I started kindergarten when I was four. As kid number six, I’m sure my mom was thinking that she would like a bit of quiet in the house for the first time in 16 years and she got me into school as soon as she could. Even though I had a November birthday, I met the cut off, by golly, and so I took my place at South River Elementary School.
A sermon based on Acts 1.
What this meant, of course, is that compared to the other kids in the class I was on the smaller size. And what that really meant was that in years to come at good ol’ South River when captains of kick ball teams were choosing up sides, I was almost always one of the last ones picked. Anyone who was a similar-sized kid can describe the inner turmoil of watching others get picked while you were passed over again and again. Additionally, you looked around at the others one remaining and measured your chances of being last, which meant that some team got stuck with you and you weren’t really chosen at all.
I recall those times whenever I read about this choosing of Judas’ replacement that we heard this morning. Mercifully, our lectionary leaves out the verses in which Luke vividly describes the death of Judas, and gets us to the important part of the story, who would be his successor. After Jesus’ Ascension and as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples wanted to be sure they had 12 apostles once more. I think this is partly due to their desire to have the same number of apostles as there were tribes in Israel, and also so that there wouldn’t be this empty spot that reminded them again and again that one of their number had betrayed Jesus. Luke is careful to describe them as “the Eleven” in this intervening time, and so, with the end in mind, the disciples begin their work.
Peter’s the one who comes up with the parameters for their search committee. The person had to be one who had been among them since the baptism of Jesus and through to his Ascension. Of the 120 gathered there with them in that upper room, only two fit the bill: Joseph called Barsabbas who was also known as Justus and Matthias. From 120 to 2 in no time at all.
Compare that with our selection process to get nominees for president. Years before the actual election, people declare their candidacy. They debate on TV and put out position papers. They shake hands and kiss babies and eat at diners with the locals. Over a year goes by before people even begin to vote, and again this is just for choosing the final candidates, and then there’s the general election where it all happens again over the course of 5 or 6 months.
Or think about a search for a rector. It’s nearly a two year process from the time a priest leaves before a new one arrives. First you send out surveys about what people want in their new clergy person. Then there are meetings upon meetings, followed by reading through applications and viewing online sermons. This is followed by interviews over the phone and visits to five or six different parishes where the various candidates serve. Finally you get down to two or three, and they come to visit the parish and meet the vestry and sit down with the bishop. And then finally the vestry votes, and (hopefully) there’s an acceptance to join the parish in a couple of months down the road.
In the case this morning it appears to have taken a day. They wanted someone who had been following Jesus for his entire ministry, and got it down to two. And then they prayed that God, who knows the hearts of all people, would make it clear which one should take Judas’ place. And then Luke tells us they cast lots. They threw dice or drew straws or picked a name out of a hat or had Justus and Matthias engage in “Paper, Rock, and Scissors” to determine the outcome. It sounds completely arbitrary to us, of course, because we want some say in the process, we want to talk about which candidate we think would be best, have them answer some questions, and then cast a deciding vote. But that’s not what happened here.
Casting lots comes up a few times in scripture. The Promised Land of Canaan was distributed to the 12 tribes of Israel by Joshua in this way. Jonah, you may remember, was outed through the casting of lots as the one whose God was angry and summarily cast overboard to stop the raging storm. Jesus’ garments were divided among the soldiers by the casting of lots. It seems to be the choice for deciding things. But for us, no way. We make lists of pros and cons before choosing between two things. We craft questionnaires for candidates. We size up kick ball players on the playground with extreme scrutiny and pick accordingly. If a high school senior said that she choose a specific university after drawing a name out of a hat, we’d be befuddled and wonder what got in to her parents to allow her to make such an important decision in that way.
Which makes me want to ask: what did the 120 gathered back there after Jesus’ Ascension understand that we don’t? Or, maybe, how much do we want to control choices in our own lives when we should be praying a bit more and trusting God in the process? Should we be pulling out the dice more often?
And as the kid who was often the last choice, I wonder too about Justus. He was the unchosen one. The only thing we know about him is that he was the other candidate with Matthias, he was the guy who didn’t know how to pick a straw. But just as interesting to me is that Matthias isn’t ever mentioned in Scripture again either. Both of these men had been there with Jesus from his baptism through to his ascension, both had followed and seen the blind man healed and the 5000 fed. They had heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about the need to pray for one’s enemies and to store up treasure in heaven. They had watched him overturn the tables, and they were there when Lazarus came out of the tomb. Finally, they too had experienced the joy of encountering the Risen Christ. And in spite of all this, neither is heard from again in all of scripture.
But then neither is Thomas or Bartholomew or Simon the Zealot, apostles all. We hear about the big three—Peter, James, and John— in Acts, but the rest seem to fade from the story. So does that mean they didn’t do anything else?
Next week we’ll read that the 12—now with Matthias included—and the others totaling 120 in all—including Matthias—are all still gathered there in the upper room waiting as Jesus has instructed them. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend on all of them with flames of fire. According to Luke,“They all will be filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other tongues”. All of them. Not a single one left out. They all will be empowered to share the good news of Jesus with the world, and presumably that’s exactly what they all will do in the days that followed. Including Justus and Matthias.
Dr. Barbara Lundblad writes, “Rather than being disappointed by having so little information [about Matthias or Justus], we can be grateful for the witness of those who are so little known.” She goes on to wonder if we can “celebrate the ordinary people who have carried the extraordinary gospel from one generation to the next.” People who may never be named at all when it comes to the histories of a parish like ours, but who have lived faithfully and shared the good news in important ways. The Sunday School teachers who made crafts and helped the kindergartners color a scene from the Bible. People who’ve stepped forward to lead us in prayers. Conversations and concern shared over a pew or during coffee hour. Those who’ve given voice to their faith to a coworker who was needing to know the good news of Jesus.
Because without Justus and those other 120 gathered who go largely unnamed, you and I likely wouldn’t have heard that good news at all. Without countless nameless people stretching across the centuries, the message about Jesus’ kingdom might never have come to us. Imagine that line of people going back from you to the ones gathered in the upper room. Ponder the faithfulness of all those people. Perhaps we might do better if we were less concerned with how we make important and not so important decisions and instead focused on living our lives as faithful witness to Jesus. God’s Spirit continues to move in and through us, and each one of us, through our ordinary lives, can share that message of hope and love that can ultimately change the world. Just imagine the line of discipleship continuing on through you and reaching untold numbers in generations yet to come.
God knows the make up of our hearts, and each of us is chosen to proclaim and live the joy of the resurrection in our own unique ways. Let us share that message with zeal and courage with others, just as someone else did that same thing for us. Because in the end, all of us have been chosen by God to give voice to the good news of Jesus.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!