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Contradictions, Conflicts and Decisions

Psalm 1 and Acts 1: 15 – 17 & 21 – 26
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Easter 7
20May 2012

I am often surprised when people claim to be Biblical Christians. I know what they mean. They mean that they believe in and are committed to following the teachings they find in the Bible. But I also wonder if they have actually read most of the Bible or have they been selective and chosen to follow the bits that fit with their community and their own life style. You only have to start at the Book of Acts to see that to be a Biblical Christian you have to face some very difficult contradictions and some overwhelming complexities, just to navigate those dangerous conflicts that are so obvious in the tell of the tale.

But you know I like that. If the Bible is true, then it is true because it’s true to life – true to the living of life and life’s experiences. The stories, the parables, injunctions, exhortations and teachings, I don’t think water down the contradictions, complexities or conflicts of everyday life. We know that just by the living of life that contradictions are as important to the spiritual life as doubt or uncertainty is. Unresolved contradictions can lead us into the rich world of paradox and irony, where what appear to be opposites are in fact, a greater whole and a more profound and sublime truth. That’s why contradictions, which can be painful, are so important.

An illustration of this is in one of Katie Lette novels where she says, "God created man and woman and we call each other the opposite sex and we don’t expect conflict?" Men and women may be in some sense opposites, but the profound truth is that they are both deeply human.

There are in the stories we read in the Biblical narrative obvious contradictions and there are also reports of conflicts between people, groups and even believing communities. And we can say thank God for that. They are human just like us; but they are also formed and shaped by a Divine presence, just like us. Conflicts are the bread and butter of any community and for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, they are particularly valuable for religious, faith communities. Without conflict we may have some peace and quiet, but we would also have a rather anaemic and washed out experience of life born of the fear of upsetting other people’s feelings, rather than being fearless, honest and compassionate – I don’t leave that word out – exploration of life.

And the complexities of life remind us of the wonder of diversity and the rich tapestry of human life and being. Rather than a bland, beige world of predictability and absolute certainty which is in fact, an illusion anyway.

All of that was the experience of the early Christian communities. But their reason for being and their life and mission was driven by love and loving, it had to be lived out and worked out in and through the community around them. Remember Jesus didn’t leave a blue-print for success in the life of faith. In fact, Jesus didn’t write anything down – except for one time. Does anyone know the only reference we have to Jesus writing? John 8:6 "Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground."

Anyway the point is that the experience of conflict, complexity and the contradictions of life was the stuff from which they constructed their faith and life and from which they made the decisions that they lived by. They sort of did their theology – their understanding of God – on the run. Perhaps that’s the way we should all do it also.

Living with Contradictions and Ambiguity

The community we observe in the Book of Acts had to live with all the contradictions and ambiguities that the memory of the encounter with Jesus had given them. They had no text book, other than the ancient words of the Jewish prophets and the occasional letter from the itinerary preacher who called himself Paul of Tarsus, so they were left to their own resources…. or where they? I remember a professor at the theological College in Queensland saying that this book we call, The Acts of the Apostles should be renamed, The Acts of the Holy Spirit. It would be easy to dismiss that idea as a bit overly Pentecostal, but I think there is an important truth in what he was saying.

You see from its birth the "church" the "ecclesia" or the gathering was a movement and not an institution. It was born, nurtured and nourished as a dynamic field of energy and power. It was conceived as an organism and not so much as an institution. True it did quickly morph from an organism into and organization and of course there are many advantages about having a structure that is stable, predicable and established. But there is also a very big cost. And that is the loss of fluidity, of spontaneity and even the loss of creativity. The inability to change your mind on matters of faith; an unwillingness to let go of beliefs and doctrines that are calcified or fossilized; and to be shacked to traditions that have lost their meaning is a painful experience for many. In small measure that’s why contradictions, conflicts and complexities keep a movement alive, vital and moving forward. And at its best it draws its energy and insight from the power that brought it to life.

Making a Decision on the Run
Right at the beginning of this movement’s life was the problem of what to do with the betrayer, Judas Iscariot.

Peter stood up among the one hundred or so believers and said, "Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as the guide for those who arrested Jesus.

The name Judas of course has become synonymous with betrayal and treachery. To have betrayed a good man, a son of God, for a hand full of silver has become the theme of songs, poems, plays and books. But for me the only books or stories that focus on the character of Judas that have credibility and the ring of truth are those that see the betrayer, the disloyal, the duplicitous and the unfaithfully as a part of me. Evil and malevolence and what we might call wickedness are deeply ingrain in every human heart.

I wonder who you identify with when you heard Psalm 1 read:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take, or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.

I think a psychologically and spiritually healthy people can recognize that they hold within themselves the seeds of good and bad; of love and hate; of creativity and destruction. And in this awareness comes liberation and wholeness. History has reflected on Judas and his act of betrayal, but one poet puts a particular spin on the story and has tried to find some redemption for the soul of Judas and that resolution comes in a particular place:

The Ballad of Judas Iscariot
By Robert Buchanan

‘Oh, who is that,' the Bridegroom said,
    ‘Whose weary feet I hear?'

'Twas one look'd from the lighted hall,
    And answered soft and slow,
‘It is a wolf runs up and down
   With a black track in the snow’.

The Bridegroom in his robe of white
    Sat at the table-head —
'Oh, who is that who moans without?'
    The blessed Bridegroom said.

'Twas one looked from the lighted hall,
    And answered fierce and low,
'Tis the soul of Judas Iscariot
    Gliding to and fro.'

'Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
    Did hush itself and stand,
And saw the Bridegroom at the door
    With a light in his hand.

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
    And he was clad in white,
And far within the Lord's Supper
    Was spread so broad and bright.

The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and look'd,
    And his face was bright to see —
'What dost thou here at the Lord's Supper
    With thy body's sins?' said he.

'T’was the soul of Judas Iscariot
    Stood black, and sad, and bare —
'I have wandered many nights and days;
    There is no light elsewhere.'

'Twas the wedding guests cried out within,
    And their eyes were fierce and bright —
'Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot
    Away into the night!'

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
    And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
    The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
    Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
    Made sweet sound.

'Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
    Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
    Were like its winding-sheet.

'Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
    And beckon'd, smiling sweet;
'Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
    Stole in, and fell at his feet.

The Holy Supper is spread within,
    And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
    Before I poured the wine!'

Judas had betrayed not only Jesus, but the whole movement. Some would say that he was a pawn in the hand of God; others that he was an evil, cruel and conniving person out for a quick buck. But for me he represents the contradictions, complexities and conflicts of life. He sits at the feet of wisdom, but chooses to betray the truth he sees before him.

It is too easy to see the enemy or evil as in the other, when in fact it runs through the centre of all of us. For the good that I want to do, I do not do, but the very evil that I do not want to do, I do. Says the Apostle Paul to the community in Rome.

It is interesting for those of us in the 21st century to consider how the disciples of Jesus decided on the method to replace Judas with another disciple. They prayed then they throw the dice and accepted the result. It was Matthias who came up trumps (to mix my metaphor). Perhaps not the method we use in Church Council meetings today. But perhaps it’s not a bad idea to solve some of those difficult issues!

The emphasis here is that they were in one accord about the how and would accept the "who" from where the dice fell. It may suggest that some things in life contradictions, complexities and conflicts need simple and effective ways to bring about resolution. A movement, like this early Christian gathering needed to be decisive, effective and efficient to keep moving forward.

May we today be blessed with contradictions that move us forward; conflicts that keep us alive and complexities that stretch us to embrace even the greater truths of life.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.