Sermon on 1st April 2015
Day: Wednesday in Holy Week
Date: 1 April 2015
Place: Lancaster Priory
Film: ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by that Coward Robert Ford’ by Andrew Dominik (2007)
Readings: Isa. 50:4-9a; Heb. 12:1-3; Jn 13:21-32
‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’ (John 13:31)
In the Name of the Father…
‘The Assassination of Jesse James by that Coward Robert Ford’ is a film that appears to tell us everything that we need to know in its title: Robert Ford kills Jesse James. Full stop. This is the headline. And, in fact, the title even tells us whose side it is on, when it labels Ford a ‘coward’. But, as ever, it is not quite so simple as this.
First of all, the film is told from the perspective of Robert Ford, so that the viewer instinctively sympathises with him rather than Jesse James. And it shows us some of the scarier aspects of James’s character: his paranoia, vindictiveness, and cruelty. Even when it comes to the death of Jesse James, room is left for doubt as to how far James is complicit.
Having just learned that Ford, a man who sleeps in his home and eats at his table, must have betrayed him, James lays down his guns and turns to face the wall. He gives Ford an opportunity to shoot him, rather than letting himself be taken by the police. In so doing, he guarantees his place in legend. And it would seem that Robert Ford’s contemporaries were at least as offended by what he did AFTER killing Jesse James as by the fact that he betrayed his friend in the first place.
There are a number of parallels between Robert Ford and the character of Judas as he appears in John’s gospel. Judas and Peter emerge as the most complex and fully-rounded of the supporting cast in this story. But it is Judas who appears most often in our readings this week. On Monday evening we heard him mutter that Mary’s generosity was a waste of money, and already on that occasion he was referred to as ‘the one who was about to betray [Jesus]’ (Jn 12:4).
But mightn’t this ‘betrayal’ be at least as complex a matter as the ‘cowardice’ of Robert Ford and the ‘assassination’ of Jesse James? Betrayal is a loaded word, carrying all of our own memories, fears and guilt around disloyalty. I am sure that much of the anger that has been directed against Judas over the years is really a form of transference: We need someone to focus our own anger onto, both for the times when others have betrayed us and also for the times when we have betrayed others. In this sense, betrayal is simply a sign of weakness, and therefore of our humanity. And the betrayal of Jesus by Judas asks us to examine our own lives and motivations more honestly.
Betrayal can be a good indicator of where our hearts are really centred, or in the language of last night’s reflections: ‘what we have given our lives to’. We could say that Judas is guilty not so much because he hands Jesus over to the authorities, but because he does so for the money. So Judas shows that he is truly loyal only to himself. And which of us can honestly say that this is not also often the case with us, too?
But some people have wanted to turn the betrayal on its head. The apocryphal (and much later) ‘Gospel of Judas’ suggests that Judas alone recognised Jesus’s mission, and chose to act as a catalyst for it. What looks like betrayal may be the thing that is needed to make possible the next step of the journey. We might say that Judas took a great risk: losing his reputation forever by becoming ‘the one who betrayed Jesus’, but (like Jesus) seeing this as a price worth paying for the ultimate good of all.
There is some evidence for such a reading within the gospels themselves, particularly when Jesus addresses Judas in Matthew’s account: “Friend, do what you are here to do” (Mt. 26:50). It is clear that by betraying Jesus, Judas did act to make the next thing possible’. He is most certainly a catalyst for the gospel story. Judas even exemplifies an effect that Jesus predicted his preaching would have: ‘brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child […] and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved (Mt. 10:21 and cf. Mt. 24:10). Sadly, Judas does not ‘endure to the end’ (Mt. 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-20), and in this sense he functions as a warning to us, fellow disciples, not to give up hope.
The issue here is one of redemption. After all, Judas was not the only disciple to desert Jesus, or even the only one to give up hope. Mark’s gospel tells us that ‘All of them deserted him and fled’ (Mk 14:50-52). Simon Peter famously denies Jesus three times before the cock crows on the very day of his death. Yet in Jn 21:15-19 we witness Peter’s relationship with Jesus being fully restored. Indeed, Jesus himself bears the burden of Peter’s betrayal.
Consider this: in the ordinary course of events, betrayal comes as a surprise to the one who is being betrayed. But in the case of both Judas and Peter, Jesus predicts the betrayal beforehand, almost as if he were giving them permission to betray him (cf. Jn 13:27-30 and 36-38), as Jesse James appears to do in the film. Jesus also anticipates the suffering that their betrayal will cost them (e.g. Mk 14:21) as if he would rather bear it for them. We have already seen Jesus’s willingness to forgive and restore Simon Peter. And we can only surmise that Judas’s tragedy was to have given up hope before the resurrection. He did not give Jesus the chance to restore him.
It is true that Jesus refers to Judas as ‘unclean’ (Jn 13:10-11) and the narrator says that ‘Satan entered into him’ (Jn 13:27). But Jesus also calls Peter ‘Satan’ (Mt. 16:23). And part of what Jesus came to do was to erase the distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, so it is by no means clear that the betrayal of Judas places him beyond God’s forgiveness.
According to a story told about Rowan Williams, the Archbishop was once talking to a group of children about the death and resurrection of Christ. One little boy asked him what Jesus did during the three days he was in the grave. Rowan Williams explained the tradition enshrined in the creeds, that Jesus ‘descended into hell’. He then asked the boy what he thought Jesus might have been doing in hell. Without blinking, the boy replied: “He was looking for his friend, Judas.”
And this theme of friendship brings us to the final thing I want to say about betrayal: something that comes out very clearly both in the gospels and also in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by that Coward Robert Ford’. Betrayal is an intimate act, because you can only betray someone who you know (hence the resonance of the ‘Judas kiss’). And Robert Ford idolises Jesse James: he watches him and collects memorabilia of the James gang, and even lives in Jesse James’s house, just as Judas follows Jesus for three years, and sits down to break bread with him even on their last night together. The betrayals of Jesus by Judas and of James by Ford remind us that you can only give away that which has first been given to you. And this includes trust.
But this brings us to the true meaning of ‘betrayal’ in the New Testament. The word usually translated ‘betray’ in these gospel stories is the Greek ‘paradidomi’, which elsewhere is rendered ‘to give’ or ‘to hand over’. For example, God ‘gives’ Jesus over to death, and Jesus ‘hands’ himself ‘over’ to be killed (for example in Jn 18:1-9 and Mt. 14:48-49). So in handing Jesus over, Judas actually does nothing that Jesus himself is not also already doing. Judas simply becomes a vehicle for Jesus’s own self-giving. Jesus is a willing participant in his own betrayal, and the film ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by that Coward Robert Ford’ also suggests that Jesse James was complicit in his own death when he takes off his holster, laying down his guns, and turns his back to give Robert Ford the chance to kill him. But this was because James wanted to die a free man, at the hands of a friend, rather than as a prisoner at the hands of his enemy. Jesus, by contrast, allows himself to be taken prisoner and put to death by those who hate him for reasons that they have not yet even begun to understand.
In John’s gospel, at the very the moment when Judas arrives with the temple guards to arrest Jesus, Jesus identifies himself with the words ‘I am’ or ‘I am he’: words of identification and revelation on more than one level (Jn 18:5-8). And it is here that we realise that Jesus has been ‘handing himself over’ or ‘giving himself up’ all along. The self ‘betrayal’ of Jesus shows that Judas had nothing to ‘give’ or ‘hand over’ except what he had received from Jesus to begin with.
Handing oneself over, freely choosing betrayal and death: this as about close to an oxymoron as human beings get. Yet people do choose death for all kinds of reasons, including for the benefit of other people. But very few people regard it as the whole purpose of their life, or undergo it so willingly and joyfully. And as we saw last night, Jesus understands his ‘betrayal’ as a moment of glory: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’ (Jn 13:31). Jesse James enjoyed a certain amount of notoriety at his death, and his reputation has certainly fared better than that of Robert Ford. But neither of them gave himself freely on behalf of others. Their motivations were selfish and short-termist, as ours often are, and as Judas’s might have been. The betrayal of Jesus by his friends and followers, on the other hand, is something that he accepts without judgment or recrimination. It is just part of the cost of laying down his life for them and us. And the glory he stands to gain is not his, but God’s and ours. It is the glory of freedom, forgiveness, and restoration. Amen