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.
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.
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
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
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!
© Rev Paul Smith.