As we walk with Jesus, there are certain images and insights that just stick with us. I will never forget the fact that women were the first Gospel preachers as they ran from the empty tomb. God as a loving spouse that swept me off my feet will always be the jumping off point for my life of discipleship. Rahab, prostitute and ancestor of Christ, has a special space set aside just for her in the home of my spirit. When something is good and transformative, it does not leave.
A few years ago, I had one such epiphany. I have spoken of it and revisited it often, so this might be a bit of a repeat for many of you that know me, but every Easter I am challenged anew by the question of whether I will be a Peter or whether I will be a Judas.
Peter has long been someone with whom I deeply resonate. He is intense and passionate and sometimes acts before he thinks, but despite all of his foibles, he is a member of Jesus’ inner circle and is the rock upon whom the Lord built His Church. I am certainly not saying that the Church should have been built upon my back, but I could definitely see myself being caught up in the moment, for better or worse, just as Peter often is.
On the other hand we have Judas. As the disciple that betrayed the Messiah, he is understandably cast as the villain of Jesus’ story. His name has become synonymous with treachery and Dante placed him in the frozen ninth circle of Hell, chewed in the jaws of Satan himself. Judas messed up and will forever be chiefly remembered for nothing else.
But I want to posit the idea that both of these men have more in common than we might care to ponder. Judas was as undeniably human as Peter. Both were imperfect, both were sinful, and both followed Jesus as a brother, friend, and disciple. On the flip side, Peter was also a betrayer. Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, but Peter denied having ever known Him. In different ways, both Peter and Judas turned their backs on the Lord they claimed to love.
So why is it that Peter and Judas occupy such different places in our hearts and heritage? The answer, I think, lies in their openness to redemption.
Matthew 27:3-5 tells us how Judas responds when he realizes the magnitude of what he has done:
“When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’
‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” (NIV)
Conversely, Matthew and Luke display Peter’s reactions after he denied Jesus, as the Lord predicted, and then upon seeing the risen Christ:
“Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.” Matthew 26:75 (NIV)
“Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ‘It is the Lord,’ he wrapped an outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.” John 21:7 (NIV)
Both Peter and Judas, in all of their humanness, denied and betrayed Jesus in their own ways. Their reactions, however, were vastly different. Once Judas realizes what he has done, he renounces his decision but decides to end his life. Once Peter realizes what he has done, he weeps bitterly, but continues to live. When he is confronted with the sight of Jesus waiting on the shore while he was in his fishing boat, Peter was not shy—he was so anxious to get to Jesus that he quickly threw on his underwear and jumped out of the boat! Once there, the Lord reinstated him and Peter goes on to feed God’s sheep.
In my mind, these stories are parallels with different endings.
Peter, when overcome by his sinfulness, was heartbroken but kept moving. He was still with the other disciples, his friends. He did not shrink into shame, tempting though that may have been. In Peter’s mourning, he seems to have decided to cling to whatever semblance of hope he had left. Then, when Jesus returned, triumphant over the grave, Peter could not wait to run up and meet Him, appearing to trust that Jesus would meet him there. Peter repented and Jesus did meet him with a warm reception and a campfire breakfast.
Judas, when overcome by his sinfulness, grabbed a rope. One can imagine that he did not see himself as redeemable and therefore decided to take himself out of the equation. I find myself often wondering: what would have happened if Judas had stayed alive? When the risen Christ revealed Himself, would Judas have fallen to his knees before Him? Would he, too, have jumped out of the boat in a desperate attempt to be near his friend? I am inclined to believe that our loving and forgiving Lord would have welcomed him back, too. Campfire breakfasts for all!
No one truly knows the eternal fate of Judas Iscariot. Peter is said to hold the keys to heaven (Matt. 16:19). One thing is clear, however: Jesus died for Peter and Judas alike. I am confident that the option for redemption was available to both of them. One of them returned after messing up and one of them eliminated himself. So what does this have to do with us?
Every, single one of us will make mistakes. We will, in our own ways, turn our backs on Jesus. Every, single one of us is human and therefore imperfect and in need of grace. Accepting that grace, however, is no easy task. It requires us to own up to our missteps, to recognize that we have denied Christ, but not allowing that to stop us from swimming to the shore for breakfast with our savior. This is not easy. I’m sure Peter felt awkward. I wonder if he pondered going the way of Judas. But where Judas counted himself out (and, by extension, did not trust in the fact that God would welcome him), Peter came back. It made all the difference.
So, as I ask myself, I now ask you: when you sin, will you be Judas or Peter? Will you close yourself off to second chances, or will you confidently turn back to the One who never stopped loving you in the first place?
I mean it with my whole heart when I say that absolutely nothing can separate you from the love of God (Rom. 8). If you have messed up somehow and you have set your face back toward the shore where Jesus waits for you, go forward with assurance that your repentance and enthusiasm will be met with grace upon grace. If you have messed up somehow and believe that you are beyond the reach of God, remember that Jesus’ arms were wide open for both disciples who betrayed Him, if only they would have the courage to return.
There’s a whole world beyond bitter weeping as the cock crows. Return, return, return.