(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