John 16:31-33

If I was Peter, I would want to keep it all focused on Judas.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus had said at the table, “One of you will betray me. One who is with me, with his hands on the table.”

No sooner did the words come from his mouth than the seat shifting and finger pointing started, with everyone looking, searching, stretching. “Surely not me” they say one after the other, until ultimately they find the one single person on which to lay the guilt.

We have done the same to Judas in Christian tradition. “Surely not me,” we say with Peter and the others, as we nod toward the one rising to leave with his face shielded in shame and 30 pieces of silver jingling in his purse. 

In the story of Jesus’ passion, Judas has become the scapegoat. 

You might know the concept of the scapegoat. In biblical tradition, the scapegoat bears the sins of the entire community. The practice first appears in Leviticus, as Aaron is instructed, “lay hands on the head of a goat, and confess all the sins of the people of Israel, putting them on the head of the goat, and the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region…” and with that, the scapegoat carries the sins of the people far away into the wilderness, where we prefer for our sins to be kept.

The French philosopher, Rene Girard, suggests that such an impulse is innate for humankind. He developed a theory he called the “scapegoat mechanism,” which suggests that human desire leads to natural rivalry, and eventually scapegoating, and that societies almost always unify around the destruction of a collectively agreed-upon scapegoat. And in his book entitled The Scapegoat, he suggests that one of the best examples of such a collectively agreed-upon scapegoat is seen in the Christian understanding of Judas Iscariot. Especially over against Peter. 

The failed disciple over against the ideal. The one who would betray Jesus over against the one who promises to die for him. The one who would send his Lord to the Roman cross over against the rock on whom a church could be built. 

Yes, if I was Peter, I’d want to keep it focused on Judas. In fact, I’m not Peter. Neither are you. But we still nod in Judas’ direction. It’s part of our own self-definition, and our desire to be among the faithful, full of the fire and zeal and willing to give it all to the cause. And Judas gives us someone at whom to point, someone from whom to differentiate. We can elevate ourselves above one who is so wretched and wrecked as to betray our Lord. “Surely not me” we’ve said collectively with the disciples for some 2,000 years, so that our own sins and shortcomings might be carried far away

We look for such scapegoats in so many parts of our lives.

The world of sports is full of analogies, as you know if you’re frustrated this first week of the NCAA Tournament at the player who missed the key free throws, or the coach who couldn’t get more out of all the talent on this year’s team.

Baseball is also upon us, including very soon here in Greensboro, much to the excitement of Deacon Bob Godfrey and others of us who love a minor league game. I bumped into a friend from the Grasshoppers office downtown this week, who eagerly talked about the start of the season, and the safety measures to enable fans this spring, and I immediately had one of those hopeful images we’re finding more right now, anticipating that feeling of sitting on the hill on a beautiful spring night for the first time in almost two years.

Well, it was a perfect night for baseball in October of 2003 at Wrigley Field, Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the then Florida Marlins and the long-cursed Chicago Cubs, who were holding a 3 games to 2 lead in the best of seven series, and leading 3-0 in the top of the eighth inning with one out. That’s when Marlins’ batter Luis Castillo hit a fly ball deep into foul territory in left field, where Cubs’ leftfielder Moises Alou leapt to make the catch for the second out of the inning… Except the ball was right at the fence, and all these Cubs’ fans were reflexively reaching, including lifelong Cubbies fan Steve Bartman, whose split second reflex deflected the ball, causing Alou to shout in frustration… frustration that only swelled, when instead of being 4 outs from winning their first National League Pennant since 1945, they gave up 8 runs, lost the game, and went on to lose game 7 the following night.

As the scene unfolded, Steve Bartman was escorted from the stadium amidst insults and threats. His personal information was published online, necessitating police protection for a time. And even though he apologized and said he wanted to return to a quiet life, and even though players came to his defense, and even with the Cubs eventual curse-breaking title in 2016… today, he lives in quiet obscurity, save the occasional article or interview request or sermon reference. He’s mostly out on the edges — out in the wilderness where scapegoats are left to wander. It reminds us how quickly we look to place blame, and reminds us, too, how no one person should carry all the sins and shortcomings of a larger community

As we learned in 2010, in a devastating tragedy, as Tyler Clementi, 18 yr old first-year student at Rutgers University, died tragically by suicide, following an incident of cyberbullying and harassment because of his sexuality. 

Clementi, who was gay, had been publicly shamed by a roommate in the days before his death. The tragedy led to swift response. His death launched numerous efforts of advocacy and awareness. People wore purple to oppose bullying of LGBTQ persons; schools adopted new practices against bullying, which we still impact policies today; his death energized national advocacy efforts for LGBTQ rights; and amidst it all, collective anger swelled against the roommate whose actions had led to his death. 

But as the trial approached, something shifted, as an increasing number of activists began to question whether Tyler Clementi’s death was due to something much larger than the actions of a single roommate, and instead due to a larger culture that had caused him to feel bullied at institutional levels, amidst all the anti-gay prejudice perpetuated around him throughout his life. Tyler Clementi’s parents themselves, amidst their grief, began to examine his upbringing, and they became especially reflective about their church, realizing their son had been taught his whole life that his identity was a sin in the eyes of God. In fact, they left their church, saying their son had grown up there his 18 years, and had never known that he was beloved precisely as God had created him.

So as the trial grew closer, they began to urge others, and even the judge, not to give in to the mob mentality that wanted to pin all the blame on one single bully. In one interview they said, “We don’t want a scapegoat.” Because, you see, scapegoats allow everyone else to go free.

It’s some of what I think we see this week, amidst the devastating terror and violence in Atlanta, in the murder of eight people, including six Asian women. This publicly jolting violence was followed almost immediately by the familiar phenomenon of the fixation on the killer, with the emerging photos, files, and articles outlining “five things you need to know.”

It happens immediately, this race to release some detail — not to aid in any investigation, but I think to aid us in accessing an easy explanation. Because if we can just find an explanation, we don’t have to wrestle with the collective nature of the tragedy.

We don’t have to confront, for instance, the amplification of anti-Asian hatred in the last year of this pandemic, including a dramatic spike in violent hate crimes.

If we can just find five facts that differentiate us from the violence, we don’t have to examine our nation’s history of maltreatment of Asian Americans, and the heightened fear and vulnerability felt by people of Asian descent today.

If it’s merely one violent deviant with some disturbed past, we don’t have to consider the ways our culture exploits women, especially women of color.

If we can show the shooter went to a different kind of Baptist church, then we end up quickly setting aside the ways in which Christian faith in so many forms has been appropriated to subjugate women, limiting them to places of submission or objectification, portrayed as temptations or as mere characters in a man’s narrative.

And if we can just hear someone tell us race wasn’t named as a factor, well, then we can move on from the reality of how racism and white supremacy are absolutely intertwined with such violence.

Isn’t the desperate attempt to find out more, ultimately an effort to set ourselves free, and send the violence far away from us? If only we can see the photo of the perpetrator, we don’t have to look so much at ourselves. When, in fact, as Eduardo Bonilla Silva has said, “… racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”

Or as our Lord said on the night he was betrayed, “It’s one among you… one who sets his hands on the table.” Of course, what Peter missed in his desperate strain to look and locate the traitor in his midst, was that he had his hands on the table, too. All of them did. But they were looking at Judas, so that they wouldn’t have to look at themselves.”

But then when Jesus goes to pray in his vulnerability and fear, his eyes darting ahead searching the treeline for those that will come to arrest him, he finds his trusted disciples betraying him with their sleep. 

As the crowds mock Jesus and lead him out of town to Calvary, most of the disciples are eerily absent from the gospel accounts. Matthew tells us they all fled and deserted him. 

After his death, he is brought down from the cross and prepared for burial by hands other than those who joined him at the table. They were nowhere to be found.

When Jesus keeps his promise, and on the third day finds his way back to them, none of the eleven are there to greet him. John tells us they were holed up behind locked doors, encased by the fear that continues to betray Christ to this day. 

And of course, standing in the courtyard of the high priest that very night, wanting to be near, but hovering on the edges, Peter is given three chances to claim his allegiance and make good on his promise to follow and lay down his life, and in each case he shrinks back in self-preservation. “I’m not one of them… I don’t know him… I never loved him,” he says, only to hear a rooster crow. It’s the absolute worst moment of his life, leaving him his denial and the haunting reality he is not who he thought he was. Not as rock solid as he might have started to believe.

For denial is a kind of betrayal, too. And before Peter ever denied Christ, he denied himself, and the reality that in all his looking for Judas, he never really saw his own shortcomings and his own capacity to betray.

It’s what Peter learns in the courtyard: the dawning realization just as piercing as the rooster’s crow that we are all in this game, we have all betrayed. And as much as we’d all like to send the reality off into the wilderness with Judas, in the courtyard, the distance between Judas and Peter and all of the rest of us begins to disappear.

There is ultimately a difference, of course, between Peter and Judas. Peter lives to see the risen Lord, the one who takes on the inequities of us all, the one who comes back for him, the one who forgives him and calls him to become more than he knew he could ever be again. And we will live to see that, too. We will see the sun coming up on a new day, with lambs to feed and sheep to tend and the renewal found in the one who can still see in us what we can not always see in ourselves through our betrayal and brokenness.

But if we’re going to come to that Easter, first we pause in this courtyard, and confess what the scapegoats too often carry away for us: that the betrayal of our Lord, indeed the betrayal of one another, the betrayal of who God created and called us to be… that betrayal occurs not only amidst the jingle of 30 pieces of silver, but also amidst the echo of our own voices saying, “I never knew him… I’m not one of his… I never loved him… Surely not me”