Last week I got a call on my mobile phone and when I answered it I heard a voice that I kind of did - and kind of didn’t - recognise. ‘It’s your old mate Richard’, he said. I wasn’t convinced. Maybe I’m just naturally sceptical, but it took a few minutes for him to persuade me that he really was my best mate at university, 30 years ago – back when I was studying for a degree in mathematics – never completed – and he was studying physics. Turns out – over pizza and beer on Friday evening – my mate and I at different times both worked for the Department of Social Security - and then he found his way into Foreign Affairs and eventually the United Nations working alongside peacekeeping forces in dangerous places like the Balkans, Iraq and Somalia. I shared with him something of where my path had taken me – a failed first marriage, some difficult but strangely fruitful years in prison, and eventually into the priesthood. We spent a couple of nostalgic hours reminiscing together about our university years and the people we’d lost touch with, and wondered together about what it was that led us into the places we’d been. As we shook hands afterwards, my mate said to me, ‘you know, you haven’t changed at all. You’re just like you were at 17.’ Not sure that was what I really wanted to hear, but I knew what he meant.
I guess one of the reasons it was good to catch up with Richard was that it was a chance to reflect on my own life – but I think there’s more to it than that. Seems to me there’s something important about meeting up with somebody who knew you then, somebody who could say, ‘You’re the same person now as you used to be – I can see how you got from there to here’. Coming back to Australia after a long time away, after years of living and working in difficult and traumatic situations, Richard needed to reconnect with people who knew him before. He needed to put it all together – who he used to be, who he became in Somalia and the Balkans, who he is now - and I was one of the people who could help him do that. And as I talked with him I realised that Richard was also one of the important witnesses of my life – one of the people who could tell me who I am.
It seems to me that that is what we mean when we talk about our Christian faith having an apostolic tradition. The word apostle – just like the Hebrew word, ‘angel’ – means a messenger – a person who is sent with a message – and in those days before the internet or telephones or even Australia Post the only way you got a message was if someone who was there when it happened came and told you about it. The message had to be carried by a human being who was your link to what you were being told about. Having an apostolic faith means we don’t just have a faith because we can read about it in the Bible. This might be the surprising bit – the Bible isn’t what’s most important – what’s most important is the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection that shows us what God intends for all human beings, and fundamentally the way we know about that, and the way we get to experience it, is because of the witness of human beings, starting with the ones who were there and who saw the risen Jesus, the apostles who then went out and proclaimed the good news not only in words but in the fact of their own transformed lives, and then other people’s lives caught fire from that, and it spread – sometimes through the centuries the message was very faint, the fire seemed almost ready to go out, and other times it seemed unstoppable. Along the way the words on the page – the Bible – got put together and became an important witness in its own right, but the real unbroken witness to the life-changing good news of Jesus was carried from one flesh and blood witness to another, and so, eventually, to you and to me. None of us came to faith, I bet, because we read the Bible from cover to cover and thought about it and decided it was good stuff – but because we saw the example of what faith in Jesus Christ could do in the lives of people we loved and respected.
And that’s part of what it means when we refer to Jesus as the ‘Word made flesh’. Because the basic principle of how God speaks in human history is by being born among us and showing us what he’s on about. And that incarnated Word gets repeated over and over, until eventually it gets repeated in you and in me. Remember that awful TV program, ‘the Weakest Link’? Well, believe it or not, you’re the strongest link – you are the vital link because you’re what joins the history of the Christian Church to its future.
But today, in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we come face to face with some very disturbing news – which is that apostles do sometimes turn aside from God’s purposes – that this vital chain of human witness gets broken. Interestingly enough, Luke’s account of Judas’s betrayal here and in his Gospel is quite different from Matthew’s version – where we see Judas as a flawed but complex character filled with remorse, trying to undo the deal by giving back the money – in Luke’s Gospel we just read that Satan ‘enters into Judas’ – and far from repenting he goes out afterwards and buys a small farm with the money – swapping the commission of an apostle for the status of a landowner.
So when Luke writes about Judas here, in the Acts of the Apostles, there’s a serious point of reflection for the early Christian community – and ours too – about the effects of betrayal and the damage that’s done when leaders of the Christian community get seduced by their own dreams of power. Maybe Luke is bringing up the problem of Judas’s betrayal here because it’s an interruption in the flow of God’s purposes - a problem that has to be resolved before the Church can go forward. And it’s a problem that the story doesn’t really answer – what does it mean when God’s purposes are thwarted or interrupted by human failure or selfishness? – for example, when Church workers sexually abuse vulnerable people in their care – does that call into question God’s faithfulness or the sureness of God’s purposes? – or does it ultimately reveal God’s ability to work around and through the weakness and the moral murkiness of human beings?
I think the story is also making a pointed comment on the contrast between Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and the more general betrayal of all the disciples – even Peter himself – Judas, who in this version doesn’t repent – goes ‘to his own place’ and the remaining apostles – who do repent – find that even their greatest moral failure and their deepest remorse gets used by God to strengthen and resource them for proclaiming the forgiveness and the extravagant love of God that they have experienced in the risen Christ.
But I think what the story is really about is what happens next. Because here, in this story, the Church is balanced like a seesaw, poised for a moment between the emotional rollercoaster of death and resurrection, and the bright uncertainty of the future. Between the Ascension that completes Jesus’ mission and the miracle of Pentecost that’s going to plunge the new-born Church head-first into its own. And you can see in this story that Luke’s main concern is about how the apostles led by Peter are going to be able to adapt to new circumstances – how the message of the risen Christ is going to stay grounded in human experience – through someone who was there and could tell about it. This is the one and only time Matthias gets a mention in the whole of the New Testament – maybe he wasn’t a great writer like Paul or a great preacher like Peter – but like you, and like me, Matthias is important because he becomes a part of the chain of human witness.
Maybe Luke the great story-teller also means us to wonder at the contrast between Judas and Matthias – the one who turns aside from God’s grace because he’s got better plans, and the one who – whatever his own shortcomings – experiences and chooses to proclaim the power of the risen Christ. That’s why the feast of St Matthias is one of the traditional days for the ordination of priests – because when we think about it there’s an aspect both of Judas and of Matthias in each of us, the irresolvable dilemma of failed promise, and the overwhelming grace of unexpected call.
And so the story moves forward, and the Church is made ready to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.