Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Our lection today is the first recorded faith crisis of the Early Church: What to do with the betrayer, Judas.
We are not given access to the debates and deliberations that precede Peter’s explication, but the first thing I notice in this text is that the time was ripe for a faith crisis.
An Ecclesial Crisis (or, After the Honeymoon Period)
The earliest followers of “the Way,” for they were not yet called “Christians,” met at an upper room in Jerusalem in fidelity to Jesus’ instructions (1:4). What was it like in that upper room, perhaps the very room in which the apostles had gathered for the Last Supper? Luke gives us a few indications; however, through a close reading of the text, I believe we can tease out several noteworthy elements.
1. They were frustrated. Jesus had strained their hopes that his resurrection from the dead might inaugurate the restoration of Israel. Jesus declared that it was not their business to know the time (1:7). So the ethnic hopes that they had hung on Jesus, had seen dashed on the cross, and then lifted to the pinnacle of expectation with his resurrection, were not yet. That’s the first marker for crisis: things don’t turn out the way we had hoped they would.
2. They were forced to wait. How hard it is to wait! How harder still it is to wait with others. Perhaps you have experienced this for yourself in traffic, on a crowded airplane stalled on the tarmac, in one of those interminable lines at Disney World — the frustration of others can intensify our own irritation. Jesus commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what God the Father had promised, namely, the Holy Spirit (1:4). This is worth waiting for, to be sure, but how long? How long, O Lord?
3. There is a transition of leadership. Jesus, their Lord and guide ascended into heaven (1:9). For three glorious years Jesus was the one who had led their Bible study, who had preached their sermons, who had offered a fresh hermeneutic perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, he had told them what to do and they (mostly) followed his lead. He was now gone. Who might take up his mantle of leadership? Luke is careful to layout the potential candidates (cf. Luke 6:13-16).
4. There only recourse was prayer. Luke is careful to tell us that they “continued together in prayer,” stressing the continuous action. How long did they pray? How long were they able to pray with one mind? We are not privy to this information. What we do know is that at some point in their prayer — amidst their waiting — a hermeneutical ripple traced the surface of their pool of prayer. If everything had played out the way they expected would Peter have needed to address the crowd? Might their prayerful unity (homothumadon) have continued without need for formal explication?
A Theological Crisis
What we find in today’s lection is an answer to a question that remains unspoken: What are we to make of the fact that Jesus handpicked Judas to be his disciple and to carry his authority into the world toward a restored Israel, in light of the reality that this same Judas betrayed Jesus to his death? Moreover, now we only have eleven. How can we resume the symbolic unity of Israel without twelve? We must not overlook the significance of this crisis for the early believers, all of whom would have likely been Jews (1:15).
Always quick to propose some action (cf. Luke 9:33), Peter reasons from Scripture that the drama precipitated by Judas’s infidelity was a necessary component in God’s design. It had to be fulfilled! Let us leave to one side Peter’s shaky exegetical foundation in defense of finding a replacement for Judas. My question is this: Why was it necessary for the apostles to select a replacement for Judas?
Prior to the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the community is markedly inward focused and radically homogeneous. The coming of the Holy Spirit shifts their focus, revealing how big Jesus’ vision really is. God is not concerned with the restoration of Israel apart from the restoration of all of creation; rather, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Israel is empowered to capture the fullness of its election and mission to the world.
Luke is able to abstract Judas’s apostasy from his personhood. Judas “became” (ginomai) a guide for those who arrested Jesus (cf. Luke 22:47). Note that all of the modifiers for Judas are in the passive sense: he was numbered among us; he was apportioned a share of this service. This grammatical construction is theologically consistent with Luke’s pronouncement in Luke 22:3 that Satan entered Judas. Moreover, Luke here is quick to remind us of Judas’s status as “one of the twelve.” Acts 1:15-17 addresses a haunting theological crisis arising from ethnic hopes and expectations.
Even though Matthias is ultimately chosen by the apostles through the casting of lots, the Spirit elects Paul to carry the apostolic mantle left vacant by Judas. Clearly the criteria established by Peter and seconded by apostolic consent — namely, that the one to replace Judas ought to have been witness to the entire ministry of Jesus from the beginning — was not seconded by the Holy Spirit. Luke only ever mentions Matthias here in the Book of Acts. The Spirit chooses Paul as the twelfth apostle.
Maybe Jesus did know what he was doing when he selected Judas as one of the twelve. Through the apostolic hole left by Judas, the homogeneous community was empowered to receive a Jew of the diaspora to show Israel the true, universal, meaning of election. As Slavoj Žižek notes, “[O]nly through Judas’ ‘betrayal’ and Christ’s death could the universal Church establish itself — that is to say, the path of universality goes through the murder of particularity. Or, to put it in a slightly different way: in order for Paul to ground Christianity from the outside, as the one who was not a member of Christ’s inner circle, this circle had to be broken from within by means of an act of terrifying betrayal.”1
1Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 2003), 17-8.