Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) ‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,
“Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it”; and “Let another take his position of overseer.”
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.’ So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
I once heard a very striking sermon about Judas, the memory of which has never left me. It was preached by a deeply wise and pastoral Methodist minister who was once a close colleague. ‘What if’, he said, ‘Judas, instead of killing himself, had repented and asked for forgiveness? What then?’ I can remember that he paused while we all took this in and thought about it. Would others have killed him, so that he still died, but not at his own hand? Would he have been punished as he deserved? What would have followed? But it didn’t take long for us to work out what one hymnwriter calls ‘the table of forgiveness’ and to recognise that if Judas had repented he would surely have been forgiven. And, even more, he would likely have become one of the leaders of the early church. After all, his betrayal was not so very far from Peter’s, the one who betrayed Jesus three times before the cock crowed. The ‘what if?’ question helped us to see something more clearly about the radical quality of Gospel forgiveness. What’s odd is that we have forgotten how astonishing it is that Peter could have come back from where he did, could have risen from the place of the betrayer to be the rock on which the Church was founded. And Judas, if his story had taken another route, could have been forgiven too. We would then have a world in which there were many churches named for St Judas, a world in which ‘Judas!’ was not an insult or an accusation, but a name people would choose for their firstborn. We might have had St Judas’ basilica in Rome and we might have had a Christian story that said that even someone who could ‘sell’ Jesus for thirty pieces of silver could come back and be forgiven and redeemed. Judas’ tragedy is not so much that he betrayed Jesus, but that he could not believe that forgiveness was possible or that he did not have the time to discover it or to hear Jesus speak the kind of words that Jesus spoke to Peter.
This passage from Acts 1 about the appointment of Judas’ replacement is full of notes of blood and revenge. The need to look for someone else to make up the number to twelve is backed up with scriptural argument from the Psalms. We might wonder whether Peter, who makes the argument in this passage, reflected on how, so easily, it might have been him who was to be replaced, as well as Judas. Did no one among them think they should do the practical thing of replacing Judas but that they should also mourn him, and weep for one who had not been able to bear the burden of being forgiven or who had not heard how profound is God’s love? Perhaps they should have prayed that even on the other side of death, Judas might yet be saved from the hell he had made for himself. For Jesus harrowed every hell, didn’t he, even for those tormented, like Judas, for the terrible things they had done.
Thank you, merciful God, for the depth and strength of your forgiveness. Give me humility to receive it, courage to believe in it and a voice to speak of it, so that everyone I meet may truly know that there is always a way forward, everyday a new beginning and eternally forgiveness from your loving heart. In the name of Jesus who died to save us all, every last one, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC.