Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Text: Philippians 3:10-11: I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that I may attain somehow the resurrection of the dead.
Six days after this story Jesus will be dead, and Judas too. Jesus the crucified and Judas the suicide. Judas hanged himself while Jesus was hanging on the cross. But here in the story, six days before, Judas believed that it was Jesus who was suicidal, in the course that he was on, and self-defeating in the cause of independence from the Romans. Judas has lost faith in him, and four days after this he will become a double agent, and betray the guy he had once believed in. Judas is not a monster—he’s more a character from a John le Carré novel. He is smart, and he knows a lot, he thinks he knows too much to follow Jesus, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and he fails in his imagination. Just as he cannot imagine what Jesus was really up to, so too at the end, after his betrayal, he cannot imagine the mercy of God to forgive him.
Some churches teach that suicide sends you straight to hell, because you cannot repent of it before you die, and you can’t be forgiven of it if you haven’t repented of it. That is not what we teach in the Reformed church. We teach that we are always being forgiven of sins we haven’t repented of or confessed to, and that our forgiveness does not depend on our confession or repentance or even whether we are truly sorry. We repent and confess and are sorry as our response to the forgiveness already and freely achieved for us by the once-for-all atonement of Jesus the crucified. Nothing you do can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, not even however you might punish yourself in a season of despair. Let’s make that clear.
But what about Judas? In Dante’s Inferno he’s in the deepest pit of hell. You might know from my book that I don’t believe that the Bible teaches that anyone goes to hell, not even Judas Iscariot. His self-destructive death was punishment enough. God does not need to take revenge on him or anyone else for another billion years. God allowed him to destroy himself. And his self-destruction is the point. Judas stands for self-destruction. There is life in Christ, and there is self-destruction. That’s our choice. To desire the life of Christ is salvation from self-destruction.
Judas is not a monster because he stands for all of us. He stands for humanity in our bent for self-destruction. We are the mammals who habitually destroy each other, for no increase in food. We are the mammals who destroy our natural habitat and bet on the destruction of our environment with our atom bombs. We watch our individual self-destruction in the lives of our celebrities. We watch the shriveling and starving of our souls in our materialistic culture, among the poor and oppressed as well as the wealthy and powerful. I know that I have self-destructive instincts in my life, and I believe you all do too. And like Judas, w can even be self-destructive in reaction to salvation: "No, God, not like that. I will not have you save us like that. If I have to give in to that kind of help I’d rather die." Thus the suicide.
Judas is the shadow of Jesus. As Jesus gradually approached his sacrifice, so Judas gradually self-destructed. At first he believed with all this heart. He didn’t fully get what Jesus was up to, but none of the disciples did. When Jesus predicts his death, Judas begins to doubt him, but he covers it, and becomes duplicitous, eventually and inevitably to himself, pretending that taking money from the box is an act of resistance, and he says things which he himself does not believe, and he no longer tells the evil from the good and cannot choose the good, or even, at the bitter end, imagine it.
Spies do this. Politicians do this. Bankers do this. Preachers do this. Nations do this. We all do this, if less dramatically, when left to our own devices and desires. So this is what salvation is: it is salvation from yourself, and from your self-destruction. God does not want you to destroy yourself, God wants you to live, which means God saves you for God’s self. Salvation to live instead of self-destruct, which means the loss of yourself to God.
The opposite of Judas is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus was not one of the twelve disciples but he was a very close friend of Jesus. I imagine that Jesus went to hang out with Lazarus whenever his twelve blockhead disciples were driving him crazy. Jesus had just recently raised Lazarus from the dead, and there he is sitting at the table, next to Jesus. Sitting Roman style, I imagine, stretched out sideways on their couches.
And there is Mary, making them all nervous with what she is doing with her hair. She is certainly crossing the boundaries of propriety. I wonder if Judas says the false thing that he says in order to cover up what he’s really thinking, about Mary and Jesus. But for Mary it isn’t one bit about sex. Because the precious ointment she is using is what remains from what she had just used recently upon the body of her brother Lazarus. When she bought it she had not known that she was buying it for two burials. That’s what Jesus means, that though she didn’t know it, after she anointed Lazarus, she had saved the rest for his own body. And what she also had not known, was that the resurrection of her brother would prove to be the final straw for the powers of Jerusalem, and so they issued a legal warrant for the arrest of Jesus, which would mean his execution. But now she knows it, and maybe she feels like Sophie in Sophie’s Choice, that all her choices have led to grief. I imagine that Judas is thinking, "I could have told you so. I knew it."
She wants him in her hair, the smell of him, the sweat from his legs and the odor of his body mixed in with the smell of the spice. He lets her have him in his hair, this man, this celibate man about to die. He defends her desire, he lets her have this intimacy with him, an intimacy right out in the open. She and Jesus feel together the death on him, the share the death on him, in the form of the ointment in her hair. She is like an artist with her hair, she makes her hair the instrument of her imagination and the fingers of her desire.
Desire versus knowledge. Desperation versus bitterness. Faith requires the balance of desire and knowledge. Faith is empty without knowledge. Faith is foolish without knowledge. Faith has to have some information which is reliable, information that you need to know, but the information of the gospel contradicts a lot of other information that you have. The knowledge which the gospel offers us is the death of many other likelihoods and certainties. Which is a good thing, because knowledge can be self-destructive, knowledge is always self-destructive unless it is directed by the desire for God.
The desire for God is what saves you from self-destruction. There is a formula for this. It’s a formula to save you from the destruction of yourself, individually. And it’s a formula for humanity as a species to save us from the destruction of the world, and it’s a formula which is illustrated by the picture of Mary wanting Jesus in her hair. This is the formula, from Philippians 3:10-11: What you want to know is Christ, and the power of his resurrection, the alternate power in the world, and you want to do that by accepting the suffering which comes to you from the world’s resistance to your loyalty to that power in your life, and your accepting even your own death, which means, accepting your limits and your own silliness, so that even in a dying world you can still be joyful and full of desire, and trusting in God somehow to bring it all home and raise you from the dead and even renew the world beyond what we can see right now. If that is what you keep desiring, that desiring works against self-destruction, that desiring is actually the knowledge. The desiring of God is the knowing of God. That’s finally all you have to know. That God desires you. What little hair you might have left. God loves to feel your wet eyelashes. What God desires is that you know the love of God.
Daniel James Meeter grew up in Manhattan, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Jersey, and Long Island. He was ordained to the Reformed Church ministry in 1980, and has served churches in Jersey, Michigan, and Ontario. He earned a Ph.D. from Drew University in 1989, and has published two technical books in theology as well as many articles. He is married to Rev. Melody Takken Meeter, the Director of Pastoral Care at the Lutheran Medical Center of Brooklyn. They have two married children.
The Old First Mission Statement:
Old First Reformed Church is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn. We welcome persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We embrace the following missions:
1. To offer God's word, prayer, the sacraments, and discipleship; 2. To offer outreach, education, fellowship, and music;
3. To offer sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope;
4. To offer hospitality to community groups and the arts; 5. To care for the gifts we have been given through our Reformed Church, including our historic sanctuary and building.