My Love for You Pours from the Empty Tomb

John 21:1-19

I know that this story is about Peter, and we’ll get to him, I promise; but first I want to talk about someone else—Judas.

Do you remember what happened to him, the disciple who sold Jesus for cash?

The gospel of Matthew has one story about it. It says there that when Judas found out that Jesus had been condemned to death, he tried to return the money. But they told him a deal was a deal. If he didn’t like it, it was his problem.  So he ran out, flinging the money behind him. Then he found a rope and hanged himself.

Judas is the rain on the parade of Easter glory. He’s the embarrassing relative, the black sheep snipped out of the photo. The one you don’t mention in front of the kids. Dante consigns him to the lowest circle of Hell.

But I miss him.

Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to be a Judas. I’ve committed my fair share of betrayals, big and small. I’ve felt the sick feeling that comes over you when you realize that what you’ve done cannot be undone: you want to disappear into the void.

But I’m lucky. And so are you, if you’ve ever done anything you’re ashamed of, because we know something Judas never got to know. We know about an empty tomb. We know that Love poured out of it, for us.

Judas never got to know that. He was the only one in Jesus’ inner circle who never got to see Christ’s shining face, never got to hear the risen Christ say to him, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.”

I know what my life would have been like without the living One in it—how swiftly the shadows would have gathered, how completely the light would have disappeared. And so whenever we re-tell all the happy post-resurrection stories of Jesus appearing to his friends, I get a little sad. I wish Judas could have been with them. I wish he could have held on for just two more days.  I wish his grief and shame had not made him so hopeless so soon.

After all, Judas was not the only one with reason to be ashamed. Other disciples betrayed Jesus, each in his own way. So I wish Judas could have been there when Jesus appeared to all those apostates and traitors and did not say what you would have expected him to say, did not say what he had every right to say: “Why did you abandon me? Why did you hide? Why did you swear up and down that you never knew me?” Judas should have been there to feel the relief they felt when Jesus acted as if nothing bad had ever happened at all.

And I wish Judas could have shown up in our story too, the story of some disciples who went home to Galilee to pick up where they’d left off, to be fishers of fish again, not people. To fish like they fished before they met Jesus. Before what happened to him happened. Before they did what they did.

If Judas had been with them, he too could have lifted his eyes and seen Jesus standing on the shore in first light, and he would have realized that there is no place of hurt or shame or longing any of us can go that Christ will not try to be with us; that there is nothing weak or scared or stupid or cowardly or selfish any of us can do that can keep Christ from wanting us.

If Judas had held on for just two more days, he would have cast a net into the deep where hope always lies waiting to be caught, and he would have hauled up 153 fat, flapping fish; and in that overstuffed, ridiculous instant he would have known it was the Lord standing on that beach. Who else but Jesus can fill up a heart like that?

Just two more days and he would have smelled smoke from a charcoal fire and known it was the Lord grilling bread and fish. Who else but Jesus would think that the thing you do for people who have hurt you so badly is feed them? Who else, after days of terror, abandonment, betrayal, and death would say something so unbearably kind—“Come and have breakfast”?

And after breakfast, Judas would have seen Jesus take Peter aside—Peter, who denied this very Jesus no once, but three times; and he might have overheard their unimaginable dialogue:

Peter, do you love me?

Yes, I love you.  (One.)

Do you love me?

Yes, I love you.  (Two.)

Do you love me?

Lord, you know I love you. (Three.)

Then you, Peter, feed my lambs.

Feed my flock.

Tend my sheep.

Not a word about the past. For Jesus, it’s all about what happens now. And what can happen tomorrow. And I wish Judas could have known that. I wish he could’ve known that God had composed a new song of life out of the silence of death. I wish he’d been able to stand on that beach and hear Jesus sing it. To Peter. To the others. To us. And to him. The song of beginning again, no questions asked. The biggest miracle of Easter—not the rising, but the healing. Not the stone rolled back, but the pardon. Not the tomb empty, but the peace.

From the wreckage of international violence to the wreckage of domestic violence; from the revenge of gang-bangers in South Central LA to honor-killings in Pakistani villages; from campaigns of war to campaigns for the White House; from the bedroom to the boardroom, the human impulse, the natural thing, has always been to feed on grievances and point the finger at the other, to blame and to shame, and to seek satisfaction until the last sword comes down on the innocent neck of the last scapegoat.

We have no experience of a world without blame. In our world, assigning blame and getting even is the thing that makes sense of life. In our world, no victim cooks breakfast for his victimizers. Yet our Easter faith claims that Jesus’ resurrection marks the end of a world based on reprisal. It is the down payment on a world structured for mercy. And God is creating that new world even now in the image of an Innocent Man who returns to those who harmed him, not to torment them for what they did, but to give them a kiss of peace.

These days, many congregations want to renew themselves, so they ask questions about identity and purpose—who are we as a church, what is our mission? Well, here is a model we might all consider: the earliest church—a few sinful, weak, mortified disciples huddled around a fire tended by Jesus, eating with him. A church of apostates, guilty of denials and betrayals and fearful flight. A church born not in rising to the occasion, but in running from it. A congregation of weakness and shame. A fellowship of the unforgivable; a fellowship of the forgiven just the same. Just the kind of church Jesus wanted. The kind of church he’ll always love. The kind of church to which he will always come.  The church in which any Judas could feel at home.

The best thing any church could hope for is to be filled with Judases. With people whose lives are marked by the humiliation and humility that comes from knowing what they deserved, but did not get. People whose actions in the church and in the world are characterized therefore by the most reverent tenderness for the weaknesses of others. The best route to faithfulness any church can take is through human fragility, where the depths of guilt and shame are met by the unrelenting, anticipatory, all-covering, blame-withholding mercy of the Lord.

If what we strive for instead is a church of the strong, the good, the steadfast, and the capable, who are all perfectly capable of cooking breakfast for themselves, we may never have a church at all. And we might never have a mission either, because feeding Jesus’ lambs, inviting the whole world to come and have breakfast, sharing with others the mercy we were given around a charcoal fire—these are not things you can do if you’ve never been around that fire yourself, waiting for the other shoe to drop, if you’ve never felt the joy of realizing it isn’t going to drop—ever; if you’ve never understood how much you actually owe, and how clean the ledger has actually been wiped. It is precisely the ones who should never have been forgiven, but who were, who are called to tend Jesus’ sheep. It’s not something he entrusts to just anyone. He seeks out the worst for the job. And he makes them the best by love.

And it could have happened to Judas too, if only he had given himself a little more time.

It bothers me that the gospel of Matthew has this story about how terribly Judas died, self-hating, ashamed, hopeless, and alone. I want a different ending to his story. I don’t like the ending in Matthew at all.

Back in the Middle Ages, many Christians didn’t like another thing about the resurrection stories. It bothered them that none of the gospels records an appearance of Christ to his own mother! It didn’t seem right that she should not have had a private audience, and so they used their fervent imaginations and invented lots of “true” stories about the joyous reunion of mother and son; and then they preached them as if they were gospel.

And so I’ve been thinking, if they can do it, so can I.

If no one and nothing falls outside Easter’s blazing mercy, then this story is also true. It’s only right that it should be. So here it is, the gospel about Judas, according to me:

Before dawn on the day of his rising, before the women arrived with spices, before breathless disciples peered into the tomb, Jesus got up, left the grave, and went first to Judas.

The betrayer was curled up in a small room lit only by the fading stars. He was still sobbing. He had been sobbing for days. He had wanted to kill himself, but in the end he’d decided not to grant himself even that mercy.

When he saw Jesus, he cried out in horror and shrank against the wall, fending him off with his hands. He knew he was about to pay. He feared he was about to die. But Jesus knelt before him and gathered him into his arms.

Judas tried to speak. To explain, to beg.

No, no. Don’t say anything, Jesus told him. Hush, Judas, not a word. Let me tell you. Let me tell you who I am.

I am the Christ of eternal mercy.

I am the unimaginable God.

I formed you from the earth.

Now I exalt you beyond the stars.

O Judas, my tenderness for you overflows.

My love for you is everlasting.

It pours from the empty tomb.

For you.

Like song.

Alleluia. *

_______________

*These last few lines are borrowed from the Easter cantata, “Amor meus tibi ex sepulcro vacuo effundit” [My love for you pours from the empty tomb] by First Church in Cambridge, Congregational (MA) composer-in-residence, Patricia Van Ness. The English translation of the text is as follows:

You who sought me before dawn

with spices in your hands;

Magdalene;

And you, disciple loved above all disciples,

who lay close to my breast at the table,

and whose heart is one with mine,

My love for you pours from the empty tomb,

like song.

To the two who paused in sadness

walking to Emmaus;

To Simon Peter, warrior and child;

To the Centurian;

To Pilate;

To Judas,

I am the Christ of eternal mercy.

I am the God of compassion.

I am the unimaginable God.

I am the Rose of Sharon.

I have formed you from earth.

And exalt you in the heavens beyond the stars.

My tenderness for you overflows

and pours from the empty tomb,

like song.

Alleluia.

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