How could you do that? You’ve betrayed me – you Judas! There can’t be many people that are so well known that their name has become a byword. The story of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss has become the classic example of treachery. This means Judas is also one of the best known of all the apostles – his Wikipedia entry is four times the length of St Matthias who we also heard about in our Acts reading.
There are so many questions about Judas. Why did he do it? Was it really just for 30 pieces of silver? What made this man, who had been trusted enough to become an apostle, turn against his master? Did he have some issue with Jesus? Had he hoped for an all-conquering Messiah and become disillusioned? Or did Judas hope to force Jesus’ hand – that when the arrest came Jesus would have to reveal his glory? Does that explain why he was filled with remorse? But why did that remorse not turn to repentance which gives life? And if, as Peter says in v. 16, the Scripture had to be fulfilled so that we could be saved, how do we hold that together with Judas’ free will and responsibility?
There are many questions, with legend and speculation filling the gaps. Our reading from Acts chapter 1 verses 15-17 and 21 to the end, deals with Judas but then quickly moves on. He has gone, he has met his end, his place is vacant and needs to be filled. With the benefit of hindsight the gospel writers know that Judas will be the betrayer – but it wouldn’t have felt like that at the time. Judas was not an outsider, he was one of Jesus’ closest friends. He had an important job. What then will the apostles do about the gap which is left?
Perhaps you have been part of an organisation when a key person leaves. It might be the boss – but in my experience the central person in an organisation is often sat at a desk near the entrance. You know that administrator who’s been there for ever and knows everything? Particularly if that departure is unexpected there can be a real sense of anxiety and loss. Who is going to do their work? How much corporate memory have we lost? Will the company feel the same again?
But if the organisation has a strong identity, if there are others waiting in the wings to step up, then you can weather the storm. In the first chapter of Acts it’s clear that Jesus has thought about this, and prepared for this day. He has taken the trouble to identify and train other people.
I wonder how you imagine Jesus and his disciples travelling around? My children have a particular picture book which tries to show all twelve disciples. It’s really hard fitting them all on one page! I think about Jesus turning up, with twelve big hungry fishermen in tow – inviting Jesus and his friends to supper was a big deal!
Yet that’s not the sum of it – in verse 15 we find out that there are 120 disciples in this core group. The verse before tells us that Mary, various other women and Jesus’ brothers were all involved. It seems that Jesus organised the group in concentric circles: Peter James and John were an inner three, then the twelve and women like Mary Magdalene, then the 72 who got trained up on preaching missions, and then some more. As Peter says in v.21, many of them had been with Jesus from the beginning. There were people ready to step up.
Which poses a thought-provoking question. What would happen if you were no longer around? If, say, you got taken ill or had to care for a relative, what things do you do that someone else would have to take over? Who might that be? Are there people learning the skills who could step up? And if someone did take on that task, would they have the contacts and the instructions that they need? Would they find it written down, would they be able to ask someone else in the know, or would they have to start from scratch?
That can be quite an uncomfortable question. Particularly if what you do is quite skilled or technical, and there’s no one obviously keen. If so, it’s all the more important to try and share the load – are there parts you can hive off? Ideally everybody should have someone they’re training up. Working together is good for us!
For that to work it also needs people who are willing to step up. So perhaps there is another question to ask everyone: is there a contribution you could make? Is there an area of service where you could make a difference? Is there something that interests you, a skill you’d like to learn, an ability that you already have that you could get more involved in and help an experienced person out? Doing so is incredibly rewarding – research has shown that helping other people is one of the key things in making ourselves happy!
The Early Church certainly gives the impression of being an organisation where everyone pulls their weight. We might imagine that they chose Matthias to replace Judas because they needed someone else to preach the gospel. But they didn’t. Everyone was doing it! If you read the Book of Acts, you find loads of people sharing the good news who aren’t among the apostles: Paul, Barnabas, Philip, Stephen, Aquila – the list goes on. Ordinary Christians prayed, lived out the gospel, spoke about their faith and the church grew. It should be a shared task.
Part of the reason why they needed Matthias is in verses 21 and 22: ‘One of the men who accompanied us from the beginning must become a witness with us of Jesus resurrection.’ While many Christians have encountered the risen Christ, while we all have his Spirit, the apostles were in the unique position of being witnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They saw it, they were there, and we can trust what they wrote.
Charles Colson was described as Richard Nixon’s hatchet man. He was sent to prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. He became a Christian and once said: I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
So the apostles were chosen as witnesses. Yet from Peter’s words it’s clear there were many such people. Why pick only one as an apostle?
Whenever the Early Church does something new, the apostles give their permission. When they decide to call some people deacons and give them a new role, it’s the apostles who initiate it. When Philip shares the good news in Samaria and people are converted, it’s the apostles Peter and John who go there to accept the new Christians and ensure they receive the Holy Spirit. When the Gentiles join the community, it’s by the actions of St Peter.
The apostles represent continuity with Jesus. They have the authority to interpret Jesus’ teaching for new circumstances. They are rooted in tradition but open to the future.
That is how the church must be. God’s community is not a chaotic free for all where anyone can do their own thing – no, it is grounded on the foundation of Jesus’ teaching, decisions are made together. Nor should the church be static, preserved in aspic, unable to change. The Holy Spirit leads us to respond to changed circumstances, new understanding.
That can be a difficult path to tread. Some of us would like to be more comfortable, prefer the familiar and well-loved. Others get frustrated with processes, forms, and the slow pace of change. We need to be like the Early Church: rooted in the teaching of Jesus, clearly continuous with what’s come before, yet also flexible, creative, permission giving. So we can interpret afresh the unchanging gospel for each generation.
(Perhaps one example of this is the way the new apostle is chosen. There are not many job interviews that involve drawing lots! Here there are two equal candidates, both qualified. They pray about it, then following an Old Testament practice trust that God’s will be made known through random lots.
I’m not sure that’s a recommended practice now. Later on in Acts, when similar decisions are made, people pray about it and God speaks to them. The difference here is that Pentecost has not happened, the Holy Spirit has not yet come. Maybe the apostles don’t yet have that immediate, personal guidance that the Holy Spirit brings? Surely when we have decisions to make we pray and listen to what God says?)
What about Matthias then? What great deeds did he end up doing? Actually, we don’t know. The Greek Orthodox church says he planted the faith in Cappadocia. The traditions give conflicting accounts about him – some say he lived to a ripe old age, or that he was stoned to death, or even eaten by cannibals. His feast day is tomorrow. Really there’s little we know for sure. This is the only time the Bible mentions Matthias – after this he disappears from the record. His is a cameo role, a walk on part.
Much like most of us I suspect. Few of us have more than a brief appearance on a public stage, yet each of us can create a significant impact. Matthias represents all those people who did faithful things, who did not become famous but did their bit and made a difference.
It is those people, their combined efforts, that changed the world. Sure, the apostles went places and planted churches. Yet in many places where the famous apostles went, they found new Christians were already there. Ordinary followers of Jesus had got there first and made converts. Merchants, travellers, people returning to their families, evangelists – unrecorded and unheralded had done their bit.
And when the apostles moved on, it was the folks on the ground who prayed, shared, loved and spoke. The apostolic churches in the cities planted in the towns, and thence to the villages. Whole countries knew Jesus through the faithful actions of people like you and me. Living out their calling, doing the things any of us can do, they changed the world. We can do likewise.