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NEMESIS and MONSTERS Acts 1:15-26 John 15:9-17

As some of you may know, Jeanette and I took our grandchildren and their parents to Orlando for an extended Easter holiday this year. One of the things that Micky does is to help children with their fears. Through the medium of cartoon and imagination, children are encouraged to realise that sometimes a nightmare or something they are afraid of isn’t really all that frightening. But sometimes there is a particular monster which really troubles a child and nothing you can do shifts that perception. It’s the same with adults, too – we can have something which really shakes us – a sort of nemesis which most of the time we keep at bay. But sometimes when we’re vulnerable it plays on our minds and affects the way we respond if we feel threatened.

Judas and Matthias
The early Church seems to have been really rattled by Judas – both his betrayal of Jesus and his suicide. There are half-obscure references to him from time to time. Our reading from Acts sidesteps the rather gory description of Judas’ sticky end. But what Judas did both to Jesus and to himself seemed to haunt the early Church. Maybe they were feeling vulnerable and so responded by deciding that he had to be replaced. The number 12 was significant in that the apostles could be seen as the new Israel – the same number of tribes. In order to present a full picture of their message they felt that they needed the missing number making up. Hence we have the election of Matthias to the official role of 12th disciple. At a later stage, the church leaders didn’t feel the same need to keep up the number once they started being depleted through imprisonment or martyrdom. But then maybe they felt less vulnerable as the Church began to grow so rapidly. Incidentally, it’s interesting how they came to make a decision. It says something about seeking God’s guidance and making a choice about leadership or the way forward. They agreed something had to be done and a person chosen to carry the work forward. They laid down some vital criteria – about the suitable sort of qualifications for election to apostle. They prayed for guidance and then they cast lots. That may seem a rather unspiritual thing to rely on as a final part of the election process but it had good pedigree in Jewish heritage. Sometimes, when there’s nothing to decide between two equally suitable people or things, something like tossing a coin is perfectly legitimate!

Acts and Matthew slightly differ about how Judas came to an end – although the two accounts are not totally contradictory. Acts simply says he fell headlong and his insides split open. Matthew says he took his own life. I know these sorts of things are distressing and we prefer not to contemplate them, but the truth is that suicide has always been a part of the human condition and always will be. Almost a year ago someone close to me tried to take their own life – fortunately without success, but it shook us and led to decisive action being taken to change the circumstances that led to it. In the past suicide has been dealt with harshly – formerly being a crime and the person taking their own life not being allowed to be buried in a consecrated churchyard. Maybe they were vain attempts to try to put anyone off doing such a thing.

Coping with a monster
There is a sense in which suicide or someone threatening to do away with themselves is a kind of grown-up monster – we’d rather not talk about it. We certainly feel rather helpless when faced with someone threatening to end it all. But may I spend a few minutes relaying to you what someone else has written about trying to help someone like this. The advice may also help us think about suicide generally.
1. Take it seriously. We may not want to believe it, or a close friend
or family member may not readily admit to having suicidal feelings or plans themselves. They may hide it from you because they sense you wouldn’t believe them. Sometimes it’s said that people who talk about suicide don’t do it. That’s not true. Anyone who may hint that they are thinking around the idea of suicide needs immediate attention, and you may be the only person they will talk to or to at least delay any drastic action.
2. Mental illness? Another thing that is sometimes said about
People who kill themselves is that they must be mentally ill. That can either be an attempt at being kinder to them, or a way of avoiding trying to be involved because you’re not qualified to help with mental illness. Yes, it is true that 10% of suicidal people are very ill mentally, but the rest suffer from various degrees of depression. That is a recognized mental illness, but you don’t necessarily commit suicide just because you’re depressed. The friendship of someone who is concerned and wants to help may see a sufferer through a suicidal phase until the depression can be dealt with.

3. Cry for help. Sometimes we recognize suicide as a cry for help.
If the person has only attempted to take their life or not been successful then that cry needs taking seriously. Their problems may not seem to call for that drastic an action to you but to the person they seem overwhelming. The fact is that to a person in the depths of despair, there is no other choice left that they can see. It’s not how bad the problem might be, but how badly its hurting the person contemplating suicide. Like a child who is scared of monsters, to them it is terrifying enough. Suicidal talk and behaviour can be a cry for help. Taking them seriously and helping to change the circumstances that has led the person to such depths may be just the help that is needed.

4. Half and half. Another myth is that if someone’s going to kill
themselves, nothing can stop them. But a suicidal person may be torn between two options. One half of them wants to live, and the other half wants, not so much death, as an end to their pain. If someone suicidal turns to you, they probably believe that you’re more caring than anyone else they know, or ore informed about coping with misfortune, and that you can be trusted to protect their confidentiality. However negatively they speak, no matter how angry they seem, they are doing a positive thing by actually talking. They have a positive view of you and you are in a position to respond positively, even if it is a sort of holding operation. However, if a person you know still takes their own life, don’t feel guilty because you failed to prevent it. There is a point at which each of us is responsible for what we do with our lives. However misguided a person’s decision to commit suicide might be, it is still their decision.

5. Immediate action. If possible agree to listen to someone at once. Even if you tell them you have to make a phone call to let someone know you will be delayed, you can stay with them and you needn’t go into detail to say exactly why – just that something’s come up which you can explain later. Suicidal people can be afraid that trying to get help may bring them more pain. Listen. Avoid arguing or giving advice. Show by your voice and manner that you’re concerned. Be patient, sympathetic and tolerant. You might be able to offer them a different view of what they can only see in one way. Don’t avoid talking about how they feel if you suspect they might be suicidal. Naming a feeling can help deal with it and you aren’t necessarily putting the idea into their heads – it’s already there. Urge them to seek professional help. After all, mental illness can be treated and it is possible for depression to be lightened. You can also respect the other person’s privacy but reserve your right to ask advice from someone else. It might help to know the Samaritan’s number by heart or have it on your phone: 08457 90 90 90. It might be an idea not to leave the house until the depressed or suicidal person has rung them. If only one of the other apostles had understood all this, poor Judas might not have committed suicide and Matthias would not have needed to step into his shoes.

Of course, it was a terrible time for all the disciples when Jesus was arrested and under threat of death. They reacted in different ways which were all inadequate and at fault. Peter denied Jesus. Many ran away and Judas was so disillusioned and distraught that he could see no other way out. As well as remembering Matthias today, we are at an in-between time in the church calendar. Thursday was Ascension Day and next Sunday will be Pentecost. We recall Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit who would come to strengthen, encourage and guide the disciples. In effect the Spirit would transform them from frightened disciples into bold apostles taking the good news of Jesus to the world. We are the successors of those first believers and have the same promise and gift of the Spirit. Like them, Jesus also sends us out into the world to make him known more widely. Perhaps one small way in which we can do this is in our willingness to take peoples’ troubles seriously. With the Spirit to enlighten us, we can be those who do not find talk of suicide, or even just death, something which seems like a nemesis to avoid, a monster too scary to contemplate. Yes, these things are painful and a real problem – but we believe in Jesus who triumphed over the last nemesis, the last monster – death itself. Resurrection means putting death in its place. One way we can demonstrate that we are people of the resurrection is in our ability to face death in whatever form and stay our ground. Jesus has risen, he has ascended to the Father’s side. But he has also promised to send the Spirit so that we can live in the light and triumph of the resurrection!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.