In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we hear about deaths, disasters, and tragedies, we often focus on numbers. In the domestic terrorist attack on the municipal building in Virginia Beach last Friday, the numbers of those killed bore an eerie resemblance to some of the numbers in our First Reading today. The number of those killed by the attacker was first reported as eleven, then later updated to twelve, not including the killer himself, who was dispatched by the lawful authorities acting to protect others. The dead will be mourned by families, friends, and colleagues. Their lives will be remembered. The pain of their loss will be felt deeply. Death and destruction bring pain and sorrow to the survivors. Even the strongest person can be left confounded, gasping, grasping for answers, not knowing what to do. The people of Virginia Beach will be hurt by those deaths for a long time. Death and pain inflicted by one man.
The actions of one man caused a great deal of pain—even a crisis of faith—among the disciples of Jesus. The one man, Judas Iscariot, had been numbered among the Twelve, the Apostles appointed by Christ Jesus Himself. St. Luke’s graphic description of Judas’ gory death may not sit well with some of our modern sensibilities. Some folks have wondered, “Why do we have to have such a graphic description of Judas’ demise?” Many more have asked, “Why does that incident have to be included in the Sunday readings?” In some churches, those verses are left out of the Reading. That’s not good. It’s not honest with the content of the Scriptures, and it takes away a clear Law-and-Gospel lesson the Holy Spirit has given for our benefit.
The biblical authors point out the parallelisms between the death of Judas and the death of Jesus, some the same or similar, others antithetical, or opposites, in some way. Both Judas and Jesus were hanged on a tree, and according to Deuteronomy 21:23, the one hanged on a tree is cursed. Yet Jesus bore the curse not for His own sin, for He is the Sinless One, but for the sin of the whole world. In a selfish act of self-loathing, Judas kept the curse for his own sin of betraying Jesus to those who arrested Him. He rejected the grace of Christ for himself. It is the Apostle Peter who speaks of all this, because he knows very well the grief and sorrow of his own threefold denial of Christ—and the relief of Christ’s threefold forgiveness for him. Though Jesus was sentenced to death through the wicked plots and dealings of sinful men, He was put to death by the lawful, God-ordained authorities. Judas took his own life without proper authority—though the chief priests and elders who told him, “What is that to us? See to it yourself” (Mt 27:4), were giving Judas a mockery of legal authority, just as they had made a mockery of their cherished law when they put Jesus on trial.
Jesus’ body was pierced, and from His wounded side flowed water and blood, signs of Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper, given for the life and salvation of His Bride, the Church. Though buried, His body saw no corruption whatsoever. Judas’ body fell and split open, his guts gushing out, signs of the corruption brought by sin. “Judas turned aside to go to his own place,” abandoning his apostolic office forever, while Jesus “was taken up” and “is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1), where He reigns forever as King of kings and Lord of lords for us. With Judas gone, the Apostles were the Eleven, and so were incomplete in number. With the election of Matthias by the Lord, they were the Twelve again, complete, equal to the number of the tribes of Israel, over whom Jesus had given the Apostles judgment and authority (Lk 22:30). With Jesus’ Ascension into heaven and His sitting at the right hand of the throne of God, the Church is not incomplete, missing something. His presence is not incomplete or lacking; rather, His Ascension means that He is even more present with His Church on earth. We don’t have to go to some locale in the Middle East to find Him. The Lord Jesus, our God and Savior and King, is here in His Word and in His body and blood, just as He promised to be.
Jesus and Judas, both hanged on a tree, both died, the Betrayed and His betrayer; the Sinless One and a sinner; the Redeemer-King of the world and the one who sold Him for a slave’s price; “the Lover of the pure” (LSB 539, st. 1) and the loather of his own life; the Hope of the world and the man of despair; the selfless Giver of Himself for others and the self-centered taker for himself. We could go on with more parallels. Our Scripture readings for today give us yet more parallels and lead us to take in and consider the big picture, the scope of salvation history, God’s own story of God the I AM with us and for us.
The tree of the Cross on which Jesus died and the tree on which Judas hanged himself and died—these trees bring to mind the many trees which God the Holy Spirit has planted in Holy Scripture. The most obvious tree in our readings today is “the tree of life producing twelve fruits, according to each month, and the leaves of the tree unto the healing of the nations” (Rev 2:2). This takes us back to the first appearance of the tree of life, which God had planted in the center of the Garden of Eden, alongside the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or all knowledge. The tree of life was given for man to eat, but not the tree of knowledge, for all knowledge belongs to God alone. The action of one man, the first Adam, brought sorrow and sin and death to all. With mankind’s fall into sin after eating from the tree of all knowledge, we have (rightly) been barred from the tree of life. Through His holy prophets, God foretold of another tree He would plant, a great and noble cedar, and that cedar would be Christ Jesus. Nailed to the tree of the cross, Christ the Crucified has become the new Tree of Life for all who trust in Him, as Stephen Starke’s hymn says. From the fruit so pure and sweet of this Tree we may eat and drink and live forever in the forgiveness of sins. At the same time as the tree of the Cross was the tree of Judas’ hanging, a tree of death. The Field of Blood, Akeldama, bought with Judas’ silver, is a place of bloodguilt and death and poverty. The Mountain of God, Calvary, Golgotha, Zion, Olivet, this altar, is a place of Christ’s blood for forgiveness and life and the riches of His heavenly kingdom. All who come here and to this Tree of Life will also have a portion, by God’s grace through faith, in the Tree of Life in the holy city, the New Jerusalem. For Jesus gives you “the right to the tree of life,” because He is “the Root and Shoot of David,” the Righteous Branch promised for David. To us, His disciples, He says, “I AM the Vine, you are the branches. Abide in Me, and I in you, that you may bear much fruit. Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15).
At the tree of the knowledge of good and evil came the death of mankind, the death of Adam and Eve, and of all their fallen, sinful children ever since. We observe the joyous occasion of the Visitation of Our Lord, when the Virgin Mary went to see her relative Elizabeth, and the fetal John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb greeted the embryonic Lord Jesus in Mary’s womb—and we are reminded of the death, the martyrdom, by beheading of John, by order of Herod Antipas. John’s and Jesus’ births, sufferings, and deaths also parallel each other, John as the Forerunner and Best Man, Jesus as the King and Bridegroom. John’s death, like Jesus’ death, brought sorrow; but in Jesus, John is a victor over sin and death! Earlier in Revelation, in chapter 20, we are told of “the second death, the lake of fire,” which will be the death “of Death and Hades,” and eternal death for Satan and for all unbelievers, all who deny the grace of God in Christ for them. You, dear Christian, have already undergone your first death, in Holy Baptism. You are crucified and buried with Christ, washed clean in the pure blood and water from Christ’s wounded side, and in the river of the water of life. Your baptism is the death and burial of your Old Adam, your fallen, sinful Flesh, your rebellious self-centered self formerly turned against God.
Many trees, and many deaths. But only One Life? How is that possible? It is, as we sang in the Hymn of the Day, that He is “our life when we shall die,” the manifold Life of Christ Jesus, who was dead and is alive forevermore, over whom death has no more dominion, no more lordship. He is the Lord of Life, and by His dying and rising He is Lord and Conqueror over death. His life extends to all who call upon Him in faith. From the beginning of the Creation, the true life in all living things is the life given and sustained by the Triune God. In the Beginning, before time was, in eternity, was and is and ever shall be the Life of the Triune God. The life in Adam and Eve was the life of God, breathed into them, and through them God gave life to all mankind. What was lost and broken and killed in the first Adam has been restored by the last Adam, Jesus Christ. In the God-man Jesus Christ, God the incarnate Son, the fullness of the Triune God dwelt bodily, the Life of God in Christ. Christ is your life (Col 3:4). As He is the Vine and we are His branches, so He is the Life of all believers in Him. Apart from Him, all mankind is incomplete, missing something. Jesus’ Ascension means that death and mourning and crying and pain can touch Him no more. That’s His promise for us, too! “On Christ’s ascension I now build / The hope of mine ascension” (LSB 492, st. 1). Do you? Do you believe it? It’s true, as we heard a couple weeks ago in Revelation 21: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (vv. 3–4). That’s your ascension, when you will be seated in glory alongside Him!
While we await the consummation of all things in Christ’s return in glory, we are called to be His witnesses, His martyrs—yes, even witnessing, if necessary, with our lives and our deaths. We have the examples from the early church of Justin Martyr and his six students, beheaded in AD 167, and the martyrs of Lyons, France, beaten, tortured, and killed on this date in AD 177—all falsely accused, just like their Lord. And we have the more recent examples of the martyrs of Uganda in East Africa:
On 3 June 1886, 32 young men, pages of the court of King Mwanga of Buganda, were burned to death at Namugongo for their refusal to renounce the Christian faith. In the following months many other Christians throughout the country died by spear or fire for their faith.
These martyrdoms totally changed the dynamic of Christian growth in Uganda. Introduced by a handful of Anglican and Roman missionaries after 1877, the Christian faith had been preached only to the immediate members of the court, by order of King Mutesa. His successor, Mwanga, became increasingly angry as he realized that the first converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king. Martyrdoms began in 1885. Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to cool the ardor of the converts, he resolved to wipe out Christianity in his realm
The Namugongo martyrdoms produced the opposite result. The example of these martyrs, who walked to their deaths singing hymns and praying for their enemies, so inspired many of the bystanders that they began to seek instruction from the remaining Christians. Within a few years the original handful of converts had multiplied many times and spread far beyond the court. The martyrs had left the indelible impression that the Faith of Christ was truly for the African people. As has been said many times, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. [Adapted from James Kiefer’s Christian Biographies, http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/home.html.]
And we sing with those martyrs because of the One whose death—and indeed His birth, and resurrection and ascension—has changed everything, from death to life eternal, the very life of God for you and in you.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.