RSS

Category Archives: Faith

Matthias

(a sermon for June 2, 2019, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)

It is both interesting and very telling to note that the very first thing that the apostles do as a new “church” is to hold a congregational meeting.

Well, not exactly… remember that up till now the eleven, “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers,” (Acts 1:14) were holed up in the so-called “upper room,” devoting themselves to prayer and waiting, as Jesus had directed them, “for the promise of the Father;” (1:4) that is, for their baptism with the Holy Spirit coming “not many days from now.”  But the reality was that even after all the jubilation and excitement that had come about in the lives of the disciples by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection, not to mention having just witnessed the dramatic ascension of their master into heaven, nonetheless there was work that needed to be done, decisions to be made, jobs to be filled and things to get organized!  And so, as Luke describes it in his Book of Acts, they come down from the upper room and gathered together with 120 other believers, settle down to doing some church business; and that business results in the election of a man by the name of Matthias as a “new” Apostle.

And who is Matthias, you ask?  Good question!

In fact, we don’t know all that much about Matthias; he remains one of the great mystery men of the New Testament.  We do know from Acts that Matthias was one of two potential candidates for filling the apostleship of the now deceased Judas, the other being a man named Joseph Barsabbas “who was also known as Justus;” we know that both men were considered longtime followers of Jesus; and we know that they were both, as Peter described them, “witnesses with us to his resurrection.”  But beyond that, all that we really know is that following some prayerful consideration that the Lord would show them the right candidate, lots were cast (which was an ancient form of election and was pretty much as it sounds: small stones or even sticks were used, but it essentially was a roll of the dice (!), in the belief that God had already chosen the right person and so this is how it would be revealed!), and the “lot” fell on Matthias “and he was added to the eleven apostles.”

And after that he was pretty much never heard of again!  Seriously, Matthias’ name never comes up again in the Book of Acts or anywhere else in scripture; and historical records regarding his life and times are sketchy at best: some traditions hold that Matthias preached the Gospel to “barbarians and meat eaters” (and by “meat eaters,” I mean cannibals) in the interior of Ethiopia, while others maintain that Matthias was in fact stoned to death by religious authorities in Jerusalem and then beheaded.  We just don’t know.

In truth, the best clue we have about Matthias comes the meaning of his name:  in the original Hebrew, his name would have been Mattithiah, which means “a gift of God.”  And actually, that kind of says it all: as brief as his appearance is within the gospel story Matthias emerges as a gift of God to this new church as it took its very first steps into an uncertain, yet very purposeful future.  In fact, I would go so far to say that Matthias represents for us today the difference between the church languishing and stagnating where it is, or else going boldly to where it’s supposed to go, following the leading of the Holy Spirit into new areas of ministry and witness; to go, as Jesus himself said it, to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (1:8) Matthias was in fact the first of many leaders in the church, disciples of Jesus Christ who were ever and always about the business of moving forward with doing God’s work in the world; which, when you think about it, might even include you and me!

What we find out from this little story from the Book of Acts is that from the very beginnings of the Christian church, there’s this tension that exists between, shall we say, continuity and order on the one hand, and innovation, creativity and change on the other!   I mean, the whole idea that there has to be a replacement for Judas – the details of whose bloody end is recorded there in Acts but not included in our text this morning (!) – or that there needs to be twelve individuals as opposed to eleven in this inner circle of apostleship (which, by the way, symbolically links the apostles with the twelve tribes of Israel), not to mention the idea that Matthias had actually been part of their group for the whole three years of following Jesus:  all of this tells us that in the midst of everything changing all around them the disciples really wanted and needed some solid connection to their faith and tradition.  And that’s valid; in fact, it’s as true today as it was then – to quote William Willimon, “In order to serve Christ, we must become the body of Christ [and as such we] must be organized, must have form and continuity.”  That’s why, as broad and open and diverse as we seek to be in the church today, in the end what we do as te church – whatever we do – must be rooted in our biblical faith in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, and in the historical tradition of Christ’s church; anything else than that makes us just some random gathering of religious people… if that!

But by the same token, the Apostles also realized that they could never dwell in the past, especially in light of the fact that even in this moment “in-between” the risen Christ and the Spirit, they were being confronted by new challenges; so what were they to do now? I have to imagine that in all those days of “devoting themselves to prayer” there in that upper room this must have been the question weighing heavy on their hearts.  They all knew about Judas and the scandal he represented; but he’d still been, at one time, at least, “allotted his share in this ministry…” so what were they to do about replacing him?  Moreover, how long were they meant to remain in the upper room, and what about this so-called baptism of the Holy Spirit?  And how was all of this supposed to fit into being Jesus’ witnesses “to the end of the earth?” (1:8) In other words, where were they supposed to go from here?  They didn’t even have the luxury to fall back on a mantra of “we’ve never done it that way before,” because this was all untried territory; a brand new call toward an unknown future all crystallized in this seemingly impossible decision as to who should be the “replacement” disciple!  Given all that, casting lots almost certainly seemed a perfectly legitimate solution!

In the end, regarding that election (and probably everything else as well) they turned to God. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart,” they prayed. “Show us which one of these two you have chosen.”   But make no mistake, this wasn’t a situation of asking God “should we,” rather it was asking “how:” how do we best serve you, Lord; how do we make your will for the world and our very lives come to pass. It was going back to the source as a way of finding inspiration for a new age; and it was a spiritual discipline, one that required steadfast faith, trust in God’s will and purpose, great courage for the journey ahead, and utmost enthusiasm even and especially in the face of the world’s doubt, its negativity and even its persecution.

The story of Matthias is a story about how we move forward as disciples of Jesus Christ; it’s about transformation in the church and among his people for the sake of his kingdom. It’s about you and I being bold enough to step out into the world and into the future wholly as people of faith, even if we’re not entirely sure where that’s going to take us or how it’s going to happen!  Not that one step is all that’s required; more than likely, “we will get there only by a series of many small steps.” But that’s okay; for as Anthony B. Robinson, a theologian, author and pastor from Seattle, Washington, has written, “There appears to be something inherent within the nature of the gospel that values small things – the widow’s coin, the pearl of great price, the few seed that fell upon the good soil – small things that the world regards of low account.”  So remember, Robinson goes on to say, “as you are having [that] one-to-one conversation, as you are teaching the only two children who showed up for Sunday school [or] visiting the one sick person, [remember] that the Exodus from slavery began with one step toward the promised land.”  The point is that true discipleship takes that first, small cautious step, followed by a prayerful stance, followed by a few more small steps that eventually lead into a leap of faith!  The journey might well seem long, and uncertain at best; but this is how transformation happens, beloved, and this is how you and I become witnesses of our Risen Lord even “to the ends of the earth.”

Back in 1984 when I was ordained to the Christian ministry – itself the culmination of a long, relatively uncertain but very transformative journey – I received a very nice note of congratulations and blessing from a colleague of mine; and in that note, I’ll never forget, he wrote these words:  “This is quite a celebration that’s happening in your life.  What do you intend to do for an encore?”

Well, folks, 35 years later that’s a question I continue to ask myself both as a person and a parson, but most especially as one  numbered among the believers; and it seems to me a good question for any of us to be asking as Christians.  For we’ve been so blessed by God in Jesus Christ, gifted by His Spirit for life and living; we are restored, redeemed, renewed and empowered here and now; so in the face of all of that, what will we do as an encore?

I would hope and pray that we will take that to mean that we should go out there seeking to live good and godly lives in everything that comes to us in this life; that we can make a true difference in this world and in the lives of people around us, while always managing to hang on to our own spiritual values and the integrity that comes to that.  Likewise, I pray that it means that even the smallest and most routine pieces of business in and through our daily lives will be imbued with faithfulness and predicated on the desire to be witnesses of the risen Savior simply by who and whose we are; I pray that this comes through in our relationships with family, friends, neighbors and co-workers, and especially with the stranger we meet along the way.  But most of all, I hope and pray that it means that we won’t be holding back; but rather moving into an unknown future as true believers; as persons and a people embracing the life we’ve been given and facing whatever comes with hope and courage and love; and always with an eye set clearly toward the kingdom.

The Lord truly does know our hearts, beloved; and he needs you and me to be the Matthiases of this world, people who are bold enough take their place as Jesus’ disciples in whatever comes as the future unfolds, people who go wherever it takes to be a witness to his love, people who will know his Spirit as a guide and inspiration for the way.

How about you?  Are you a Matthias?  Are you a gift from God?  Are you ready to be a disciple for a new day?

Think about that as we go to the Lord ’s Table now…

…and let our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

Advertisements
 
1 Comment

Posted by on June 2, 2019 in Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Sermon

 

Tags: ,

A Gift of Peace

(a sermon for May 26, 2019, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:23-29)

I was 35 years old before I had ever been on an airplane.

I realize that’s not all that surprising or unusual thing to say; but trust me, at the time this represented a truly momentous occasion in my life!  I mean, I’d never really traveled very all that much when I was growing up; and even as an adult where I did go usually involved a road trip across the highways and byways of the northeast corridor!  So now, at age 35, to be asked to not only attend a week-long caregiving seminar in Orlando, Florida (and in the dead of winter, no less!) but also to fly there was a welcome and exciting opportunity!

However, I must confess that having never flown before I was a tad nervous about the prospect; in fact, if I’m being honest, the closer I got to the day of departure the more anxious about it I’d become!  To be fair, it did seem like practically every other day I’d read something in the news about a plane crashing somewhere in the world; nor was it particularly helpful that friends, family and even fellow clergy had regaled me with their own nightmare stories of air travel gone bad! And the true “icing” on the cake was that on the morning I was to leave, overnight there’d been snow, sleet and freezing rain (!) which required the plane to be de-iced before takeoff!

But the flight actually went very well; just before takeoff I’d decided that a silent prayer was in order (and not just for me, mind you, but also for the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendants and every other person on that airplane, with a side order request for good weather the entire way; hey, it never hurts to ask!), and my journey was as smooth and uneventful as one could hope.  And so by the time I’d landed in Philadelphia to make a connecting flight to Orlando, I already felt like an experienced frequent flyer!

Which lasted until just about the time my second flight was on the tarmac…

But on the last leg of my journey I was seated next to this young woman who, once she’d heard I was a minister, immediately and nervously asked if I ever got nervous about flying and I said, lying through my teeth, “Oh, no, not really!”  And she said, “Wow, that’s good, pastor, because I hate flying!   I don’t even want to be on this flight, but I’m going to visit my sister in Florida because she’s in trouble and to tell the truth, I’m pretty nervous about that!”  And for pretty much the remainder of the flight (!) she told me all about it.  Now, all these years later, I don’t remember much about the conversation, but I do remember what she said to me as we were landing:  “But you know what?  I guess I’m not all that worried because I’ve got God with me.  I’m not much of a churchgoer,” she went on to say, “and I’m – no offense (they always tell me, “no offense…”) – I’m not even all that religious.  But at times like this, I just know that God is there, because there’s this peace that I can feel all over.  It’s like… a gift. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, I did… and I do.

In our text for this morning, we continue in what’s referred to in John’s gospel as Jesus’ “farewell discourses” on the night of his betrayal and arrest.  So again, what we have here is Jesus essentially saying good-bye to those closest to him while preparing them for what’s to come; reminding them one last time of the importance of love and how that love is forever linked to “keeping [his] words,” words that are not in fact his, but “from the Father who sent [him].”  But more than merely words of farewell, these are also words of promise with Jesus offering up the assurance of an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit,” that would teach his disciples, both then and now, everything they would need to know and would “remind [them] of all that I have said to you.”  And it all culminates with Jesus offering up what perhaps the most deeply touching assurances we’re given in the gospels:  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”

That in and of itself is an amazing promise, isn’t it!  I mean, think of it; the same Jesus who is now facing the certainty of a violent death has not only already promised to go on ahead and “prepare a place” for his disciples in his “Father’s house,” (John 14:1) now gives them his assurance that, because of God’s sure and certain promises of life, everything will be alright and that they will know the same kind of peace that he himself possesses. It’s no wonder that these words are so often read at graveside services; because if there’s one thing of which we need to be reminded in times of loss it’s that this – the here and now – is not all that there is, but that there’s another place for us when this life is done; a home in heaven that Jesus has already gone to prepare for us by his death on the cross.  It is an atoning act of redemptive love, and it is Jesus’ gift of true peace for today, tomorrow, for all of life and beyond life: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

And as I said earlier, that in and of itself is amazing; but you’ll notice that that’s not all that Jesus promises here; he goes on to say, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Just a little addition to the promise, a few added words that at first read almost come off as a bit of a qualifier to the promise itself; and yet, friends, I have to tell you that for me it’s that second phrase that not only makes the promise amazing, but also life changing.  It’s the assurance that what Jesus is giving us is not what the world gives that makes all the difference!

And what does the world give?  Lindsay Popper, UCC pastor and writer in Massachusetts, addresses this question quite honestly: she says, “The world gives us simple beauties: the full moon on an early morning, the feeling of a sweetheart’s hand in ours, a strong cup of coffee before a day of work. But so often, the world gives trouble. The world gives disappointment.”  The world, Popper goes on to say, creates famine and war and leaves “shattering trauma” in its wake; it brings forth broken relationships that “leave us feeling bitter and alone… [so often] this world with all its fragile beauty leaves us feeling like the floor has fallen out from under us, feeling utterly alone, numb and helpless.”

And to this, Jesus says, “I do not give to you as the world gives.”  Or maybe more to the point, as this verse is translated in The Message, “I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left – feeling abandoned, bereft.” It’s my peace that I’m giving you, says Jesus, so “do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Two bits of translation here that need to be addressed:  first, the Greek word for “peace” that’s used here is eirene, which is pretty much the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word shalom; meaning peace not just in the sense of the cessation of war and conflict, but a whole peace that includes security, safety and prosperity as well as a sense of an inner rest, well-being and harmony, and above all, a state of reconciliation with God now and eternally.  As a matter of fact, this word eirene has its roots in the word eiro, which means “to join or bind together that which has been separated;” it’s actually where we get the expression of someone who “has it all together!”  What this all means is that the peace that Jesus offers does not in fact guarantee an end to the struggle and hardship that exists in the world; how could it when even as Jesus spoke the words he was about to be sentenced to a brutal death on the cross at the hands of those whose hated him!  No, this peace is not the faltering peace of a hurting and sinful world, but it is a true peace that gives comfort in the face of all that world brings forth!

David Lose of Lutheran Seminary says it this way: “The peace Jesus offers is more than the absence of something negative. Indeed… it has its own presence and gravity… [it] testifies to a sense of wholeness, even rightness, of and in one’s very being. It’s a sense of harmony with those persons and things around us. Peace connotes a sense of contentment, but even more fulfillment, a sense that in this moment one is basking in God’s pleasure. And that,” Lose concludes, “can come even amid hardship, struggle, conflict, and disruption.”

In other words, it is the knowledge that even in all the difficulties the world brings forth and in whatever troubles beset us, God is with us; and when we let God take on the burden of the troubles that we cannot change or control, when we “place ourselves, our loved ones, our fortunes, and our future in God’s hands,” that is peace… true peace, and it’s a gift; not as the world gives, but as only Jesus can provide.

So… “do not let you hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid;” which brings us to the other matter of translation:  the Greek word that’s used in this verse: tharseo, which is probably better translated as “take heart,” or even better, to “have courage.”   In Jesus, you see, in no matter what the world and life is throwing at us, we can take heart and have courage and not be afraid!  That’s how my seatmate on the airplane that day could take a flight she was terrified to make to face a family situation she felt utterly ill equipped and unprepared to handle.  That’s how those of us who have had to deal with the grief of losing a loved one can find hope for life, now and eternally.  That’s how you and I can manage to face down the times and situations of heartache and struggle and oppression and darkness and fear that sooner or later will come our way; and that’s how we “keep the faith,” even when the world around us  (and within us!) seems to be spinning helplessly out of control.  The peace that Jesus offers us gives us open and courageous hearts; the ability to live fully and boldly as his disciples; truly being “in” the world but not “of” the world, living with strength, joy and ever and always keeping his command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

It’s true and lasting peace, girded in saving love… and it’s a gift.

At a funeral recently, an older gentleman came up to me after the service and asked where he might find the verse I’d read about Jesus going to his Father’s house “where there are many dwelling places… to prepare a place” for us, because, he said, he’d not ever really heard that before and it was something he felt he really needed to think about.  I explained, of course, that these were verses from John’s Gospel; shared with him all about how these were Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” and also how those particular verses have always been helpful to me in knowing what happens to us when we die.  And to this he simply smiled and said, “I just feel like this is something I should really know about!”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since… and it seems to me that while what Jesus said to his disciples and us on that fateful night has everything to do with our Lord’s “sure and certain promises” of life eternal and how he is “the way, and the truth and the life;” (14:6) but it also expresses the truth of our Lord’s presence and power in the here and now of our lives!  It reminds us that there is nothing we face in this life that God in the person of Jesus Christ hasn’t also experienced.  Jesus knows how we’ve been hurt in the life; he knows our disappointments, our struggles and all the ways in which our hopes and expectations for our lives have fallen far short of what we wanted.  Jesus knows how easy it is to become discouraged by life and the world and how swiftly weakness gives way to temptation and losing our best selves along the way.  Jesus knows us all too well… because he lived as one of us.

Before you and I ever began to live, Jesus already knew what life is all about… but he also knew what it can be… what it should be… and that’s how he can continue to offer us the gift of his peace; how in whatever happens, whatever trials and sorrows and temptations there might be – even in death itself – he can offer us the peace that passes our human understanding… because he’s already been there.  Our Jesus can and does provide a peace that the world can neither give nor ever, ever take away!

In whatever comes this week, beloved, I pray you will know that kind of peace as your own.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
1 Comment

Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Easter, Faith, Jesus, Life, Ministry, Sermon

 

Tags: , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: