If you don’t plan to preach on John 13 for Maundy Thursday, here is an alternative from Matthew 26 and 27 on the haunting story of Judas.
Hand Over the Rope
A Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Based on Matthew 26:14-32 and Matthew 27:3-10
Suddenly it all came clear. Judas’ plan had gone horribly awry! He had only intended to push Jesus to act. A confrontation with the authorities, reasoned Judas, would prompt Jesus to quit waiting around and launch the new kingdom of Israel. But now Jesus was condemned to die for sins he never committed, and the blood was all over Judas’ hands.
The guilt was crushing. Judas could scarcely breathe. “Hurry…must hurry! Must stop this thing,” he said to himself over and over. He clutched a small pouch. The thirty pieces of silver inside burned his hand.
When Judas reached the chief priests and elders, he pushed his way in. “Jesus is innocent!” he cried. “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”
“What do we care about that?” they answered. “That’s your business.”
Jesus had never had a chance! The authorities had never been interested in conferring with Jesus. They had no intention of giving serious consideration to anything he had to say. The priests and elders only wanted to destroy Jesus, and Judas had played right into their hands.
Judas couldn’t get rid of the blood money fast enough. He hurled the coins into the temple and hurried away. Would someone find them and perhaps use them for good?
No hope! No hope! The words pounded in his head. No way to turn back the clock. There was no way to make it right, no way to make up for his sin even partially. Judas’ sin condemned him. Guilty. Guilty forever! Sick with despair, Judas found a piece of rope, secured one end, looped the other around his neck, and jumped.
I once read of a congregation that built a small prayer chapel and placed twelve chairs in it, one for each of the apostles. The chair marked “Judas” became well worn because it was the most often used. Through the ages many Christians have recognized themselves in Judas for their own betrayals of Christ. And many have responded to their guilt in the same way, punishing themselves, condemning themselves.
A few have done so quite literally. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was common to see groups of people whipping themselves and each other, hoping that this punishment would make God take away the Black Death plague.
Most now, though, punish themselves with emotional ropes and whips. Endlessly rehearsing regrets for wrongs, real, and some just imagined. Picking at the scabs on the sore places in their memories. Confessing again and again. Piling good work upon good work, hoping God will relent.
None of these self-imposed remedies offers more than temporary relief. The guilt always comes back. We have sinned, we have betrayed the innocent blood of Christ, and we can’t do a thing to fix it.
If only Judas hadn’t found that piece of rope. If only he had paused long enough to think, to reflect on three years spent with Jesus, to pray. That might have made the difference.
If only Judas had paused to remember what just happened at that Last Supper. Jesus had obviously been aware of Judas’ scheme. But instead of turning Judas away from the table, Jesus still welcomed him. Jesus had given all the disciples the bread, with the words, “This is my body.” He had offered them all—even Judas—the cup, with the words, “This cup is my blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.” What was about to happen to Jesus was for their forgiveness—all of them! “All of you drink this,” Jesus insisted.
Then he pointed out that they would all, every last one, betray him. Every last one of those disciples would soon be in great need of the cup of forgiveness. Guilty, one and all!
Eleven disciples waited, turned back to Jesus, and did eventually drink the cup of forgiveness. But not Judas. He hurried to the gallows. He missed the point of Jesus’ life. He missed the meaning of the cross. He ignored the invitation to the table, the invitation that still stands.
“Come, everybody, drink the cup of forgiveness,” Jesus insists. “Take this cup of my blood in your hands, drink, and you will be clean!”
Come, people of God! Come, all who see yourself in Judas’s chair. Hand over your ropes and whips. Stop the punishment. Stop the condemnation. Hand over your regrets to Jesus, and if you find yourself pulling them back, hand them over to him again. Don’t go to the gallows! Come to the table!
Take Jesus’ cup of forgiveness into your hands and drink it. Take the cup of salvation into your hands and drink it. Hold it. Cherish it. Drink it. All of you!
“Do this in remembrance of me!”