Sunday 13 May 2018
7th Sunday of Easter
One of the things we should pray for every time we are about to read from the Bible is “fresh eyes”. By that I mean that we should ask God to fill us with the Holy Spirit so that we will look closely at the text and not just gloss over it because it’s all too familiar to us.
This glossing over familiar territory does not just apply to familiar texts, but also to the whole picture that we have of the gospel and early Church times. And it is not only familiarity that we need to ward against, but also reading texts backwards – that is, with the light of hindsight, it is easy to misconstrue Biblical events in our mind.
These notes of caution were prompted in me when I read today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s very easy to regard the event described here, the replacement of Judas within the ranks of the Apostles, as a curious piece of first century Tattslotto. What I think it is important to realise as we read this text is, just how vulnerable the early followers of Jesus were. Because we know of the great spreading of the gospel in subsequent decades and centuries down to our own times, we can be led into a false sense that the way of the Apostles was clear and unimpeded.
The opening sentence of today’s reading has to be taken seriously. “In those days Peter stood among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people)”. That’s not a lot of people.
We have to realise that communication was not then what it is today. Most of the people who came into contact with Jesus in his life enjoyed relatively brief (though no doubt, often life-changing) encounters. They were left scattered all over Galilee, parts of Judea, and even in neighbouring gentile territories. Many would have only seen him on one occasion.
Most of these people would not have known at the time that Peter stood up among the believers that Jesus had even been crucified, let alone that God had raised him from the dead. Very few knew the whole story – I’d suggest on the evidence of the reading today, less than about one hundred and twenty did.
And even all of them had not followed Jesus the whole time. Obviously, some of them knew much of the story first hand, but not all of it. Some of them had heard parts of the whole from others who had been present all the time. That is why Peter makes the criterion explicit that the one to replace Judas must be one of the number who had been with Jesus from his Baptism right up until the resurrection appearances, clearly inferring that not all of the one hundred and twenty had.
“So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”
I think it demonstrates clearly how vulnerable the early followers of Jesus were. There were certainly thirteen men – Joseph called Barsabbas goes down in history as the first unlucky loser in a Church raffle – and we don’t how many women may have qualified. All we can presume from the account here is that, following Jesus’ Ascension, prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit, there were only about 120 people who were followers of Jesus who were appraised of his whole life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension, either through personal experience or personal experience and the witness of others. And that group of one hundred and twenty evangelised the world!
No doubt they found some who had experienced Jesus in some way at some time in his ministry and who received the whole gospel gladly. No doubt others were like those that Paul would later encounter who demanded signs and wisdom, not the cross. And of course they found large numbers who had never encountered Jesus at all who responded in a variety of ways to the gospel message.
When I read the text on this occasion, the number one hundred and twenty jumped out at me.
Do you know why?
Because we probably have at least half that number of people who regularly attend worship in this parish.
I wonder, what if we were the small group of believers who God relied upon to spread the gospel to the world? What if we were the believers who had experienced the risen Jesus and who, under the power of the Holy Spirit, were called to bring the good news to the world?
What if indeed!
But then, it struck me. We are!
There’s nothing more really to be said.
Father Allan Paulsen
St Matthew’s, Holland Park