John 17:6-19, Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Can you remember a time when you felt betrayed? When a person you loved and trusted took advantage of your confidence in order to harm you?
It’s devastating. It leaves you not sure if you can trust anyone, ever again.
Betrayal shuts us down; we raise the drawbridge and close the gates tight. We say, I’m not going to let anybody do that to me ever again.
Next week, we’ll be celebrating the amazing in-pouring of the Holy Spirit that the early church experienced on the day of Pentecost. That was a day of incredible opening, new life, and healing (the opposite of the shutting-down feeling of betrayal). Pentecost is a celebration of the immense joy of the church, finding its heart in the life and power of Jesus.
But before we get to the joy, there’s some work we need to do together. This Sunday before Pentecost is an opportunity to take a moment to process the grief of the church, to hear how God is speaking to us in that grief and moving us forward in courage.
Even after the resurrection, there was a lot of unresolved trauma and pain in the disciple community. The little band of Jesus followers in Jerusalem knew that their Lord was alive and well (he had been appearing to them regularly since his resurrection).
But they also remembered that when Jesus had faced torture and death, all of the men of the community had fled and abandoned him. Despite the astonishing fact of the resurrection and the joy that brought, there’s no doubt that the community was also harboring a lot of shame.
Worse still, the disciples didn’t just abandon Jesus; one of his closest confidants, one of the Twelve, literally sold Jesus out to his enemies. As if the shame of abandoning their leader and teacher weren’t enough, one of them had actually been the instrument of Jesus’ destruction. They had to live with that.
So it makes sense to me that the remaining Eleven disciples felt the need to appoint a replacement for Judas. As long as Judas’ seat in the circle remained vacant, the disciples were always going to be reminded that the betrayer was one of them.
Judas’ treachery had broken the unity of the fellowship. There was a gaping whole left in the community, a space that his betrayal had left empty. Selecting a replacement for Judas must have felt urgent for the remaining disciples. It was an attempt at healing, restoring wholeness to the unity of the Twelve, and to the entire community.
It also probably felt like a funeral. By filling the vacancy in leadership left by Judas, the apostles attempted to lay his betrayal to rest. They also probably hoped to bury some of the sorrow that they felt in losing a brother in the worst possible way.
I find the way that the community selected the new member of the Twelve interesting. After choosing two nominees, each of which was presumably equally qualified to serve as a leader for the community, the disciples cast lots. They basically held a lottery to see which of the two candidates should be selected.
And they didn’t view this selection as a matter of chance. They trusted that God would make the chips fall as they should, so that the individual that God had truly chosen for leadership would be selected.
Honestly, I feel for the disciple who wasn’t selected. Imagine what that must have been like. It’s clear that you’re perfectly qualified to perform this very important task, to be a leader for your community. But the lottery says – no, it’s not you. God picked somebody else.
I’m sure that Barsabbas played it cool. He probably took it all very well, and accepted that God had chosen Matthias rather than him. But you gotta know it hurt.
I think it was hard. Really hard.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve applied for lots of jobs, and I’ve only gotten accepted to a few of them. The rejections that were the hardest to bear were for the jobs that I made it to the last round on, got to interview for. These were the ones where I knew I was really qualified; I’d do a fantastic job. But, for whatever reason, someone else was picked over me.
Well, Barsabbas made it to the last round, but he didn’t quite make the cut. Only God knows why.
If Barsabbas was anything like me, I think he must have been hurt. A little angry even. Even if he didn’t let anyone else see it, he might have needed some alone time. He might have taken some time off from the community and gotten some space to think. Maybe he thought to himself: Why did God pick Matthias over me? What’s wrong with me? Am I defective? Does God really love me? What am I supposed to do with my life?
It might have taken Barsabbas a while to recover from this disappointment, and to make sense of why he hadn’t been chosen by God. To cope with his sense of rejection.
I’m convinced that the key to his process of recovery from this trauma was the living presence of Jesus with him, reassuring him that he still had a purpose, a mission, a place in the body. That even though he was not being selected for the kind of leadership that the Twelve were, there was a plan for him, even if he couldn’t see it clearly right at that moment.
This is really relevant for my own life. So many times, I’ve felt rejected. Felt like I just didn’t measure up. Wondered if I had anything to offer to the world, or to God. It’s been easy for me to feel like my life doesn’t matter.
But we don’t have to be one of the Twelve Apostles to be accepted by God. The truth is that the word of Jesus is spoken not just to the Twelve, and not even just to heroes like Stephen, Mary, Philip, Paul, Phoebe, and Barnabas. God loves and directs every disciple of Jesus – no matter how small or great – who has followed since. That means you. That means me.
In the reading from John, Jesus talks about the word that he has given us. It is this word of God – indwelling, spoken between us, heard in Scripture, and enacted in our obedient lives – that makes us able to receive and share God’s love.
The word that Jesus speaks cleanses us, prunes us, sanctifies us. It provides a path to healing and hope. It peels away the layers of fear, selfishness, and pride that are the world’s ways of operating. It offers us a better, more beautiful way. Little by little, his word transforms us into the person God created us to be.
This word can come to us even in our despair. Jesus doesn’t speak his word in order to whitewash over our grief, disappointment, and pain. He doesn’t remove us from the brokenness and evil of the world. Rather, he gives us the power and strength to exist as a counter-cultural community in the midst of this whole mess.
We find our strength in him. And we find our support in one another. There’s life in the midst of the pain. He gives us healing that overcomes our wounds, although it doesn’t erase them. (Even Jesus bears the marks of his suffering in his body in his resurrection.)
His indwelling life binds us together as a body that grows in healing, love, and bold demonstration of the Spirit’s power. Jesus gives us his word in order to fulfill his prayer that we might be one, just as he and the Father are one.
This is not a gospel of personal salvation, but instead one of community transformation. One in which each one of us has an important part to play, sharing our gifts and receiving the gifts of others.
It’s a community of protection in the midst of a darkened age – not protection from the hatred and betrayals of the world, but from the temptation to flee, to conform, to submit to the world’s ways of dealing with things. His word gives us boldness at exactly the moment when we want to run away or give up.
You know, I wonder if Barsabbas thought about walking away from the whole thing when his name wasn’t pulled out of the hat.
That was certainly a possibility for him.
With his experience and charisma, there’s no doubt he could have started up his own splinter group, one that acknowledged him as a leader in his own right. The ancient world was full of these; there was room for one more.
The text doesn’t say one way or another what Barsabbas chose to do with his life. But I suspect he stuck around. I’ll bet he stayed committed to the people of God, despite his disappointment.
If his faith and wisdom were outstanding enough to get him nominated to be one of the Twelve, he must have understood that the power of God works in us, not by lifting us into positions of honor and authority, but instead by inviting us into the way of downward mobility, the cross of Jesus.
It’s a path that often looks like shame and failure to those whose eyes are blinded by the values of this world. But for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
It takes a lot of courage to embrace this dangerous way of Jesus. But his word in us is brave. In the midst of a world soaked in anxiety, he empowers us to live as a fearless people, confident in the Spirit that dwells within us.
The word of God is a cleansing presence, pruning away the branches of self-centeredness that we cultivate without even thinking about it – all of our credentials and assurances, the false security of this world.
This word that Jesus speaks to us is the organizing principle of the church. It’s not about institutional structures, as important as those are. Nor the particular gifts of any individual, as grateful as we are for these.
Our unity is not based in our shared affinity for people who are just like us. Instead, the word of God draws us together as a motley, speckled body of Jesus – one flock under one shepherd. Jesus dwells within us and speaks his word to us. He protects us from the evil one.
And he sends us out into the world. When we live in the power of his word, the shepherding presence of Jesus in our midst, we discover that we are all called to be apostles, to become sent ones into our world, our neighborhoods, families, and workplaces.
His word is truth. He speaks into our lives in a way that can overcome any betrayal, heartbreak, or disappointment.
When we trust his word, when we seek his guidance in our life as a community, we’re invited into an astonishing existence of praise and power – even amidst the pain and disappointments of this world.
With boldness, we’ll unmask and conquer the most fearsome powers and principalities of this world. We’ll heal the sick, raise the dead, and shake the countryside for ten miles around.
And no one will make us afraid.