Acts 1.15-17, 21-26
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have heard about one of the first meetings of the Christian church.
The Christian church has always had meetings. Meetings have been there from the beginning. The Holy Spirit can work in and through meetings.
Jesus is gone, the first Christians said. What shall we do? Let’s have a meeting! Some people are very good at meetings. Some are very good at looking after administrative details. Administration is a special gift, and I admire it.
The meeting in today’s reading from the book of Acts was shortly after Jesus spent his last day on earth, soon after he had ascended to heaven. There were about 120 believers who came together for this meeting. 120 is a very large meeting, maybe more like a conference. There must have been quite an air of excitement and anticipation. The meeting was called to decide what to do about replacing Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Judas had taken his own life when he realised what he had done.
Judas remains a hot button topic for the world. How it is possible that a God of love could decide that someone was born only to do the most notorious act of betrayal in history? Or was it that God used someone’s twisted outlook for God’s own purposes? The popular view looks for evidence that Judas was either set up by God or that he was later rehabilitated. But the bible makes no such comment.
Judas remains a tragic figure in the bible; we have no easy answer about him. I think the most we can say is that God is sovereign in ways we can never fully understand. God can bring good out of something that is tragic, although we may not have eyes to see it. Certainly good happened for the world in Jesus’ own brutal death and resurrection.
The apostle Peter and the others thought it necessary to replace Judas. They believed it was important to have 12 apostles. Previously there had been the twelve tribes of Israel through which God had begun revealing himself to the world; and now God’s purposes had been completed in Jesus Christ, who had chosen 12 disciples. To continue the concept of 12 may seem fussy administration to us, but for them it meant the completion of the revelation of the love of God to the world. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.
Peter proposed that the necessary qualification to become an apostle was to have been with the band of disciples from the time of Jesus’ baptism until his last day on earth, the day of his ascension. This is really the foundation of all Christian ministry and service, and also what it means to be a Christian. A believer is someone who has come to know Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. Today this happens by knowing him not in the flesh but through faith. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit the believer knows Jesus in every aspect of that life which he lived, and has fallen in love with him.
The people God calls are a mixed bag. Consider the three key players at that great church meeting in Jerusalem. Judas was a key player in his absence. Jesus chose Judas, something that must not be forgotten. The New Testament picture of Judas is of a man who kept himself to himself. He had difficulty receiving blessing from Jesus. Judas listened to other voices and could not make up his mind; and in the end, he made some unfortunate choices. He wasn’t satisfied with the Jesus we know from the gospels. He was not content with someone who challenged evil with a life of goodness. We have to ask today, would Jesus have chosen Judas if he had not seen the potential in him? I don't think so.
Judas can serve as a warning to us, that yes, it is possible to come to Jesus, and later to become separated from him, drawn away by other causes or what look like more attractive answers. It is not easy to follow a crucified Lord. Jesus lived a life of humble service, and he calls his followers to the same humble, loving service. The message from Judas’ tragic life is to not be foolish with the life we have been given; and to be always looking for the better way, the way that comes from above.
Jesus also called Peter, the working fisherman. Peter had his share of faults. They were aired publicly and recorded for posterity, including his denial that he ever knew Jesus after the arrest in the Garden. Peter’s saving grace was that he was not closed in and withdrawn like Judas. He had his faults, but he did not push them down out of sight; and he kept looking to find his fulfilment in Jesus, in spite of his own failures.
And lastly at this great meeting there was Matthias, who was chosen to replace Judas. There were two candidates to be the 12th apostle. It was decided that both of them must have been with Jesus from his baptism until his last day on earth. Other than that, we know nothing about Matthias. A vague tradition says he may have taken the good news of Jesus to Ethiopia and been crucified there. Nothing further is said of Matthias in the bible after his selection as an apostle.
That makes him like the vast majority of us who serve the Lord in ways that will bring us no fame and no fortune in this life. All that is asked of us is that, like Matthias, and unlike Judas, we will have come to know Jesus personally, by faith; that we have entered upon a relationship with him; and that we remain faithful to him to the end, in spite of all the ups and downs, pressures and disappointments, which come our way. That is our end goal: as the writer to the Hebrews says, to run the race that is set before us, always looking to Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith.