174a Hoylake Road
Not that Kind of Love
(An addition to the original 2005 published Holy Week sermons.)
Matthew 27 vv 1-10
A man died in Jerusalem on this Friday 2000 years ago. He died somewhere in a God-forsaken field; a field called Hakeldama. We have been presented with this man in many images by many writers down the years from gospel writers to film makers, from Matthew to Mel Gibson, from Luke to Lloyd Weber. A man who is tormented and penitent, a man possessed by devils, a man possessed by the Devil, a man who is diseased, a man who is loyal, a man who does what he has to do, a man who is confused, a man who is loving, a man who loves women, a man who kills his own father, a man who works as a double agent, a man who does not understand what he has done, a man who kills himself, a man who lives to old age, a man who loves naturally as cold loves flame, a man who is the agent of salvation itself. His name is Judas Iscariot or Judas from Kerioth. And today Judas of Kerioth has died.
It has taken the church 1600 years to apologise for the character assassination of one of Jesus’ closest disciples, Mary the Magdalene, denounced as a prostitute by Pope Gregory in 591 and only called back into the fold as ‘the apostle to the apostles’ by Pope Francis in 2016. I fear Judas may be locked out of the room for a few more years yet. The colour used to symbolise him is the colour of contagion, the colour of plague: yellow. His symbols have been the scorpion, money, coins and of course the noose. In obedience to the many protocols that surrounded early Christian art, Judas was depicted as turned away from the viewer, his halo extinguished.
Leonardo could not bear to paint his face in detail in The Last Supper. Judas is seen only in the shadows. But Leonardo saw one thing others did not see: Judas did not leave the table at the Last Supper. He remained in life and perhaps in death a penitent friend and follower of Jesus. What went wrong? Lloyd Weber has the disciples sing “Can’t we start again please?” in Gethsemane. Judas leads the singing. If only he could start again! Was Judas inspired to betray Jesus over the issue of wasted ointment? Why did the chief priests need his help? Of one thing we can be sure: on this day of betrayal and darkness, of death and the cowardice and disloyalty by everyone bar a few women, Judas loved Jesus. But it was not that kind of love that would follow Jesus, it was not that kind of love that held back the questions, it was not that kind of love that would go beyond the second mile.
So, this evening we begin with Judas demonstrating not that kind of love, not the kind of love that will carry us forward to Easter. We begin then with a man who questions, who doubts, who does not see things the way Jesus saw them, who did not love the way Jesus loved. We begin, in short, with us.
Let me take you to another Moreton. The church of St Nicholas in the quiet village of Moreton in Dorset was bombed by the Germans in 1940 and all the glass windows shattered. After the war, the artist and poet Laurence Whistler was commissioned to create twelve stained glass windows for the church, each depicting one of the twelve disciples. But after creating the windows, he made and donated to the church a thirteenth window on the theme of forgiveness. It shows Judas hanging from the tree in Hakeldama, the coins, the thirty pieces of silver, falling from his lifeless hands.
The parish council were not pleased with this strange donation! (Think how your Elders Meeting would have reacted.) The offending window was put in a local museum and there it remained – an outcast, an embarrassment much as Judas had been to discipleship in his life. This was not a man for parish churches, far less a man for Good Friday or Easter. Many years passed but by 2012 a new rector, a woman priest, had arrived in the church of St Nicholas and together with the PCC they re-examined the issue of the Forgiveness Window. Back in 1987 many people regarded suicide as an unforgivable sin, but people’s attitudes have changed. We felt, she said, that it was the right thing to have in church. How about this for a quote? “Churches are not just about angels and Easter happiness.” In other words, churches are not about that kind of love. They are about the kind of love that offers every person, however desperate, however guilt-ridden, however beyond redemption they might appear, the chance of eternal paradise.
Another man died in Jerusalem on this same Friday just a couple of miles from Hakeldama. The place of his death looks just like Hakeldama. It is called Golgotha. His name was Jesus. His story is more familiar, and he has grabbed the limelight today even as darkness descended on his world and ours. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. But, alas, it was not that kind of love. It was not the kind of love that fast-forwards through the godlessness of Holy Saturday to the joy of Easter. It is not that kind of love that gives us the easy way out or the option to press the delete button on life’s slings and arrows. If you are the Son of God, a voice had whispered to him in another rocky God-forsaken place, if you are the Son of God… But Jesus replied, it is not that kind of love. It is not the kind of love that he wished with all his heart to grasp even as late as last night in Gethsemane. If truth be told, it was not the kind of love that Mary the Magdalene had hoped for. But perhaps we may one day realise it was something much greater. It was for that other man, Judas, and for that kind of headstrong tormented impassioned and betraying love that Jesus has given his life today. Given his life and descended to hell itself to rescue those beyond redemption.
there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified.
descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair.
cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm.
Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept.
days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had.
will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell.”
we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.
(Ruth Etchells, 1931-2012)
Sarah Jane knew her Lord. She expressed it in the same ways that you and I express our faith. Her children were baptised in Clubmoor Church in my pastorate and she was married there just three years ago. She also expressed her faith and her love of life in ways that you and I probably cannot: she danced. She taught ballet and how proud she would have been to see one of her former pupils Matthew Ball, promoted to principal of the Royal Ballet. She did not live to see that. She died on 4th January 2018 at the age of 45. She would have loved to see her two beautiful girls grow up and dance themselves. One of them after all is called Darcey! But it was not that kind of love. Hers was a love that three years ago had to accept the fact she had terminal cancer. Darcey said to her a month before she died, “Mummy, can I play my guitar at your funeral?” But it was not that kind of love. It was not that kind of love that takes away the chemotherapy and the sickness, the waiting and the holding of hands in communal silence. It was not that kind of love that can easily explain to your young nine-year-old child that you are not going to be there next Christmas or even this Easter.
And after I read that familiar passage from Revelation at Sarah Jane’s packed funeral service, concluding with those words “And there shall be no more death, no more crying or pain” one of the tributes by a family friend ended with the defiant shout: and no more cancer! Yes, no more cancer….(and no more coronavirus!) One day. But God’s love is not that kind of love. God’s love takes us to Good Friday. It takes us not to nails and a cross but cannulas and Cyclo-phosphamide and Docetaxel and epirubicin, to Covid-19 wards and ventilators and nurses in PPE. My God, why have you forsaken me? His love pursues us to places where like Judas himself we do not want to go but where even in the depths of our suffering and loneliness, seemingly incurable, the crucified Jesus reaches down to touch us.
Often all this happens outside the church. Often, we do not see this kind of love. The Judas Window, the Forgiveness Window of St Nicholas Moreton has another interesting aspect to it. Because of where it has been placed, you cannot see it from inside the church. It is hidden by a memorial tablet to one of the great and the good, the opposite if you will of Judas. You can only see the window from the outside. Even then you can only discern the image of Judas when the light is at a certain angle. For those who worship inside, it is a story that is not observed. It just goes on even as they sing their hymns: forgiveness and redemption to those outside the church. Themes that are played out every day in the world outside. The church does not own these things. After all, as George Macleod famously put it, Jesus did not die in a temple but at a busy crossroads where the sign had to be in Latin and Greek and Urdu and Afrikaans. God has the copyright to Good Friday and not for the church.
People have died today. (I am writing this before the figures of coronavirus deaths for the last 24 hours have been announced. You fill in the gap.) And loved ones may have even cried out from the bedside vigil that there is no God. Yes, there is no such God as the one they and we want. There is no such Jesus as the Jesus that Judas wanted. It was not that kind of love.
We want love, we want to be loved, but on our terms. We want to be left alone, to attempt to be self-sufficient, only letting God in when it suits us. But for Jesus, it was a different kind of love. It was a love that embraced Gethsemane and Calvary, a love that took him to hell itself. There he will remain for three days. It was that kind of love, utterly selfless and in the end utterly life-giving.
So, let there be one last word or rather one last image for Good Friday evening. It comes from the Forgiveness Window. Outside St Nicholas Moreton, look closely at the Forgiveness Window if you dare. Look at the coins. Before the coins of silver falling from the lifeless hand of Judas even touch the ground, they turn into flowers and bloom. You see, from hell itself the flowers of Easter will grow.