Sermon at Christ Church Episcopal, Pensacola, FL

May 29, 2009

I know that

Florida has developed something of a reputation for how elections are conducted. Ballots, whether hand written or electronic, are an honored part of our democratic tradition, though if the truth be known, we have a variety of ways of seeing our elections through. I recall an election in Ely, Nevada several years ago, where the two candidates received an equal number of votes, and the tie was decided by having them draw to poker hands.

Even in the church, we do it in a variety of ways. The process to elect your bishop took months and months, the desires of the diocese were carefully spelled out ahead of time, and the candidates’ qualifications and personalities were diligently examined before you voted. There were many, many steps in that process.

Ambrose was elected bishop of Milan in the 4th century by popular acclamation. He was serving as a regional governor, an administrator, and knew that controversy was likely during the election, and maybe even violence. He went to the church to keep order, and when he turned up the people inside began to chant, “Ambrose, bishop, Ambrose, bishop.” Even though he tried to get out of it, he was baptized, ordained, and installed as bishop within a week.

The circle of leaders around Jesus has had a chunk carved out of it by the betrayal of Judas. The disciples believe that restoring the number to twelve is an essential act of witness – if they are to be the new Israel, then in some sense there has to be one for each of the twelve tribes. There is a strong traditional pull for twelve when you want to proclaim that all sides of a community are represented – most juries still have twelve members, and so do most vestries.

The disciples are insistent that whomever they choose has to have been around through all of Jesus’ earthly ministry – from baptism through crucifixion to resurrection appearances. Number twelve has to have had an encounter with the risen Jesus – they want to have a witness.

The next step in their process is deciding how to hold the election. They aren’t interested in hanging chads, so they go for the poker hands, or more accurately, something like dice. They cast lots, and the result is Matthias, whose name means “gift of the Lord.” There’s a hint about vocation in the names of the other candidate. The runner-up, Barsabbas, bears a name that means son of rest or sabbath, maybe a hint that the twelve have work to do, and won’t be spending their time resting.

The task of the replacement, like the other eleven, is to be a witness. A witness to resurrection, to the love of God, to eternal life known in Jesus. Last week we heard the same thing said to the disciples who stood around at Jesus’ ascension, “you are witnesses of these things.” Being a witness, whether at a trial or an election, or to the resurrection, doesn’t mean just standing around watching. A witness is charged to tell the story in order to claim what is right, or change something that’s not right, in order to achieve justice. These twelve are commissioned to do their piece of kingdom work.

What does that look like? What does it look like for us? We’re also challenged to be witnesses – “will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?” As the writer of John’s letters says, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his son.” Today geeks would say, WYSIWYG, what you see is what you get. The evidence is before you, and it is accurate, true, faithful, and enduring. A voice from an earlier generation [Marshall McLuhan] said, “the medium is the message.” The enduring love of God is evident in Jesus.

The task of witnesses is to recognize what they or we are seeing, to tell about it, and seek to make that eternal, abundant life evident in our own lives and in others. In John, this is Jesus’ commissioning – his, “go and baptize, and make disciples of all nations.” How we do that gives evidence of that zoe aeonion, eternal life, life for all ages, present in us.

The prayer that Jesus prays in this part of John’s gospel assumes that all of Jesus’ friends are meant for this eternal life, and he insists that “not one was lost, except the one destined to be lost.” In other words, Judas. There is another witness to the fate of Judas, however. There’s an ancient Orthodox tradition that says that when “Jesus descended into hell,” he retrieved a lot of earlier worthies, including Adam and Eve. There’s a famous icon called the harrowing of hell that shows Jesus, standing over the gates of hell, dragging the two of them out by their wrists. Some theologians insist that Judas’ betrayal may have been redeemed in a similar way. Jesus chose him along with the other 11, and Jesus never repudiates his election. The betrayal is Judas’ doing, and presumably redeemable by a change of heart on Judas’ part – repentance. How do we hear the rest of Jesus’ prayer if we consider Judas along with the others?

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

The evil one here is not Judas, but whatever leads us away from God, whatever voice that insists we have the fullness of truth in our own minds. That was Judas’ failing, and sometimes it is ours as well. Idolizing our own certainty is a turning away from the abundant and eternal life for which we are created.

We have a similar situation not very far south of us right now, one involving betrayal, violence, death, and hell. It’s called Guantánamo, and it harbors those folks Americans love to hate, outsiders charged with killing our innocence and sense of safety. John’s language is eerily appropriate, “the world will hate them, because they do not belong to the world.” Who or what is the evil one, from whom we seek protection? Perhaps an overweening sense of righteousness; a rush to proclaim ourselves as a higher sort of human being, in spite of the evidence. That seems to be an equal opportunity evil.

Judas has never been rehabilitated in the eyes of the church – there’s never been any act of corporate reconciliation, despite the inclination of some of our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Giving evidence of the eternal life we know in Jesus, being witnesses, has something to do with our attitudes toward Judas and toward the men of Guantánamo Bay. It does not imply turning our backs. Being witnesses has to do with telling uncomfortable and even dangerous truths. May God indeed protect us from the evil one, and sanctify us all in the truth.