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The Unforgiveable Sin

Sermon for Easter Day 2017

The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

We don’t often talk about Judas at Easter do we? This is of course because he betrayed Jesus and then took his own life. Of course it is not always obvious, which is consideresd to be the worst sin?

Reflecting on suicide John Wesley said

'It is a melancholy consideration that there is no country in Europe, or perhaps in the habitable world, where the horrid crime of self murder is so common as it is in England.' One reason of this may be, that the English in general are more ungodly and more impatient than other nations.

He had a suggestion as to how this problem could be dealt with

But how can this vile abuse of the law be prevented, and this execrable crime effectually discouraged? By a very easy method. We read in ancient history, that, at a certain period, many of the women in Sparta murdered themselves. This fury increasing, a law was made, that the body of every woman that killed herself should be exposed naked in the streets. The fury ceased at once.
Only let a law be made and rigorously executed, that the body of every self-murderer, Lord or peasant, shall be hanged in chains, and the English fury will cease at once.

Self murder became a crime under common in the mid 13th century Until 1822 even the possessions of someone who had committed suicide could be and were forfeited to the Crown.

An Anglican Vicar Chad Varah began The Samaritans, in 1953. They never use the word 'commit', because it has connotations of crime or sin. He had been profoundly affected by having to bury a 14 year old girl who had killed herself when her periods started because she thought she had a sexually transmitted disease. He reflected that if somebody was on the ledge of a building threatening to jump off and you called the police they would end up being arrested. It was not until 1961 that The Suicide Act decriminalised the act of suicide in England and Wales, so that those who failed in the attempt to kill themselves would no longer be prosecuted. But it was not until two years ago that the General of The Church of England abolished Canon B38 para 2 which forbade the funeral service for suicides and laid down that they should be buried in unconsecrated ground.

Thankfully most clergy treat such canonical rules as nonsense even if we do take oaths of obedience. However behind this lies the story of Judas which had a lot to do with the idea that it was an unforgiveable sin. Some parts of the Gospel story suggest that he went to everlasting damnation 'Satan entered into Judas, and it was night' or 'Woe to him by who the Son of Man is betrayed, it would be better for that man if he had never been born.'

We need to get all of this into perspective, the Apostle Peter was also called Satan by Jesus, so there is nothing special about Judas there. Remember Peter and the other disciples were less than loyal when Jesus was arrested, denying him or running away. The problem with Judas was that not only did he betray and take the money he had alsocommitted suicide.

St Augustine recognised that Judas was in many ways just like the others, but his special sin was in despair. Instead of going back to Jesus and seeking forgiveness, which he surely would have received, he despaired, and then sentenced and executed himself. So he missed out on resurrection.

So what actually happened with Judas? In the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 27 we read
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver
to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’

That of course is what we would all consider to be repentance in all its fullness, not just saying he was guilty but actually returning the money, like Zacchaeus! We are told that the priests wanted to take the money back but had to find a way of doing so without having blood on their own hands. They hit upon the cunning plan of using it to buy a field, 'The Potters Field'. Matthew tells us that this action of buying the Potters Field was something which had been foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah.

Dean Jeffrey John of St Albans cathedral draws out the significance of this event. The Potters Field in Jeremiah was the field of Ge Hinnom or Gehenna. It was a place outside Jerusalem where the Canaanites once sacrificed children to the God Moloch. It became like a modern day landfill site, a place of decompossing rubbish giving off the odour of decay. It came to be used by the rabbis as their name for Hell. Some years ago on a vist to Jerusalem I went to visit hell and you can still go and there today, it is now a green park outside the walls of old Jerusalem and quite a nice spot, not a place of eternal damnation.

The point which Dean Jeffrey makes is that as matthew tells us, the priests who took the silver off Judas used the money to buy back Gehenna.

'The 30 pieces of silver turn out to be nothing less than the redemption of Hell itself.'

Sadly for Judas the early church found what he had done to be too big a stain to spend much time thinking about it more deeply. It was not until Origen in the third century when the church was more assured of itself that deeper reflection took place. He saw that whilst Judas had become the personification of evil, the teachings of Jesus must have remained in his heart to provoke him to repentance. The great sadness was that instead of seeking forgiveness and being forgiven by Jesus, as was Peter after the resurrection, instead he became his own judge.

Origen and other Eastern Church Fathers argued that although Judas had committed a sin and tried to make reparation he must have had a chance in the next life to see Jesus and be restored, just like Peter was forgiven and restored after the resurrection. God's love says Origen is much lager than we can conceive. God can turn all things to good, and even when Juudas has greed in his heart and and betrays his friend Jesus, God uses that as a means of bringing about his plan for salvation. God's purpose can never finally be frustrated, nor his love spent in vain on anyone, even the worst of sinners.

So Easter is for all of us today, for those who feel lost and alone, unworthy and unloved, for those who feel close to despair, yes even those who feel that they have committed some unforgiveable sin. There is no sin which places us beyond the reach of God's mercy. Yes even those who like Judas despair of life itself. At Easter our generous and loving God shows us the true extent of his limitless love and compassion. It is this message which has sustained the lives of millions of Christians who have not only heard the story about the Jesus who overcame death, but who have found in him a new beginning for their lives. Christ is risen, and he continues to bring life into the lives of people today. It is his risen life which gives us a sure and certain hope for the future and for that reason on this day above all days we shout Alleluia !

Amen