Sunday February 24, 2019
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Spencer
The Twelfth Apostle
“Falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”
He burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.
That’s an image that will stay with you.
Today we honor Saint Matthias. But me: I can’t stop thinking about Judas and not only because of that horrifying mental picture of gushed out bowels.
Here on Saint Matthias Day I’m thinking about deaths, holy and otherwise. And lives, holy and otherwise. About faith and about falling down. And about these two men - one considered a saint, the other a villain. And all the rest of us here in between.
We are wearing red today. Red is the color of blood and fire. Red is the color of martyrs.
The word “martyr” comes from the Koine Greek word meaning “witness” or “testimony.” And this courtroom lingo was the original Biblical meaning of the term. In the Acts of the Apostles, those who had known and seen Jesus in the flesh, the Apostles themselves, were called martyrs: “witnesses.” Those who had witnessed and who testified to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We hear it in today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles about the need to find a replacement for Judas the traitor:
“Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us...must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.”
Saint Matthias was chosen after Judas’ betrayal to be the Twelfth Apostle. He was nominated for the position because he too had been with the Apostles and with Jesus. He had witnessed the effects of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus first hand and so could testify about it others.
But testifying to Jesus Christ, in those centuries between the Ascension and the Emperor Constantine, often came into conflict with the required witness to gods of the Roman Empire including the deified Emperor himself. And when Christians refused to put Caesar over Christ, when they refused to renounce their faith, they were tortured and they were killed. Thus the word “martyr” came to mean one who died for their faith.
The earliest reverence for the Christian dead as “saints” took place at the graves of martyrs. The relics, the preserved body parts, of the martyrs were considered, in the words of Saint Polycarp, “more valuable than gold or precious stones.” Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” Their witness to their faith, even in the face of certain death, served to proclaim the life or death stakes, the existential weight of the Gospel. They were “little Christs” emulating their Lord in his passion.
Saint Matthias, who we honor today, was both kinds of martyr. He was a witness, testifying about Jesus. And church tradition, though contradictory about where and how, also claims that Matthias was the second sort of martyr as well. That he died for his faith. That he was executed for it.
Judas’ origin story was very similar to that of Matthias. He was chosen by the Lord to be a witness, an apostle. They travelled together, Jesus, Matthias AND Judas. They ate and drank together. Judas, like Matthias, heard Jesus preach and watched him heal the sick. Judas was even made keeper of the common purse for the Twelve Apostles - a job you don’t give to someone you don’t trust. But Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of the authorities who would torture and kill him. He became, in the Church’s interpretation, the arch-sinner. So that Judas, in Dante’s Inferno, is found in the icy heart of Hell being gnawed on for all eternity by the big pointy teeth of Satan himself. And he’s a suicide. In Matthew’s account, overcome with remorse at his crime, Judas hangs himself. In the Acts of the Apostles he falls down and bursts open. Matthias has a day on the Church’s calendar. Judas has this dark epilogue.
They are a study in contrasts. Matthias is the loyal witness full of faith and hope and love who walked the walk even unto death. Judas is the betrayer: hopeless, despairing, damned, who fell down and who never got up again.
If I’m being honest with myself, I see more of me in the betrayer than the martyr. There’s something profoundly human about brokenness. about despair and betrayal and the story of Judas who loved Jesus and followed Jesus and handed Jesus over to be tortured and killed with a kiss.
Matthias, like most saints, seems, to me, far away and too good to be true. Martyrs and saints can seem like Superman or Captain America: an ideal, a character if not a caricature - not a flesh and blood human being. An ideal that is, for us ordinary humans, unreachable mostly. Because they, the saints, aren’t like us. Not really.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, in the entry on Judas, says that: “The examples of the saints are lost on us if we think of them as being of another order without our human weaknesses.” Judas, the Encyclopedia states, was a human being. A mix of good and bad. Of faithfulness and failure. So too, carrying the logic a step further, was Matthias.
I’ve often felt like the stories of the saints leave out the meat of the matter. The daily human lives of holy people. Their struggles, their failures, their falls. In most hagiographies, we hear only of their great deeds, their heroic martyrdoms, their miracles. But most of us don’t live there. But neither are we villains. We live somewhere in between.
Annie Dillard writes, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead...and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.”
As a kid growing up amidst Midwestern Catholics in the 1990s, there was no more fully formed idea of holiness and perfection in my head than Mother Teresa of Calcutta. If you wanted, on my playground or in my high school, to talk reverently or mockingly about somebody you’d call them a “real Mother Teresa.” She was kind and generous, self-sacrificing, humble, she worked and lived among the poor, among lepers, she herself lived simply and she was A NUN. You didn’t get much holier than a nun in my part of Northeast Ohio. Mother Teresa equalled saint in my brain. Every bit as frustratingly unreachable and unattainable as Matthias. And so it was not a source of scandal but of relief when I learned of her struggles. That Mother Teresa faced in her prayer life a great darkness and in her daily work felt an absence of a sense of God’s presence. For years and years she felt this way. She doubted at times if she even believed in God. And as she toiled in conditions that were often ugly and seemingly hopeless, she felt not the consolation of God’s grace at all. She felt like a hypocrite.
But she did it anyway. “Abiding in God” to use Saint John’s phrase from today’s Gospel even in the absence of a sense of his presence. This human, holy saintly person abiding in God by carrying on in the work and in her prayer. Despite the darkness. And despite and amidst the darkness, she became a light.
“For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again,” the Book of Proverbs says. Saint Peter denied Jesus three times. Then he got back up and told him he loved him three times. And so maybe that’s what a saint is. Maybe that’s where holiness is sought. In what we do, despite the darkness, and the failure, and our human tendency to stumble and to fall. Maybe that’s why we uphold the witness of Matthias and the saints and martyrs. They carried on, they trusted in God’s grace, they chose to abide in God despite being every bit as human as the next person. When they fell, they stood up. And maybe that’s the great tragedy of Judas, that he fell down and could not rise up again.
But this isn’t easy. It wasn’t for Mother Teresa. It isn’t for me. I can’t imagine it always was for Saint Matthias either.
In the pilgrimage of faith, in the life of grace, in relation with God and with others, and in the pursuit of holiness “there is no one but us.” Flawed and faithful human beings. Sinners and saints. Falling and trying, yet again, to rise.