Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Closer You Get

Matthew 26:1-5, 14-16
Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017
William G. Carter

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

One of the hardest discoveries of the novice Christian is that there are sinners in the church. Perhaps they connect to a community of faith, aglow with the Holy Spirit, excited by scripture, ignited by the music. Then they discover there are people in the church who are selfish, argumentative, self-righteous, and downright mean.

Not only that, there are people in the church who are capable of doing terrible things to others as well as themselves.

There's no reason for me to try to illustrate that point at any length. We would be here all night telling stories and most of us would leave more depressed than we should. All I will do is mention a name and leave it there. The name is Judas Iscariot.

What's he doing in the church? Here's the answer: Jesus invited him, called him by name, and gave him responsibilities. He was the bookkeeper for the group that traveled with Jesus. He handled arrangements for travel. He paid for the bread and wine. He was loved by the Christ and welcomed into the inner circle. He was also a sinner.

Tonight as we hear of the final night that Jesus spent among us, we also hear of the final night of Judas. It's difficult to hear of such stories. We want them to turn out well and sometimes they don't.

One of my family members decided to try a new church. It didn't go well. They put on a good show on Sunday, with lively music, flashing lights, handsome preacher. There was also a creepy person in the nursery who started to stalk their son, and others who denied there was any problem at all, telling her that she was making it all up. She said, "Is it too much to expect Christians to act like Christians?"

It's a hard dose of reality to discover people are not what they say they are, or not what you believe them to be. It's even harder to discover that all of us have some unfinished business in our own souls. And I do mean all of us.

Don't pick on Judas Iscariot, O church of God. Don't single him out or make him the scapegoat. Learn from his temptation, and scrutinize your own spirit.

Sometimes Christian people live with the idea that, if only they work a little harder or push a little deeper, they can actually improve and become better people. A friend calls that "the Methodist fallacy." 

In all fairness, she's a Methodist. She admits that she preaches a lot of sermons with the same basic message, namely, "Let's get out there and be a little better." When her church treasurer was arrested for borrowing fifteen thousand dollars from the building fund with no plan to pay it back, we had a little conversation about the merits of Calvinism and its doctrine of total depravity. 

It is hard to 'fess up, hard to look ourselves in the mirror. In fact, I saw one of our church members at lunch today. She wasn't sure she was coming tonight. She didn't think she was up for the challenge.

But as hard as it is to be honest about ourselves and whatever brokenness we bear, let me say a few words about something that is even harder. Sometimes it is our move toward Christ, our desire to be close to him, that shows us our own weaknesses.

You may know a book called The Screwtape Letters, where C.S. Lewis reports on the overheard correspondence between a senior devil and a junior devil. Screwtape, the senior devil, keeps giving advice on temptation to Wormwood, the junior, and Wormwood keeps screwing it up. It was a popular book, so popular that Lewis’ fans wanted him to write a sequel. He didn’t do it, but he did write an extra chapter called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”

All the demons gather for a banquet, and Uncle Screwtape gives a speech. He concludes with a charge for increased demonic activity, beginning in the church. And he says words that continue to haunt me, words that create a lot of work for church sessions and presbytery commissions: “The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.”[1]

What's he saying? That there is something about drawing near to Christ that brings out the worst in us. I don't want to be believe that, but it's true.

My sister would return from a week at church camp, so full of Jesus and his love and grace. It made her tough to be around, so I snarled and let her know. And then she would get angry and blow, and I'd say, "Ha! So much for church camp!" What got into us?

There's something about drawing near to Christ that stirs up the dark magic of hell. The 4th century monk Evagrius named it as the power of sloth, what one of the Psalms called "the demon of noon day" (Psalm 91:6). That's the demon that comes when the sun is out, and life is full of joy and success and music, and precisely then you do something or say something that is so destructive. Why did we say it? Why did we do it? What got into us?

The Gospel of John describes it another way. Jesus Christ comes as the light of the world, and that's good news. He comes to uncover all the darkness, to expose the twisted secrets, to reveal what we would rather keep hidden. But as soon as he does that, the darkness cries out, "Turn out the lights." People love darkness rather than the light, and they will do whatever they can to snuff out the light.

As Jesus says, according to John, "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse . . ." (15:22)

There's something about drawing nearer to Christ that brings out the worst in us. I don't say that to be judgmental - who am I to stand in superiority? Rather I say it as a signpost for our souls. As we grow in grace, we never outrun the possibility of evil.

So I say this as a reminder of two truths. First, let us have the courage to be honest with ourselves, to face who we are and what we are capable of doing.  If there is some form of destruction still active in our lives, have the courage to dismiss it, to send it away, to declare that we wish God to cleanse us and set us free.

Second, let us also have the courage to be honest about God. God already knows who we are, what we have done and what we have left undone. As Judas prepares to do his worst, Jesus hands him the cup, and says, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

The seductive power of evil is real. It's very real. But there is always a greater grace at work. And it is the grace that will set us free.

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in The Screwtape Letters (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1982) p. 172.

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