Acts 1: 15 -26
Wesley, Doncaster East
June 4, 2000
What a way to begin the story of the Church! One of the Twelve specially chosen by Jesus turns out to be either a disillusioned and money-hungry traitor or a nationalistic fool who thought he could force Jesus into an armed uprising against the Roman forces of occupation.
Whichever Judas was, Luke at the beginning of his story of the Church includes Judas’ death, by accidental or natural causes. [It’s Matthew who suggests Judas hung himself.] But both Luke and Matthew include the somewhat gory detail that the land bought with the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for his betrayal was called the Field of Blood.
If you had a copy of the lectionary, you’d realise that three verses were omitted along the way, so that what should have been read was Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 – the three verses that contain the story of Judas’ death are left out.
Was it squeamishness on the part of those who wrote the lectionary? Was it a deliberate tidying up of the beginning of the Church? Did they set out to avoid - so soon after the glories of Easter and the resurrection - a reminder that one of the founding Twelve betrayed Jesus, that sin, betrayal and death were part of the Church from its birth?
The Church has always been a fallible institution. Look nowhere else than around the table of the Lord for those who betray him!
When the end of our time in Tonga was drawing to a close, we decided to spend time in America. Our decision had everything to do with the fallibility of the Church. For a period of five years my boss, the President of the Methodist Church in Tonga, was devious, manipulative and corrupt. I went to Fuller Theological Seminary more for time to think through the nature of the Church than to gain a Masters degree.
During the five years I thought that our situation in Tonga was unique – until the Secretary of the World Association of Christian Communications was visiting, heard my story, and asked, “Where would you like me to tell you of similar stories: Asia, South America, Africa, Europe or North America?
Need I tell you stories of financial or sexual corruption in Australia? I’m sure you’re all too well aware of the stories played out in the papers or on television.
The Church has never been the perfect body we would like it to be.
Judas heard as much of Jesus’ teaching as the other Eleven. Judas witnessed the miracles. Judas was sent out with the others in ministry. Judas was there at the Table with Jesus. Judas had every opportunity to share in the blessings that the disciples received by being with Jesus. But Judas betrayed Jesus.
The writers of the lectionary may have thought of Acts 1: 17 – 19, as a digression or parenthesis, but could Luke have decided very deliberately to put the story into print, so no-one could ever pretend that the Church was anything but perfect – and that it is always made up of chosen people who are anything but perfect?
I can only believe that Luke was making the point that Church never was the perfect body we think it was. Yet, if that was why he included this ugly and unhappy business at the very beginning of the Church, he was also making an even more important point: the Church was not defeated by Judas’ betrayal. Matthias was elected to replace Judas. The Church went on.
Luke was honest about the reality of sin and betrayal from the beginning.
Sin and betrayal go on. In the past we seemed to think we could pretend the Church was above such things. We’ve come to the point where we can pretend no longer. We cannot avoid acknowledging our accountability to God – in the end we know we most certainly will be – but we also need to be acknowledge and put into practice our accountability to one another – and to do it now.
Sin is real. Sin’s power is real. When we pretend sin is unreal or doesn’t matter, we’re kidding ourselves – or we’ve been kidded by the powers of evil! C.S. Lewis certainly suggested in The Screwtape Letters that, if only humankind could be convinced sin did not exist, Satan’s work was all but done. Whenever we try to live as though we’re so strong in ourselves that sin has no power over us, we’ll find that we’ve already yielded ourselves to sin’s seductions.
We need all the help we can get from God and from one another.
Easter is behind us and we face the harsh realities of life and the reality of what we are and what we make the Church. Luke helps us with that. There’s Judas. Later there are Ananias and Sapphira. Then there are squabbles between Peter and Philip. And so we could go on.
But Luke also helps us realise that now that Easter is behind us, Pentecost is coming. The Holy Spirit is coming to give the Church the strength it needs to be what God wants it to be. The Spirit is coming to give us the strength to be what God wants us to be.
But sin has its strength too. We need to acknowledge that fact and acknowledge our need to share strength with one another.
In Wesley we are beginning through Alpha to discover how to listen, share at depth and support each other. But we also need to discover through continuing the strength we’ve been sharing through Alpha, how that strengthening can go on in continuing caring, supporting, strengthening groups.
But even as we acknowledge our need for strength, we can also remember the slogan that’s been around on bumper bars for quite some time: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.
God forgives. Thank God our crucified, risen Lord forgives. He came back to those who deserted him and forgave them, so they might become the church that would take his good news into the world. He came back to us and forgave us, so that we might be the church to take his good news into the world for others.
In the end the good news is that whatever our beginning may be, whatever we’ve done, we are forgiven people, we’re the church on whom God depends to spread the news of his forgiving, renewing love through all the world.
Easter is over. Pentecost is coming. The Spirit is coming as God’s power so you can truly know and truly be God’s People for this generation.