Sunday, May 20, 2012

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers* (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) 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 throughout 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.

Life would be much simpler around here if we just cast lots. Take up the offering? Cast Lots. Serve coffee? Cast lots. Preach the sermon? Cast lots. I think we’re on to something here. If we implemented this innovation beginning next week would we get more people or less?

Of course, there would inevitably be a suggestion that we cast lots for a door prize. And in the United Church, that would be uniquely shocking. You will recall that the United Church is only opposed to two things, nuclear war and gambling, and few of us have started a nuclear war. Let’s just leave it there.

So the tradition of casting lots never really took off, and it may be our own weakness that was the cause. I imagine that the urge to cast lots likely ended the day someone said “Picking another disciple? I’ll put five on Bob.”

Still and yet, the disciples cast lots. Judas was gone, graphically dispatched in the verses that the lectionary kindly omitted, and then there were eleven.

At first glance, this seems like a non-issue. Twelve is quite a few, especially if you are playing a game of bible trivia, and one less doesn’t seem so bad. Unless, of course, you are following the pattern whereby the disciples go out two by two (Mark 6), then you have a problem.

There is a second theory, since you asked, and that one is based on seldom recited Psalm 109. The psalm is more-or-less a collection of curses, and wouldn’t make a very good responsive psalm, but it does contain the following: “May the days [of the wicked man] be few, may another take his place.” Peter quotes this in the “M for Mature” section in the middle of the passage, and the group decides to follow it.

The next question, then, is why were only two nominated (among the 120 present)? There was a large pool to draw from, some were already well known to us, and apparently they had never heard of gender equality. And Peter, anticipating our question, gives the answer: Someone present throughout the time, from the baptism by John until he was taken up.

Clearly this is one of those passages that raises more questions than provides answers. They are looking for someone present throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, fair enough, but beginning with his baptism? Looking again at the beginning of the Gospels, there seems to be nothing to indicate he had followers at such an early date. In each telling, he appears to John in the desert, accepts baptism, them proceeds to period of solitary temptation in the wilderness. The call of the disciples comes later. In these early stages, he seems very much alone.

The only way to solve this problem is to place our two nominees among the crowd that were following John the Baptist. He too had disciples, and they were present to him at the Jordan, and some would have been there the day that Jesus is baptized. Following John, transferred to Jesus, present for three years of ministry, even to the end. The number two begins to make sense, considering such a convoluted path of following.

So who were these rare birds? All we get are their names: ”So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.” Before I go further, I just want to highlight a concern about Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus. Three names, really? And this guy expects to get elected? Having three names is downright fishy, and when the lot falls to the other guy (Matthias) I can hardly say I’m surprized.

What does surprize me is the remarkable lack of information we have about the nominees, and Matthias in particular, since he is selected to succeed Judas. Matthias is given no mention in the lead up to the passage, and is never mentioned again. So either he never really made a mark, or something else is going on.

Something else is clearly going on. You see, if someone selected for the highest office in the church, disciple of Jesus, comes out of nowhere, and goes about the business of being a disciple, but is never mentioned again, then really it could be anyone. Ignoring everything for a minute that we have said about the strict nomination requirements, the dynamic of coming out of nowhere and then blending into the office of disciple could describe anyone. Or any one of us. Matthias may be the first example of the most common type of believer down through the centuries: called to follow, chosen to lead, and labouring without fame or excited mention, just doing the important work of passing on the faith.

Now, maybe this idea doesn’t excite you as much as it excites me, but consider the context of faith transmission: at this moment in time there were only 120 people in this movement, and only 13 with a complete view of the faith. Accounting for falling away though doubt or conversion to some other tradition, or the frailty of life itself, the faith is in an extremely fragile state at this moment in time. One more or less can make all the difference in the world, and I am certain that the few who were present that day had a sense of the gravity of what they were doing.

So if Matthias is the prototype for the type of believer that will come to dominate the Christian tradition, then we do well to honour him and remain faithful to his calling. I’m seldom one for “last person on earth thinking,” but here is a case where the life of a tradition is fragile, and must be safeguarded. Maybe part of the call of Matthias is a call to find it within ourselves to represent the faith: to understand how we are redeemed through Jesus Christ, and what it means to follow in his way, and how the Christian faith is always one generation from being lost, unless we do our part.

Now that I’ve added all this pressure, and on a long weekend no less, let me add more. The other reason that the Baptism of John comes up (and for the second time in this chapter of Acts) may be that John’s baptismal message soon gets lost in all the excitement. You see, next week is Pentecost, and 3,000 will be baptized, and there will be wind and tongues and dipping flames, and all the nuance of the baptism goes out the window.

So many will be initiated into the church, and will be caught up in the newness and the crowd of believers, that John’s message may be forgotten: A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Choosing a new disciple among the very few who were present in the wilderness with John may be the only link to that message.

So we have twin responsibilities, based on the first chapter of Acts, not only to be a Matthias Christian, quietly living out the tradition that God so generously placed us in, but also reminding others that being baptized isn’t all glamour and travel to exotic places. It is remembering that our faith is about repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and about safeguarding a tradition, and about serving God, even in the most humble of ways, Amen.


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