Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 16, 2021
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 Commentary
If I were to preach on this passage, my sermon would be entitled, “And Then There Were Twelve.” Here’s why.
To begin with, I was a bit surprised by the RCL’s choice for today. We’ve been following the progress of the Gospel out into the world, following Jesus directions/prophecy in Acts 1:8. And given that last Thursday was Ascension Day and that next Sunday will be Pentecost, I expected to focus today on those two great moments in Redemptive History from which the progress of the Gospel flowed. Instead, we get this transitional moment between Ascension and Pentecost.
But the more I reflected on this text, the more I see the wisdom of including it in our readings for “Ascension Sunday.” I mean, Jesus is gone. What now? What’s left? Here is what’s left. For all his work—his teaching and miracles, his life and his death, his resurrection and ascension—what’s left is 120 believers doing the work of the church decently and in good order. But that’s not the end of the story—not for the early church, not for today’s church. This is a church in transition.
To get the total picture of the church in transition, we have to move back to the verses immediately following Jesus’ Ascension. Verse 13 says that when they returned to Jerusalem after witnessing Jesus’s Ascension, all the apostles “went upstairs to the room where they had been staying.” Verse 14 suggests that they were joined by the rest of the people who had followed Jesus. So, rather than scattering to their own homes or to the market or to other individual pursuits, they were all together in one place.
Wouldn’t the church love to do that today, in these COVID scattered times. If gathering to encourage each other (Heb. 10:23) was once a habit or a duty, we now see at as a necessity and a privilege. After three years of being together as they followed Jesus all over the Promised Land, these “left behind” believers instinctively or habitually gathered together in one place. It’s what the church in transition does.
What did they do in that place? Verse 14 says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” What a marvelous thing, almost unthinkable in our politically fractured time! They put aside all their differences and, without exception, apostles and non-apostles, men and women, they joined together in prayer. Of course! Jesus was gone, but they knew he was still alive, so they kept talking to him, constantly, as they had while he walked with them.
What did they pray about? Well, verse 24 says they prayed about the day-to-day business of the church, like finding leaders. But given Jesus’ last words to them earlier in this chapter, it is highly likely that they prayed for the gift of the Holy Spirit. He had told them the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel through their witness to his resurrection would depend on the power of the Spirit. So, of course, they prayed that the power of the Holy Spirit would come upon them. It’s what the church in transition does.
Our immediate text for this morning tells us that “in those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, ‘Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David….” Peter used the Scripture to interpret what had just happened to them and what they should do next.
Peter was convinced that the Scripture was given by the Holy Spirit through human beings. He had what we have come to call a verbal, plenary, organic understanding of the inspiration of the Scripture. The words, all of them, were spoken by the Holy Spirit through human beings who used their own language to convey what the Spirit spoke. And because Scripture was so inspired, it was the authoritative norm for faith and life. What the Scripture said was true and must be followed.
After quoting parts of two Psalms in what might seem to us an unlikely interpretation, Peter uses those Psalms to explain what the church had to do now that Judas was out of the picture. (The RCL leaves verses 18-19 out of our reading, presumably because they are too bloody for Sunday morning preaching.) Peter preaches those old and obscure Scriptures as prescriptive for the church in transition. He and the others had learned from Jesus that all Scripture was about him and for his followers (Luke 24:27, 44-47). So he preached the Scriptures. It’s what the church in transition does.
“Therefore,” said Peter, “it is necessary to choose” someone to take Judas’ place in the band of apostles. The word “necessary” there is the Greek dei, which has the sense of divine necessity about it. The Spirit inspired Scripture revealed the divine plan and the church had to follow it. There had to be another apostle to take Judas’ place; there had to be a twelfth.
This twelfth apostle had to have the same qualifications as the other eleven. He had to be part of the original group of disciples who had of followed Jesus from that epiphany at Jesus’ baptism to the epiphany of his resurrection—someone who had witnessed the entire earthly ministry of Christ and who had witnessed his unearthly resurrection. In other words, this new apostle had to be an expert witness for Jesus, someone who could speak of and for Jesus with complete conviction and authority because he had been there for it all. Jesus was at the absolute center of the church, so its leaders had to be sure of Jesus. It’s what the church in transition does.
So, they selected two men who fit the bill and elected one of them. Nope! Though leaders were elected and appointed later in the life of the church, faith in God’s providential leading was much more central at this crucial moment. They had to get this right because the whole future of the church depended on it.
So, they prayed to Jesus. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen….” And they put the decision squarely in Jesus lap. “Then they cast lots…,” in the spirit of Proverbs 16:33. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” That’s not a method many of us would choose, but they had absolute faith in God’s providential control of even supposedly accidental things. They walked by faith in God’s leading as they conducted the daily business of the church. It’s what the church in transition does.
I would love to serve a church like this—a neat, tidy, well run, devoutly prayerful, deeply Scriptural, Christ centered little band of genuine believers who loved to get together to do the proper business of the church. Wonderful, comfortable, encouraging– and not going anywhere yet.
And that’s why the text ends as it does. “The lot fell to Matthias and he was added to the eleven apostles.” “And then there were twelve.” There had to be twelve, because it was their mission to “restore the kingdom to Israel (verse 6).” Back in Luke 22:28-30, Jesus had said, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
God always intended to use the Twelve Tribes of Israel to bless the world, but they had failed in that mission. So, the kingdom had passed over to the Twelve Apostles. Of course, God had never forsaken Israel; he always intended to restore them for the sake of the world. But that restoration depended on the witness of the Twelve Apostles, the twelve who had witnessed Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel? It is not for you to know…. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses….”
“And then there were twelve.” The church in transition was ready and willing. But not yet able. That wouldn’t happen until One More was added to the church. The church in transition is a wonderful, comfortable, encouraging thing, but it can’t restore the Kingdom until the Spirit comes on it. Is your church in transition, or on the move by the power of the Spirit?
As I pondered how the early church immediately turned to Scripture as it tried to navigate life without the physical presence of Jesus, I remembered a Christianity Today review of a book by Brent McCracken, entitled The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World.
Using the analogy of the new familiar food pyramid which diagrams a healthy diet using the image of a pyramid, The Wisdom Pyramid suggests that we are spiritually and societally unhealthy because we have been feeding our souls from the top of the information pyramid, rather than the base of it.
At the base of the pyramid is Scripture, which should be the foundation of our information about life. The next level is the Church and its tradition. Next comes nature and beauty, the created world and the art that reflects that world. Next to the top is TV and the Internet with its news sources. At the top is social media, where everyone can put out their version of truth. While we certainly don’t have to forgo Twitter and Facebook entirely, we will introduce all kinds of unhealthy content into our lives if social media is the basis of how we see the world.
The CT review of McCracken’s book concludes: “In other words, it’s not merely that our wisdom diets are too heavy on the processed junk of the internet and social media and too light on the staple food of God’s Word and his church. More worrisome, perhaps, is how our appetite for the former can spoil our taste for the latter.” So, if Scripture says something that conflicts with what we’ve read on line, we are more and more likely to reject Scripture for the opinion of our own echo chamber. If we go back to basics, back to Scripture and the church’s tradition, like Peter and his fellow apostles and the church, we will be much wiser and healthier.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!