Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B] - May 20, 2012 (Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 and John 17:6-19)

As some of you already know, my family just returned from a vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida, which was a trip my father happened to win in a fundraising raffle at his alma mater. The last time I had been to Disney World was over twenty years ago, and my only memory of the occasion was of long lines—too long, in fact—for all the rides. This time was drastically different. The longest I think we had to wait to board a ride was twenty minutes, and that happened only once. Most of the time we just walked right in, Fast Pass in hand, winding our ways through the mostly-empty ropes and stanchions to the spot where you get on.

What amazed me about this was the efficiency at which the amusement park moves large numbers of people through the rides. It’s an exact science they’ve honed from years of practice. At the end of each system of lines, for example, just before you’re supposed to get on the ride, stands a Disney employee who is counting off the people and quickly dividing them into sections so that when the next car—or teacup or magic carpet—comes along the precise number of riders are ready to get on the ride. Most of the rides need to have weight and number of passengers evenly distributed. There is no wasted space. Each compartment is filled to capacity, and most of the time all of us got to sit together. Like I said, it is a science, and those Disney employees know exactly where to place extra people and how to fill up empty seats.
In this morning’s lesson from Acts we learn that the first apostles were faced with an empty slot that needs to be filled. The journey of the church is about to be launched, and one seat among twelve remains empty. Twelve disciples had originally been chosen to inaugurate God’s ministry with Jesus, but Judas had bailed. He had been missing ever since that fateful night he turned Jesus into the Roman authorities. To us, the number twelve may seem a bit arbitrary and no big deal, but it was deeply important to the mission of Jesus. Twelve disciples corresponded to the twelve tribes of ancient Israel, the people from which Jesus came. The number twelve was that perfect amount that signaled to all Jews that God’s people were being restored. The New Testament is not completely clear on what actually happens to Judas, but it is clear that his absence leaves a hole that needs to be addressed in order for the community of Jesus’ followers to begin their mission and, it would seem, to be taken seriously. You could say it is too, in some way, an issue of proper balance and ratio.

icon of the election of Matthias
And so the community of Jesus’ followers is forced to make its first big decision: who will fill that seat as the church is propelled into the world? Peter begins by consulting Scripture, underlining the fact that the Word of God will always be a guide for Jesus’ people. Facing a problem or a test? A study of scripture is always a good place to start finding a resolution. The particular part of the story where Peter quotes the Old Testament is not included in our reading for today, but it is important to note that the community of believers begins by basing its understanding of mission and identity in Holy Scripture. As it lurches into the future, the church will never completely be flying solo. The Word of God goes with it. In this case, Scripture tells them to “let another take his place,” and, lucky for them, there happen to be several people to choose from, men—and even certain women—who had been with Jesus throughout the time of his public ministry. Two candidates from this bunch are then put forward and the entire group prays and deliberates. A man named Matthias is chosen by the casting of lots. The boat is filled and the trip commences.

The casting of lots to settle such a major decision is another thing that may seem awfully arbitrary to us, but, as it happens, that was one common and accepted way to resolve decisions in the ancient world. In fact, a similar process will be employed in the coming months as the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt selects a new Pope. After honing down all potential candidates in a very deliberative process, a five-year-old child will be chosen to walk up to the altar during a worship service and choose one name at random out of a box that contains three. That name will be the new patriarch. In a culture like ours, where a democratic process seems like the only rational option for deciding leaders, this method seems strange, maybe even a little superstitious, but we need to realize that this was the system they trusted. They understood that God was somehow part of the process, that God “knew the hearts” of each of the candidates they had vetted, and most importantly that God could work with whatever outcome resulted.

Interestingly, we never hear of the apostle Matthias again, nor of the alternate candidate, the guy with three names: Joseph, Barsabbas, and Justus. And in book that is named “The Acts of the Apostles,” that is perhaps peculiar. The point here is not necessarily who will fill that seat but, rather, what they will together be doing so that the mission can begin. In this case it is not so important which leadership style Matthias has or which particular qualities any one of the apostles brings to the table but what they as believing women and men are going to be about.

And what they will be about is the ministry of Jesus in the world. What they will be about is embodying the love of God in Christ for the rest of creation. It’s just like Jesus prays the night before his crucifixion, as recorded in John’s gospel: Jesus will no longer be in the world, but they will be in the world, vessels of the truth. As his representatives, his body on earth—his torso, limbs, feet, hands, fingers, ligaments and bones—they are sent into the world,  just as Jesus had been sent by his Father. And just as the number Twelve would imply to the Jewish audience that would originally receive them, they are sent to restore what has been broken, bind up what has been wounded, put to rights what God has redeemed. This decision over Judas’ replacement will be just the first in a long line of decisions and changes and adjustments the church will need make as it lurches forward into the future.

It is easy to think, especially on a Sunday morning, that faith in the risen Lord Jesus is all about this place, this sitting, this standing, this opening the hymnbook and singing, this Sunday School class, this shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out. It is easy to think, you confirmands, that faith in the risen Lord Jesus is all about memorizing the Apostles’ Creed, or passing confirmation tests, or saying the right words and believing the right doctrine. It’s easy to think all that, for all of us, because we do spend a good bit of time concentrating on those things. Those things are a part of it, but chiefly Christian faith is about what those first believers discover as they select Matthias, which is also what Jesus prayed for so fervently in his last night before dying.

It is about this wild but joyous ride together with the brothers and sisters around us where we learn to love in the right and healthy ways, where Scripture illuminates our conversations. It is where the cross constantly reminds us of God’s forgiveness, and where the Spirit enables us to be our true selves and lets our gifts blend and join up with each other’s so that the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. That is the ride that Matthias’s election helped kick off that day which we, believe it or not, are still on.

Yet we are aware that life in the Church is often painful and frustrating for many, filled with conflict and disputes about everything from what kind of candles should be on the altar to which version of the Lord’s Prayer we should say in worship. We are aware, for example, of the young person who, despite everyone’s efforts, still feels shunned or left out at youth group. And of the visitor who attends worship several times but is never genuinely greeted by a member. And of the committee member whose opinions seem to be repeatedly ignored. Sometimes I even wonder about those who supported Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus instead of Matthias. Were they angry?  Did disappointment get the best of them? I guess I’m just thankful they didn’t make a stink about it. Sad to say, but those things are also going to be a part of the life of this imperfect community called the church. Yet at its core, these kinds of issues and how we talk to each other about them, how we include others’ ideas and sacrifice personal agendas for the sake of the gospel is absolutely central to who we are as the people Jesus prays for. Christine Pohl, provost at Asbury Seminary puts it very bluntly in her new book on church community, “The character of our shared life in congregations, communities, and families has the power to draw people to the kingdom or to push them away. How we live together is the most persuasive sermon we’ll ever preach.”[1]

In the days and weeks following Epiphany’s Youth Sunday on April 29, I received so many positive and sincere comments about the youth group. Many directed those comments at me, as if the youth group adult leaders were the main ones responsible for the sermons they preached or the other gifts they shared. It occurred to me that what we heard and saw on Youth Sunday was nothing more (and nothing less) than a reflection of the best in yourselves. Their words and vision, their understanding of Scripture and worship and the public witness of Christ have all been formed not so much by a particular pastor or leader, but by the witness of this congregation and their parents. It is this community’s life that has nurtured them. My friends, if we are moved by any offering of gifts, if find ourselves drawn closer to the kingdom by any expression of the gospel here, we may count it as yet another example of how Christ, in our baptism, has chosen us for the ride, counted us as a part of the number, and has put us to work as his body in the world.

Come to think of it, maybe we’d get the point better if our pews were equipped with those safety bars on Disney rides that come down and strap you in. Maybe then we’d get the notion that we are, indeed, moving in a direction, that the church is a ride that lurches and zooms into the future where God knows our hearts and urges us to share our gifts.

Step right up, boys and girls, men and women, and take your places.

Hold on tight…because this could get wild.

But you can bet, most of the time it’s going to be…fun!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Christine Pohl, “Our Life Together” in The Christian Century. February 22, 2012