Decision Time (Sunday June 2, 2019)
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26
Usually today is Ascension Sunday, the day we would remember the ascension of our Lord on a cloud. And one copy of the Lectionary, or the weekly Scripture guide that helps you read 90% of the Bible in 3 years, has us looking at the passage right before this one and one had us looking at this passage. I liked the idea of looking at this passage on ascension Sunday because it is a part of the ascension. The disciples have watched Jesus levitate into the air and then fly away as on a cloud. They just stand there staring at the sky in response. It takes a couple angels to get their attention back to where they are and tell them to get to work. And then comes the question that will be the focus of our exploration of the Scriptures today: What now? This is the first time that Jesus hasn’t been there for the church to ask in person. It’s the first time they are charged with leading, at least on earth. It’s the first time the church looks something like it does today. To me, this is part of the legacy of the Ascension: Jesus has left the earth and it is up to us to do the work of the Kingdom here and the disciples have to figure out how.
The disciples seem to at the very least respect Peter as a leader, if not officially look at him that way. It reminds me of American history when George Washington was elected as the first president, he was really offered the throne of the United States. But he turned it down. In many respects, Peter is offered the throne of the church. And even though the Pope now sits on the Throne of St. Peter, here Peter truly turns down the idea of a monarchical leadership style in the church; at least with him being the monarch. He starts to make the decisions in council: both council with his fellow disciples and church leaders as well as council with the real King, which is God.
The person they eventually elect, as well as the one they don’t, have been with Jesus since the very beginning. This indicates that the core group of people who were following Jesus was actually larger than the 12 original disciples, many of which actually had not been around since the time Jesus came to be baptized by John. I think the 120 people that Peter calls together have been around Jesus for a long time. They have heard him and have learned at his feet. He’s calling together the leaders to help him to move forward.
The first thing they do as a group in this decision is to consult the Scriptures and the tradition. The prophecies about the messiah revolve around the restoration of Israel, but they all talk about what the Messiah would do through his own work. Now that he’s gone, they have to figure out what they are going to do. And so they focus on continuing the work of the messiah, which is the restoration of Israel. The question to ask as we read is why they felt they needed to replace Judas. Twelve was a special number, but nowhere does Jesus actually tell them to find a twelfth. But there’s some scriptural basis for the idea. The first would be to view the disciples as the judges of Israel, with one standing in judgement over each of the twelve tribes. And although it wasn’t there when they were making this decision, John’s Revelation has an image of heaven with the names of the twelve apostles were written on the twelve foundations of heaven. Both of these require twelve people.
The second thing they get from the Scriptures is a method of selection: the casting of lots. Now the Scriptures themselves assume that people know what casting lots looks like, it doesn’t describe it, but the process is similar to pulling straws today, or pulling names from a hat or flipping a coin. It’s an action of chance, with the idea that God guides the process to bring about the answer that God wants. There’s only one problem with the way that they actually do this process. In the Old Testament lots is used a great deal. For instance, when someone takes something he’s not supposed to in Joshua, they discover who it was through lots. But they have everyone in at the first. They choose a tribe by lot, then a clan, then a family, then the person. But here, the disciples decide some criteria for those who could be an apostle and then place only those who fit the criteria they created for God to choose from. If God had wanted to choose someone else, God couldn’t have done it through the process they were following.
This brings up the question of whether they actually did the right thing here. After all, Jesus never told them to do this, Jesus had selected the eleven (and they probably wouldn’t have met criteria set by society at that time), and of course we wound up with a thirteenth apostle in Paul (who was selected very clearly by Jesus, like all the others). Furthermore, Jesus had specifically told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them and they made this decision before that point, or in other words they did it when they were supposed to be waiting! And that brings up the question of who is the correct twelfth apostle? If indeed the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are engraved on the foundations of heaven, what is the twelfth name? Is it Paul? Is it Matthias? Or is it even Judas?
This is an important question for us because the way they made this decision is often the way we make decisions. We get together, pray, discern what God wants, and move forward. If this first decision made in this manner was not actually the will of God, it throws everything into question.
You’d think that this question would be addressed in the book that starts with this selection and then follows Paul through his ministry in the Greek world. Certainly if I had written the book, the idea of who qualifies would be an important theme, even if it isn’t the central theme. I suspect that would be the case for many of you as well. But Luke seems to virtually ignore the question. It never comes up throughout the book of Acts. Of course Matthias is never mentioned again either, so maybe the answer is implied, but there are several apostles who seem to disappear and Luke is recording the credentials of Matthias in his letter about what the church is. It’s an important question, I mean we want to be right in our decisions and we need instruction. So why does Luke ignore it?
Well, I’m not going to ignore it. Let’s examine the evidence and see which one was really an apostle. We’re told that we will know by their fruit, and with apostles it’s really easy because they leave a legacy of churches in their wake. So let’s look at these two. Obviously Paul has a very solid resume. He went on multiple journeys from Jerusalem to the North and began churches in several major cities throughout modern day Turkey and into Greece. He was looked upon favorably by churches as far as the one in Rome itself and preached the gospel to the emperor himself. Ultimately, he was put to death for his witness. That’s a pretty good resume.
We know more about Paul than what we know about Matthias, but we believe that he left Jerusalem and headed to the northeast to where modern day Georgia is, east of Turkey. In this area he preached the Gospel and established many churches in what was a backwater section of the Empire, if the empire decided to claim it at all. I mean, Paul had a Greek culture and a Jewish community to work with. Matthias didn’t have nearly as much of that, and he still managed to establish a culture that has remained Christian even as both Buddhism and Islam have come close by. Georgia remains a solid base of the orthodox Christians to this day. I mean Paul worked in Turkey, where Christians are now a minority and have been for centuries. Eventually he also was put to death for his witness. (I should probably point out here that being put to death is a credit for about the first four hundred years or so, but certainly is not a measuring stick that goes for everyone). So I think Matthias has a pretty strong resume too.
So which one was the real apostle? Were the disciples right that first week or not?
The answer is both: both were real apostles. Do I believe that the disciples probably shouldn’t have made this decision when they did, or at the very least they shouldn’t have limited God’s options to just these two people? Yes. But I think what Luke was getting at by avoiding the question is that it really doesn’t matter if they should have done what they did or not. They prayed, they studied Scripture, they cast lots; in short they did everything they could to make the best possible decision they could. And then they never questioned that decision, but tried to continue forward under the guidance of God. After all, when Paul did come to them, they didn’t say “I’m sorry, we’re full on apostles,” but accepted a thirteenth.
It’s because of this that even though they shouldn’t have done what they did, even though it was perhaps not in the plan for Matthias to have this position, that Matthias still is an apostle and still has a very fruitful life in Georgia. God is greater than humanity, and God’s plans cannot be defeated by humans. We can sometimes make them veer off a little bit, but ultimately God turns our mistakes into an even greater plan for action in this world. We get caught up in trying to figure out if the decisions that we make are the correct decisions. And we are supposed to try and make the best decisions we can, and attempt to discern God’s guidance. But ultimately, it’s not whether or not our decision was the “correct” decision so to speak, but rather what we do after we make the decision. In that, we must follow the apostle’s lead in turning our heart toward God and continuing to serve with our actions and efforts.
You may have noticed something is a little different today. I have been a pastor at United Methodist Churches for the last five years, but today is a little different. Last Friday, several Elders in the United Methodist Church laid their hands on me as Bishop Seinz officially ordained me to a lifetime of ministry in the Kingdom of God. I have been preaching and ministering to Methodists across Kansas on a more year to year basis while the Conference and I worked through a process of discernment on whether or not God is calling me to a lifetime of ministry in His name. With the exception that in our process we are open to anyone who says God called them, and thus our process begins with everyone included, we have a very similar process to the one that they followed in Acts here to determine who our Elders, Decons, and ultimately Bishops are. And at the end of that process all agreed that God was indeed calling me to ministry.
To mark that lifetime commitment I now wear this yoke. Like the yoke that is placed upon a team of oxen to pull a wagon, this yoke reminds me of the burden I carry in accepting that call, but also that I don’t carry it alone, but with a team of others “under the yoke.” This is a reminder of my decision with the church. It was a decision that was made believing we are doing the will of God. And it was ultimately a decision done under the firm belief that God will work within all who sincerely seek his will and seek to follow his commands. I make these vows in the trust that, just as God worked through both Matthias and Paul, God will work through me with my faults as well. And I believe that although the ways you practice ministry are probably different from ordination as an Elder in this church, God will work through you as you seek to follow the same as me.
The apostles had to figure out what to do now that Jesus was not there to ask a question to in the flesh. We face that same issue as we seek to follow God’s will today. As you attempt to live under the guidance of God and make your decisions accordingly, do everything you can to ensure you are making the decision that God wants you to. And once you’ve made the decision, set your heart on serving God in that decision because whether you were right or wrong, God can and will use you where you are to accomplish the Kingdom on earth. Let that be so. Amen.