to the multitude.  He returns it to the apostles, enabling them to do what he has asked of them – to feed the crowd.  How many apostles are there?  Twelve.  All twelve feed the multitude.  When the meal is over, each of the twelve collects a basketful of food.  Judas and Peter, like the other ten, collect the leftovers from the 5000. 

I hope you are beginning to see that the journey of Peter and Judas is almost identical.  The miracles they witness, the teachings they hear, and the experiences they have are so much the same.  They both follow Jesus.  They both love Jesus.  They both commit three years of their lives to this itinerate rabbi.

Chapter 9 also includes the remarkable account of Peter’s affirmation.  When Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?” all twelve are present.  All twelve hear Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ of God.  I want to throw down a flare and mark this as a place where you need to look at Matthew 16 to see an important concept.  There, Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Following this affirmation, Verses 20-21 tell us that he warns them not to tell anyone that he is the Christ and adds that he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  Jesus waits until he is confessed as the Christ to inform his disciples of the coming events.  Once this affirmation is made, they think they have figured out Jesus. 

Then Jesus begins to teach them about his death.  Matthew’s Gospel includes a bit of the story not included in Luke.  In Matthew 16:22, Peter rebukes Jesus by saying, “Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!” 

Jesus turns and says to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).  To the very one who blurted out this affirmation, Jesus addresses as an agent of Satan.  You might expect Jesus to lecture Judas in that manner, but would you expect Jesus to speak that way to Peter, the one we revere, the one we admire?

If we pick up at Verse 23 in Luke 9, you see that Jesus tries to teach the men, not only about his cross but also about their cross.  He says to them, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for me will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”  I like how some translations substitute the word “soul” in place of the word “self.” Jesus is telling the men, “A lot is at stake here.  It depends on what your priorities are.  You can absolutely lose your soul if your ambitions are misguided.”

The next account in Luke 9 is the Transfiguration in which God himself affirms Jesus as His Son.  Just after the account of the healing of an epileptic boy, Verse 43 tells us, “And they were amazed at the greatness of God.  While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he talked to his disciples.”  Listen to the urgency here in Jesus’ words:  “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you:  The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.”  Do you wonder what Judas must have thought when he heard this?  “…‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.’  But they did not understand what this meant.  It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.”  Jesus is trying to get through their thick heads; but even with Peter’s confession and even with the Transfiguration, they do not get it.  What follows is a discussion about who is the greatest and then another teaching from Jesus about the cost of being his disciple. 

Luke 18: Verses 31-34:

          Jesus took the Twelve (Peter and Judas included) aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.  He will be handed over to the Gentiles.  They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him.  On the third day he will rise again.” 

          The disciples did not understand any of this.  Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

How much plainer can Jesus be?  They still do not get it. 

Luke 19:28-31:  Jesus enters Jerusalem. 

          As he approached the top of the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden.  Untie it and bring it here.  If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it,’ tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 

We do not know which two disciples Jesus sends.  In my mind’s eye, though, I like to think that those two unnamed disciples happened to be Peter and Judas.  What if Peter and Judas are trying to figure this whole thing out, only to be told they are to find a donkey for this rabbi?  Imagine their conversation: “What in the world is he up to now?  Why does he need a donkey?”  Whoever those two disciples were, they must have been confused.  There is so much they do not understand.

I have seen a grown man ride a donkey, and it really looked ridiculous with his feet almost touching the ground.  The poor animal looked as if his back were about to break.  Jesus, a grown man, must look ridiculous riding on a donkey into the city of Jerusalem.  Men, women, and children surround him, shouting and waving palm branches.  Some spread garments before him on the pavement.  Many are praising Jesus while religious leaders make fun of what they consider spectacle.  What in the world is going through the minds of these disciples? 

I can make a plausible assumption about what was going through the mind of Judas Iscariot, the only disciple from Judea.  Judas’ last name means “man of Kerioth.”  He is from the little village of Kerioth, which has quite a history of being known as a hotbed of the Zealot sect, a hotbed of people who wanted to rebel.  Their motto is “Jerusalem for the Jews!  No foreign occupation!”  The history is so deep and intense. 

By authority of Alexander the Great, a Greek tyrant from Syria named Antiochus Epiphanies rules all of Jerusalem.  He refuses to allow the Jews to practice any aspects of their faith.  He eliminates many of their observances, such as the Passover and bar mitzvahs.  Antiochus totally desecrates the temple.  He extinguishes the holy flame that represents the presence of God, builds an altar to Zeus, and slaughters a pig – considered an unclean animal – on the altar there in the city.  It is highly likely that the book of Daniel refers to this disgrace in two passages that speak of the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 11:31; 12:11).  The Jews are incensed.  They consider Antiochus’ actions outrageous. 

One of Kerioth’s favorite sons from long ago was Judas Maccabeus, also known as “The Hammer.” In 165 B.C., Judas Maccabeus led a revolt.  He rode down the Mount of Olives on a donkey and entered by the gate called Beautiful on the eastern side of Jerusalem as people shouted “Hosanna!” and waved palm branches.  He ousted Antiochus and cleaned the temple so that it could be restored.  He re-lit the lamp that symbolized the presence of God.  We see a miracle here.  That lamp contained just enough consecrated oil to burn for one day.  The lamp actually burned for eight days, the time needed to consecrate a new supply of oil. The Jews celebrate this miracle as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication.  We know it best as Hanukah.  They mark the occasion with the menorah, lighting one candle for each day that the oil burned. 

Judas Iscariot would have been aware of this revolt in history.  When he saw Jesus riding to the city on a donkey, he must have thought, Here we go again.  Like Judas Maccabeus, Jesus is coming in to overthrow Rome.  Looking carefully at Jesus’ actions that follow –cleansing the temple – Judas must have thought, This is what we have been waiting for, a leader who would overthrow the Romans and give us our city back.  I can almost hear the wheels turning in Judas’ mind as he looked for a way to eliminate the Romans.

I have taken you a long way around to get to the text for today, Luke 22.   I want to point out some passages in this chapter, beginning with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus during Passover, a time in which the city is full of people.    

Satan enters Judas.  How easy is that?  Judas goes to the chief priest and the officers of the temple guard and discusses with them how he might betray Jesus.  They settle on the price of thirty pieces of silver, the going price for a slave.  Judas betrays Jesus for an amount equivalent to about $14. 

I do not believe Judas betrayed Jesus for money.  Some scholars say he did it for prestige.  Some say power.  Others suggest greed.  None of those suggestions provide the reason.  Judas just had it wrong.  He did not understand Jesus and did not understand Jesus’ mission.  He knew what he wanted Jesus to be.  He had his own agenda.  Judas thought he was helping Jesus.  He thought he knew more than Jesus. 

While Judas makes these arrangements, Peter and John make other arrangements for the Passover.  Luke 22, Verse 14 describes the group together at the table for the Last Supper.  After Jesus breaks the bread and offers the cup, he says, “‘But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.  The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.  They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this” (Verse 21).  One Gospel account, Matthew 26:25, even says that Judas asks the question, “Am I the one?”  At that point, he possibly still thinks he is helping.  They all wonder who will betray Jesus, and Judas is the one who exits the room.  The truth is that all the disciples betray Jesus, though in different ways.  They are not with him in his hour of greatest need. 

After Judas’ departure from the room, Jesus makes an important statement to Simon Peter in Verses 31-32:  “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 

Listen to Peter’s response in the following verse: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to the death.” 

Jesus explains, “Peter, it is not going to happen that way.  Before morning, you will deny me three times.” 

Next, we see Jesus praying at the Mount of Olives.  While he is away, the disciples fall sleep.  Luke is kind enough to tell us they are sleeping because of their grief, not because of negligence.

During Jesus’ arrest, we hear a lot of talk about swords among the disciples.  We learn of one disciple reacting to the arrest by cutting off an ear of a high priest.  We also witness Jesus healing the man’s ear.  During all of this commotion, Jesus raises a question in Verse 52:  “Am I leading a rebellion?”  Of course, the answer is no.  Can you imagine what Judas thinks when he hears Jesus ask that question?  Then the passage moves immediately into Peter’s denial that occurs three times.  When the rooster crows at Verse 60, the Lord turns and looks straight at Peter, reminding him of the words he had spoken:  “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.”  Peter goes out and weeps bitterly.  He is sorry.

Again, Luke leaves out a little segment that the Gospel of Matthew includes.  Matthew 27:1-5:

          Early in the morning, all the chief priests and elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death.  They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. 

          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, (This is Judas speaking.)  “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 out and hanged himself.

Peter is so revered and Judas so despised.  I do not see a dime’s worth of difference in Peter’s sin of denying the Lord and Judas’ sin of betraying him.  For that matter, the others all did about the same.  What is the difference?  The difference is a free gift called grace, provenient grace.  This gift offered to us has no effect unless we receive it.  If someone gives you a gift and you walk away from it, the gift does you no good.  The difference between these two disciples is that Peter receives the grace of Christ, and Judas does not.  Judas thinks he has to die for his own sins. 

I have shared with you that I have often thought about this difference.  Imagine Judas going to the cross, looking into the face of Jesus, and saying, “Lord, I am sorry.  I got it wrong.  I thought I knew what was going to happen.  I thought I knew what you were up to, but I just got it wrong.  Lord, I am sorry.”  I know that Jesus would have said, “Father, forgive him.  He did not understand.”  Jesus says of all of us, “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do.” 

In this Holy Week before Easter, we come here to worship.  We sing about the cross.  We listen to the Scriptures.  We know the story.  We believe that Jesus died.  Until you accept his grace though, your sins are still yours.  When you say, “Lord, I am sorry.  I am so sorry.  I have sinned against you,” you receive his grace.  You can be forgiven.  That is the difference between Peter and Judas.

Have you received the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ?  Have you said, “Lord, I know you did this for me.  I know that cross is not just a historical marker.  I am so sorry, sorry for the times I have denied you, sorry for the times when I acted like I did not even know you.  Please forgive me.”  If you do that, you will know the joy of redemption through the cross of Jesus Christ.  I invite you to make that decision.  Just say, “This is a decision I am ready to make.”  Others of you have other decisions to make.  Come and respond to the invitations from God.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2010

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