Sunday, May 24, 2009

In the Interim Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”

21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

It’s a kind of strange time for Jesus’ disciples. Just a few days ago Jesus ended their 40 days of instruction, told them to go to Jerusalem to wait for the one who would baptize them with fire, and ascended into the clouds. So here they are, 120 of them, waiting. They don’t know how long it will be until the Advocate comes or even really what that means. They’re in a kind of waiting time, like those few days between the end of classes and actually receiving your diploma, or between getting hired and the first real day of work. It’s an uncomfortable time, and since humans really don’t like to wait, we tend to try to fill that time with some constructive action. So while they were waiting, they felt it was important to use this in-between time to get as ready as possible for whatever was to come and part of that preparation was to bring the number of apostles back up to the number Jesus originally selected.

And Peter stands up and says, hey, you know there are only 11 of us apostles right now, and there are supposed to be twelve. So let’s pick someone to replace Judas in the leadership. The only real qualifications for the job was that the person had been one of the followers of Jesus from the beginning, “from the baptism of John.” I found that beginning point a little odd, as none of them began following Jesus quite that early. Remember he went out into the desert for forty days before he began teaching and healing. But I guess that was the simplest way to name when the ministry began. They would all have understood what Peter meant.

So two were named as potential apostles; Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and the selection process began. When we select leaders we automatically think in terms of democracy and we vote. A committee selects the people who they believe are best qualified, and we usually choose our leaders from among their recommendations. Of course we are quite aware that our votes can be swayed by a number of things – gossip and spin, personal likes and dislikes based in the way they look or speak. We like to think that doesn’t happen when we are selecting church leaders, and in reality we usually only have to ratify the suggestions of the nominating committee for church leaders. But the possibility of human ego, prejudice, popularity and politics getting involved in any kind of nomination and election process is pretty high.

Of course Judah was not a democracy. It was a theocracy. God was at the head of the government. They didn’t even think of voting in a situation this important. Rather, they chose the twelfth apostle by lot, which was a lot like throwing dice. Although casting lots sounds very chancy to us, it was the approved way of letting God make the final decision. It was the way Joshua figured out which of his soldiers had disobeyed the instructions not to keep anything of the Canaanites. It was the way Saul was chosen as the first king of Israel. It was even the way the soldiers at the cross decided who should got which of Jesus’ belongings. It seems that there wasn’t much difference between Matthias and Justus. They both fit the qualifications and I imagine everyone respected both of them about equally. So casting lots seemed like the fairest possible way to choose between them, the one way they could be certain that God would be in charge of the selection and not humans. And Matthias won.

I’m not all that sure that being an apostle was such a great job. The apostles would be the most highly visible of the Christ followers and likely the first to be arrested or otherwise persecuted by the powers that be. The apostles would be the ones settling disagreements, dividing the food among the hungry poor, and taking on all the responsibility for leadership in the early days of the church. And they would do all these things without getting any real recognition or compensation at all. We never hear of Matthias again. In fact, we don’t hear much about most of the Twelve. Anyone know anything Bartholomew did after the resurrection? How about the other Judas? I don’t. We know about Peter and James and Thomas. We know about Paul, who wasn’t one of the Twelve. And we’ve heard of Stephen who was the first martyr, but was also not one of the Twelve. In fact, we’re not totally clear on who exactly all the Twelve were – the Gospels don’t even agree on the names.

So it seems that being one of the Twelve didn’t guarantee that you would be well known. It certainly wasn’t a job that paid well, or at all. There were a lot of responsibilities, but none of the kinds of rewards that we typically think of when we select leaders. It was, in fact, a lot like being an elder in our churches today. The elders lead in worship, praying and serving at the table yes, but that’s really the smallest part of their job. They are the spiritual leaders of the congregation. They visit the homebound and the hospitalized. They reach out to the folks who haven’t been around for a while. They are available to any of us when we are in need of prayer or guidance. And when I say any of us, I mean that very literally. Part of the job of the elder in a Disciples congregation is to be available to the professional ministers of the church for prayer, support and spiritual guidance. The elders of Disciples churches are the true leaders of the congregation, as were the Twelve. In many cases they also serve without recognition, as Matthias did.

Think about the people in your lifetime who have given you spiritual guidance. Think back on the people who taught you about the Good News, about God’s acceptance and forgiveness and unconditional love. Yes, hopefully we have learned some of this from the “professionals”, the acknowledged leaders and teachers, ministers and Sunday School teachers. But very often we learned the most from those unexpected, unrecognized, anonymous people in our lives. Very often we learn the most, not from sermons and lesson plans, not from books and conferences and retreats, but from just watching men and women quietly doing necessary work. The ones we all count on to set the tables for a pot luck and bring in cartons of food for the hungry and cook at the picnics and repair things that break. The ones who write the encouraging cards and prepare the coffee and welcome the visitors. None of these do this work for recognition. They do it because it needs to be done and they are able. They do it because it is a way they can serve God and God’s people.

Very often we learn the most from people who just take the time to be with us. A friend of mine still tells everyone about a woman from this congregation who, during fellowship time a couple of Super Bowl Sundays ago, took the time to teach her enough about football that she didn’t feel completely left out at a Super Bowl party later in the day. Did that woman teach her about beliefs or other church stuff? No. But she did teach her hospitality. She did teach her about reaching out to help another feel part of instead of left out. She did teach that it is better to be loved than important.

Consider Matthias again. He was part of the group who had wandered the land with Jesus, sleeping where ever, eating what ever, doing whatever they were asked to do. He would never become well known outside the group, but we know he was respected inside the group. We know that he was and is loved. I came upon a poem this week that I’d like to share with you, written by Erik Doughty (2009).
Matthias, patron saint of
tailors, carpenters, alcoholism, and Gary Indiana--
well, here's the day he gets chosen
to replace Judas the betrayer
and then there's no more
about Matthias, except mystery.

Meanwhile we eavesdrop on your prayer, Lord,
asking protection for your loved ones,
sending them out into the world;
they must have been confused at all this.

Not all of us are the big names
upon which you build your church;
some of us wonder if we're more Judas than not
and others feel like Matthias, fading into
the background. Even so,
Sew us together into one great piece;
One holy, whole home
for sinners and saints alike.

The story of Matthias’ selection to the Twelve doesn’t say, but I suspect he didn’t volunteer for the job. I suspect he was perfectly happy to serve in the background, to be anonymous in his service. Not all of us are the big names, indeed. Hardly any of us are, in fact. And yet each of us through our words and actions serves as an example to someone else’ understanding what it means to be Christian – and it is to be hoped that our example is the kind that attracts. Each of us is or can be that background worker, that Matthias in someone’s life, whose example leads another to better understand God’s love. Each of us is or can be, that one who helps lead another to believe that God loves and accepts each of us, just as we are.

The good news is that we don’t have to be important to be loved. We already have all the name recognition, title and position we need, for we are all God’s children, and God loves us just as we are.

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