One of my favourite party games as a small child was Chinese Whispers. I'm sure you've played it. Someone whispers a message into the ear of the first person, who whispers it to the next, and to the next – and so on around the circle until the last person gets it and stands up and tells us what they heard. It never failed to amaze me how completely the message would be transformed as it passed around the circle, even a small circle – how the simplest message could be transformed into utter nonsense. Whenever it came to my turn I would strain to hear and remember what was being whispered to me, frustrated that I wasn't allowed to ask, 'what was that middle part again?', secretly guilty because I knew deep down that I might have got it wrong, in fact I'm sure I made up that middle part I didn't quite remember – never quite realised that we were all doing exactly the same thing – we were all repeating what we thought we heard, trying our very best to fill in the blanks or correct the bits that didn't seem right and – well, that's how everything goes wonky not just in children's party games but in the grown-up games of work and politics and – Church as well, fairly often.
So maybe it seems surprising that this is what we mean when we talk about our Christian faith having an apostolic tradition. The Greek word apostolos – just like angelos from which we get our English word, 'angel'– means a messenger –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 especially in the last few centuries when people could actually read it, 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. And this is the major difference between the apostolic chain, of which you and I are a part, and the game of Chinese Whispers in which the message gets distorted despite our best efforts – because the message being whispered from ear to ear in this game is the lived reality of faith, and the power of the message relies not only on human ears and human words but on the living reality of God's Holy Spirit that – as we find in our readings next week – works by transforming human gobbledegook and misunderstanding into truth and comprehensibility.
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' while 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 blurry 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. But the election of Mathias to make up what Peter thinks is still the safe and complete number of twelve – for the 12 tribes of Israel - also raises some questions of its own. What about Justus, for example – the other contender for the job – who like Matthias never gets mentioned again? Does he go off in disappointment and forget the good news or does he become an unofficial apostle, does his life continue to witness to the message of the resurrection? Does the Holy Spirit continue to work through him as well? What about Paul, the apostle chosen not by the 11 but by the Holy Spirit to bring the good news to the rest of us? What does that tell us about the decision-making processes of Church Councils? What about you and me – what about Elizabeth, when we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to enliven her for ministry? How is her life going to witness to the good news? Elizabeth's family, her godmother and friends have the joy but also the serious duty of being apostles to her – to show Elizabeth in their own lives the reality of God's love. How do we encourage and support them – and one another – in that? How do we support one another in carrying out the commission to be apostles that every one of us received at our baptism? Because we've long since moved on from the number 12, and the casting of lots. The job belongs to all of us now. Let's pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit so that the witness of our lives can be – not the contradictory confusion of Chinese Whispers – but the clarity and truth of the good news of resurrection.