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Making choices

The Cathedral in autumn light
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 17th May 2015

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on 17 Sunday May 2015 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

 

(Acts 1.15-17, 21-end; John 17.6-19)

 

In an idle moment earlier today I looked at a list of patron saints and their patronage. Not having time to look at their biographies gives one the advantage of speculating about how they got these fields of which they are now patrons. What did St Bernardino do to become patron of impulsive and uncontrolled gambling? How on earth did the 13th century St Clare of Assissi come to be patron of Television? Or St Barbara – why does she get ammunition workers? And then of course one can wonder how or why certain saints came to have more than one aspect to their patronage. Take St Dymphna, who gets family harmony and insanity. Or Charles Borromeo, who has the rather concerning list of clergy, colic, stomach trouble and ulcers. St Genesius gets a list which frankly sounds like an entire career path: actors, comedians, dancers, epilepsy and lawyers. In other cases the reasons underlying these joint fields are more easy to spot – as for example in the fact that Agnes is patron saint both of chastity and of the Girl Scouts of America.

 

I have a new patron saint to offer to unsuccessful Parliamentary candidates, British opinion pollsters and political journalists. The obvious man is Joseph Barsabbas, also called Justus. He presented himself for election, and was not chosen; and the process by which he was selected was entirely arbitrary, wholly unpredictable.

 

There are two Biblical people I want to talk about this morning, and he is one. The other is the former holder of the role which Joseph so nearly was given – Judas Iscariot. Judas has always been a troubling figure. The various accounts of him in the gospels were of course written after the event, and present him in almost exclusively negative ways – as a thief from the common purse, as the traitor. Matthew and Luke then tell different stories ascribing equally horrible deaths to Judas – suicide by hanging, or Luke’s description (which by the way is what’s in those few verses which you may have noticed were left out of today’s first reading) of him falling to the ground and his bowels gushing out.

 

No love is lost on the memory of Judas. Not even, according to John’s gospel at least, by Jesus himself: we’ve just heard him say of his disciples ‘I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled’. This suggests a kind of scriptural determinism, that Judas had to do what he did, that no one could have stopped him, and that the purposes of God were achieved by this. And so he’s lost, let’s forget about him. But I can’t forget about him. Of course Judas did a shameful thing, betraying his friend, allowing him to be killed. Yet our thinking here is apt to get muddled. What we know of God above all is that he is good, and that he does not intend evil. It is never God’s will that bad things be done, and so we are getting things backward if we think, as these writers appear to do, that God destined Judas to do this evil thing and so cause the crucifixion of Jesus. That would make him the victim of a kind of cosmic Utilitarianism – a sacrifice to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Rather, surely what happened was an evil thing from which God was able redemptively to bring good. He turned the misery and loss of the betrayal and crucifixion into the living power of resurrection. Human sin, any powers of evil, cannot withstand the loving goodness of God.      So, good was able to come from what Judas did; which does not mean that God willed Judas to betray Jesus and then discarded Judas to horrible death and perpetual execration as the worst of all sinners. That would not accord with the loving and life-giving God we know.

 

At least we’ve all heard of Judas, if only as a synonym for traitor. Not so for Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Justus. He appears in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, and we heard this morning as much about him as there is to know: he had been among the disciples all the way, from the baptism of John to the Ascension of Jesus; and he wasn’t chosen to share the ministry of the twelve. He then disappears without trace, so we will never know whether he was disappointed to come so near, or whether people began to wonder for what reason he was not chosen. He is one of countless millions – for it is not only Parliamentary candidates and party leaders who are not elected. Though we’ve been persuaded by our culture that we can normally choose what we like, an important lesson is that we can’t!

 

It has always intrigued me that, after the shortlisting process, this crucial appointment was made a mixture of prayer and lottery. The disciples asked God’s will, and then made the choice completely arbitrarily. That has the merit of depersonalising it: Joseph wasn’t rejected by his friends in this election; but he does have to come to terms with maybe a rather more challenging idea – that it is God who has rejected him!

 

Not so, it seems to me. These were two equally qualified men. One got the role, the other didn’t. God didn’t will that result any more than he willed the betrayal by Judas. What Joseph Barsabbas, known as Justus, needed to grasp is just what all disappointed candidates, all disappointed people need to grasp – that God has not purposely created this disappointment, but that instead, like everything else in life,  it offers the chance for God to bring good.

 

So, forget disappointed hopes, forget the unfairness of the process. Look to God, get ready for service. There is only one electoral process which counts for us Christians, and Jesus addressed it to us all through his disciples:  [John 15.16] “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”