“We Are Witnesses” message from 05-17-15

Scripture: Acts 1:15-26

It’s interesting to note that the book of Acts starts out with the amazing account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven and then occupies itself with this more mundane story about the process by which the believers choose a new disciple. As I thought and read about it this week, it occurred to me; this is the occasion of the first church business meeting! In the midst of some pretty incredible events and ministry, SOMEBODY has to worry about the nuts and bolts of the operation. Anyone who sticks around for our monthly meetings for business knows that things haven’t changed much. No matter what happens in worship, or in our discussions and classes, we STILL NEED to gather to make sure our bills are paid and that our house is in order. This is important work, in spite of the fact that it IS a bit mundane.

Here in Acts.we readers should first realize that the symbolism of Jesus having 12 disciples is crucial. According to Luke, the emerging church was the symbol of the “NEW Israel”—God’s kingdom on earth—and the apostles represented the 12 tribes of that kingdom. As they consider their decision, the necessary qualifications for this person are determined. An apostle had to be somebody who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, when he was baptized by John. They also had to be a WITNESS to the resurrection of Jesus. As this piece of narrative unwinds—with the description of “why, who and how”, three men play crucial roles. As we consider each of these three, we can gain insight into the nature of what OUR ROLE as disciples and the church today is all about.

First; notice who calls this meeting and takes charge as it begins…PETER. Peter has been reinstated among the twelve, AND has assumed a leadership role! Yes, this is THE SAME Peter who throughout the story of Jesus, appears as a buffoon who acts first and thinks later; who does—at least sometimes—possess insight into the message of Jesus’ ministry. It is THIS Peter who denies Christ three times on that last journey to the cross, but also the one who remains in the upper room and who sees for himself that Jesus has risen at the tomb. Peter here, has repented of his sins and been reinstated when Jesus intended; as the rock—the foundation of this fledgling group of believers.

Then, let’s consider Judas; the one who had “turned aside to go to his own place.” This man is the one, who down through time, has been blamed and scorned for his act of treachery and betrayal against Christ (and God!) Pastor and author John Killinger says “Years ago, when my wife and I saw the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar on a London stage, the cast came down and talked with the audience during intermission. We met the actor who played Jesus and the one who played Judas, and were told that they switched parts every few nights so other members of the cast wouldn’t get to hating them. ‘Before we did this’, they said, ‘everybody ostracized the one being Judas.’”

Here in Acts, Judas’ story ends in a particularly gory episode on a field he purchased with the money he acquired when he handed Jesus over to the authorities. It appears evident that the early church was quick to blame Judas; to make HIM the criminal and scapegoat. However biblical accounts are a little less certain. Matthew says that Judas repented—returning his 30 pieces of silver to the authorities, and that they bought a field with it in which they buried the poor. In scripture several reasons are given for Judas’ actions; John’s gospel says Judas was “doomed to destruction”, John and Luke also say that Judas’ activities “fulfilled scripture”. Additionally, the author of Luke and Acts understands Satan’s influence to be key in Judas’ betrayal.

I’ve done some reading recently that suggests that Judas did what he did to force Jesus into act decisively to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Many commentators also deduct that Judas could have received God’s forgiveness—and that even scripture alludes to that. Of course, one of the more recent headlines in religious news, in the last few years is the publication of the gospel of Judas. It is a part of the Nag Hammadi find in 1945 which contained writings from the early church that weren’t included in the authorized collection of scripture. This Gospel of Judas is one of the most fragmented pieces of text, but experts have now authenticated and translated what they have. According to this text, Judas acted as he was directed by Jesus in order to bring about the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ other followers were jealous and killed Judas. A brief excerpt from this text reads: “Look, you have been told everything…The star that leads the way is your star.”

The reality is that we will never know the truth. However, our best speculation based on what we do have—including today’s scripture—is that Judas did not witness the resurrection of Christ or witness TO the resurrection of Christ.

Finally, we have Matthias—the one chosen by lots to be Judas’ replacement; returning the apostles’ number to 12. Although Matthias is said here to fulfill the requirements for being an apostle, this is the last we hear of him…he is never mentioned again in scripture; or outside of it, really. Just as quickly as he appears, so does he disappear into obscurity. Called through this boring business meeting, Matthias, we assume, continues to serve in ordinary, obscure ways—to help folks RECALL, RECOGNIZE, and REALIZE the resurrection of Jesus—to bear witness to what brings life to all who accept it. Matthias’ story is the story of millions of believers, who as they testify to the gospel, take their place in the obscurity and ordinary, but no less miraculous way of the cross.

SO; what can WE learn from these three?!

That we serve a God who, through Christ, SERVES US well; AND that OUR lives—whether we are like Peter (with bold, dramatic leadership), or Matthias (ordinary and obscure) or even Judas (misguided, mistaken, sinful, desperate); ALL CAN BE SALVAGE; AND all of our lives might just—MOST CERTAINLY—have a place in God’s reign.

In places of awesome ministry, in the boredom of business; anything in between:

“The star that leads the way is our star.”

Our best; our ONLY response can and should be to testify as we are called.

We are witnesses to the resurrection!

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