Acts 1: 15 -26
May 28, 2006
What a way to begin the story of the Church! One of the Twelve specially chosen by Jesus as an Apostle 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 actually Matthew who suggests Judas hung himself.] But both Luke and Matthew include the somewhat unhappy 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 Wesleyan Tohi Mahina 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.
Why did the international editors of the lectionary leave it out? 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 an institution which, like all of us, can fall into sin. Look nowhere else than around those gathered around you for those who betray their Lord!
I have heard stories from Tonga of financial and sexual corruption. But I could tell you similar stories from almost any country in the world – including my own homeland, Australia. I’m sure you know of the stories played out in the papers, on the radio, 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 something that wasn’t important in the story of the beginning of the Church. But I believe Luke decided he had 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, saints, who are anything but perfect
I’m quite sure Luke was making the point that Church never was the perfect body we think – or pretend – 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. There have been times in the past when we may have pretended that the Church was above such things. The time has come when we can pretend no longer. We are accountable to God in this life and the next. But we all need to be accountable to one another – from the highest in the church to the lowest. Accountability is something that belongs to the very nature of church membership. It applies to every one of us.
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 fooled by the powers of evil! The famous British writer, C.S. Lewis, 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 find that we’ve already given in to sin’s seductions. Whenever we pretend that sin has no power over the church, we’re fooling ourselves – and we’ve given in to Satan’s trickery.
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 in the book of Actsw he includes the story of 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 its subtle trickery and power and acknowledge our need to share strength with one another.
But even as we acknowledge our need for strength, we can also remember the slogan that’s been around on bumper bars in many overseas countries 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 comes back to us and forgives 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 throughout Tonga and throughout the whole world.
Easter is over. Pentecost is coming. The Spirit is coming as God’s power so you can truly know you are and can truly be God’s People for this generation. The Spirit is coming as God’s power so you can be God’s saints building his church for the sake of the whole world. Amen.