This morning, as we continue to consider what it means to be a Lutheran Christian, I want to talk with you about a teaching of the Bible which, in these days, is either hated or ignored. It’s the teaching about repentance.
We’re closing in on Holy Week. As we do, it’s a good time to introduce two men as “case studies” who had important roles in the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
One teaches us what repentance isn’t.
The other shows us what repentance is.
Our first study is of Judas Iscariot. Judas, of course, was one of the twelve apostles, that group among Jesus’ disciples whose job it was to be His “sent ones,” those who would carry the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus as God and Lord into the world.
Beyond that, Judas is an enigma. Even the meaning of the second name by which he’s usually designated, Iscariot, is a mystery. One theory is that “Iscariot” was derived from scortea, leather bag, making Judas, “the man with the leather bag.”
That designation would, in fact, underscore one of the few things we do know about Judas. Turn to John 12:6, please.
You know this incident well. In Bethany, Jesus is at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus, after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Martha, as always, is busily serving the meal--old habits die hard, you know--when Mary comes into the room and takes a pound of costly ointment and uses her hair to soothe the ointment into Jesus’ feet.
Today, we can’t imagine how socially inappropriate this action would have seemed. Men and women weren’t to touch one another unless they were husband and wife, mother and child. Only servants were to touch the feet of guests; for a woman to touch a man’s feet was considered, at the least, sexually suggestive. And a woman’s hair was considered sacrosanct.
Probably all of the disciples were taken aback by Mary’s gesture of gratitude and reverence for Jesus. (And Mary's reverence was understandable! Jesus had make clear that He was the resurrection and the life and that all who believe in Him will have life with God forever, then proved His deity and His power over death and life by raising her brother from death.) But John makes clear that Judas’ response was less about religious or social scruples than it was about what was important to him.
Judas asks indignantly why, instead of this wastefulness, the ointment hadn’t been sold, the proceeds used to care for the poor? Then we’re told: “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put into it.”
Historians and scholars have often speculated as to why Judas later betrayed Jesus for a measly thirty pieces of silver. Was he politically motivated? Was he a zealot who thought that he could spur Jesus into leading a revolution if the Romans tried to arrest him? John seems to say Judas betrayed Jesus for the cash.
You know what happened. In the hours after Jesus instituted Holy Communion, He went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. That was a spot to which Jesus and the disciples apparently went often and that’s where Judas knew he could lead the temple police to arrest Jesus, under cover of darkness, far from the crowds who, just the Sunday before, had hailed Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed One.
And what happened to Judas after Jesus' arrest? Turn please, to Matthew 27:3. This comes after the Jewish temple leaders took Jesus to the Roman governor Pilate. It says: “Then Judas, [Jesus’] betrayer, seeing that [Jesus] had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have betrayed innocent blood.’...[verse 5] Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.”
What accounts for Judas’ tragic end?
Doesn’t Matthew tell us that Judas was remorseful?
Doesn’t that mean that Judas was repentant?
Shouldn’t that have cleaned his slate with God and given Judas a clear conscience?
Why, even after he had given back the money he had taken to betray Jesus, did Judas take his own life?
The key to answering those questions is in the word remorseful.
You see, to be repentant for a sin, a wrong we have perpetrated against God or others, doesn’t just mean to be remorseful.
Judas realized that what he did was wrong. “I have betrayed innocent blood,” he said. So, he felt bitter regret. He understood that by his action, he was bringing about the death of an innocent person. He understood that his betrayal of Jesus was an offense against God.
And he no doubt was afraid of what God would do to him. But as the Bible points out repeatedly, “the fear of the Lord is” only “the beginning of” wisdom or knowledge. (See here.) When we are sorry for our sins, that's just the beginning of repentance. There are no good works we must perform. No acts of penance are required. But sorrow for sin is not all there is to repentance.
We see that in our second case study, the one that shows us what repentance is.
Our subject is Peter. Peter, of course, was another one of the apostles. We know a lot more about Peter than we do about Judas.
But when you think about it, Peter was as guilty of betraying Jesus on the night of Jesus‘ arrest as Judas had been.
You remember what happened. During the last supper, Peter proclaimed his undying loyalty to Jesus. Then Jesus told Peter that on that very night, Peter would deny even knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crowed in the wee hours. Peter didn’t believe it. But of course, everything happened just as Jesus had foretold. Matthew 26:75 tells us what happened after Peter had denied Jesus a third time and heard the rooster crow. “And Peter remembered the words of Jesus Who had said, ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.‘ So he went out and wept bitterly.”
In the Greek language in which Matthew and all the New Testament writers originally wrote, the adverb translated as bitterly, carries the meaning of an emotion that is harsh, painful. It’s used by one ancient writer to describe the oppressive rule of a dictatorial leader.
If you have ever sobbed with regret over some wrong you realize that you have done (I have), then you have some feeling for what Peter felt at that moment. He bitterly regretted what he had done. He felt remorse that he had let Jesus down.
But, unlike Judas, Peter lived and went on to become a leader of Christ’s Church, the one chosen by Christ and the Holy Spirit in the first Christian Pentecost, to deliver the good news that all who repent and believe in Jesus have God in their lives now and in eternity.
Both Judas and Peter were sinners. Both had betrayed their Lord. So, what was different about them to account for the very different ways in which their lives played out after the night of Jesus' arrest?
Here’s the difference: Peter had faith in the God he knew in Jesus Christ.
Peter understood that Jesus Christ was more than a nice man or a good teacher or a rousing leader of the masses and more than an itinerant advocate for justice or a miracle worker, who got killed on a cross.
Peter understood that Jesus was the Lord of all creation, the conqueror of sin and death, Who had always shown forgiveness to sinners who turned from sin and trusted in Him.
Peter remembered that Jesus had told stories (parables) to demonstrate how God responds to repentant sinners who trust in Him, stories like the ones Jesus told about:
- a shepherd who searched for his lost sheep,
- a widow who scoured her home for a lost coin, and
- a loving father who welcomed an impudent son who had scorned his love with a bear hug of love.
Peter had heard Jesus say that heaven throws a party every time a sinner turns from sin and trusts in the grace of God that Christ came to give.
Sinners who are sorry for their sin and trust in Christ as their God, Savior, and King, are forgiven. No ifs, ands, or buts!
Peter trusted that the God he had seen and known in Jesus would meet his remorse for his sin with a forgiveness he did not deserve. That God made known only in Jesus Christ is willing to meet our remorse for sin with a forgiveness none of us deserves!
This is a Biblical truth underscored in Article 12 of The Augsburg Confession, which appears on pages 14-15 of the buff and brown edition in the pew racks. Please pull one out and look at it. It says:
“Our churches teach that there is forgiveness of sins for those who have fallen after [their] Baptism whenever they are converted. [That is, whenever, their minds are changed and they see the wrong in their sin.] The Church ought to impart Absolution [the assurance of forgiveness from God] to those who return in repentance...Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition...terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel [the Good News about Jesus] or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven. [Repentance] comforts the conscience and delivers it from terror. Then, good works are bound to follow, which are the fruits of repentance...”Peter’s faith in Christ was warranted. He received confirmation of God's forgiveness in one of the moving scenes in all of Scripture.
After Jesus rose from the dead, you’ll remember, Jesus asked Peter three times if he believed in Jesus, had faith in Jesus. Each time, Peter said yes. In this interview, Jesus reversed the three denials Peter made on the night of His arrest and assured Peter not only that he was forgiven, but that Jesus also had plans for him. "Feed my lambs" Jesus told Peter. "Tend my sheep."
Peter had acknowledged his sin to God and he had trusted that the crucified and risen Christ is big enough, gracious enough, powerful enough, loving enough to forgive the repentant.
When you and I repent for our sin, we too can be absolutely certain that, as was true for Peter, God forgives us and has plans for us, eternal plans!
They’re plans that begin to unfold here in this world, as we follow the Lord Who promises to be with us always.
And they’re plans that will come to the final, full flower when, in eternity, all our sins, suffering, and dying will be in the past and we will walk with God and all the saints who have trusted in Christ forever. Amen
[This was shared during both worship services with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]