Unworthy Disciples: Disciples on the Loose

Scripture: Mark 6:7-13

If I asked you the question “What is church for?” what would you say?

What is the point?  What are we here to do?

Here’s the answer I’m looking for: the church exists to make disciples.  In our full UMC mission statement, we would say: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Here at Arlington Temple we might say: to equip people to go out as God’s people in the world.

We’re here to become and make disciples.  As I told you a couple weeks ago, Bishop Lewis wants all churches in the Virginia Conference to have an intentional discipleship-making process in place by 2020, so this is something we’ve begun to have some conversation around in Admin Board.  And as a way of bringing you all into that discussion, we’re spending this Easter season with the twelve disciples and their own discipleship journeys: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Not too long ago there was a hashtag going around in some of my social media circles, #worldsokayestmom.  (For the less social media savvy among you, a hashtag is a word or phrase that you add to the end of a Facebook post or Tweet that allows that post to be grouped with other posts with the same hashtag.)  This #worldsokayestmom hashtag allowed people to confess the ways that they didn’t feel like the greatest mom that day – you know, not terrible or dangerous things, just ways you didn’t meet your own high bar of momhood.  So, for example: “I was going to take the kids to the park but instead I let them have screen time all afternoon while I took a nap on the sofa, #worldsokayestmom” or maybe, “No clean clothes so I dressed my kid in an outfit covered with yogurt from yesterday #worldsokayestmom,” that sort of thing.  (I would know nothing about these, of course.)

In one of my clergy groups someone actually started the spinoff #worldsokayestpastor, but I’m not going to go there.

Well, it occurred to me that we might call the twelve disciples as Mark depicts them  #worldsokayestdisciples.

They get scared when they’re supposed to trust Jesus.  They try to do disciple-y things and fail.  They sometimes miss the point of what Jesus is saying completely.  When the going gets tough, the disciples get going – as far away as they can.

And yet they also leave their jobs and families on a moment’s notice to follow Jesus.  And they do try really hard, mostly.  And they do, once in a while, manage to get out of their own way enough to let the power and love of God be shown through them.  They’re not terrible at this whole discipleship thing, really.  They’re just not that great at it either.  And for those of us who have ever felt like we’re not quite awesome enough to qualify as a disciple, maybe we can see a lot of ourselves in them.

At the beginning of this series I talked about how there are different levels of discipleship, from the inner circle of the Twelve to the rest of the crowds of people following Jesus a lot more informally, and how for us at least those aren’t fixed categories – we can grow from one into the other over the course of our lives or faith journeys (recognizing that even those in the inner circle are far from perfect!)

The question of today is: how?  How does a disciple become a disciple?  Or maybe I should say, how does a just-okay disciple actually-fairly-mature-though-still-imperfect disciple?

To answer that question let’s meet back up with our disciples.

Two weeks ago we heard the stories of the twelve disciples being called by Jesus and appointed as his inner circle: to be with him, to be sent out and preach, and to have authority to throw out demons.  But notice that here we are today a couple of chapters later and they haven’t done any of that stuff yet – except for being with Jesus.  So what have the disciples been up to between chapters 3 and 6?

Well, they have followed Jesus around as he teaches.  They’ve heard a number of parables by this point, depicting the Kingdom of God in new and evocative images.  They’ve observed an early conflict between Jesus and some legal experts, one that foreshadows more to come.  As Kelvin told us last week, they’ve weathered a bad storm together and learned a bit about the necessity of trusting Jesus even when things seem really bad.  They’ve watched Jesus perform an exorcism and heal a couple of people.  They are learning.  They may not quite get it, but they are learning.  They are getting a taste of what this life of discipleship means.

But ultimately, as important as all of that is, a disciple’s job isn’t just to soak it all in.  A disciple’s job is to take the message into the rest of the world.

One day as Jesus is traveling around teaching in different villages, he gathers the twelve disciples and he tells them, guys, it’s time.  The disciples are about to be set loose.

First he gives them authority over unclean spirits.  He appointed them earlier to have this authority, but they haven’t been given it yet.  Then he gives them instructions.  He tells them to take nothing with them but a walking stick – no food, no money, no change of clothes.  He tells them not to keep going from house to house looking for the sweetest accommodations but to accept the hospitality that is offered in the first house they come to, and if it’s not offered at all, to shake the dust off their feet and move on.  He tells them to go, proclaim the Kingdom of God, cast out demons, and heal the sick.

In other words, how do these disciples become ready to do the work of disciples?  It’s not automatic.  It’s  not magic.  They have to be equipped for the job.

You may have heard the saying, “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.”  This saying encourages us to believe that we can do God’s work even when we don’t feel particularly worthy of it.  Once in a while that may mean that God’s Spirit will instantaneously come over us and magically empower us to do this work that we can’t do on our own.  But I suspect that very often it means both that God will empower us with the Holy Spirit AND that God will give us the opportunity to put the necessary tools in our toolkit, so to speak, to do what we need to do.

When I preach, I listen for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for what God might have to say to you all through a text.  I also have a number of commentaries on my shelf that help me understand what I am reading, because the Holy Spirit never rejected a little faithful preparation.

I posed this question to our Admin Board members during our discussion, and I want to pose it to you now too: How do disciples become equipped to be or grow as disciples?

Jesus equipped his disciples for their mission, and he wants to equip us for ours, too.

BUT.  Do you imagine that when Jesus was done talking to his disciples, before they set off, that they felt fully equipped for what was ahead of them?

Honestly, I can only guess that when Jesus finished this speech the disciples just stared at him wide-eyed for a moment.

Personally, I would have had a couple problems with all of this.  First of all, going door to door, you’ve got to be kidding me.  Second of all, I’m kind of a “be prepared” kind of person, you know?  I don’t really like to wing it.  So I have trouble with these instructions to pack light and just trust that everything you need is going to magically show up when you get there.  You can get into some real trouble that way.  And third of all, healing people?  That sounds like maybe the upper-level discipleship course and I’m still kind of on Discipleship 101, you know?

I can imagine that if I were one of those first twelve disciples, I might have responded something like, “Please, Jesus, just a little longer.  If I can just watch you do this exorcism thing a few more times, I’ll be good.  If I can just hear a few more stories, maybe I’ll be ready to tell other people about the Kingdom of God.  If I can just be around you a little longer, maybe I’ll be ready to trust God even when I’m scared and it’s cold and I didn’t bring a coat.”

But the thing is we don’t get to wait until we’re the perfect disciples to respond to God’s call and go out into the world and do God’s work.  Because as it turns out that discipleship is comprised of a lot of on-the-job training, too.

In our Admin Board discussion of how disciples are formed as disciples, do you know what emerged as the one overwhelming theme?  That our church leaders had been formed in their own discipleship through people who had invested in them and gave them opportunities to serve and to lead that they never thought they could do.

This mission that the disciples get sent out on in Mark 6 is their training wheels mission.  I don’t mean it wasn’t a real mission.  The people they healed certainly thought it was a real mission.  The people who heard the good news of the Kingdom of God for the first time certainly thought it was a real mission.  But what I mean is it was as much about the disciples realizing they could do this work as it was about the work they did.

I know when Pat Booher talks about ASP he often says that one of the best parts, for him, is to watch a young person who has never built something before, or never operated a power tool, learn that they can do something they never though they could do.  (Sometimes that young person with the power tools has been me.)  That mission is both about someone getting a safer house, and someone learning they have what it takes to do God’s work.  Sometimes, in the life of discipleship, we need someone to give us that chance – and then, of course, we need to say yes, trusting God to equip us in ways both spiritual and practical.

In your bulletins today you’ll find an index card, and that’s because I want some information from you.  I would like to know how you think you could be better equipped as a disciple.  What could we as a church be doing to give you that knowledge or those skills or that confidence to be God’s people in the world?  What is God calling you to that we could help you with, so that you are ready to go out into the world and answer that call, even if it’s scary and you don’t really know what you’re doing?

For example: a couple years ago we had a church meeting or conversation in which someone said they could use help with how to talk about their faith with others, so last summer we had a couple of workshops on Holy Conversation.  What is it that you need to be equipped to do God’s work here at church and out in the world?  Do you need a better knowledge of the Bible so you can talk about it intelligently?  Help formulating what yourself believe?  Do you need help finding the right opportunity to use your gifts in God’s service?  Help discerning what God’s call actually is in the first place?  Help fitting spiritual practices into your life in a way that is sustainable?  What else?  Take a few minutes…

Here’s the flip side of all that.  When I say “what can the church be doing,” I don’t just mean me.  I don’t just mean Divine.  I don’t just mean Admin Board.  Who is the church?  All of us.  What are we doing to support and equip each other on this discipleship journey?  Who are you investing in because you see God working in them and want to see them use their gifts for God’s glory?  How are you using your experience and gifts and skills and the tools in your kit you’ve acquired along the way to help other disciples grow?

You may think, oh man, I need to be a pretty good disciple to do that, to help other people grow in their discipleship.

And it’s true that that might come more as you grow yourself.  But you don’t have to be a perfect disciple to help make other disciples.  You can be a just okay disciple and do that, like those first disciples did.  Because reaching out and spreading the word and healing and helping others grow is part of your own growth in discipleship, too – your on-the-job training.

And I have to say that sometimes it’s way better to learn what discipleship looks like from someone who isn’t perfect at it – just like me.  Because then I think that I can do it too.

A few verses later in Mark, we read “The disciples returned to Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught.”  I actually really like how Luke puts it when Jesus sends out not just the Twelve but 72 disciples for the same purpose.  They come back and say, “Jesus! Jesus!  Even the demons submit to us in your name!”  In other words, “We did it, Jesus!  We didn’t think that we could do it, but we did!”

God is calling you to discipleship.  You don’t have to be a model disciple.  You don’t have to be amazing and holy.  You need to learn what you need to learn then you need to go and figure the rest out along the way. Who knows, maybe through you God will heal somebody’s pain.  Maybe through you, someone will experience liberation from something that has been tormenting them.  Maybe through you, they will hear about the Kingdom of God in a way they never did before, in a way that makes them want to know more.

And maybe you’ll come back and say, “God, look what I did!”  And God will smile and say, the work I have for you is just beginning.


Unworthy Disciples: Fearful Discipleship

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: Mark 4:35-41

Do we have to follow Jesus? That was a child’s question during one of Pastor Allie’s children’s sermons. And of course, we heard how pastor Allie tried to avoid the question, fumbled a few words, and rushed to closing in prayer? As simple as that question may appear, it is far from simple. It is not a childish question. Philosophers and theologians for centuries have grappled with this question. It is one of the fundamental questions every Christian must ask themselves and come up with a personal answer. Do I have to follow Jesus? Your response to this question shapes your Christian life and discipleship.

Do you have to follow Jesus? The answer is No.  Should you follow Jesus? Yes, absolutely you should.

Here is why. One of the fundamentals of the Christian faith is freedom. Freedom to choose. Christ came to proclaim liberty to the captives of sin. The Christian gospel is based on an open invitation. All are welcome to follow. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” God’s grace is universally available. “Come unto me all you who are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Following of Jesus is a choice and a decision that you must make. Nobody else can make it for you.

But what do we mean by following? To begin with, the following means learning and embracing the teachings of Jesus. It is not simply head knowledge. It entails abiding by the teachings of Jesus both intellectually and practically. That is allowing what you learn to influence how you live.

In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus invited his disciples to go to another city on the other side of the lake. He had just been teaching the crowds using parables of the Kingdom. Many listeners were still confused about their full meaning, including his disciples. We are told that Jesus would often privately explain the meanings to his disciples. Parables are a teaching tool in which the listener is challenged to come up with their own moral meaning of a story.

However, sometimes we learn better by experience rather stories. We learn better when we can personally relate to an event and the environment. So, Jesus invited his disciples to travel by boat to the city of Gerasene – also referred to a pagan territory. This was the Gentile territory. Up until this point, their ministry exposure was in familiar neighborhoods. What Jesus didn’t tell them was that this was going to be a practice in ministry boat cruise. He never warned them of a pending storm that would threaten their lives and challenge their faith.

In fact, he never gave any indication that during the whole journey, Jesus would be in the inner part of the boat practicing yoga – experiencing inner peace amid chaos. After all, they are the fishermen, Jesus is a carpenter.

Four aspects can be learned from this episode;

  1. Jesus initiates the invitation
  2. Disciples accept the invitation and decide to follow
  3. Jesus is present all the time. But the challenges of the storm shake the disciples’ trust in God. “don’t you care that we are about to perish?”
  4. God’s intervention transforms natural fear into holy reverential fear. “who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” – surviving storms leads to a deeper knowledge of God.

Are you going through a storm right now?

There are many kinds of storms in life. Storms can be any situation in your life that causes you great anxiety. Financial or economic storms – work situations, losing your investment, homelessness, bills, debts, being poor and taken advantage of. Emotional or psychological Storms – broken relationships, loneliness, criticism, emotional abuse, unresolved immigration status, lack of intimacy or appreciation. Political storms – our government leaders are corrupt and self-seeking, denying healthcare to poor people while they lavishly spend taxpayers’ money in casinos and private planes, millions spent to silence people with their secrets, wars, and rumors of war, storms are raging. And there are Physical storms – illnesses accompanied by unfavorable doctor’s report, diminishing memory and mobility, the death of loved ones, gun violence, deportation orders, eviction notices.

I must confess, there are times when I felt that God is either unaware of what I am going through or is ignoring me. Sometimes, I even entertain negative thoughts of God not caring. Don’t we all sometimes feel as though God doesn’t care about our situation? And when we pray it feels as if God is sleeping and unconcerned? Even though we know that God is present all the time.

Whatever your storm may be, you have two options: you can choose to worry and assume that Jesus no longer cares, or you can resist fear by putting your trust in him. When you find yourself panicking, confess your need for God and then trust in God’s promised care for you. God cares for you and promised never to leave you alone.

The disciples lived with Jesus, but they underestimated him. They did not believe that his power could apply to their own situation. Their cry is one of desperation. It is a prayer for deliverance. They forgot that Jesus himself was the peace. Fear causes us to misapply faith. To believe that God can intervene in other people’s situations but not ours. Fear can undermine your ministry effectiveness.

The disciples felt as though Jesus seemed unaware or unconcerned. But when Jesus heard their panic, he got up and calmed the storm. Surprisingly, in Mark’s narration, Jesus does not rebuke the disciples for a lack of faith like Matthew depicts them. Instead, Jesus takes the time to educate and explain My belief is that Jesus rebuked them for allowing fear to erode their trust in him. Your faith in God must not be guided by your fear of perishing. You should not wait until the storms are calm to believe that God is able.

Fear is a natural defensive emotion. Every person experiences fear in certain situations. However, fear must not be allowed to dictate our responses to situations. Fear must not be the guiding principle when addressing social injustice. When designing our immigration policy. Fear must not guide our church programming or budgeting. Ministry needs must influence our budgeting, not the reverse.

When I was a freshman at the University of Zambia, I had a unique experience. I was with a friend coming from the library, around midnight. And, as we walked towards the student hostels we heard a lot commotion. As we got closer we realized there was a fight going on. One of the students involved was my classmate but I had never really spoken to him. He was one of those mean characters, a professional in martial arts. So, you really didn’t want to be the wrong side of history. Things were quickly getting out of hand and the compass security had not yet arrived on the scene.

We were all scared that someone was going to get badly hurt. Nobody was intervening, and suddenly, I don’t know what possessed me. I called out his name. He looked at me and charged in my direction. My other friend disappeared into thin air. “Who the hell you? How do you know my name? Do I know you?” I knew I was quick on my feet and could outrun him, but I was scared. My heart was pounding hard. I could feel the heat in my mouth. As if I was in the middle of an earthquake. So, I pretended not to be scared, raising my voice, “of course, you know me! Look at me. You are in my history tutorial group.” Ah… I hate that class. I could tell that he was extremely intoxicated. So, I quickly took charge of the conversation. “What are you doing to yourself man? You are better than this.”

Suddenly, his demeanor changed.  He started making excuses and blaming circumstances and everyone else. Then he mentioned that his mother had recently died and the family was going through hard times. Life had stopped making sense to him. I told him God loved him, and he began to sob like a baby. At first, I couldn’t tell whether he was seriously crying or it was the alcohol working. But who cares? God doesn’t care whether you are drunk on not. God’s grace can touch you even when you are high or in your drunken stupor.

I guided him to some spot and asked if I could pray for him. I remember him saying yes sir. Please pray for me. By this time my friend had reappeared. We held hands while some people were still watching, and others walking by and prayed. Afterward, I told him to go to his room and sleep.

From that experience, I learned that the presence of fear does not mean the complete absence of faith. Faith is being able to act faithfully despite your fear. Perhaps the act of faith is accepting God’s invitation, and getting into the boat. Perhaps it is trusting that trip is necessary for whatever lies on the other side. Feel the fear, but do it anyway.

Christian discipleship is learning how to follow the teaching of Jesus despite the fear. It involves life transference and not just information sharing. It is not a program that the church designs, but the life of Christ that we embrace and strive to live out. Discipleship sometimes requires us to pack our belongings and go to the other side. To leave our comfort zones and face the storms on our journey even when we do not know what lies on the other side.

Theologian Heinrich Arnold once said, “discipleship is not a question of our own doing; it is a matter of making room for God to live in us.”

About five years had passed since that story I told you about. I was now doing my postgraduate studies in human rights when a gentleman in a suit approached me. He asked if my name was Kelvin. And I hesitantly said “yes, I am. How may I help you?” He said, “you probably don’t remember me. But, I have never forgotten you. For the past three years, I have been trying to locate you. I am the guy, I am the one you prayed for that night during the fight. You were in my tutorial group. I wanted to give you this gospel album and invite you to my graduation from Bible College. I am now a pastor.

Do not underestimate the grace of God. God can use you in strange ways. There isn’t just one way of being a disciple. Each of us has different personalities and gifts. But, God expects us to be courageous. There are risks to following Jesus. You will be ridiculed. You will be rejected. You will be looked at as weird or unlearned. And you will certainly have moments of doubt.

So, when the storms threaten to swallow us or human actions of greed and dominance threatens our faith in God, we must remember that the Risen One is always in the boat with us. Christ’s words, “Peace! Be still!” still promise to carry us safely through the night.


Unworthy Disciples: Who is a Disciple?

Scripture: Mark 3:13-19

Let’s start out today with a question, or maybe two: What is a disciple?  And what does a disciple do?

You may remember, though it’s OK if you don’t, that back at Annual Conference last summer our new bishop gave us her definition of a disciple: A disciple of Jesus Christ is a lifelong learner who influences others to serve.  She also told us that she wanted each church in the Virginia Conference to have an intentional discipleship plan in place by 2020 – to have a process in place for making sure people can grow as disciples.

So with that in mind, we’ve been spending some time in our Administrative Board meetings here at Arlington Temple this year talking about discipleship.  We haven’t developed any official discipleship process plans or anything like that, yet.  Rather, we’ve been starting at the beginning by having some conversations around what a disciple is, and how growth in discipleship happens, and how we’ve experienced that in our own lives as disciples, and what – generally – a church might do to provide fertile ground for that kind of growth.

This sermon series we’ll be doing over the next six weeks is in part a chance to bring you all in on the conversation, along with the Gospel writer Mark and what he has to say about it.

One of the things that was most striking to me as we began our conversation this past fall on what a disciple is is how reluctant many of our group seemed to even claim the title.  “Here’s what I think a disciple is,” someone might say, “–but not that I think I am one,” or, “not that I think I’ve gotten very far in my discipleship.”  And this is our Admin Board – these are our faithful church leaders.  So I kind of wondered, if the people around this table are hesitant to say that they are disciples, then how about everyone else?

I don’t say that to judge or criticize anyone.  Because honestly, I get it.  I feel that way myself sometimes.

Let’s go back to that first question, the question of what a disciple is and does.  Here were some of the answers we came up with in that Admin Board conversation

A disciple is:

-A representative of Jesus and the church

-An attractive example to others

-A dedicated, committed follower

-Someone whose life is centered on loving God and loving others


A disciple is characterized by:

Deep commitment that manifests itself in service

Humility, trust

Readiness and willingness to learn and to teach others

Reliance on power of Holy Spirit

Consistent, faithful prayer

Heart that is open to others

Using and sharing their gifts (without pride)


A pretty tall order, no?

It’s easy to hear the word “disciple” and think of someone, maybe, who perfectly embodies the teachings of Jesus.  We think of Martin Luther King and his nonviolent quest for justice and the sacrifice he made as part of that.  Or we think of our grandmother who always got up early to read the Bible and always had an extra plate set on the table for someone who needed dinner that night.  Or, dare I say it, we think of some pastor we’ve known, though I don’t mind telling you that there’s nothing about being a pastor that makes you necessarily any more of a disciple than someone in the congregation.  Or maybe we think of the original disciples and how they healed people and exorcised demons and preached the word of God wherever they went, and how they maybe even faced persecution for that, and we think, well, if that’s a disciple, then I’m pretty sure I don’t qualify. And sometimes I wonder myself: what is it, if anything, that really makes me or my life different from someone who does not claim to be a follower of Jesus?

I suppose if I have one goal for this sermon series, it would be that by the end of it, you would be able to say: “I am a disciple.”  Not that you are a perfect disciple, not that you don’t have room to grow in your discipleship, but simply: “I am a disciple.”

And I think that one thing that can really help us along this road is to get to know the original disciples as Mark depicts them.

Mark’s disciples are hardly the heroic, holy figures we might imagine them to be.  In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are most often depicted as kind of a group of incompetent dopes.  They are at times fearful, they miss the whole point of what Jesus is saying, they’re unable to do the disciple-y things they’re supposed to do; in the end when the rubber meets the road, they run away.  But then they do have their moments, too: moments when a lightbulb goes off, moments when they get it right, moments when they once in a while allow the spirit of God to work through them for the good of others.

In other words, perhaps, they are a lot like us.  And in fact, Mark wants to invite us to see ourselves in them.

So if you have ever been afraid that you are not worthy to be called a disciple of Jesus, maybe you can find some freedom in realizing that the bar is lower than you thought.

I don’t mean that following Jesus is easy – definitely not.  It demands everything of us.  But I do mean that being a disciple isn’t a yes or no kind of deal.  It’s something we become, and most of us don’t get there all at once, and there’s a lot of grace along the way.

So over these next weeks we’re going to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of discipleship in Mark – what disciples do, and what they don’t always do very well.

Today I want to go back to the beginning.  You may be familiar with the stories of Jesus calling his first disciples.  We get that account in two parts.  First, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he’s walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and he sees Simon and Andrew casting their fishing nets into the sea, and he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  And they leave their nets and follow.  Then he sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in their own fishing boat mending their nets, and he calls out to them, and they follow too.  A chapter or so later, Jesus is walking along again and sees Levi sitting at the booth where he collects taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire and he says to him, “Follow me,” and Levi gets up and follows.

I have to say that these first disciples do get off to a pretty good start.  Maybe so did you.  Maybe there was a certainty, an immanence, of God’s presence and call at the beginning for you that then has had to be sustained over the long hall.  Or maybe it was all more muddy and complicated than that, right from the get-go.  We all have different stories.

In any case, those first fishermen and tax collector are not the only ones who follow Jesus.  Mark talks about “a great multitude from Galilee” who followed him (3:1).  Surely some of those people just wanted healing, surely some of them just wanted to listen to what he had to say, maybe some of them just started following because their friend was: not necessarily all high-commitment folks.  In the next passage Jesus goes up on a mountain and he calls twelve people to join him, possibly out of that bigger crowd that surrounded him.  And there on that mountain he appoints them as apostles, to go out and proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God.  They are Simon Peter, James and John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, other James, Thaddeus, other Simon, and, last and also least, Judas.

Again, if these twelve guys who now form Jesus’ inner circle turn out to be incompetent dopes most of the time, I’m not sure what that says about the others waiting down there at the base of the mountain.  But they followed Jesus too: those disciples who were not apostles.

What I find interesting about this passage is not that there are some people that God has divinely intended to be the “real” disciples while the others are not – but rather, the idea that discipleship does happen at different levels.  In this passage we have the hangers-on and the inner circle, the seekers and those who commit to a certain path, the ones who are just beginning to understand what all of this is about and the ones who will develop a deeper knowledge of the Kingdom of God.

For our purposes, I don’t think it’s probably helpful to think of these as fixed categories as if some other people are part of that holy inner circle and we’ll just hang out down the mountain, thank you very much.  Instead, we might think about the fact that discipleship means different things for different people at different times.  It could be learning the basics of what the Bible is, or studying it more deeply to really hear what God is saying to us through God’s word today.  It could be starting to make worship a consistent part of your life, or committing to serve Jesus through this community with your God-given gifts.  It could be putting a few dollars in the offering each week or actively readjusting our budgets to work toward tithing or even beyond.

Is any of those places as good as the next?  No.  Jesus is always calling us beyond where we are at the moment.  But could any of those people be a disciple?  If they have started on that journey – then, I think, yes.  Maybe we find ourselves in the crowds at the base of the mountain one day, but little by little, with God’s help, we climb.

Even the twelve disciple-disciples grew over time.  They were called before they were appointed apostles.  They watched Jesus at work and learned from him and were equipped for ministry by him.  They studied what it meant to be open to the Kingdom of God on earth as he taught them story by story.  And they messed up and got it wrong and kept following as Jesus kept leading, and they ran away when things got hard and were changed by meeting the resurrected Christ and went on to form the church.

So who is a disciple?  Anyone whose intention is to follow Jesus a little more closely tomorrow than today – even if we’re still pretty bad at it.

I remember one Sunday a couple of years ago when I was giving the children’s sermon in my previous church.  It was something about following Jesus, I don’t remember much more than that about my own message.  What I remember is one little kid raising his hand and asking, “Do we have to follow Jesus?”

His parents were faithful church members and, you know, I’m sure it’s not the question you want your kid asking in front of everybody.  And I was caught off guard and I said something about how, well, Jesus wants us to follow him, and well, that’s what we’re here in church to do.  And then I quickly said “Let’s pray.”

But actually I think it was a really good question, and it’s one that’s stuck with me ever since.  I sometimes think about how I would answer it now.  And I think I would say no.  We don’t have to follow Jesus.  Following Jesus is hard.  And it will demand everything of you: your time, your money, your pride, your ambitions, even your life.  And you won’t want to give it.  And you’ll mess up, and you’ll get it wrong, and with God’s help you’ll start again and maybe next time you’ll get it a little more right.  But along the way it will be beautiful, and it will be filled with grace, and you will grow, and it will become increasingly clear that this is life as God meant it to be lived.

And all of it is the life of discipleship.

And if you are on that journey with me, then welcome, fellow disciples.




Easter Sunday: The Ending God is Still Writing

Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

If you have been with us over the past six weeks, you know that we have spent the season of Lent immersed in a holy story: the story of the last week Jesus spent in Jerusalem, from his entrance into the city on the back of a donkey to his arrest and crucifixion.

As the week wore on, we felt the tension ramp up between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem – both Jewish and Roman. On Sunday, when Jesus’ makeshift parade into the city subtly mocked the imperial Roman military processions the people of Jerusalem had grown accustomed to, we can be sure the chief priests took note. On Monday, when Jesus entered the Temple and threw over tables and shouted that the whole place was a den of robbers, his fate was all but sealed.  All the chief priests needed was some help – to arrest Jesus in secret so the crowds wouldn’t riot.  On Wednesday their prayers were answered as Judas came to them with an offer they couldn’t refuse, and on Thursday they come, led by Judas and backed up by the Temple police, to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where he has gone to pray.  Jesus spends Thursday night in the custody of the Temple authorities who hold a sham trial at the house of the high priest, and as dawn breaks on Friday morning, he is led to the Roman governor, branded a revolutionary, and finally, executed by the state.

But Holy Week is more than just the story of a man who got himself in trouble and was unjustly killed.  As I said last week, the story of Holy Week is the story of God’s goodness and love and mercy finally coming head to head with the powers that be in this world.  And when they do, something’s got to give.

So which one will it be?

On Friday it seems like we have our answer: the life that Jesus lived and embodied – this life of grace, welcome, inclusivity, service, sacrifice, and mercy – simply could not stand up, in the end, to the worldly powers of greed, pride, fear, military might, and social status.

And if this were true, if the story really did end here, then we might as well go on and live our lives in the grasp of those worldly powers, since they are the ones that ultimately triumph.

Sometimes, though, it seems like a story is over – but God isn’t done writing.

As dawn breaks on Sunday morning, after all of this has happened, three women head to the tomb.  Not much has changed since Friday, and so we might think this is a kind of denouement, the closing action after the climax.  It is still dark and the women go with their burial spices to anoint a body that is dead.  They’re not hoping for anything different; they understand, now, how the world is, just as it always has been, though perhaps for a moment they had dare to hope that they were wrong.   And it seems, at first, that the scene will fade as it opened, on the resigned devotion of three women whose only lingering hope is that someone might help them move the stone away from the entrance to the tomb.

Except when they get there, nothing is as they expected.

The stone is already rolled away from the front of the tomb.  The dead body they had planned to anoint is nowhere to be found.  And a man in a gleaming white robe sits there as if he has been waiting for them and he says, “The one you are looking for isn’t here.”

As one Mark scholar asks, “When is an ending not the end?”[1]

When it’s Friday, and Sunday is still to come.

From here, in fact, the story goes on.  In the other Gospels, in Matthew and Luke and John, Jesus will appear to the disciples and let them know it’s really him.  He will eat fish with the fishermen back in Galilee and he’ll let Doubting Thomas touch his wounds and he’ll walk with disciples on the Road to Emmaus and be made known to them in the breaking of bread.  He will give them the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all nations, and he will ascend to heaven promising that the Holy Spirit is on her way to set the church on fire for its new mission.

But did you catch, in the Gospel of Mark, how the surprise ending –ends?

After the man in white tells the women that Jesus has been raised and they should go and tell Peter and the others that he will meet them in Galilee, Mark tells us, “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

In fact, if you read this in the Greek, you’ll find Mark stops right in the middle of a sentence: “they were afraid, for…”

When is an ending not an end?  When a story ends in the middle of a sentence.

Does this seem like an unsatisfactory ending to anyone else?  After the joy and triumph of an empty grave, suddenly we are back to where we were, like fear has the last word after all.  If you are unsatisfied with that, you’re not alone – in fact, if you look in your Bibles at Mark 16 you’ll see that there’s an ending that was very probably added later.  In fact, depending on what Bible you look at, you might even find multiple options for an ending to Mark, that people have added at different times, kind of like a resurrection Choose Your Own Adventure.

What on earth do we make of this?

We know, of course, that the women do go and tell people what they’ve seen – otherwise we wouldn’t have the Gospel of Mark.  It’s possible that we lost the original ending to Mark.  Or it might be, just maybe, that Mark intentionally ends the story this way, with this ending that is not really an ending.

And maybe that’s because the real end of the story is still being written.

Maybe our job is to hear in that last broken sentence an invitation to continue the story for ourselves.

Christ is risen; the tomb has not held him.  So what comes next?  Not just in the Bible, but in your story, in our story together.  What is God still doing?  How is God still using us to do it?

And how would our stories change, do you think, if with them we saw ourselves as writing, along with God, that next chapter of the resurrection story?

I confess to you today that I don’t always live as if that’s what I’m doing.

Sometimes I live as though the quest for status and favorable popular opinion has still gotten the last word.  I care too much what people think of me, and it makes me want to draw lines, and boxes, to make sure I am in the right ones.

Sometimes, too much of the time, fear is my guiding principle, and it makes me wary of standing up for the things I know are right; it makes me hoard for the future when I could be sharing what I have in the present, and it’s as if it’s still Friday, as if fear won.

Sometimes I hold onto grudges, as if grace and mercy don’t win out in the end, for everyone else as well as for me.

Sometimes I don’t feel hope that things can be different than they are today, and I suspect that all of us have been there – that whatever seems to us to be the end of the road, the end of the story, really is – as if God doesn’t have anything else in store, as if God can’t surprise us.

But couldn’t it be different?  Didn’t Jesus rise again so that all of that could be different?

How might life be different if with our lives we were writing the next chapter of the resurrection story?

If we were writing the next chapter, wouldn’t we feel more of an urgency to live life like Jesus lived it – to stake our claim with the poor and marginalized, to give without expecting anything in return, to serve rather than expect to be served, to err on the side of grace, to always be drawing the circle wider?  Wouldn’t we believe that this is the kind of life that cannot be quelled by death?

If we were writing the next chapter, wouldn’t we be quicker to forgive and extend grace and mercy to others, because we would remember the grace that God extended to us?

If we were writing the next chapter, wouldn’t we be more willing to put ourselves on the line, to stand up and march and take risks for love and justice, knowing that even if we die, the story doesn’t end there?

If we were writing the next chapter, wouldn’t we hold on to that hope that is sometimes hard to come by: hope that peace in this world is possible, hope that does not deny our current pain and struggle but also knows that will not have the last word – because we know that endings can really be beginnings, because we know that love and goodness will in fact win in the end – because we know, in fact, that they already have?

What would it mean to live the kind of life that only resurrection makes possible?

Sometimes, fleetingly, I think I know what it means to live this kind of resurrection-centered life.  And sometimes, instead, I get caught up in all those other things, the fears and grudges and doubts.  Sometimes I find myself stopping at the wrong ending, the Friday ending, the one where the powers of the world prevail.

But I know that God isn’t finished with me yet.

And I know that God isn’t finished with you – that God hasn’t closed the book on any of us.

It’s God who is in charge of how this story ends and it’s resurrection that makes new life possible for all of us – starting now.

So will you join God in writing this next chapter in a holy story that isn’t over yet?



[1]           Lamar Williamson Jr., Interpretation: Mark, p. 283

One Week in Jerusalem: Friday – The Cross

Scripture: Mark 15:1-47 (in eight parts, to be read after the following)

Where we left of on Thursday: night has fallen.

Jesus and his disciples have finished their Passover meal, sung the final hymn, and headed back toward the Mount of Olives, where they stop in a place called Gethsemane.  Jesus has prayed in anguish while his inner circle of disciples, stricken by the scene, shut the world out and sleep.  While Jesus prays, the Temple authorities have arrived, the chief priests and scribes and elders and the Temple police with swords and clubs, and at their head, one – Mark never lets us forget – who was one of the Twelve.  “Get up,” we heard Jesus say to Peter, James, and John.  “It’s time.  My betrayer is here.”

Before we move on, let’s take a moment to remember how we got to this point.

On Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the head of a makeshift parade, which one might see as a parody of an imperial military parade, though it would have been hard to prove.  We’re not told whether the Romans took note, but we can be sure that the Jewish Temple authorities, the local Roman collaborators, did.  Of course, they’ve had their eye on Jesus for some time now, but this Passover, it seems, things are about to be taken to a whole new level.

On Monday Jesus entered the Temple, that place that had been his spiritual home since childhood, and he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and the people selling doves for sacrifice.  He called the place a den of robbers.  From that point on, as far as the Temple authorities are concerned, his fate was sealed.  But there was still one problem – the crowds loved him, and if the authorities tried anything in public, the people would riot.  They began to look for another way.

On Tuesday, Jesus went to dinner at a friend’s house in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, and an unnamed woman anointed him with perfumed oil, as if for burial, in an act of foreshadowing that showed she understood something that the others did not.  At the end of that dinner, one man, one of the Twelve, got up with a sense of resolve, and the very next day he went to the chief priests and told them he knew a way that their plan could work.  And on Thursday night, after dinner, Judas slipped away while the rest waited in the Garden of Gethsemane and when he returned, he wasn’t alone.

As the scene opens now it is dawn on Friday morning.  But the action has continued all night.  The disciples flee in fear.  From Gethsemane, Jesus is led away to the high priest’s house, where conveniently, the ruling council of Jerusalem is assembled.  They try to find a charge to bring him up on, but apparently no one has worked out their stories ahead of time, because the testimonies against him do not agree.  Jesus is silent.  Finally the high priest demands outright: “Are you the Messiah?” and Jesus says “I am,” or perhaps, depending on how one reads the Greek: “Am I?”

No matter: for the high priest it is enough.  “Blasphemy!” he cries, and Jesus is condemned to death.

As soon as it is morning, they bind Jesus and lead him to the only ones capable of carrying out the death penalty in first-century Jerusalem: the Romans.

Increasingly, over the course of this one week, it has become clear that when the fullness of the goodness and love and mercy and power of God comes head to head with the fear and pride and self-centeredness of the powers that be in this world, something’s got to give.

And in fact, from the beginning, it was always going to be this way: not necessarily by God’s design, but by ours.

And so, the question becomes, which one will it be?

Will it be love, or fear?  Will it be the quest for worldly status, or humility?  Hospitality, or social hierarchy?  Self-defense, or self-sacrifice?  Will it be the Pax Romana, or the peace of Christ?

Something’s got to give.  So which one will it be?

This is a question that will play out in the story we are about to hear, the story of Friday, and it may appear that we have our answer.  But then, sometimes we think a story is over before God is done writing.

But perhaps even more importantly, this is a question that continues to play out in our lives every single day.  Will it be love or fear?  Building walls, or breaking them down?  Will it be the peace and prosperity that empire, money, guns seem to offer – or will it be the peace of Christ?

The hymn we are about to sing will ask the question: “Were you there?” and in a sense, of course, we were not.

And yet the world hasn’t changed so very much since then, has it?

And we are not so very different, are we – from the chief priests who couldn’t take this threat to their orthodoxy or their status, or the disciples who fled out of fear, or the one who betrayed for money, or the Romans who didn’t really care – but took the easy way out?

And so the story plays out not just in their time, but in ours; not just on account of their sin, but on account of ours; and when Sunday does finally come, it is not just on their behalf, but on ours.

Love or fear, peace or power, life or death: for once and for all, which one is it going to be?




The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Week in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan has been an ongoing resource throughout this series.

One Week in Jerusalem: Thursday – The Last Supper and Gethsemane

Thursday Evening: The Last Supper

Mark 14:12-26

Thursday evening of Holy Week brings us into the Triduum, the three-day period from Thursday evening to Sunday evening in which the saga of Christ’s arrest, suffering, death and resurrection play out in vivid detail, as if in real time.  It is the most sacred time in the Christian year.

Thursday begins relatively uneventfully.  It is the Day of Preparation for Passover; since in the Jewish calendar days begin at sundown, Passover will officially begin that evening as it gets dark.  Until then there is plenty to do, but it’s all expected: secure accommodations, prepare a meal.  Jesus’ disciples scurry around Jerusalem making the necessary preparations.  Mark does not tell us that Jesus was with them, and we can imagine him hanging back in Bethany, praying and waiting for what is to come.  It’s a relatively normal Passover, but with a sense of foreboding hanging over it.

When evening comes, Jesus joins the rest, and again, presumably, the meal begins as a normal Passover meal would, giving thanks to God and telling the story of the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, in song and prayer, and with plenty of wine.  But then suddenly Jesus grows quiet.  “Truly I tell you,” he says, “one of you who is sitting around this table with me tonight is going to betray me.”  We, the audience, of course already know that this is true, that in fact this betrayal is already in the works.  Now we know that Jesus knows, too.

The disciples protest, maybe a little too quickly; maybe as much as they swear they would never do such a thing there’s something inside them that is just a little afraid that they might.  But eventually the moment passes; the songs and the prayers and the conversation pick back up, celebrating the time God acted decisively in history to save the Jewish people.

But a little later Jesus departs from the liturgy again.  Instead he takes a loaf of bread and he blesses it, and he breaks it and he passes it around the table to his friends, the ones who have been with him since the beginning, and he makes an odd, surprising statement: “This is my body.” And then he lifts up a cup of wine and says, “This is my blood.”

The disciples have heard Jesus’ predictions of his own death before.  And yet these words which are so comforting to so many of us must have been jarring the first time they were spoken.  This is your what?

Jesus continues: “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.  Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the Kingdom of God.”

And then, Mark tells us, supper is over.

The scene that night is one that most of us have reenacted many times in our lives, as we too have taken the bread that is offered to us and the cup that is lifted up and heard those same words: “This is my body.  This is my blood.”

And maybe like the disciples that night, we haven’t fully understood what it means.

Not that we’re expected to, not totally, of course.  Like the words of the Bible, this meal is the kind of thing that speaks to us, over and over, in different ways, as we share it again and again over the course of months and years and over the course of our lives.  Sometimes it seems like just empty ritual.  But then one day, maybe, we will be especially struck by the bright purple-red color of the grape juice soaking into that piece of challah we hold in our hand, and we will be humbled by the thought of the blood that Jesus shed for refusing to live a life that was less than the one God called him to, and calls all of us to.  And maybe on another day we will chew that bread slowly and savor it a little, knowing that we need God’s sustenance, knowing that we can’t go on for another day without it.  And another day we will hear those words about becoming for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood in a way we never have before; and maybe one day our attention will be drawn to those people waiting in line with us, waiting to experience God’s grace tangibly for themselves; or if you happen to be serving you might even take notice of all the hands: big hands and small ones, hands of different colors, hands that are aged and hands that are well-manicured, hands that are rough with dirt under the fingernails.  All those hands, receiving bread and dipping it in the cup.  This is my body; this is my blood.

We reenact this meal to remember, but not in the sense of looking backwards.  Instead we do it looking forward.  Jesus tells his disciples he will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until he does so in the Kingdom of God.  Even today we close our communion prayer with similar words: “Make us one with you, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until the day your Kingdom comes and we feast at your heavenly banquet.”

This is a meal that’s preparing us for then.

In it we remember that we are all children of the same God, all welcome at God’s table with no distinctions; in it we remember that we are sinners and it is God’s grace that feeds us and God’s grace that is poured out for us; in it we remember that we need the strength that God provides us daily, that we cannot depend only on ourselves; in it we remember that only by dying with Christ are we raised to eternal, abundant life.

And as we remember, as we eat, we slowly shape a different world: one that is characterized by mutuality and humility and hospitality and self-sacrifice and service to one another.  And we keep remembering until it is true: until the Kingdom of God is made real on earth as it is in heaven.

What does this meal mean?  Over and over, in different ways at different times, it reveals to us the Kingdom of God on which we set our hopes.

Of course, the disciples may not have understood that all just yet.  For them, it was a moment of grace before all hell literally broke loose.  Little did they know how much they would need the sustaining strength of God in the hours to come.


Thursday Night: Gethsemane and Beyond

Mark 14:32-42

When dinner is over and the final hymn of the Passover liturgy has been sung, Jesus and his disciples head for the Mount of Olives.

It’s possible the disciples think they are going home; Bethany, the small town outside Jerusalem where they were staying for Passover, is on the southeastern side of the Mount of Olives.  It’s possible they think the night is over.  They’ve eaten and drunk; there was this talk of betrayal that still nags at each one of them, though they have mostly put it out of their minds, like they have done every time Jesus tried to tell them he was going to die; there was this strange new addition to their ritual, which gave new meaning to God’s old promises of salvation and liberation and the covenant relationship between God and God’s people, which perhaps they are still trying to process.

But they don’t go home.  Instead, Jesus comes to a garden, and there he stops.  He asks the disciples to wait, and he takes Peter, James, and John, his inner inner circle, and he goes a little father and begins to pray.  But he doesn’t pray like we might imagine the Spn of God would pray, with a kind of holy serenity emanating, demonstrating his deep and inherent connection to God.  In John’s Gospel, he might pray like that, but not in Mark: In Mark he cries out in anguish, and he paces, and maybe he shakes his fist, he says “I am deeply grieved, even to the point of death,” and he throws himself on the ground.  He says, “God, Abba, don’t make do this.”

I can imagine the disciples, at first, watching the spectacle with their mouths hanging just a little bit open.  Was this the same person who calmly predicted his own betrayal and death just a couple hours earlier?  Was this their spiritual leader?  It’s all a little much for them, all a little too much for them to process, and so what do they do?  They shut down.  They sleep.  They remove themselves temporarily from this world and these events they cannot handle.  It will be better in the morning.

They never do hear the conclusion Jesus’ agonized prayer finally comes to: “Not what I want, but what you want.”

I admit that for a long time I never got what was such a big deal about the disciples falling asleep.  It’s late; it’s been a long day; they are tired.  I never really got it until those early days after Evelyn was born, when Jon and I would take turns getting up with her in the middle of the night to rock her or feed her, when we were both so bone-tired we wanted to cry and sometimes did.  And sometimes when it was my turn up with her I would come back to bed and Jon would be snoring away, and I would think in my desperate state, “Could you not keep awake one hour with me??”

For what it’s worth I’m sure Jon felt the same way at times.  But I got it then, because when you are bone-tired and distressed and grieved to the point of death, the last thing you want to feel is alone.

Last week we talked about Judas and his betrayal – and I do have to wonder if those eight disciples who Jesus left in the first group noticed when the ninth quietly slipped from their ranks.  But the betrayer is not the only disciple who fails Jesus that night.  Peter, James and John fall into the sleep of avoidance and denial.  Later, when Judas returns with the chief priests who arrest Jesus, Mark tells us, “all of them deserted him and fled.”  And Peter, who repents enough to catch back up with Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard, then denies not once but three times that he ever had anything to do with that man.

What a difference a couple hours make – was it just earlier that same evening that they were sitting around a table singing hymns and telling stories of liberation and eating bread and drinking wine that Jesus told him were his own body and blood?

That meal was supposed to sustain them, to strengthen them, to tangibly remind them of God’s grace and keep them pointed forward to the day when God’s Kingdom would come in all its glory, on earth as it is in heaven.  It was supposed to keep them moving in that direction.

Instead they slept, and they ran, and they betrayed Jesus all over again.

I suppose it’s the case that God feeds disciples, that God gives them the grace and the strength they need to face what lies ahead, but in the end the disciples need to decide to stay that course, to put that grace to work.

In the hours that follow, things only get worse.  Could the disciples know that before sundown the next day, their leader and teacher will be dead?  Maybe they are just beginning to awaken to that possibility – and to their own failings in how it all played out.

And still those disciples will eat that meal again, many times, throughout their lives and ministry.  They will gather around a table together and they will take the bread and bless it and break it and share it, and they will lift the cup and bless it and pass it around and drink, and the body and blood of Christ will sustain them for the work that God has given them to do.  And when they fail and fall away and get all turned around, as disciples inevitably do, God will invite them to the table, and feed them, and point them back in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

One Week in Jerusalem: Wednesday – Judas Betrays Jesus

Scripture: Mark 14:1-2, 10-11

Wednesday brings us to the middle of Holy Week.  On Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while the Romans marched in on their stallions.  On Monday, he caused an uproar in the Temple when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers.  On Tuesday, a nameless woman anointed him as if for his burial.  By this point, it’s not a secret where this is heading.  Jesus, and we, know how the week will end.

But woe to the one who sets things spinning along that inevitable path.

Last week Barb preached about the woman who anointed Jesus, who took an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume and poured it over Jesus’ head, to the horror of those watching.  They thought it was embarrassing, and wasteful.  Jesus said that wherever the Gospel was proclaimed, what this woman had done would be told in memory of her.  Today’s ironically more famous events are intertwined with last week’s story.

At the beginning of that story, we hear that the chief priests and the scribes are looking for a way to arrest Jesus in secret and kill him.  The fact that they want him out of the picture is not exactly breaking news in itself – they’ve been trying to figure out a way to bump him off at least since the Temple incident on Monday.  Only now it seems as though they have the seedling of a plan.  They know can’t arrest Jesus by day, in front of everyone, because the crowds love him and they would riot.  They realize they will have to do it stealthily, by night.  But their plan is still missing a key piece – who will lead them to Jesus in secret?

That night Jesus and his disciples have dinner at the home of Simon the Leper, where the woman pours perfume on Jesus’ head.  Then, Mark tells us, Judas “went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them,” and suddenly the details of their plan all fall into place.

Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes known as Spy Wednesday, because it is the day when Judas officially becomes an agent for the enemy.  For me, at least, the name kind of makes the day.  Suddenly it’s not just Judas, who did a bad thing.  Instead, it’s James Bond.  It’s Mata Hari.  Suddenly it’s a story of intrigue and drama and scandal and betrayal: the kind of show all of us would watch.

Where I grew up in Vienna – 20 minutes away – one of our claims to fame is that we have our own hometown spy.  Some of you may remember back in 2001 when an FBI agent named Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling secrets to the Russians while he was dropping off classified material on a bridge at a local park.  That that park is actually just a couple blocks from my parents’ house, where I used to go running all the time.  I’m sure there may be those of you who work for the government for whom these things do not seem so romantic, but for us, the story of Hanssen’s arrest was almost a source of local pride.  I still point out our “spy bridge” in Foxstone Park when I introduce new people to the neighborhood where I grew up.

The truth is that in real life, though, betrayal isn’t so sexy.  And that’s true whether we’re talking about someone like Robert Hanssen, or the family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues who may betray us in much less life-or-death kind of ways.

If you have ever been betrayed – if someone you trusted ever willfully did something to hurt you – then it may be some comfort to know that you are not alone.  Jesus gets it.  Judas was, after all, one of his twelve closest and most trusted friends.  Some interpreters, from what I’ve read, will go out of their way to say that Judas never really believed in Jesus at all, that he never really had a close relationship with him, that there was always something amiss, from the very beginning.  But for Mark, Judas is always described as “one of the Twelve.”  Jesus may well sense that something is up, but that doesn’t change the fact that the one who turns Jesus in is one who was chosen and called and entrusted with the secrets of the Kingdom of God.  And that hurts.

Now let me ask you this, though, and please don’t feel the need to answer out loud: Have you ever been the betrayer?

I don’t necessarily mean turning them over to their would-be killers for money.  I don’t even necessarily mean any of the other big, obvious acts that might come to mind.  I mean also acting like you’re someone’s friend and then talking about them behind their back.  I mean also throwing someone under the bus at work when you’ve been trusted colleagues but your boss is looking for someone to blame.  I mean pretending to have another person’s interests at heart when really, in the end, you only have your own.  And I suspect when I put things this way that there are few of us who are so entirely innocent of this sin of betrayal.

And if so, I wonder, might we find it in our hearts to have some sympathy for Judas?

Tradition might say no.  Dante, for example, in his Inferno, depicts Judas in the ninth and innermost circle of Hell, being chewed up in the mouth of Satan for all eternity along with two other classic traitors, Brutus and Cassius, who conspired to kill Julius Caesar.  And if you’ve ever experienced the sting of betrayal, there might be a bit of base satisfaction in that image.  After all, the ultimate sin deserves the ultimate punishment, right?

But I don’t know.  Sometimes I’m not sure I’m all that much different than Judas.

Why do you think he did it?

Some would say it was greed.  In John’s Gospel, especially, Judas is the one who objects to the woman anointing Jesus, saying that the expensive perfume she used should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  “He said this not because he cared about the poor,” John writes, “but because he was a thief.  He used to keep the common purse and steal from it.”  In Matthew, too, Judas goes to the authorities and says, “I know where he is, what’s it worth to you?”  Judas, it seems, is simply out to get whatever will benefit him – but maybe we can understand that, right?

Elsewhere, such as in the story The Last Temptation of Christ, Judas is depicted as disillusioned.  He had hoped for a Messiah who would liberate God’s people from the oppressive grip of the Roman Empire.  And for a while, maybe, he had even believed that Jesus was that one.  But when it became clear to Judas that that was not going to happen, he was bitter – bitter enough to want to hurt the one who had so deeply disappointed him.  And if so – we can kind of understand that too, right?

Luke, on the other hand, tells us that “Satan entered Judas” just before he leaves to sell Jesus out.  Luke makes it sound spontaneous, as if nothing has been building up to this.  And if this is the case we might even question whether Judas had a choice.  Is he simply an unlucky vessel for carrying out God’s plan?  But no – God’s plan never depends on us doing bad things.  God’s plan recognizes that will we sometimes do bad things and operates within that reality.  Jesus himself recognizes the inevitability of his death – and yet, he says, “Woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!”  Judas does not escape personal responsibility for his act.  But at the same time, we can kind of understand the feeling of knowing something is wrong, and doing it anyway, as if we had no choice.  Right?

Mark’s Gospel, however, leaves the question of why Judas did it completely open.  No one even mentions money until after he makes his offer to the chief priests (though I’m sure he knew his insider knowledge was valuable.)  As such, I think we get to write our own motivations onto Judas.  What was it – the temptation of the wealth or status to be gained?  The bitter disappointment of realizing that hopes did not quite match reality?  Was it embarrassment at the socially unacceptable ways Jesus sometimes acted – eating with sinners, touching lepers, letting that woman pour oil on his head?  Was there a mounting sense of shame at being associated with him?  Was it fear of what was coming as the week wore on and Judas, like Jesus, saw the writing on the wall?  And for any of these possible motives – might we sort of, a little bit, get it?  Might we not betray Jesus for the same?  Haven’t we?  Haven’t we expressed our allegiance to Jesus while turning on him out of fear, self-interest, shame, or doubt?

But then maybe the more important question becomes, what happens next?  Is it all Dante and Satan crushing traitors in his teeth for all eternity?

Jesus does say “Woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.”  And it is undeniable that woe does befall Judas.  In Mark, after Judas leads the chief priests and scribes to arrest Jesus where he is praying in the garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night, he disappears from the story.  But in Matthew, when Judas realizes that Jesus has been condemned to death, he tearfully tries to return his 30 pieces of silver and protest that Jesus is an innocent man – to which the authorities say, “That’s nice,” and Judas leaves and hangs himself.  Luke writes in Acts that Judas uses the money to buy a field, but then he falls face down in that field and all his guts spill out in a Dante-style image of divine justice.

But is that really the end of the story for Judas?

After all, Jesus ate with him at the Last Supper, even knowing all the while that Judas was his betrayer.  Not even Judas was banished from that table at which Jesus offered bread and wine, his body and blood, broken and poured out for them.

And after all, the whole story of God’s people, from the beginning, is one in which God’s people are unfaithful, but God remains faithful; God’s people fall away, and draws near again; God’s people turn their back on God, and God continually, over and over – invites them – and us – home.

I read an article not long ago about two politicians caught up in a love triangle in the 1850s.  The two men in question were Daniel Edgar Sickles, a Democratic Congressman from New York, and Philip Barton Key II, the district attorney for Washington.  The woman in question was Teresa Sickles, wife of Daniel and lover of Philip.  When the Sickleses moved to Washington, the two men quickly became friends – they “bonded over an all-night game of whist,” as the article put it.  Daniel Sickles learned of Teresa and Philip’s affair through an anonymous note, and when his wife confessed, Daniel knew what he had to do.

He saw Philip Key on Lafayette Square one day soon after that.  Philip, seeing Daniel approaching, went for a handshake.  Daniel shot him.  The scandal rocked Washington.  (You can file this story in the “you think politics are bad now” category.)  “He has dishonored me,” Daniel Sickles said, “and we could not live together on the same planet.”[1]

I do like that line.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus says.  For Jesus, there is still room not only on the planet but around the same table, even for Judas.

I wonder if we could imagine an alternate ending for Judas.  John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in talking about the ultimate failure of all the disciples leading up to the crucifixion, point out that “Peter and the rest of the disciples are restored to relationship and community by Jesus” after Easter.  “Indeed,” they say, “had Judas not killed himself or died suddenly, we may imagine that even the betrayer would have been restored to relationship and community.”[2]

Would Judas have been “one of the Twelve” again?  I don’t know.  In our human relationships, at least, forgiveness doesn’t always mean that things go back to exactly the way they were, as if nothing happened.  And yet God’s grace is so much bigger than ours, and as I read the whole story, from beginning to end, I have to believe that it is big enough to include Judas too.  Because death is followed by resurrection, even Judas’s betrayal is not the end of the story.

There is room in the Kingdom of God – room for the woman who faithfully anointed Jesus, room for the disciples who failed him, room for the one who betrayed him, room even for those who have betrayed us, room even for those of us who might be able to understand, a little bit, why Judas did what he did.

That is, however, skipping ahead a little in the story.

For now, our spy makes his offer, and the events of the end of the week are set in motion.  For the end of the story will unfold as it is written, but woe AND grace to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.


[1]     https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/03/02/temporarily-insane-a-congressman-a-sensational-killing-and-a-new-legal-defense/?utm_term=.690f3d93ece1

[2]     Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Week, p. 126.