May 22, 2016 “Election” – Acts 1:12-26
May 22, 2016 – Trinity Sunday
I voted last week, but didn’t fill out the whole ballot. A number of judge and county offices only had one candidate and my party precinct race said to “vote for 14.” There were only seven names listed there. Evidently there’s not much interest in those races or even in filling out the full number of those committees.
On the other hand, we find in Acts 1 a deep interest in filling out the full number of the holy apostles. With Judas gone there was a palpable hole in the ranks of Jesus’ closest followers. They felt required to fill it. Our text today shows us how the first gathering of Christians went about electing another apostle.
This is the first time I’ve ever preached on this text. It’s not in the lectionary readings. It falls into limbo between Ascension Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. When I last worked through the book of Acts in sermons eleven years ago, I skipped over it. Acts 1:12-26 is sort of like the apostle candidates themselves, unknown and forgotten. Yet this is God’s word.
Verses 12 to 15 correct some of our images of those first Christians. Like me, you may vaguely picture a dozen men, less one, huddled together in doubt and fear, unsure what to do now that Jesus has departed. Those eleven are certainly there in verse 13, listed by name, the very same list, minus Judas Iscariot, that was given in Luke chapter 6. But, as the shopping channel ads go, there’s more.
Verses 14 tells us not just men, but women were there in those early assemblies of disciples. Jesus’ mother Mary was with them. We can guess some of the other names by turning over to Luke chapter 8 verse 2 and 3 to read the names of Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna, plus other unnamed female followers. Luke 8 also says these women were the financial support for Jesus and the twelve male disciples.
It gets covered up in modern translations, but that word “together” in verse 14 means more than that they were all in the same place as they prayed. It’s a word used several times in the book of Acts to indicate a unity of feeling. They were of “one accord.” As they talked to God they were in the same place emotionally, each wanting what the others wanted.
That early Christian unity connects to the article of our faith we are remembering today on Trinity Sunday. In God’s own self there are three persons who live forever together, wanting what the others want. Jesus the Son wants to do the will of His Father. The Father wants to glorify His Son. And the Holy Spirit moves back and forth between them both to carry out those desires, wanting what the Father and the Son want. Christians are meant to live together the way God lives, in one accord with each other.
That accord was no small thing, because there were not, we learn in verse 15, a broken dozen disciples there, but with the women and all the rest, ten dozen disciples, 120. Even before Pentecost, the Jesus movement, you might call it, was not just a small group Bible study. When Jesus rose from the dead, Paul explains in I Corinthians 15, He appeared to more than 500 people. It’s the most faithful quarter of all those witnesses who are there praying together in one accord.
Even with all those believers there, even with that wonderful spirit of unity in prayer, something is still not right, still not whole. Peter stood up in verse 15 to address the “elephant in the room,” as they say. That “elephant” was that everyone knew who was not in the room. One of Jesus’ handpicked followers had betrayed Him.
The details are a little different here in verses 17 to 19 from what we read about Judas’ betrayal in the Gospel of Matthew, but the broad picture is the same. Judas Iscariot sold the location of Jesus for a price, silver ultimately used to buy a field. Then he committed suicide and his body fell to the ground bursting open. That field bought with his blood money got the name “Field of Blood” in Aramaic.
Judas’ betrayal might have seemed a colossal failure on Jesus’ part. How could He have chosen so poorly? Peter addressed that in verse 16 and verse 20 by saying it was all part of God’s plan. Jesus knew about it and predicted it, but it was also predicted in the Psalms by David long before. Psalm 69:25 talks about the place owned by a betrayer having no one to live in it. Psalm 109 explains what happens to a traitor, a false accuser. Peter quoted verse 8 of that psalm, “Let another take his position.”
It was part of God’s plan that Judas betray Jesus, but it was also part of God’s plan that there be twelve apostles. Twelve is a key number in the Bible and in Christian faith. It goes back to the twelve tribes of Israel who came from the twelve sons of Jacob. When Jesus chose twelve disciples, it was a reboot of Israel. The old Israel came from twelve brothers. The new Israel being created by Jesus would start from twelve spiritual brothers.
You have to be careful about this sort of thing, playing with numbers in the Bible, but St. Augustine makes a nice connection for us between the need for twelve apostles and the Trinity, the three persons of God. The Gospel is about the three persons of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That good news needs to go out, says Augustine, to the four corners of the earth. So there must be 3 X 4, 12 apostles to carry that message.
A few weeks ago we read from Revelation 21 how the names of the twelve apostles are written on the foundations of the Holy City God will bring to earth, the new Jerusalem. Ephesians 2:20 says that God’s household, His church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. If a name were missing, it would be like a missing foundation stone. There would a hole right at the base of what God is building. That foundation then must be repaired, that gap solidly filled to hold up the rest of the structure.
Peter asked the believers to make that repair, to select a replacement, to elect a new apostle so there could be twelve again. He stated the job requirements, the qualifications, in verses 22 and 23. The primary work of an apostle is to be a witness, to testify to what he saw. It needed to be someone who was there with Jesus all through His ministry right up to and including His resurrection, from the day He was baptized by John to the day He ascended into heaven. This replacement must be someone who heard Jesus with his own ears and saw Jesus risen from the dead with his own eyes.
That praying assembly of believers came up with two names. We know nothing for sure about either one. The first seems to be the favorite. We read three of his names. He is Joseph, but they call him Barsabbas, which means “son of the Sabbath.” Maybe he was born on a Saturday. But he also has the Gentile nickname Justus, “the Just.” He’s someone everyone knew, with a reputation for justice and fairness.
The other candidate is Matthias. That’s all. His name means “gift of God,” but the Bible tells us no more about him. He’s never mentioned again. There are Christian legends about what where he went and what he did. I’ll talk about those in a bit. But for right now we will just say that he seems to be a “nobody,” unremarkable, maybe one of those people you choose when there need to be two candidates, but nobody expects him to win.
Your church council is reading and talking about how we discern God’s will. There’s a clear lesson for us here. Those first Christians prayed. Then Peter asked them to make a decision. They talked about it and came up with two choices, two routes to go. Then verse 24 shows us they prayed again. They asked God to make the choice between their two candidates, “to show us which one of these two you have chosen.”
Verse 25, the second part of their prayer, is nice little play on the word “place.” They asked God to reveal who will take Judas’ place because he “turned aside to go to his own place.” Judas’ place among the apostles is vacant because he did not stay in the place God gave him, but went his own direction, followed his own will rather than God’s.
All of it instructs us. We discern God’s will together in prayer. When we go off alone, seeking our own individual will and direction, we get what we want, but it won’t be what God wants. We will find a place for us, but it won’t be God’s place. Christian decision-making is done together and in prayer. As we talk in a meeting after church today, we will pray, asking God to direct our discussion and questions.
You might be surprised that after all that praying, after Peter spoke so eloquently about what Scripture said, after they asked in one accord for God to show them His choice, verse 26 says “they cast lots for them.” In other words, they flipped a coin to choose between Joseph and Matthias.
What would we have done? Yes, we probably would have voted. We would have held what we typically think of as an election. Some Bible scholars think that’s what actually happened there. The “lots” were something like stones of two different colors and each of person put in one for Joseph or one for Matthias; then they counted. But that’s not what “casting lots” usually means in the Bible. It means they really did leave it up to God, however He would make the die fall. We would call it chance. They saw it as God’s choice. The “lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”
I’ve heard it taught that this whole business was a big mistake. This is before Pentecost. Jesus is gone. He told them to wait for the Holy Spirit, but He hasn’t arrived yet. So, some say, Peter and the rest of those first Christians jumped the gun, acted prematurely without the guidance of the Spirit. The fact that they left it to chance that Matthias was elected and then we hear nothing more about him proves he wasn’t really the twelfth apostle after all. That was supposed to be Paul.
It’s not a mistake. Yes, Paul is called an apostle once or twice and he calls himself that all the time. But he was not one of the twelve. He doesn’t meet the requirements. He saw Jesus risen on the road to Damascus, but he wasn’t there from the beginning, walking and talking with Jesus. At the very beginning, Paul had to be instructed by those who did have that experience. Paul himself says in I Corinthians 15:8 that Jesus appeared to him “as one of untimely birth.” Paul was an apostle, did incredible ministry, but he was not the twelfth apostle. Matthias was.
Things are different now, but prior to Pentecost casting lots was a perfectly acceptable way to seek God’s will. It was used in Leviticus to choose a sacrificial goat. They cast lots to help divide the promised land in Numbers and Joshua. In Judges it was used to decide who went to war. Nehemiah used lots to decide who would live in Jerusalem. Lots determined when priests served and even how legal cases were to be settled. The church prayed in faith that God would elect the right person. It might seem random, but it wasn’t.
With gift of the Holy Spirit to now, we no longer toss coins to learn God’s will. In Acts 13 when the church chooses Paul and Barnabas as missionaries and then in Acts 15 when they debate how to welcome Gentiles into Jesus, the Holy Spirit led them directly, in the hearts and minds of the community praying and speaking and discerning together.
Yet God’s use of a game of chance for something so important as the election of an apostle reminds us that our lives, our life together as a church is not just a matter of chance. It can seem that way. Look around. It might feel like this is a pretty random gathering of people. You’re here, it might feel, by chance. You happened to meet someone who invited you, or you noticed our sign out front, or you came to a concert here once, or Google landed you on our web site. The election of Matthias demonstrates that God can use any and all of that and more to accomplish His will and guide our lives. In celebrating Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are worshipping a God who made this world and who made us and who holds and guides it all even when it seems random to us.
Our word “election” comes from the Greek word for choice. When we vote, like we did here in Oregon last week, we are choosing between candidates, choosing policies or courses of action. Matthias’ election shows us that the vote is ultimately up to God, not us. It’s His choice not ours. That’s why the Bible sometimes speak of us, of the people of God as His “elect.” He chooses us. We don’t choose Him.
Which means there is another lesson from Matthias. He looks like a nobody before and after. We never hear of him again. There are legendary traditions that he ministered in Ethiopia or in the ancient “other Ethiopia,” a region in what’s now the eastern European country of Georgia. There’s a church in Germany that claims to have some of his remains interred there. It doesn’t really matter, though.
We know nothing about them, but Matthias, and even the losing candidate Joseph Barsabbas Justus, are known to God. They were both chosen by Him, one to be the new apostle and the other to continue as a faithful, just and dedicated ordinary believer. We’re all like that. A few of us may receive a little fame or attention, but most of us are like Matthias or Joseph, quietly serving where God chooses for us without making much of a splash.
That’s O.K.! Like our book of the month argues, ordinary is good. It’s in the ordinary that God works almost all the time. Yes, the wind blew and the fire came down on Pentecost, but that was one day in the whole two-thousand-year history of the church. Most of the time, almost all the time, that history is being made by Matthiases, men and women chosen by God to believe in Jesus, to pray, worship and study the Bible, to serve, give and be committed. That’s the heart of Christian life and of Christian witness. We testify to Jesus by living and talking about Him in all the ordinary places and times of our lives.
God may choose some big mission or adventure for you. Maybe Matthias did make it to Ethiopia or to the eastern coast of the Black Sea to tell people about Jesus. Maybe He wants you to go to China like Trudy or even live downtown like Jon and Kristin. If He’s choosing that for you, then pay attention. Go where he wants.
But Matthias may have never made it out of Jerusalem. One tradition about him says he died there, stoned and then his head cut off. Another says he just died of old age in Jerusalem. That’s faithfulness too, to stay in place and serve God as long He gives you life and opportunity. That may be most of us.
It all goes back to God Himself, to our God who is a divine community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A bit like we said last Sunday, God has adventures. The Father sent the Son to die and rise for us. Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit in fiery power. But forever and ever, Father, Son and Holy Spirit live together in faithful peace and love. The way you and I will know God’s will is to live together like that, to participate in His eternal life.
Whether for yourself, family or church, pray together. Whether for yourself, family or church, make sure you love and listen to everyone involved. Seek God’s will like the first Christians did. We may vote, but like the casting of lots, that vote belongs to God. It’s His election. It’s His choice that matters. Let us make decisions by being like God in our love and devotion to each other. Then His choices will be clear.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj