Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 17, 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: The Common Lectionary during Eastertide substitutes readings from Acts for Old Testament lections.
Pentecost hasn’t happened just yet and so maybe we can give Peter a break for an exegetical exercise that you simply have to assume would not pass muster in the average seminary Bible course. Replacing Judas was a sensible idea, perhaps, but proof-texting it by sliding in a Psalm 69 quote next to a Psalm 109 quote just should not cut it exegetically. Granted both psalms were speaking of “the wicked” (as the Psalms generally are wont to do) and granted that the disciples were probably sufficiently peeved at Judas as to want to lump him into that general category but still, I’d worry about anyone who tried to prove something with this kind of textual assemblage.
Small wonder the Revised Common Lectionary would have us skip over the part of this chapter where Peter invokes those two Psalm snippets! But facts are facts and the Lectionary isn’t fooling anyone: this is what Peter said!
As a Lectionary preaching text, this one seems to be little more than a placeholder in between the period following Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. What, if anything, can the preacher say about a text like this? It seems a small matter of housekeeping rather than a lyric text full of grace and truth and Gospel Good News. Jesus told the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem until something big would happen and so as they do so this was just one item on their “To Do” list for that meanwhile stretch of time: “Replace Judas.”
Still, this glimpse into the thinking of the disciples—framed as it is by a verse we should include here, Acts 1:14—is lovely and revealing in its own small way. First, we see that although still bewildered by the events of the last two months and still not at all sure what was to come (remember: earlier in this same chapter the disciples still were thinking Jesus was going to make a big political splash on this earth by restoring the kingdom to Israel by—one presumes—snatching it away from the Romans), even so they are remaining fervent in prayer AND they have an expectation that they have a future.
Jesus had floated clean off this earth in a departure they just had not seen coming. Some angels assured them that this thing was not finished yet, and they believed it. They believed it so much that they knew a replacement for Judas was in order because, apparently, there would be work to do for their Master Jesus and they wanted to be as prepared to hit the ground running in that work as they could be. There is some real faith in all that, some real hope, some real trust that the Jesus who had prayed for their role in this world (cf. the Gospel Lectionary passage in John 17) would indeed be enabling precisely that work and so they wanted to be in the best possible position to do it.
Of all the things the Church does to this day, electing and selecting elders, deacons, committee chairpersons, and the like hardly is headline-grabbing stuff. Even many church members (most?) skip the Annual Meeting in favor of grabbing a post-worship cup of coffee at Starbucks. Electing new officebearers in the church has all the excitement of running to the store for milk, eggs, and cheese.
However . . . if there is work to be done for God’s kingdom—if we have a Gospel that is every bit as worthy of proclamation today as it was 2,000 years ago in the Mediterranean Basin—then we need to be ready to do that work. Part of such readiness is having people around to do the work and making sure we continue to rely on the Holy Spirit of God to steer us toward the right people at that. As such, the event narrated at the end of Acts 1 most certainly does not count as the most astonishing story in the New Testament. But neither is it a mere blip of boring unimportance. In the maintenance of a well-led church there is at bottom a deep and abiding faith in the One who promised to be always with us and to always provide so long as there was work to be done.
There’s more than a little something to be thankful for in all that after all!
Somehow Acts 1 and its depiction of a band of believers numbering 120 put me in mind to relay Frederick Buechner’s definition of “The Communion of the Saints” whose reality we confess each time we say The Apostles’ Creed. This is taken from Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, Harper & Row 1988, pp. 30-31.
At the altar table, the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread and his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.
The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they’re doing. Maybe this is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has a part in it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumiere at Versailles, when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.
And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did—or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will—come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.
Whatever other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we come also to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with Gabriel and Michael, and the fat parson, and the Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth don’t fit, and Teresa in her ecstasy, we are the communion of the saints.
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