The fearful distinction between doing good and doing evil
Luke gives us a clear picture of the embryonic Christian Church. The first congregation was about the same size as our Sunday by Sunday attendance here. The Mount of Olives was half a mile from the city of Jerusalem. That's where they last saw Jesus after his resurrection. It seems as if they were keeping together as Jesus had asked them to do. It was a kind of small community – I prefer not to use the word 'commune' because of its sixties hippy, free love and drugs connotations.
They all resorted to constant prayer. They just felt that they had to. Is that something you know and understand? Do you pray a lot? Maybe not much? Hardly ever? Not at all? We are not a praying Church or we'd be in a much stronger and better place in every way, spiritually, practically, effectively, financially. The eleven disciples were there plus the other men and women including Jesus' mother Mary and Jesus' brothers. They were all praying together. Not like Jews. Not like Muslims in later history. In Christianity men and women have always prayed together. That's interesting. Mark 3:21 tells us that during his ministry Jesus' family thought he had lost the plot. 'When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him for they said 'He is out of his mind'. Just put that colloquially and think about the quips and the gossip of Jesus' brothers. 'Oor Jesus – he's nuts – thinks he's the Messiah. Ah'll Messiah him when Ah see him. Jesus – he's ower far ben' wi' God. Jesus – he's a fish short of a picnic'. What had happened was that these very brothers had seen what had happened to Jesus and their hearts had been melted. They had undergone complete conversions and had become believers and Christians.
Peter was already exercising leadership and had been accepted as such by the congregation. He saw that it was a priority to replace Judas. 12 is a sacred number in Judaism. Twelve represents totality, wholeness, and the completion of God's purpose. Maybe that's why Jesus had 12 disciples to begin with. There are 12 tribes of Israel (10 of which must be restored) and 12 months in the year. 11 is lacking and a reminder of what had happened to Jesus and to Judas and that a very wicked person had been a part of Jesus' disciples. There was Judas' ghastly end also to be cleansed in some way by filling his place.
I read an article in The Scotsman newspaper the other day by a man whose son had died of heroin. He had been introduced to the drug by Peaches Geldof who herself died recently and tragically at the age of 26 leaving a husband and two small sons. The heart broken father was expressing his opinion that drug taking is an illness just like any other illness. This interpretation takes away personal responsibility and of course any sense of blame. But is it right? Lifestyles affect health for everyone – we are always being told. How can drug taking be different? How can heroin use be exempted and described as an illness? That someone who takes heroin becomes ill is not in doubt. But is the taking an illness in itself? Is the experimentation leading to habitual use and then dependence an illness like cancer or multiple sclerosis?
To my mind there is a difference. The taking of drugs for recreation is a free choice and an act of the human will. There can be mitigating circumstances. Someone may be cajoled into trying the stuff through peer pressure. A person may in other respects be suffering from personal problems and the thought of a temporary escape may seem very attractive. Someone may have progressed from other drugs to heroin with its lethal capability. But cancer beings within the body. Drug taking begins with a human act. There is a difference.
So we come back to Judas. He betrayed Jesus for a small sum of money – perhaps £20. Luke's Gospel 22: 3 says 'Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve'. Luke's Gospel is humane and therapeutic in tone throughout but he gives a stark explanation of why Judas betrayed Jesus. Evil entered into his mind and he acted on it. That is an unavoidable part of the human condition. Evil enters our human minds. The issue is whether or not we act on it. Jesus risen and ascended - our Living Lord is able to defeat these suggestions and give us victory over them and preserve our lives in goodness and decency. But Jesus did not stop Judas betraying him. He did not stop evil entering into Judas. He did not exorcise Judas and save him from his own behaviour. The greater plan required Jesus' sacrifice. The lesser plan required a means of arrest through Judas' defection and betrayal.
What has always intrigued and disturbed me is the connection between evil and human imagination. I'm sure none of us ever imagined that in 2014 we'd hear of two hundred school girls being kidnapped by Islamic extremists and likely to be sold into slavery as wives to older men. I'm sure we never thought that certain TV personalities of yesteryear were behaving as they have been found out to have behaved in relation to early teenage girls. I'm sure we didn't expect to hear about Dr Shipman or Mr & Mrs West. Neither did we expect to see Syria's government commit genocide against its own people, lay waste homes, villages, towns and cities – and everyone stand by watching. Evil and human imagination! All those violent computer games which children interact with. The unquantifiable influence of internet pornography on personal relationships worldwide. In The Times newspaper this week there was an article about teenagers using social media to send naked pictures of themselves to prospective boyfriends and girlfriends. The journalist concluded – this is a new form of courtship. How about all the schemes to make money out of others? How about all the money being paid back to bank and insurance customers for wrongly sold, mis-sold and deceitfully sold policies and products in years past? The norms of human life are actually evil rather than good. The norms of rich and powerful people even more so. And just think. Only a small number of people ever act out the fantasies the imagination of evil visits on them.
Jesus himself was subjected to the imagination of evil. Crown of thorns pressing in below the skin of the cranium; a Roman flogging with belts studded with pieces of bones to lacerate the flesh; being nailed with thick 6 inch nails on a cross and left to die slowly. There's a coincidence of evil and imagination. Out of that came Christianity. Its moderating, healing, saving, civilising, influence has been such a blessing to the world. The imagination of God for goodness is greater than the imagination of evil. Judas was a sick minded, angry, greedy and troubled man who betrayed someone who had been good to him. But extraordinarily, the love and power of Jesus overcame all of that in triumphant resurrection. The fearful distinction between doing good and doing evil. The Gospel is great, Hallelujah.
And after that we have one of the most banal episodes in the whole Bible. The disciples sat down and played lotto to find Judas' successor. They drew lots. Held a raffle. Isn't that strange. They were not really gambling though and no money was involved. They were just following the practice of electing priests at the Temple in Jerusalem. There were always more people than there were offices. So the names of candidates for offices were written on stones; the stones were put into a jar; the jar was shaken until one stone fell out; the person whose name was on that stone was elected to office. Here there were just two names on the stones in the jar, Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias. But then everyone prayed. See – that's the difference. This wasn't a tombola with bottles of booze as prizes. This was a prayer led means to an end. Matthias' name came out first and he took the vacant 12th place among the disciples.
The Christian consensus in our land has broken down. Now there is an acute distinction between being a Christian and not being one. There is no over-arching narrative for people to follow. Here are some interesting figures from a Poll on the place of Christianity in the land.
Practising Christians – 14%
Non-practising Christians – 38%
Practising other faiths – 5%
Non-religious – 41%
Don't Know – 2%
Britain is a Christian country – 56%
Britain is a non-religious society – 30%
Don't Know – 14%
Are Christians in Britain given the same protections as other believers?
Less protection – 48%
Same protection – 28%
Greater protection – 8%
Don't Know - 16%
There is a fearful distinction between doing good and doing evil. It is becoming clearer and clearer by the day, week, month, year. We should never despair. We are on the Lord's side. Do you ever give thanks for your knowledge of the love of God? For your salvation? For Jesus Christ being in your life? If you truly realise what you have been given you should be raising the roof with your praise. The grace of Jesus Christ is working within us, the love of God is working within us, the power of the Holy Spirit is working within us. Rejoice.