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Sunday 12 May 2024 Seventh Sunday of Easter, Sunday after Ascension

The twelfth man

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

By Graham Pearcey

Methodist Local Preacher; Trustee of The College of Preachers

Context: non-Eucharistic service in a town centre Methodist/URC united church with a congregation of approximately 20 adults

Aim: to encourage the congregation to see Judas Iscariot – and their own discipleship – in a new light

I don’t know what it reveals about my character, but whenever verses are omitted from the middle of a Bible reading I just have to find out what those verses contained, and try to work out why they were excluded.

Today’s reading from Acts chapter 1 appeared to move seamlessly from verse 17, ‘[Judas] was allotted his share in [our] ministry’, to verse 21, ‘So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us… must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ But in between were words we weren’t meant to hear, describing how Judas ‘acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out’! Now, were these words omitted by the lectionary setters because they contradict St Matthew’s account of Judas’ death? Or were they omitted because bowels gushing out was considered too gruesome an image to share in an all-age worship service? If it’s the latter, I think they may have missed a trick.

I heard of a woman who volunteered to teach at a summer Bible School, but was horrified to discover she’d been allocated a class of twelve-year old boys, where she was more accustomed to teaching younger girls. Fortuitously, though, quite early on, someone discovered verse 18 of that Bible passage: Judas ‘burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out’. The lads loved this, and the woman discovered that by simply allowing someone to read that verse at the start of each session, she had their full attention for the duration!

Anyway: let’s recall what we know about Judas. There are several clues that he was one of Jesus’ closest friends. The fact that his call to discipleship isn’t recorded in the Gospels implies he may have signed up before any others were there to witness it. His appointment as group treasurer suggests he was considered a man of integrity. Then please note the seating arrangements at the Last Supper – where we know Judas was reclining immediately alongside Jesus because Jesus passed him a piece of bread. All clues that Jesus and Judas were close buddies.

Moving on, what else happens at the Last Supper? Jesus tells Judas, ‘Be quick about your business!’ Perhaps we imagine that spoken with an air of resignation; but what if he’s referring to precise instructions, he’s already given the disciple he trusts most? After all, on arrival at Gethsemane, Jesus seems to wait – hours, in the event – for something to occur. The disciples nod off several times; Jesus prays the same prayer several times; but still he waits. For what? For Judas and the soldiers? It reads as though Gethsemane was the agreed rendezvous spot, and all part of a predetermined plan. Which, of course, we say it was - God’s master plan to redeem the world by sending his Son to die. If Judas had a crucial role in that plan, what’s his problem?

One evening a student minister attended an evangelistic rally, as she put it, to ‘pray folk into the Kingdom’. When the preacher ended his address with the invitation, ‘Come forward and give your lives to Christ’, she bowed her head and prayed fervently that people would respond. Suddenly she felt herself – there was no other way to describe it – physically lifted out of her seat and dumped on the floor at the front of the hall. Looking around, she’d no idea how she’d got there. She often recommitted herself to Christ, of course, but hadn’t considered doing so here, tonight. Indeed, she felt she’d made an exhibition of herself until – later – a Christian friend offered an alternative perspective: ‘Didn’t you see what happened? Dozens of people, all reluctant to be the first to step up, followed your lead, came forward, and gave their lives to Christ tonight. You played as big a part as anyone in God’s master plan.’

Judas never lived to appreciate the part he’d played. His story reminds us not to condemn others when we can’t see the total picture, but also – perhaps more importantly – not to condemn ourselves either. We make a commitment to do God’s will; but then we have to accept, humbly, that we may never get to see how our allotted tasks played a small but vital part in a much bigger plan.

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