In today’s New Testament reading we have the story of the church finding a replacement for Judas. Of course, the tragedy of Judas is that he didn’t have time to repent and to find the forgiveness that he would surely have been given. If Judas could have found a way to repent and change his ways and be forgiven he could, he would, surely have become a leader in the early church – because forgiveness is the heart of the Gospel. We would have churches named after him and children named after him and he, like Peter, would be celebrated now as a redeemed sinner, his life a story of redemption from the darkest crime. And perhaps, within eternity, he is indeed forgiven, redeemed and with the God he was searching for in Jesus. But his life and ministry, as we know, ended in tragedy (there’s a particularly glory description of it all in Acts chapter 1 in the verses that the lectionary tactfully leaves out..) and a replacement had to be found, a new person to make up the number twelve. Peter tells the other apostles that they must find someone and that it must be someone who had been with them for Jesus’ whole ministry, from the time he was baptized by John until the day of the Ascension. It must be someone who had seen the risen Jesus.
There were two names to consider – and both of them must have fitted the critera – both had been with Jesus all that time and had seen him risen from the dead. But there were no hustings, no election campaigns or careful consideration of the merits of each, no prayer before a vote at church meeting. The eleven apostles simply drew lots. And, as the Bible says, ‘the lot fell to Matthias’ and he was elected to be an apostle. That’s all fine of course – and good luck to Matthias. But this week I found myself wondering what happened to the other candidate. Call me perverse, but perhaps because I identify with the underdog or because drawing lots seems a strange way of discerning anything, or because I have known what it’s like not to win the election or not to be chosen, I’m wondering what happened to him. And I’m intrigued that the New Testament tells us just a little bit about him before he disappears from the story. It tells us that his name was Joseph Barsabbas and that he bore the added name of ‘Justus’. ‘Justus’ means ‘the just one’ and it was a nick name that people gave sometimes to those for whom, I imagine, it was particularly fitting. A bit like talking about ‘the lovely Eryl’ or ‘Tricia, the enthusiastic one’ or ‘Maralyn, our Christian Aid rep’ – it tells us something about Joseph Barsabbas. He was known for being ‘upright’ and ‘fair’ and perhaps even passionate about justice.
So, what might we learn from his story, especially perhaps at the beginning of Christian Aid week? Drawing on my own experience of those who have lost elections I can imagine a number of different possible scenarios. If all we knew was that this man was called Joseph I could imagine a number of things.
He might have been very upset not to be elected. To miss out on being an apostle could hardly be a greater disappointment. No immortality in spoons, no fame forever in the life of the church, no stained glass windows. He had just as good credentials as Matthias, and he didn’t even lose after having a chance to impress everyone. It was just a lottery really. I can imagine he might have gone home to the missus and complained mightily, perhaps even walked away from the church in a huff. It would have been embarrassing, at least, to have come so close to apostleship and lost it. And perhaps people were saying that God had chosen Matthias – which would be worse than losing a popular vote in the sense of the vote from the people. I can imagine that he perhaps decided that following Jesus wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. ‘After all I’ve done..’ he might have said. I’m sure you can imagine it. On the other hand, perhaps he was simply relieved. Perhaps he honestly never wanted to be an apostle anyway, never wanted the responsibility, was glad to escape the risk of arrest by the Romans, or was just the kind of shy person for whom a public office like that was just terrifying. Perhaps he breathed a huge sigh of relief and just carried on with being one of the wider circle of disciples. There are plenty of people who think he was among the seventy that were sent out on mission, so perhaps he was quite content to be in the top seventy – a bit like the acts that don’t make the final of the Eurovision song contest. The semi-finals were quite enough thank you – and he was glad to sink back into peaceful obscurity again. Or, who knows, perhaps he thought that another chance might come one day – that some of the twelve were not in the first flush of youth and maybe he would get another chance. Perhaps he was biding his time and quietly hoping that next time round it would be his turn. No leadership team stays the same for long and there was bound to be a disagreement or difference of opinion soon. Perhaps apostles might not last even as long as British Home Secretaries. Who knows. We can’t really know, and we can only guess.
BUT I like to think that there is a huge clue in his name. If he was really and truly appropriately named Joseph ‘the Just’, then perhaps we can work out what he did. If he was passionate about justice, if he was the kind of disciple of Jesus who would have been constantly telling the other disciples what Jesus had promised about bread for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, if he was the kind of person you would associate with a longing for justice for all, he wouldn’t have cared a hoot about the election of Matthias and would just have got on with his vocation. He would have had no thought of himself at all, but joined in with the deacons who were busy feeding the orphans and widows, with making sure everyone had according to their need, with being the hands and feet of Christ’s body in the world in his own time. And perhaps he might even have found that in such a ministry, in a ministry for justice, in a ministry to end poverty, he would have found his own voice. A man called Justus would have fitted in a treat at Christian Aid and I imagine that in the first century church there was even more need for people like that.
Of course, none of us here are apostles, in the classic sense. None of us here have been elected to great office in the church. Janet might have got closest in her time perhaps. But all of us could be those called ‘Justus’, could be those passionate about justice, speaking up for the poor, giving all we can, praying with heartfelt prayers, announcing a changed world, celebrating the coming of the Kingdom of God. I can think of other people, who having lost elections or lost great careers, have given themselves to working for justice; Jimmy Carter had probably done more good through his work for Habitat for Humanity than he could do while US president. John Profumo, having fallen in disgrace from his post in government worked tirelessly among the destitute of the East End. And the one I know best – Rowan Williams – having set aside being Archbishop of Canterbury now gives much of his time to being Chair of Christian Aid. And countless women of course, through the ages, who never even had a chance at great office, have thrown themselves into working for a just world. I wonder whether that is what Josephus Justus did. I hope his name stuck because that’s who he really was – a lover of justice.
There is, intriguingly, actually some later tradition about Joseph Barsabbas also known as Justus. It’s hard to know how reliable it is. But tradition says that he might have been one of the brothers of Jesus. And the tradition goes that he became a bishop, and later a saint, in a small Syrian/Palestinian city called Eleutheropolis – in English, ‘City of the Free’. Perhaps Joseph Justus felt more free too, not being an apostle, not being in the spoons, not being at the top of the hierarchy, perhaps more free the to cry for justice, more free to fulfil his vocation and follow his passion for justice. We don’t know of course – but we can imagine.
I suspect that most of here have moments in our lives when we might have done something different; had a different job or a different partner, a different life – but the lot didn’t fall on us. And perhaps we can sometimes look back and see that it was better so. But whoever we are, I hope that we might, by God’s grace, be worthy of the name ‘Justus’, that we might be those who want justice for the poor amidst a more just world. Christian Aid has often said that the poor should not be dependent on the charity of the rich, but should have justice – as should we all. Where we are in the scales of wealth or poverty in the world is largely a lottery. There are so many in the world on whom the lot has not fallen. For them we pray for justice, a fair share of the world’s resources and for joy at the generosity of God and the generosity of humankind – shown by people who might rightly be called ‘Justus’. And this week, in Christian Aid, we shall work with Christians, and with all of good will, to bring justice to God’s world. Thanks be to God, Amen.