A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 13, 2018
(Acts 1.15-17,21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19)
The story is told of a poor farmer who had one horse. One day, during a freak storm his horse startled and ran away. ‘How unfortunate’ his neighbours cried when they heard the news. ‘Maybe’, replied the farmer. A few days later, however, the horse returned bringing five wild horses with it. ‘How fortunate’ cried his neighbours when they heard the news. ‘Maybe’, said the farmer. A few days later, however, the farmer’s son was thrown while attempting to ride one of the wild horses. His leg broke and he would forever walk with a limp. ‘How unfortunate’ cried his neighbours once more. ‘Maybe’ the father responded. Six months later, war broke out. The calvary came through the town conscripting every young and able male. Seeing the farmer’s son’s limp, they overlooked him. ‘How fortunate’ his neighbours cried. ‘Maybe’ said the farmer.
There is always a limit to our perspective – and it calls for humility.
Perhaps just such a humble spirit is also called for as we consider the story of Judas Iscariot. Surely the account of Jesus’ betrayer is as remarkable as it is baffling.
You see, from the moment we meet Judas we know there is something different about him. In John 6:71-72 Jesus insists that he has ‘chosen’ the twelve apostles while in the same breath he describes ‘one’ as ‘a devil’. This one, the narrator goes on to tell us, was ‘Judas…who, though one of the twelve, was later to betray him.’ (John 6:72, NIV).
A knowingly chosen betrayer. Jesus, it would seem, knew the heart of Judas from the very beginning.
In the prayer that Jesus prayed before departing this world, that we have just heard, Judas is mentioned – though not by name. Here he is called ‘the son of destruction’. In the midst of a public prayer to the Father where Jesus claims to have lost none of those entrusted to him, there is – at least in this moment – one exception. Why is this one mentioned? The only offered explanation: That scripture might be fulfilled.
It is hard to understand, but even in his deceitfulness and demon-possession, Judas fulfils the very plans of God.
Judas is also mentioned in our Acts reading. Sadly, the fallout of this disciple’s action was deep regret, the return of his bounty, and the taking his own life. Surely we can see something of a repentant heart in this broken man’s attempt to reverse the irreversible. Perhaps his story points to grace and hope more than we are prone to recognise. Who among us has never desperately tried to undo what has been done?
Judas is not the only chosen one in today’s readings. There is a second choosing – for his replacement. Here the Apostle Peter puts his case before the apostles for a twelfth witness. Judas’ story is told. Scripture is considered. Characteristics of an appropriate replacement are offered. Finally, two names are put forward: Joseph and Matthias.
And then, even in the light of the story of Judas’ apostleship, betrayal, and suicide, the eleven pray a remarkable prayer:
You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place. (Acts 1:24, ESV).
After all their reasoning, after contemplating Jesus’ choosing of Judas, after scripture has been considered, and even after their narrowing of the field to two, the apostles then leave room for God to choose.
Why? Because only God knows the heart.
The gospels insist that Jesus knew both Judas’ heart and Judas’ role. Similarly, the eleven remaining apostles believed there was wisdom among them, yet none dared to claim to know ‘the heart of all’. Only God knows on such a level.
And so with a humble prayer, and a humble action, the apostles faithfully limited their control over the outcome. Lots were cast and Matthias was ‘numbered with the eleven apostles’.
We too easily – and quickly – hear God’s decision in this account as for Matthias and against Joseph. Matthias won. Joseph lost. This is, however, a very limited way of looking at the situation. It assumes there is no plan for Joseph. It assumes a grand plan for Matthias.
Yet in our scriptures there is no further mention of either of these men who walked with Jesus and witnessed his resurrection. Who knows how God used Matthias in this role? Who knows how God used Joseph outside of it?
There are no ‘grand plans’ any more than there are any ‘no plans’. God graciously guides each one. It is not that the moral ones among us take high office and the less moral low office. ‘God knows the hearts of all’ and each heart is much more complex than simply moral or immoral. Surely each heart is made up of a unique mix of passions, gifts, calls, hopes, dreams, experiences, weaknesses, temptations, and strengths.
Who could completely know something, or someone, so complex? The answer: God.
Unlike you, God knows all your the passions, gifts, calls, hopes, dreams, experiences, weaknesses, temptations, and strengths. Unlike you, God knows all the passions, gifts, calls, hopes, dreams, experiences, weaknesses, temptations, and strengths of others. Unlike you, God knows how He can use each of our passions, gifts, calls, hopes, dreams, experiences, weaknesses, temptations, and strengths for his glory.
So I hope you can take from this brief reflection on the life of Judas, and the election between Joseph and Matthias, one small truth: Always leave room for the God who knows the heart.
So whether it be the election of a new bishop, your consideration of a new career path, the choosing of a life-partner, or even in the structuring of this day, may you remember to humbly leave room for the God who knows the heart.