Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 13, 2018
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 Commentary
Where besides Acts 1 does Matthias’ name appear in the Scriptures? The answer is, of course, “Nowhere.” After all, as quickly as Matthias appears in Acts 1, he disappears again. Yet while that might render him as little more than a biblical footnote, it’s one of Acts 1’s details that may be an avenue to exploring an implication of the text the Lectionary appoints.
The day on which the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday falls may seem little more important than Matthias. It, after all, falls between the grand days of Jesus’ ascent to the heavenly realm and the Spirit’s descent on and into Jesus’ first followers.
Some of this week’s Old Testament Lectionary text’s key actors have just returned from watching Jesus ascend to the heavenly realm. In an upper room where they’re staying in Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers prayerfully await the gift of the Holy Spirit that their ascended Lord has promised them.
Yet in the midst of that life and creation-changing prayer something happens that may seem almost as mundane as Matthias. Peter essentially calls something like what my ecclesial tradition refers to as a “congregational meeting.” It’s the kind of meeting churches that follow a June-May “business calendar” may even be holding on this week.
On the agenda? Judas’ replacement. In attendance? What Will Willimon (Acts: John Knox Press, 22) calls an “unusual” community. After all, the group is made up of more than 100 believers that include not just Jesus’ surviving disciples, but also “the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and … his brothers” (14). It’s an eclectic bunch of people that includes some people we didn’t even know followed Jesus.
Those 120 believers, however, are missing someone who’d once been “one of” their “number and [had] shared in their ministry” (17). Judas had heard and seen Jesus teach, perform miracles and do so much more. In fact, he’d been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to near its very end.
But, of course, Judas had bailed out before the end – before the authorities crucified Jesus. He’d, in fact, facilitated Jesus’ demise by “serving as a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (16). While we struggle to fully understand why he did it, Judas had betrayed Jesus.
Of course, both Matthew and Acts 1 report that Judas did even more. Matthew 27:3ff. reports that Jesus’ condemnation filled him with so much “remorse” that he admitted to the religious leaders that he’d “sinned” by betraying Jesus’ “innocent blood.” When the religious leaders were unfazed by his confession, Judas heaved his blood money into the temple, left it and took his his life. However, the precise cause of his death seems so murky that Acts’ author and Matthew can’t even seem to agree on it.
Yet though Judas had arguably done more harm than good, Peter believes the Scriptures insist that those who have been praying for the Holy Spirit must also prayerfully replace Judas. The new apostle, however, can’t just be any person. He must be male. The new apostle must also provide continuity with Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has to be someone who’d been with the disciples the whole time Jesus went in and out with them. The new apostle must, in fact, have been with the disciples from the time John baptized Jesus until the day that Jesus returned to the heavenly realm.
So how do Jesus’ gathered followers choose Judas’ replacement? With his tongue planted in his cheek, my colleague Rick Morley in his blog “Matthias and his slick resume – a reflection on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26,” suggests “the eleven disciples polled everyone in the church to see what they thought their strengths and weaknesses were, and what they hoped for in a leader. They compiled those thoughts in a beautifully done, glossy, profile, and mailed it out to people who they thought would fit the bill. They asked for resumes and essay/answers of six questions.
“They did a series of phone interviews prior to going out and traveling all over Judea making visitations of prospective candidates in their local setting. They graded them on their preaching style, their administrative acumen, and their pastoral presence to those in need. Then, after compiling a final slate, they cast a deciding vote.”
“Oh, sorry,” Morley continues. “That’s not what they did.” While 21st century Christians may launch exhaustive (and exhausting) searches for new leaders, Acts reports those praying for the Holy Spirit offer up just two candidates for Judas’ replacement … and then pray about it. No interview. No whittling down of a long list of candidates. No vote. Just prayer.
Jesus’ first followers recognize that God knows Barsabbas, Matthias and, in fact, everyone’s hearts better than they do. Since they want their choice to align with God’s choice for a new apostle, they beg God to show them which one God chooses. Trusting that God will graciously show them God’s choice when they cast lots, they cast lots and find that they fall to Matthias. God adds him to the eleven apostles.
A couple of little details are striking about this account. It isn’t just that Matthias appears neither before nor after Acts 1:26. He may not even be in the room when he’s elected to replace Judas! We might infer that the apostles don’t even ask him if he’s willing to serve in that position. Just try that the next time your church is trying to elect new officers!
On top of that, Peter never mentions Matthias’ intellectual, theological or oratory spiritual gifts. He hardly has what Morley calls a “slick resume.” No, Matthias’ only two qualifications for being an apostle are that he was with Jesus from the beginning to the end, and that God chose him to be an apostle.
I recently had conversations with two colleagues whom I like, love and deeply respect. Both are struggling with their calling. The ministry of one is not turning out the way that person had expected. While that pastor had hoped to serve a church that was stable if not growing in both grace and numbers, the church that person serves is slowly dying. That minister asked me if I thought that minister’s calling was still valid. Was God calling that pastor, the pastor wondered, to essentially preside over the church’s “funeral”?
The ministry of the second colleague was evolving in a way that colleague hadn’t anticipated. In fact, that pastor’s church’s leaders were asking that pastor to temporarily take on a whole new role in ministry. That minister’s question for me was, “Is God calling me to this new work?”
My answer to both colleagues was something like, “I don’t know if God is calling you to these new ministries. But this I do know. Those God calls God always equips.” Just ask Matthias, I later thought.
Among the more intriguing details in William Manchester’s remarkable biography of Winston Churchill, A Lion In Winter, is the Englishman’s near maniacal preparation for and pursuit of leadership. Already as a child, Churchill dreamed of being a great leader of men as a soldier. Later he wanted to do little but follow in the footsteps of his mercurial father who once was a leading Member of Parliament.
Churchill did virtually everything he could to bolster his prospects for political leadership. He even enlisted the aid of influential people like his rather peculiar mother (and her assorted lovers!). Winston Churchill did, in other words, virtually everything he could to make himself a leader. What’s more, once he became England’s leader, he did virtually everything he could both to remain a leader and keep himself in the public eye.
In this way (and others!) Churchill stands in stark contrast to many leaders in the early Christian church. People like Matthias, for instance, seem to do little or nothing to pursue positions of church leadership. Most of them also virtually disappear once they’re given leadership responsibilities. Yet texts like this morning’s show that God had God’s own ideas about who would lead God’s young church. And those whom God calls to leadership God always equips to lead.
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