It’s an old, old story: two men who came from the same place, worked together for many years and then ended up on the opposite sides in a conflict between good and evil. The great misfortune of the Civil War was that brothers fought for opposite sides; it also happened during the American Revolution. In fiction, we could talk about Gandalf and Saruman from the Lord of the Rings trilogy: they came from the West and were great wizards working against Sauron until Saruman defected. In Star Wars, we could talk about Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knights together until Anakin went over to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader. There is a choice to be made in every case: those choices are tragic, and sometimes they can teach us something about life, even life in faith.
Judas and Peter came from the same area, had similar backgrounds, shared a three year journey with Christ. They were the most prominent of the disciples when they gathered to share a meal with Jesus: Peter was the one whom Jesus had tapped to lead the group after he was gone and Judas was the treasurer, an important responsibility. They surely knew who Jesus was and what Jesus was going to do, or at least they thought they did.
Judas may have filled in the gaps in what he had seen and heard and decided that he had to force Jesus’ hand. Liberation was a key part of Jesus message, and the celebration of Passover as an historic Jewish celebration of liberation from slavery in Egypt. If he turned Jesus in, then Jesus would have to unleash his power, prove who he was to the Temple priests and authorities and the Kingdom of Israel would be restored. Judas was a bright and able guy: he knew what came next, and he tried to get ahead of the story, perhaps. Perhaps he saw some reflected glory coming his way for a prophetic move.
Peter was caught up in the romanticism of the ministry, perhaps. He knew who Jesus was, he was the first to recognize it and say so out loud. His motives around the table were sincere, thinking perhaps that his expression of loyalty was something that he would never be called on to do. That kind of promise is something that we’re familiar with. Saying that he’d follow Jesus to the death, may have meant that he didn’t expect Jesus to die. It’s like going all in with four aces: it’s easy to commit everything when you know you’re going to win. But Peter found out that things weren’t going as he thought they would. When it came time to do what he said he’d do, he was afraid.
We don’t know how Judas responded to having his feet washed. It’s difficult to imagine the thoughts and feelings that swirled around his man’s head while that was going on. Did he doubt what he was doing just then? Did he squirm inside and wish that he was somewhere else, to get the whole thing over with and get on with his plan? It’s anybody’s guess.
Peter’s reaction to Jesus that night is one that we know. He didn’t want to have any part of it: it didn’t conform to what his view of Jesus was, it wasn’t the Jesus that he wanted to deal with. He wanted the great leader he adored, someone on a pedestal. He told Jesus to go away. And Jesus came back and said that he had to sit there and take it if he wanted to be part of the kingdom. So the great follower goes over the top in the other direction, he runs away with everybody else. He denied Jesus when the going got rough.
What is the difference between Judas and Peter? They were both human, they were both imperfect. They both made horribly wrong choices on that Thursday night.
Judas gave up when he realized what he had done. Judas knew that he had done the wrong thing, but he couldn’t return after that. He gave into despair and took his own life. I don’t think Judas’ intent was evil all along, or else he would have sat with the Sanhedrin during the trial, been part of the crowd that mocked Jesus and stood jeering at him on the Cross. Judas regretted what he did, which is why I tend to think his original intention wasn’t necessarily evil. But Judas couldn’t live with himself when he discovered what he did. Judas is reconciliation refused.
Peter was able to hang in there after he had realized what he had done. He didn’t go off the deep end like Judas did, but he was in hiding, afraid for his life, because if the Romans knew he was a disciple, he definitely would have had a cross next door to Jesus: it would have been like the last scene in Spartacus. Peter didn’t know what was going to happen next, but he stayed alive and was there for Jesus to invite him to return. He was able to accept forgiveness and change. All the disciples who ran were able to come back and in the end they did share the same fate as Christ, except one.
Peter and the other disciples who survived were also able to continue the feast that was begun on that first Holy Thursday. They gathered together as Christ commanded: they washed one another’s feet, they shared the meal. They proclaimed the Good News with their lives.
We are not perfect servants of our master. We have times when we feel as though we have betrayed Jesus, when we have denied that we know Christ. We have had times when we’ve wanted to run and hide from God because we’re frightened about what might happen, ashamed of what we’ve done. We have shared in the forgiveness of God during the course of this Lent, I hope. Despite anything we may have done, Jesus keeps coming at us, keeps calling us to return, keeps calling us to take up his Cross, keeps calling us to share this meal of the New Covenant together.