Spontaneous Combustion

This Sunday, we will be blessed to hear from Scott MacLennan about what is happening on the ground in Nepal, and why the work we have been doing, and your generosity, are so important. The scripture that we chose to focus our conversation around is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and encouraging them to serve one another. You may remember that we have used that one recently, and have spoken at length about service. So this week, I thought I would take the reflection in a different direction.

Last night at Bible study, we read the foot washing passage and talked about the other 500 pound gorilla sitting in the room while that event was taking place—Judas getting ready to turn Jesus over to the authorities. This is one place in which the scriptures directly contradict themselves. Mark and John don’t talk about what happens to Judas after the betrayal, Matthew says Judas hanged himself, and Luke (in the book of Acts) says that Judas just sort of spontaneously combusted (The biblical account is actually much more graphic and I am sparing you the details, if you want them read Acts 1:15-23). So why the discrepancy? Probably because they didn’t quite know what happened to Judas, but hoped it was something really bad—just like any human trying to make sense of someone doing something incredibly evil.

Of course, Judas has always gotten a bad wrap since that happened, including his stay in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell in The Inferno. However, Judas also became a hero in some circles. The Gnostics thought that not only had Judas received the order to turn Jesus over to the authorities from Jesus himself, but that in so doing, he was the most trusted disciple, and that he was in fact the hero of the whole story.

Why would they think that? They thought the God of creation was evil and that we are all divine sparks imprisoned in fleshly creation and we need to be liberated. They also had all sorts of strange angels and Aeons doing battle—pretty wild and bizarre stuff. Sounds pretty strange huh?!? Well, that would be exactly why we branded the gnostics heretics and excluded The Gospel of Judas from the biblical canon.

Even though it is heretical, I showed the bible study a copy of this book last night, mostly to show another spin on Judas, and also why this book didn’t make it into the bible. A few years ago, there was some press about a new translation of the Gospel of Judas and many people thought there was some conspiracy on the part of the church and that the church was hiding the book. Actually, it is quite easy to google, and no one is trying to hide it—the church included. If you take the time to read it, you will quickly see that there is little of value there.

All the same, someone asked last night, “Would some churches think that you were doing something bad by showing this to us?” The answer is definitively “YES.” Many churches would think I was off my rocker by trotting out the Gospel of Judas. Many might think I was supporting heresy by doing just such a thing. However, here is why I did it: I think you all have enough faith (and common sense) to take one look at this document and realize that it is absurd. The best inoculation against such bizarre teachings is to look at them together and see not only why these things have been labeled heresy, but also as a greater means of understanding why we believe what we believe.

We may not know why Judas did what he did (or what happened to him after he did it). However, most of us can agree that it was a bad, bad thing! Coming face to face with a tradition that seems to contradict that belief does force one to stop and think, and hopefully come out the other side saying, “Yep, that was evil.” Far too often, we take something as simple as that for granted, but clearly, not everyone in history has done so. It also forces us to think about betrayal. The fact is, that we have all experienced betrayal at one time or another, and we all know that it is one of the most painful things we can experience.

We can recognize that pain in the gospel accounts about Judas, but we can also recognize what that meant for the early church. By the time John was writing his gospel, the early church had experienced betrayal at the hands of brothers and sisters as they had been turned out of the synagogues, blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem, and in many cases been handed over for torture and persecution at the hands of the Romans. They most definitely knew what it felt like to be betrayed. And Judas, the poster boy for betrayal, definitely bore the brunt of their ire.

Unfortunately, they, and we, have often known what it is to be the betrayer as well as the betrayed. This passage warns us all of the dramatic and painful consequences of betrayal. Perhaps the consequence wasn’t hanging, or spontaneous combustion, but whatever happened to Judas, we can be sure that living through the pain of his actions wasn’t easy.

I have now been sitting and starring at my screen for a few minutes trying to figure out how to end a reflection on Judas with some grace. The reality is, that there is nothing scriptural to support such grace. However, I also know that my own beliefs are founded upon the words of Christ on the cross as he said, “Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I imagine that Judas would fit into that category and would be deserving of some grace, even if the gospel writers themselves were more inclined to have Judas explode.

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