One thing could have changed everything for Judas.
That one thing was not his betrayal of Jesus.
The night Jesus was betrayed, the disciples scattered. The crowd armed with clubs and swords scared them away. Judas escorted that crowd. He knew where Jesus would be praying. He was familiar with Jesus’ practices. And so comes the moment when Jesus is arrested. Soldiers chase disciples into the dark while Jesus is taken in hand and walked by shoulder and twisted arm towards the late night trial. Peter, in the shadows, follows at a distance. He is cautious. Stepping over his fear he slips through the gate into the city, and then into the courtyard just outside the place where Jesus is questioned. In that courtyard Peter sits behind his denials, his tongue submitting to the power of self preservation. Peter would always remember the night he denied Christ. While everyone else vented their anger against Judas, Peter vented against himself. To the dirge of Jesus’ predictions, Peter sang the solitary lyrics of remorse and doubt. He knew that his own weakness had left him as impotent as Judas was corrupted.
Over the centuries, the church has often characterized Judas in sharp contrast to Peter. While we’ve celebrated Peter, the fact of Judas’ corruption has meant we in the church have often carried a practical kind of unforgiveness about Judas in our thoughts. He’s our metaphor for betrayal from within one’s own cadre of the close and loved. And yet, if we’re truthful, after Jesus’ arrest and Peter sheathing his sword, Judas was the only disciple who actually tried to do something to help Jesus.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us about the moment that Jesus was condemned to death. When the judgment was pronounced, and Jesus was bound and led out to be taken to Pilate the governor, Judas saw what was happening and was immediately seized with remorse for his sin. He knew he needed to do something. While Peter was still denying Jesus, we can imagine he looks over to see Judas already trying to make things right, pleading with the chief priests and the elders, trying to give back the money, protesting aloud that Jesus was innocent. How much more than Peter sitting silently just metres away! To the elders and chief priests, and within earshot of Peter and perhaps Jesus, Judas openly confessed his sin: “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” Though his was the initial act of betrayal, Judas nevertheless did more practically to intervene and help Jesus on that awful night than any of the other disciples in hiding.
So what is the difference between Judas and Peter? The specifics or the consequences of their sin? Like Peter, Judas felt genuine remorse for what he’d done. Moreover, in repentance he not only openly confessed his sin, but tried to make things right. So, what else do we expect from Judas? Isn’t that the standard we set for ourselves? Just admit what we’ve done wrong, and then do what we can to repair the wrong we’ve done – isn’t that enough?
If we as Christians can celebrate Peter after his threefold denial of Jesus because he was remorseful, why not afford the same for Judas? And how much more since Judas actually tries to intervene! Are we actually saying that being sorry and doing what we can to straighten things out isn’t enough?
Yes, that’s exactly what we’re saying.
Indeed, what sets Peter apart from Judas is not the content of the sins. Neither is it the quality of their remorse or the sincerity of their confessions. And the matter is not one of failed or successful attempts to make things right either.
The difference is something else entirely beyond the question of repentance and reparation. Certainly the Christian call to those of us who have failed includes these, and yet there is something more, something key, that is essential when it comes to the question of our own sin.
The kingdom of Christ is not only a realm of guilt and grief for our sin. We preach repentance and faith.
When Jesus spoke with Peter after his resurrection, Peter’s future in God’s plan was a part of the discussion. And as Peter spoke with Jesus he trusted that he was forgiven and free to serve. Not so with Judas. For Judas, after repentance there was no faith – no trust that forgiveness was possible for him. That’s of course why he killed himself.
This is not a question of the severity of Judas’ sin. While Judas himself may have argued that his betrayal was so serious that there was no hope for him, we who have come to know God in Christ Jesus know otherwise. There is no limit to God’s grace and forgiveness, and that applies to Judas too. The critical failing of Judas was not the betrayal, but the fact that after years of ministry alongside Christ he could not trust that grace could still be apportioned for him. It was not out of remorse that Judas killed himself, it was out of a lack of faith in God’s mercy and grace: a lack of faith in God Himself.
For Judas, it is that one thing – faith in God’s promise of forgiveness – which could have changed everything.
It can change everything for you too.