RELIGION or RELATIONSHIP?
(An Advent Sermon)
by Rich Bregitzer
(St. Louis, Mo)
14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God."
17After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. 18For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."
19And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."
20In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him." 23They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.
I was recently told that I should prepare three sermons each Sunday and that before the message that we should take up the offering with me informing you that the $100 dollar message is 5 minutes long, that the $50 message is 15 minutes long and that the $10 message is an hour long. I thought that was kind of funny. Sounds a little bit like something Judas might have dreamt up.
If you remember Judas was one of the original twelve disciples and that meant he had witnessed many of the miraculous things that Jesus did and that he heard the wonderful teachings that had changed lives and that were transforming those who heard it. Judas would have witnessed everything about Jesus; just as much as Andrew or Thomas or Peter did. He had been present and seen it all.
When that name “Judas” pops up what sort of person do you envision? I think most of us do not paint a pretty picture of Judas. If you’re like me you think of a beady-eyed, sneaky, plotting, weasley fellow; maybe with a point beard. Maybe you picture him standing off to the side thinking of ways to have Jesus killed or to in some way better himself.
Have you ever considered his upbringing? Was he the product of a broken home? Was he a juvenile delinquent or the black sheep of his family?
We really can’t be certain that we have painted the correct picture of Judas, because in today’s verse, at the Passover meal, which we affectionately call the Last Supper, when Jesus announces that his betrayer is sitting at the table, we don’t see the other apostles automatically pointing the finger at Judas as if he is the default bad guy.
In fact, in some of the other Gospel books, a couple of them even ask Jesus if they themselves might become this betrayer. What an honest question. Could I become a betrayer? They might think to themselves, as might we all, what could happen to me that would cause me to deny my Lord?
Most of us know the story of the young lady at Columbine High School who was killed because she would not deny her love for God, but what about other things…things more subtle. What about walking away from communion for money or to do whatever it is you want to do.
It seems to me that those asking themselves this question: Is it I, Lord? Would not be as foolish as some self-righteous people because they recognized their humanity in the presence of the Messiah and they knew they were lacking.
Now Judas, even though he was the group treasurer and a little stingy, it would still appear, that the others were not ready to call him a traitor. Now six days before the Last Supper we read, in John 12:3-6 that Jesus was visiting Mary and Martha, this was just after their brother Lazarus had been resurrected. The verse reads:
3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5"Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
True as that might have been this was not, at the time, something commonly known among the other 11. So, it may be safe to say that Judas was not, outwardly, the picture of evil.
In fact if he was the group treasurer that would seem to mean that the group trusted Judas.
And yet he was a traitor and we can know this for sure: Judas did not have a relationship with Jesus. That is to say that he had seen Jesus, but that he did not know him. He had heard him, but he did not understand the meaning behind Jesus’ words. What Judas had was religion, but no relationship.
Now something else strikes me about this verse that sort of reminds me of all those horror movies where something evil or dangerous is chasing someone and they run into a church because the church is safe and evil can’t get in there. Well, in this verse we have the very first communion happening and yet someone in this fellowship is destructive, someone professing to be a follower of Christ is lying.
Later on, in this same chapter we learn to what extent the devil is at work. Verses 31-34 reads:
31 "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."
33 But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death."
34 Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me."
So often we fixate on Judas, but Peter too seems to have issues. Sure he might not be a traitor, but he will become a denier of the Lord. And look at verse 31 again.
It says that they were all to be sifted as wheat by the devil. Perhaps this alludes to the fact that once Jesus was arrested that they would all flee and go into hiding. My point is that the fellowship was no guarantee of faithfulness; what is needed is an ever deepening relationship with Christ.
Satan was working his way around that table in the upper room and he was looking for someone that had seen Jesus, but that did not have a relationship with him. He needed someone that witnessed the actions of Jesus, but that couldn’t relate to Christ’s mission on the earth. Apparently Judas was such a person; he knew where Jesus had been, what he had done, he knew how much money was in the money bag, but he never knew the Man Jesus.
I’d like to share with you this quote from Max Lucado’s book On The Anvil:
“We learn this timeless lesson from the betrayer. Satan’s best tools of destruction are not from outside the church; they are within the church. A church will never die from the immorality in Hollywood or the corruption in Washington. But it will die from corrosion within-from those who bear the name of Jesus but have never met him and from those who have religion but no relationship.”
And so when we follow Jesus who told us to partake of the bread and cup remembering his sacrifice do we do that merely out of tradition. Do we do that due to religion? Or do we do it because we have a relationship with our Savior?
And another question: When we leave the table do we leave wanting an ever deepening relationship or do we leave like a Judas, a Peter or one of the other ten?
I think I have mentioned before that we have a tendency to gather as a communion of saints and because of the sacrifice of Christ and because of the relationship we have with him we can say that we are able to gather in such a way.
However, while that is true we are not so quick to admit that we also gather as a communion as imperfect, sinners. And the first communion; the Last Supper is really an example of the fact that we can gather as sinners in the presence of the Lord; as an imperfect people, in an imperfect church.
See the neat thing about the eleven is that they were forgiven. They were repentant and when Jesus arose he approached them all with forgiveness. So, should we leave our fellowship only to fall flat on our faces this week, even if we should behave in a less than Christian manner, Jesus extends to us grace, mercy and forgiveness because we have what Judas was lacking…a relationship with Jesus.
I realize this message is not exactly the traditional Advent message or is it? Because the message is for all of us no matter when we stand in our walk with the Lord and the theme of that message has to do with hope. Realizing that we falter, stumble and fumble we place our hope in Jesus. We hope to be lifted up, we hope to be forgiven and we hope for the promised future in eternity.
We commune with Jesus in hopeful expectation…with increasing anticipation…longing to be ever closer to our Savior. Our communion with a loving God is laced with hope…not just during the first Sunday of Advent, but always.