May 13, 2018

The specter of Judas haunts today’s readings. In Acts, the disciples take measures to fill the vacancy left by Judas’ betrayal and suicide. In the Gospel, Jesus remembers Judas even as he prays for the disciples he is about to leave behind.  I never give Judas much thought, outside of Holy Week, until someone asks me the “What about Judas?” question.

So what about Judas? Our attitude toward him may reveal more about where we are in our own spiritual journey than anything the Bible can tell us. Especially when our questions are less about intellectual curiosity, and more an exploration of God’s mercy.

Judas’ sense of God’s mercy wasn’t wide enough. He gave up too quickly—gave up on Jesus, gave up on himself, gave up on God when he killed himself. Judas didn’t have a broad enough spiritual imagination to believe that God could do anything good with the mess he had made.

Notice that we hear nothing about the disciples’ response to Judas’ actions in betraying Jesus to the authorities and then committing suicide.

If this had taken place today, every 24 hour news station would have put together an hour-long program: “JUDAS: What went wrong?” There would be an examination of his childhood, questions about his honesty, analysis of his relationship with Jesus and the other disciples…Some bold person would take a family systems theory approach and make provocative and enraging assertions about Judas’ assigned role within the disciples’ organizational structure.

Given what we know of the disciples, we could predict how various ones would respond. Peter would be irate until someone reminded him that he had denied Jesus that night…James and John would imagine all the ways they would have pummeled Judas…The Beloved Disciple would ask Jesus to help them understand what happened and why…

But I suspect they didn’t talk about it while Christ was with them. And I think that if they had asked Jesus, they would have seen someone who was heartbroken rather than angry or bitter. That’s the nature of the Resurrected Christ—to love, to forgive, to offer a chance to start over.

Perhaps the presence of the Resurrected Christ put everything else out of their minds. Resurrection perspective keeps us focused on the NEW life that God is creating in our midst. We don’t have time to worry about what happened before. That would certainly explain why they didn’t think about filling Judas’ spot among The Twelve until after the ascension. Who could think about such details while the Lord of Life was with them, returned from the dead?

And it would also explain why it’s the first thing they do once Jesus is gone. Again. And not just for three days this time.

This is Ascension Sunday. I could preach about the meaning of the Ascension—theologically, practically, etc. In years past I have wondered how it would feel for them to lose him again, after getting him back through the Resurrection. I could reflect on how God’s timing is different from ours. There is a 10 day span between the Ascension and Pentecost in which they had to wait. God didn’t rush things then, but allowed them time to adjust to Jesus’ absence before sending the Holy Spirit. God takes time. God often acts more slowly than we would like.

But I find myself going back to the peculiarity of the disciples’ actions in those ten days.

They don’t know what’s coming, but they want to be ready when it arrives. And in their minds that meant they needed to replace Judas. Part of me thinks this is the very first occasion of that perennial Christian tendency to do things the way they’ve always done them. It’s “supposed” to be twelve so by golly, they’ll make sure it’s twelve! If they had just planned better, they wouldn’t have had to resort to casting lots to figure out who should take over that space. They could have just asked Jesus!

I will confess—I have always thought they got it wrong, trying to control the situation the way they did. Yes, God let them choose as they did. But what do you know about Matthias? Nothing. He is named here and then he disappears from the story. I imagine the scene a bit like the more contentious issues at Convention/Synod—a lot of process and Robert’s Rules leading to a less-than-satisfactory outcome for everyone. It’s human nature to want to control the situation, and too often we don’t leave room for the Holy Spirit to work.

But maybe it’s because both the Episcopal Diocese of Maine and the New England Synod of the ELCA are, in their own ways, in the midst of electing bishops, that I’m feeling less cynical this year. I see this story through that lens. They develop a process: they establish the guidelines for who is eligible. They don’t get stuck in the past. Instead they ask, “How do we move forward from here? What is important to us? What does God want?” They don’t know exactly what is coming—and the truth is it might have been harder to find someone willing to fill the position if they knew that the Holy Spirit was going to come roaring through their lives, scattering them across the globe, leading most of them to death as martyrs.

Fortunately, when we are seeking to be faithful—no matter how imperfectly—the Holy Spirit can use even the tiniest crack to slip in and do what needs to be done, sooner or later.

You see, I have always thought that Jesus chose Paul to fill the space left by Judas.

Paul picked up where Judas left off—he was persecuting Christians, he was handing them over to the authorities they way Judas handed over Jesus. He kept trying to keep tight control on the situation; he thought he could fix things on his own—until the Damascus Road, where Paul experienced the conversion that Judas never did. Paul was willing to take that long hard look at what he had done to Jesus—and then have faith that God hadn’t given up on him yet. He believed that God could bring some good out of it. Once he came face-to-face with his own sinfulness, he didn’t despair. He repented, and turned to Jesus for help.

He put his faith in Jesus rather than in himself, by trusting that God’s mercy is so much wider than his own. He admitted he was wrong, and allowed God to change him and lead him into a new life.  Imagine what we would be missing if Paul had given in to despair when he was confronted with his own sinfulness there on the Damascus Road, and followed the way of Judas rather than the way of Christ.

I know there are people who take issue with Paul, particularly passages of Scripture attributed to him (but probably not written by him) regarding the role of women in the church. That’s a conversation for another day (because you really don’t want me to get started on how badly Paul treated Barnabas!). For now, consider what we would be missing if Jesus had not called Paul to be an apostle.

There would have been no one to write “Love is patient, love is kind.”

No one to encourage us that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

No “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.”

Whatever his shortcomings (real and misattributed), Paul was open to the idea that God’s mercy is wider than his own.

I don’t believe Jesus gave up on Judas any more than he gave up on Peter or Paul.  Can you imagine the power of the story Judas could have told, if he had dared to believe in such love and mercy?

I don’t believe Jesus ever gives up any one of us.  Can you imagine the power of the story we can tell, when we dare t believe in such love and mercy today?