We arrive this Sunday at the last set of readings before Pentecost, those chosen for the final, 7th Sunday of the Easter season. In each of the three different lectionary years, portions of John 17 are read on this final Sunday, from what is called Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, as the Gospel reading. A final portion from 1 John is the Epistle and the first psalm is chosen for complementing the other readings.
We have been noting the movement through selections of Acts in the Easter season, and today we reverse direction and find ourselves right at the start in chapter 1. Anticipating Pentecost. In the verse that precedes our reading we are given a precise listing of the apostles who remain praying in Jerusalem, after the ascension, together with Mary and the male relatives of the Lord. Counting, we see of course that eleven is now their number.
Our reading picks up at this point with the decision to elect a replacement for Judas. The point is being made—both in this portion of Acts and in the Gospel reading—that Jesus had chosen twelve and lost not one of them. Jesus underscores this at several points in John’s Gospel. Judas was allotted a place with the others, as Peter stresses, and Jesus did not lose him – he forfeited his place. So that place is to be filled with one who like them all had accompanied him right from the beginning.
This is made even clearer in the psalms Peter refers to, and if the verses were not left out (Acts 1:18-20), we would see the clear references to two psalms – 69 and 109.
For it is written in the book of Psalms,
‘Let his habitation become desolate,
and let there be no one to live in it’;
‘His office let another take.
Judas had a place, an office. He gave it up by his own choice. So it will be filled with another, and the special number 12—like the twelve tribes of Israel—is to be preserved.
Here is one of the places where the lectionary has decided to omit verses from a reading, presumably because they are too harsh in tone, in this instance. And instead of using these one of these two psalms referred to by Peter as fulfilled scripture as our reading for today, we have instead the opening psalm of the Psalter, Psalm 1. The psalms quoted in the missing verses, Psalms 69 and 109, have traditionally been referred to as two of the imprecatory psalms, in which God is called upon to bring down curses upon the wicked and end their assaults against the righteous.
Both John and Acts seek to make it clear that the threat from Judas and his ultimate fate were fully in God’s hands. What happened to him was consistent with the scriptures. The righteous come under severe assault in this life, are betrayed, are physically attacked, and are mocked for their faith in God. The psalms in particular testify to this, and they give space for the righteous sufferer to speak forth to God a cry for vindication and restoration and to put the betrayer and the evil in God’s capable hands. Judas was not a mistake. He was one of the twelve who God chose alongside all the others. He is never described in any way but as fully one of the twelve, like unto them in being chosen by God. As we heard from John’s Gospel last week, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” None of the others are morally superior, and all fled Jesus and denied him in various ways; they were not chosen as moral exemplars but as those capable of testifying to Jesus on account of their presence with him from the very beginning. So the allotment given to Judas, which he surrendered, is given to another, who like the 11 were always present with him. As two are capable of fulfilling this role, they pray and put the matter in God’s hands. The lots are not a means of picking Matthias and rejecting the other, but only of confirming the choice God has made in response to their prayers. As the righteous sufferer puts the fate of the wicked in God’s hands, so the apostles put the righteous replacement to be alongside the 11 in God’s hands as well.
On the face of it, it is clear that hearing psalms of imprecation in church requires significant and profound understanding of just what is going on. Very few of us suffer for our faith in the ways being described in the psalms, and rare among us are those who can claim to experience what the psalmist describes.
20 Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues.
 They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause.
 In return for my love they accuse me, even as I make prayer for them.
 So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love.
But the savior of the world did experience just these, and in consummate fashion. He is no stranger to what is being described. Our hopes are placed in him, not in a calculus of righteous pay-back as we reflect from afar on the propriety of the cries of the afflicted, which are cries for God’s sake. For a righteousness that has a face, the face of Jesus Christ dying, forgiving and rising again. The place given to Judas he forfeited, and it is not for us to plumb fully how God means eternally to deal with that. But his place as an apostle in this life is given to another, not marked as a tragic void. The scriptures are fulfilled. No balance scales in the sky are brought into comfortable alliance but instead the plans of Jesus for his witnessers in this life are made complete in spite of all attacks on him and on those he is keeping in his name.
Though Psalm 1 may appear to be a more anodyne, less blunt account of what God’s character as just means in confrontation with the conduct and plans of men and women in this life, it is fully consistent with the main contours of both psalms 69 and 109. In the mystery of his sovereign will, the wicked heart delights not in the law of God, the night and day calling to him, the planting of us in his very heart and name, but in shunning these is left to blow away like chaff on the wind. We might hope that that be so for all those parts of us that walk, linger and sit down where God’s name is absent. Were it not for God’s protecting of us in the name, the work undertaken by Jesus himself, the only righteous one, we would have no place to stand.
The Gospel for the day drives that home. Jesus protects us in the name that is God’s personal name, the LORD, “I am who I am,” and as such, we are guarded and kept fully in God himself and at the heart of all he is as righteous and holy. That constitutes our planting in streams of water, the hope of our prospering, as Psalm 1 puts it, and our bearing fruit, as Jesus the True Vine put it last week. Those who do not believe in God are in forfeiture, as 1 John puts it, because not believing in his testimony is absenting the self from the eternal things of God.
While the psalms referred to by Peter may be harsh in tone and may be difficult to have placed on lips which do not know extreme suffering and affliction as Christians, this makes their message no less true. They also warn us by testifying to a fate of being cast away when we lose our place of planting and flourishing in Christ. He has come to protect us in the name God has given him. He does not leave us defenseless but as his final act of love before laying down his life for his own sheep, prays to God and brings us fully within earshot, alongside the gathered apostles. We are like Matthias given a place to stand alongside them, and to receive his promises to protect us in God’s very name.
I will end with the last lines of our Easter Epistle reading:
And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this is life in his name. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.