Sunday, May 24, 2009

Seven Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

The wicked are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

This is the last Sunday before Pentecost and our lessons about those first days of the church are coming to a close. As we enter the new season, we’ll study what it means to live in the Kingdom of God in this world. We’ll learn what it means to live according to the prayer Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel lesson. Before we enter into that period, we are reminded that it isn’t about us; it is about God in us and through us.

Today we also look at the failure, Judas.

I had a rather unpleasant experience this weekend as I traveled to Little Rock for some wonderful celebrations. We were staying in a terrific hotel, but our neighbors were inconsiderate and loud. We were exhausted Friday night after a long day on the road and a lovely walk through the downtown area. We settled into bed at a decent hour because we knew that Saturday would be very busy. I’m not sure what time the ladies returned to their room Friday night, but it was pretty late and they did not consider the other people staying in the hotel. They were part of an organization that was attending a conference in Little Rock, and they soon began a lengthy conversation about one of their fellow members, an officer in their organization that did something they did not like. I can give you a lengthy report about all her faults and haughty attitudes because these ladies talked so loud it sounded as if they were right in our room with us. It even woke Victoria from sleep.

At about 1:30, I got up and pounded on the door between our rooms. They acknowledged the knock, although not apologetically, and quieted down briefly. By 1:45 they were loudly complaining again about the woman. I called the front desk and asked them to take care of it and they promised to send someone to the room. I’m not sure whether I ever heard someone knock, but I did hear doors open and close. It got quiet, briefly. When it started again, I got up, ready to dial the front desk for a second time, but a little after 2:00 a.m. it got very quiet and we were able to fall asleep. We always knew when they were in the room because they were never considerate of their neighbors, but that was the last time they kept us from sleep.

My experience in Little Rock is really not very surprising. People are people, and there are always those in every organization that do not get along with one another, including the church. I am certain that I’ve spent sleepless nights in hotel rooms at conferences or conventions thinking—if not talking—about someone who has done something to hurt me during the event. It is possible that the woman really did do wrong. It is equally possible that the ladies in the room next door had done something wrong. It is probable that everyone is at fault for the broken relationship. We want to lay blame on the other person, forgetting that we are also imperfect and ignoring the role we might play in the situation.

One of the hardest characters in the story of Jesus for us to understand and deal with is Judas. He finds his way into our text this week and it is interesting that he does so a week before Pentecost. In Judas we see the failure. In Judas we see the follower who is faithless. In Judas we see the member of the organization that goes their own way, who does their own thing, who is concerned only about self rather than the group. When we are hurt by someone, we think of them like we think about Judas.

The thing that makes it difficult for us is that it seems as though Judas did not have any choice. In the prayer from John’s Gospel, Jesus calls Judas ‘the son of perdition,’ which means he was slated for eternal damnation or utter destruction. Yet, Jesus says he was destined for such. Could Judas have done anything but turn Jesus over to the authorities? Jesus had to die. Jesus knew it from the beginning and had been telling His disciples about His death in the parables and teachings. The scriptures pointed to the necessity of blood. Even the wise men offered gifts symbolizing Jesus’ death. It was part of the plan.

Judas was destined to be the one to betray Jesus. It could not have been a stranger because the prophecy said that it would be one who was numbered among the group. Jesus even told Judas to go and do what he had to do. Can we really blame Judas for Jesus’ death when Jesus knew that it had to be that way?

I suppose the next question to ask, however, is what Jesus meant when he said that Judas was destined for eternal damnation. Was Judas’ suicide alone in a field part of the plan? Or, by eternal damnation did Jesus simply mean that Judas would be blamed and damned by every generation of Christian forever for Jesus’ death? Judas was, after all, not the only one to turn his back on Jesus. Peter, beloved Peter, denied Jesus three times on the night of the trial, and did not stand with Jesus at the food of the cross. Peter’s response to the arrest was as Jesus predicted, but it served no greater purpose for God’s plan. As a matter of fact, Peter’s denial was self-centered. He was protecting himself. Judas, on the other hand, was doing what he was expected to do.

So, what is the difference between Peter and Judas? Peter was forgiven. Now, Judas sought forgiveness. He took the coins back to the priests and begged them to take them back. He confessed his sin and asked to be forgiven in the manner he was familiar—at the temple by the priests. But when he did so, the priests sent him away without satisfaction. They refused to take back the money because it was blood money and they did nothing to forgive his sins. What choice did Judas have? He was no longer welcome among the people with whom he’d spent three years. Jesus was dead. It seems he had no family and friends. He didn’t understand what would happen to Jesus in just a few days. Nobody did. No one expected Jesus to be raised. No one expected that Jesus could forgive them for their failure. If Judas had only waited, would his story have ended any differently?

The difference between Judas and Peter is that Peter waited. He was probably suffering from despair just like Judas. He thought he could handle anything and that he could stand up with Jesus, but he failed. Peter was not a strong man. He constantly wavered between bravado and humiliation. In one breath Peter could confess his faith that Jesus is Lord and then in the next breath think he could control the will and purpose of God. Perhaps the fact that he couldn’t stand on a decision was his salvation in those dark days between the crucifixion and resurrection. Perhaps his salvation was the community in which he lived. Judas didn’t have that community. He was, and still is, blamed for what happened on that dark day two thousand years ago. Whether he deserves our disdain or not, he will forever be damned in our eyes. He followed the path of the wicked, not that he betrayed Jesus, but that he didn’t look to Jesus for forgiveness, and he is no more than chaff blowing in the wind.

The psalmist tells us that the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. Our problem is that sometimes we want to go the way of the wicked. It is fun, it is exciting, it is an adventure. Some may think that the way of righteousness seems uninteresting, tedious, boring. And it doesn’t seem like God always protects those on the right road or punish those going the wrong way. After all, the good suffer as much as the wicked. But, there is joy found at the end of the journey as God welcomes those who have followed His path home.

That doesn’t mean the path will be easy. After all, of the twelve disciples, only one lasted until old age: John. Most of the apostles were martyred, punished for spreading the Gospel to an ever expanding world. Judas died by his own hand, alone in a field paid for with the blood money that he received to betray Jesus. The apostles ended their lives faithful to the Lord. Judas died in despair. The apostles knew they were forgiven. Judas was eternally damned. Though they all suffered in their own way, the apostles had joy but Judas had nothing.

We learn in the first lesson for this Sunday that the apostles needed to choose someone to take the place of Judas. I have always had trouble with this passage because the disciples relied on luck in seeking the answer to a very important question: who will replace Judas and become the twelfth disciple? This is the only time the Twelve made a replacement. As the church began to grow and disperse, the original disciples went to the four corners of the earth. But at this point, the church was still small and they were still clinging to the model Jesus had established. Scripture prophesied that there would be a replacement.

The thing that makes this casting of lots different than foolish luck is that the disciples had prayed first and sought God’s hand in the fall of the lots. They had chosen two very good men to replace Judas: either one would have done a terrific job at ministering to the people and sharing the Gospel message. I’m sure that they would not have cast lots if there had been only one real choice. Justus and Matthias were faithful members of the community. They were probably both very responsible and respected. They both probably had gifts for speaking and teaching and preaching. They both must have been willing to sacrifice some aspects of their own life for the sake of the Gospel.

Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias were there from the beginning. They weren't late comers to the work of Jesus, and they weren't the only ones. These two were chosen from all those that had been with the disciples from the beginning. They’d heard Jesus preach and teach. They’d seen His miracles. They were there to celebrate His life, to mourn His death and to be witnesses to His resurrection. When you have two perfectly acceptable choices, sometimes the best way to decide is by the luck of the draw. And yet, we are reminded that even though they used lots, they also prayed for God to help them make the right decision. They left it to God to cause the lots to fall according to His good and perfect will.

We want to be able to hear the answers clearly so that we make the right decisions in our life. And yet we can not be absolutely certain that we are hearing the right voices. We like to have something tangible, physical on which to hold that helps us to be sure that our decision is good, right and true. We must beware, however, to not manipulate the outcome of those tangible things so that we’ll get the answer we want. It is so easy for us to do that and then to act as if it is the answer God has given. That’s why the apostles sought God through prayer first. We are called to dwell in God’s kingdom, to do God’s work and to listen as God guides us along the right path.

Thursday, May 21st is Ascension Day, which always falls forty days after Easter. For the past forty days we have heard scriptures that focus on the relationship between God, Jesus and the disciples. The key word for the past few weeks has been ‘love.’ Jesus has assured the disciples that they are part of something much bigger than themselves: they are part of the vine, part of Him, part of the kingdom that dwells in, with and under God. They love as God first loved them and they continue in that love as they live the life God has called them to live. In that life they will have joy and they will have it abundantly. We have been assured, along with the disciples, that God will not abandon us.

Yet, on this Sunday we experience a very brief moment of abandonment. On Ascension Day Jesus returns to His Father in heaven, leaving behind the world in which He has lived for thirty or so years. He leaves behind the people He has loved, called into service and taught about the Kingdom. He leaves them with a promise, but He leaves and they do not see the fulfillment of that promise for ten days. For those ten days, the disciples are living between the ministry they have been doing with Jesus and the ministry they will do in His name. They are left alone for a brief moment, but they are alone together: a fledgling church seeking to do God's will in the world.

Their response to the ascension is absolutely natural—to go to work. They throw themselves into the business of doing ministry. They set out to reestablish a broken system, a system broken by the death of one of the Twelve. Judas Iscariot suffered such a deep regret for his role in Jesus' death and he saw no possibility of redemption, so he committed suicide. It had been written and it was fulfilled. However, his death left a hole. They gathered together to choose another apostle. The church is suspended in a moment of time unsure of which direction they should go. The apostles are between being called and being sent. They are told to wait in Jerusalem until they are “clothed from on high.” The promised Holy Spirit would come, but they did not know when or how. They only know that they are going to be sent to continue the work Jesus began and that they had to wait for the right time.

I don’t think we do well with waiting, especially since we don’t always know what we are waiting to happen. I can picture myself in this situation, wondering if I missed something. What if the Spirit had come and I didn’t know it was happening? We know now that it was an obvious moment in time, but until that Pentecost moment, did they wonder? We begin to second guess ourselves, and we second guess God.

But God does not make mistakes. We can believe what He has told us. We can believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. We can believe that through the water and the blood—through His life and His death—we have been given the blessedness of forgiveness and eternal life. Isn’t it funny how we are quick to believe people but we often doubt God’s Word?

I don’t know about you, but I’m often wrong. I don’t have all the information or I base my opinion on my own biases. We all make mistakes. We have to discern whether or not to believe the things that people say. The experts in fields of study do not even agree; some even give totally opposing answers to the same question. I’m reading a book about science and religion and it can be extremely confusing as the writer compares theories addressing the same problem with absolutely opposite answers.

Despite this problem, we do believe what people tell us. We believe the reporters when they tell us the news. We believe our teachers when they tell us about history or science or math. We believe the government when it tells us what has to happen to solve a problem. We believe our pastors when they teach things about God. Sometimes we put our faith in the wrong people. The reporters do not always get it right. Teachers often teach only what they want a student to know, ignoring other points of view. Throughout history governments have failed. Pastors have made mistakes interpreting the text.

If we can believe the reporters, teachers, government and pastors, we can believe God. But God does not leave us without witnesses. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit stand also as witnesses to the great work God has done for us. The water and the blood stand as witnesses to the forgiveness we have in Christ Jesus. Baptism and the Eucharist stand as our constant reminders that God is faithful and true to His promises. We are saved because God said so. Because we are saved, forgiven and chosen, we will not be blown away in the wind. We will experience the joy and blessedness God has promised. In Christ we are like trees planted by streams of water, sanctified by God’s grace and glorifying Him by continuing the work of reconciliation that He began.

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