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Simcha Fisher: the apostles after Judas

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the apostles after Judas - The Catholic weekly

People like to make fun of the apostles for sort of bumbling around and having silly arguments and not getting the point. But let’s be fair. How could they be anything else but in a shambles?

I was struck recently by the Gospel passage where, after the ascension, the remaining 11 apostles were trying to choose a replacement for Judas. They talk it over and narrow it down to two men, and then cast lots, asking the Holy Spirit to show them which one it should be.

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This is a story we all know. Judas betrays Jesus, Jesus dies, Jesus rises again, and the apostles find a replacement so there are 12 of them again. It sounds straightforward and sensible because we’re familiar with it.

But they weren’t! They had no idea what would happen next, but it must have seemed like anything was possible. Think of what they had been through just in the last several weeks.

Just a very short time after they met Jesus and found out who he was and left their old life utterly behind, they saw him betrayed by one of their own, and then arrested and tortured and executed. Then they buried him, and then they saw him alive again, and then they had various insane conversations with him, and then, just as they were expecting him to restore the kingdom of Israel, he went back up to heaven. Talk about religious trauma. I’m actually amazed that they managed to function at all, much less hold a meeting and rationally figure out what to do next.

I’ve been thinking specifically about how shaken up they must have been by the realisation that Judas, who lived and ate and travelled with Jesus just as they did, was capable of such monstrous betrayal. I wonder whether this inexplicable horror put their own faith into doubt or made them wonder how a person can tell when they’re first diverging from Jesus, and what can be done about it. It’s an especially awful pain when you’re wounded by one of your own. It changes not only how you think of the aggressor, but how you think about yourself.

In Acts, they say that Judas “turned aside to go to his own place,” indicating that what he did was a choice (and one they’ve clearly been talking about with each other); but previously, Jesus said, “None [of the apostles] has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” It is hard to avoid the idea that, even as he turned aside from Jesus, he was still acting as part of God’s plan. He had free will, because every human being does—but at the same time, God’s work of salvation is sometimes carried out by people who aren’t trying to do any such thing.

These are deep waters. I am not up to the theological task of addressing how God’s plan and free will work together. But I do know that, when we are in deep waters, God gives us something to keep us afloat.

As I said, the apostles must have felt like everything they thought they knew had been called into question. But what they did next was, for once, the best possible course of action. They discussed the situation and the possibilities, and then they prayed for guidance, and then they moved ahead.

There is really no other way to proceed in life, when you’re not sure what to do next: Talk it over with people who know the Lord, and do our best to use our intellect, and then leave it up to God to bring good out of what we ultimately decide. For people who believe both in providence and free will, what else can we possibly do?

But I wasn’t kidding when I said the apostles had been traumatised. Far too many Catholics know how it feels when someone you thought you could depend on turns out to be a traitor, and does something so unspeakable that it makes you feel like absolutely anything could happen, and nothing is secure, and everything you thought was solid ground can shake and tremble and even crumble into dust. And they know what it feels like to realise that, in the aftermath of that earthquake, you have a decision ahead of you: You can either live in the rubble, or you can start to rebuild.

Neither one is appealing when you’ve been wounded. Both are overwhelming. Just when you’re starting to realise how weak and confused and helpless you really are, that’s when you’re confronted with an enormous task.

And this is why I’m especially impressed with how calmly the apostles moved forward as they chose a replacement for Judas. Whatever confidence they had in themselves, and their ability to be in charge, must have been demolished. Whatever idea they had of what might happen next must have evaporated. Nothing was what they thought, and nothing was under their control.

So how did they manage to forge ahead and behave with such blessed assurance? Because they had seen Jesus.

They saw him alive, and he spoke to them, and fed them, and told them what to do, and told them they would see him again. He doesn’t give them the answers; he reveals to them that he is the answer. They believe in him, and this gives them both the strength to move forward and do the best they can, and also to hope and trust in God, and leave things up to him, because they know that it is only through his mercy that they avoid the path of Judas.

But recall, they haven’t simply seen Jesus looking like he did before. They have seen his wounds. Thomas even touched them. They knew very clearly that the risen Christ still bore the marks of his suffering, the holes in his flesh, the unspeakable trauma of an unthinkable betrayal. I have to think that at least some of them were strengthened by this vision to carry on with the strange work of making choices when you know you’re not really in control, and trusting God when you don’t even know what you’re trusting him to do.

Judas wounded them, and perhaps changed how they thought about themselves. But Jesus showed them that wounds are not the end of the story. The marks don’t disappear, but they can become a sign of strength, rather than weakness; salvation, rather than betrayal; life rather than death. This is what they saw when they saw the Lord, and that is how they carried on.

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