I shared this message a few years ago and I wanted to share it again here. I acknowledge one glaring mistake I made in it. I used the phrase "Apostle Judas." I think actually, an apostle is an eyewitness to the resurrection. Judas, tragically, did not live to receive forgiveness and embrace the risen Lord. In spite of that misnomer, I think a word about grace is needed in the world. Actually, many words about grace are needed. I add mine the to the conversation.
Grace (Acts 1:15-20)
Communion Sunday, April 26, 2009
I have served in vocational ministry since May of 1992. In that time I have probably led over 500 small group Bible discussions, and have had countless one-on-one discussions with people. In my experience, I found that Christians, people of the faith that rests on grace, have enormous trouble understanding it, giving it, and receiving it.
“So, group, tell me how do you know you’re going to Heaven?” Someone, a professed Christian, will say, “Well, I am basically a good person.” It comes up often in the context of funerals too, especially for people who did not live lives of faith. Grieving family members say, “At least he’s in a better place?” What does that mean?
I hear eulogies assured that the deceased is heaven bound because of all the good deeds he did. “He would do anything for you” they say. I never ask, “What specific wonderful things did he do?” That question would leave the bereaved stammering; funerals are not a time to put people on the spot or evaluate the worthiness of someone. At funerals bring comfort and hope from the Gospel.
Yet the question remains, even if unspoken. Whether hanging before mourners at a memorial service, put to a small Bible study group, presented in a sermon on Sunday morning, or just floating in the mind of the individual believer the questions confront us. What is good? Who is good enough for that “better place,” a euphemism for Heaven? The answer is Jesus. No one else qualifies. The person who thinks he’s headed to Heaven because he’s done some nice things or is basically good or has given a bunch of money to worthy causes is fooling himself. Heaven is not earned. Heaven is where God lives and we get to be with God because he invites us. He invites us because Jesus died on a cross for us.
And yet we are locked into the misguided thinking that good guys go north and bad guys go south. The righteous go up, the damned go down. There’s Heaven for us, and Hell for Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Manson … fill in your favorite famous bad guy. But the truth is there are no good guys and bad guys. All fall short of God’s glory. But the good news is God so loved the world, he gave his only son that whoever believes in Him should not die, but should enter eternal life.
I may have indirectly contributed to this misunderstanding about grace in my preaching over the last two years. I have emphasized over and over and over again the things a disciple does. I’ve talked about deeds and actions. I don’t think anything I have said has been Biblically inaccurate. But this morning, I want to make sure we all remember that we are disciples doing Godly things because Jesus called us. We are sons and daughters of God because of God’s invitation. All the deeds of discipleship that we strive to do come after we receive that grace that is given by God.
It would then seem a paradox to talk about grace a spiritual discipline. A discipline is something we do to accomplish that which we cannot accomplish on our own power. I cannot run 5 miles at the moment; I can run 1, maybe 2. But if I committed to the discipline of running a mile or 2 every day, soon I might try 3 miles, and I might make it. From there my discipline increases until I am up to 5 miles. Spiritually, I cannot will myself to stop sinning. But, I can fast – go without food for a period of time. I can fill that time with the disciplines of prayer, Bible reflection, and Bible study. After spending time in these disciplines, I will sin much less, and I will be much more like Jesus.
Grace isn’t something we do. It’s something we receive. So, how is it a discipline? First, remember, that most Americans do not like receiving something for nothing. We’d rather make our own way. This country was built on a pioneering spirit. We idolize the rugged individualist. Grace as a spiritual discipline is a constant re-ordering of our way of thinking. We give up that independence and accept that we are completely dependent on Jesus for life and for abundant life. It’s not something we go get. It something we receive.
Once our thinking is reordered, then we are in position to give grace. This is the second act of grace as a discipline. But the two acts – reordering our way of thinking so we can receive grace, and giving grace – are not sequential. We do them concurrently. Even when it cuts against the grain of our inner nature, we look for ways of giving grace. We develop the art, perfected by Jesus, of giving grace. It’s not letting people off the hook. It’s not denying the sin of the other. For grace to be given, the sin has to be acknowledged, spoken. And then it is forgiven and it no longer comes between two people. It is no longer an obstacle to a loving relationship.
Grace is needed if we are to understand the Apostle Judas.
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Apostle Judas. Those who have been around church or read Christian literature know there are common modifiers that accompany the most prominent names in scripture: King David; The Prophet Isaiah; The Virgin Mary; The Apostle Peter; The Apostle John; the Apostle Paul; Doubting Thomas; Judas, the betrayer.
Actually all 12 of the disciples were in fact messengers who carried the message of Jesus and successfully used the miracle power he gave them. All 12 were apostles. To understand the life and painful end for the Apostle Judas, the disgraced apostle, we need to wrap our minds around unmerited favor – grace. And to get a good picture of grace, it helps to see what happens in the life of one who could never break free from ungrace. Jesus modeled and taught grace, but for Judas grace was impossible. He couldn’t get it.
In Acts 1:15, Peter stands to address the community. He is the one who stood up and told Jesus not to go to
to the cross. He tried to block the way
to salvation and Jesus called him ‘satan,’ adversary. Jesus knew Peter’s bluster hid an inner
cowardice that reared its ugly head the night of his arrest. Peter denied knowing Jesus. Then he ran into hiding. Coward.
Blowhard. Peter was a picture of
failure. But here in the middle of Act
chapter 1, after Jesus has ascended to Heaven, before the Holy Spirit, Peter is
clearly leading the small band who would become the church. How did this guy get here? Jerusalem
Quite simply, he received grace. He made it through the Saturday. On Friday, when Jesus was crucified, Peter wallowed in shame, guilt, failure, and despair. One of my professors used to say, he was lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. But, even then, something of Jesus held his heart. He didn’t know what to do. On silent Saturday, he didn’t know what to do. On Easter Sunday, he didn’t know what to do. But he did not abandon all hope. He stuck around long enough to be there when Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, came around looking for followers.
Even in Mark’s Gospel, which gives less in the way of detail than the others, we see the value of sticking around. The witness tells the women to go the disciples and specifically go to Peter and tell Peter that he will see Jesus in
Galilee. John’s Gospel gives the most detail. In chapter 21, Jesus and Peter have a heart to
heart right there on the beach along the Sea of Galilee. Peter, shamed, looks into the eyes of the one
Three times he denied Jesus. Once; OK, I messed up; twice; I need to find my courage; three times, Jesus? I don’t know him. So, three times, Jesus asks if Peter loves him. Three times, Jesus re-commissions Peter as a disciple, an Apostle, a leader of God’s people. Peter didn’t earn this. He wasn’t worthy the first time Jesus called him to be an apostle. He says as much. Upon first following Jesus, he sees an unbelievable site – the miraculous catch of fish, and he says what Isaiah said in God’s presence. “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Jesus looked past Peter’s inadequacies and said you will be a fisher of men. Then, after the resurrection, Jesus looked past Peter’s denial and said, feed my sheep. And here we are in Act 1. Peter is leading the disciples and he speaks about grace – grace that had been bestowed upon Judas.
“Concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus …, he was numbered among us” (1:16b-17a). No one could appreciate being called by Jesus more than Peter. A simple fisherman from an unimportant village in a backwater region – Peter knew how far he had come. He knew that to be called was a gift of God, given freely by Jesus. He acknowledged it was as much given to Judas as to him. The title apostle belonged to Judas as much as it did to him.
Peter continues. “He [Judas] was allotted his share in this ministry” (1:17b). Jesus gave his closest followers the message of
. He gave them the power to cast out demons and
cures diseases (Mt 10:8; Lk 10:17). He
taught them separately and more extensively than the crowds. They did what Jesus and learned what Jesus
knew. The Apostle Judas was allotted his
share in the ministry of Jesus. He had
it all. kingdom
From Peter, we know that that kind of access and that kind of power was not enough for transformation. Seeing the amazing will not change person. Crowds saw Jesus feed 4000 with one boy’s lunch. An entire town saw Jesus drive 1000 demons out of man. Even the resurrection did not turn hearts. When the high council found out Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb – the tomb where they had guards posted – they did not seek out the disciples and ask what happened. They did not become believers. Theirs was a deep evil, a committed rebellion. They bribed the hardened Roman soldiers to say that Galilean fisherman had managed to sneak past and steal the still-dead body. Even in the blinding light of resurrection, those in positions of power were determined not to believe. Belief comes when we receive the grace God holds out to all people.
Closeness with Jesus did not save Judas; witnessing the supernatural did not save him; invitation to the new covenant, taking the bread and cup could not save Judas; and he never had the chance to respond to resurrection grace. He was so despondent on Saturday, while Peter and John and the rest pathetically laid low, Judas surrendered to his despair.
Matthew’s offers a sterile depiction of his death. A repentant Judas tries to atone by returning the money he was paid for turning Jesus in. The elders will have none of it. They lay the blame at Judas’ feet. He’s at a loss for what he has done, and the priests offer no help. He can’t wrap his mind around grace, so he has nowhere left to turn. The weight of the wrath of God sets on him. It doesn’t have to. God would transfer it to the cross immediately. But Judas won’t let it go. It’s his responsibility and he can’t meet it. So, Matthew writes, “he went and hanged himself” (27:5).
The picture in Acts is more vivid. Apparently, the rope he used didn’t hold for long. “Falling headlong, he burst open in the middle of the field, and all his bowels gushed out” (1:18). Some scholars think Luke, the writer of Acts, included this macabre parenthetical detail for the sake of his gentile readers. He wanted them to see the connection between the evil Judas performed and the awfulness of his fate. Neither Matthew nor Peter mentioned bowels gushing out. Luke threw that in there. If his purpose was to accentuate Judas’ sin, it was probably a help in the story telling for some early readers.
For me, the bigger issue is examining Peter (a sinner redeemed by God’s love), who is the speaker in Acts 1, alongside Judas, the tragic figure who died before he could see the story’s resurrection ending. I am convinced that had Judas accepted the fact that he was a sinner who needed Jesus, then he could have been redeemed just as Peter was. He could have made it through that awful Saturday. He would be history’s picture of redemption instead one synonymous with treachery.
Just before the ride into
Jerusalem on Palm the Sunday when the action began to move
quickly, Jesus and the 12 were in the outlying . Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used
expensive ointment. She lavishly rubbed
the nard on his feet and rubbed her hair on his feet. She was worshipping him, and unknowingly I
think prepping him for the grave. village of Bethany
Judas took exception. “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor” (John 12:5)? His inquiry was a rebuke of Mary, and that drew a sharp response from Jesus. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Acting out of the intuition God had given her, Mary heaped extravagant grace upon Jesus. The fullness of what she had done would never come to Judas. He didn’t make it through Saturday.
John the gospel writer reports that Judas’ question about giving to the poor was a ruse to hide his thieving tendencies. He stole from the disciples’ common purse. Instead of gratefully receiving what God would give, Judas felt he had to use cunning to get as much as he could. Instead of trusting that Jesus knew what he was doing, Judas tried to force his hand. I honestly feel that Judas believed when he turned Jesus in that Jesus was rally his followers to restore Israel to the Jews and throw the Romans out. At worst, Jesus might spend sometime in prison. Judas never thought he’d be flogged, mocked, and executed.
We have mentioned the extravagant grace of Mary – this is the grace of worship we give God. We have mentioned redeeming grace, or forgiving grace – the grace Peter received that as a prelude to being commissioned to lead the church. These angles on grace fall under the resurrection and lead to a commissioning grace: the gift God gives in calling us to give our all to be disciples.
As we near the time when we will come and take the bread (the body of Christ), and drink the cup (his blood poured out for us), I imagine a great canyon. We want to be with God and he is on the other side. It’s too great to make the leap across, no matter how great the athlete. No bridge can be built from this side, no matter how brilliant the engineer. There’s no chance of descending into the canyon, walking through, and climbing up the far wall; it can’t be done no matter how diligent a climber one is. One cannot live on this side of the canyon, no matter how much rationalizing we attempt. Our lives are short. As each year passes, we come closer and closer to the great expanse. Our toes are creeping over the edge and we realize a couple of things.
We are going to fall to the depths.
God is inviting us to His side constantly.
We can’t make it on our own, but Jesus can carry us there.
We have to give up our own efforts and except His help.
We have to trust his way is the best way.
Then, we have to jump into that expanse knowing he will catch us.
I am sinner, and I say to you, my fellow sinners, the only way is Jesus. Receive the grace he offers. Pray and pray until you are free from the demons of self-loathing, blame, and rugged individualism. God’s favor can’t be earned but it can be received. So, we open our hearts, and we receive grace by asking Jesus in. The call of discipleship soon follows.