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The Twelfth Disciple -- Matthias Who?

Sermon – 5/22/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 1:15-26

A word of background on the text for this morning from Acts 1.  Acts, you may remember, is volume 2 of the Gospel of Luke.  We assume the author to be Luke, however, nowhere does the text actually claim such.  The third gospel and Acts became associated with Luke in the late second century, a tradition which was not questioned until this century.  While the matter of authorship is an intriguing one, it lies out of the scope of this sermon.  Since tradition calls the author Luke, I will do the same.  Whether this Luke is the physician, the traveling companion of Paul or some other is not important to our understanding of the story.  What is important is that Luke is not an eyewitness to the story.  Rather, as he indicates in his introduction to the gospel, his account comes from a careful investigation  of those who were eyewitnesses.  He writes:     

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.

                                                --Luke 1:1-3

In his first volume Luke describes the birth and life of Jesus.  In his second he tells of the birth and life of the early church. It is also evident from his style of writing, his use of Hebrew scripture and his terminology that he is either a Gentile convert or at least he is writing with a predominantly Gentile Christian audience rather than a Jewish Christian audience in mind.  It is quite probable therefore, that he is a product of the mission to the Gentiles for which Paul becomes the chief spokesperson in Acts.  In other words, he is one of us--someone who learned about Jesus through others and who was brought into the faith not as one under the law, that is, Jewish, but as one outside the law or Gentile.

Lastly, both volumes are addressed to a certain Theophilus, or most excellent Theophilus as Luke proclaims him.  Such an ascription would imply a high government official, which seems quite plausible.  However, the name Theophilus means lover of God and hence could be a literary device, meaning those who love God, a phrase often used for Gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism.  Once again the style of writing and other internal clues suggest that Luke has a Gentile Christian audience in mind rather than government officials.  In other words, this is our book, written to and for the church.   So listen then to what Luke has to say to the church about its beginnings.  This text occurs after Jesus has said his farewells to the disciples and has ascended into the heavens, thus this is the very first action of the disciples without Jesus:

Acts 1:15  In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) 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—  17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”  18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.  19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)  20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, 

            ‘Let his homestead become desolate,

                and let there be no one to live in it’; 

                and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,  22 beginning 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.”  23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.  24 Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”  26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Last Sunday was Pentecost, the celebration of the birth of the church which is told in the next chapter of Acts, a day filled with Spirit, fire, wind, chatter, and excitement.  Normally we would read this text on the Sunday before rather than the Sunday after Pentecost, but I thought it would be better to save this text for this morning when we would be electing our officers for the church.  I thought we could start a new tradition and just draw straws to see who would be our President for the next year.  But Jim volunteered to continue for another year so maybe next year. 

Why on earth, as contemplate the origins of the church, do we stoop down here in the valleys of bloody fields and ecclesiastical nominating committees?  Is this any way to begin the history of the church?  Can we not celebrate the birth of the body of Christ without bringing up the guts of Judas?  As a matter of fact, if the lectionary committees had their way, that is precisely what we would do.  The assigned reading for this text leaves out the ugly portrayal of Judas death.  That exclusion reveals more about the human nature of the church than this text reveals about its divine nature.  We would just as soon forget ugly stories like this one.  After all, we keep skeletons in the closet for a reason.

There is this problem, you see, of the one who "was one of us and and had worked with us" but who chose a different path, betrayed his Lord, stumbled and fell headlong, splitting his guts open.”  Some of you I know would like me to explain this because, good Bible students that you are, you want to know how is it possible that Matthew tells us that Judas hung himself and Luke says he fell to his death.  Which is it, did he hang himself or jump off a cliff?  The answer is simple.  Yes he did. Does that clear it up for you?  There are a number of other little variations in the details of the two versions which may confuse us but really shouldn't. 

History is always subservient in the Bible to theology.  That is, the function or meaning of the story takes precedence over the facts of the story.  What these stories really say, taken as a whole, is that betrayal of Jesus by Judas and his resulting death takes many forms.  Did we think Judas was the last to betray Jesus?  That he was the only one to be fed at this table who  sold out?  That he is the only one with blood on his hands?  You see I am suggesting that Luke includes this story at this point precisely as a way of reminding us that we are not so pure and innocent ourselves.  Before we move to the birth of the church, "Luke would have us ponder the blood of Judas," because, as William Willimon at Duke University says, "If Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, Judas died for the sins of the church". 

In seminary I wrote the centennial history for the First Christian Church of Pomona.  It was my doctoral project under the auspices of Ronald Osborn.  In my research on the project I discovered that there had been a church split years before.  One Sunday morning a couple dozen folk got up in the middle of the service in a very organized fashion, walked out (don't get any ideas) and formed a new congregation.  I discovered this not from anything anyone told me or from any of the artifacts preserved by the church, but by an article I found in the newspaper archives describing the walkout.  Page one of the Pomona Gazette, right there for the whole world to see and no one had even bothered to mention this dirty little secret to me. 

I got really excited.  After reading reams of reports on the Ladies Aid Society's sewing projects, Sunday School Rally Days, Cradle Roll attendance statistics and other matters vital to the general welfare of humanity, this was something interesting.  I showed the article to the centennial committee, thinking I had found something really important.  You know what they said? They would prefer that I not mention it because they did not want to hurt anyone.  I found that to be a little odd given that it was 1983 and that the walkout occurred in 1924.  Those skeletons live a long time!

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone raises a touchy subject and everyone begins looking at the floor or the ceiling or out the window.  What happens?  Someone changes the subject or the chair announces that it is time to adjourn.  Accept for a few oddballs, most of us prefer to avoid conflict and controversy.  I am a middle child which means by nature I am a peacemaker, I hate conflict.  The trouble is, when we refuse to deal with those messy issues they never get resolved.  Those hard feelings, the uneasiness and all the ugliness just lies under the surface and festers until it poisons the whole body.  Then if you ever break through that tough, outer skin, all this vile stuff just oozes out and it is very unpleasant.

Luke, as a physician (if indeed this Luke was one), knows you cannot heal a wound by keeping it under wraps, it needs fresh air.  So he talks about the conflict between the Gentile and Jewish Christians in the 15th chapter of Acts.  He includes that ugly little incident with Annanias and Sapphira who try to keep their finances a secret from the church leaders and go under as a result--six feet under.  And he does not shy away from the embarrassment, even scandal, of the betrayal by one of Jesus' hand-picked disciples, one who "was one of us and had worked with us." 

It is almost as if Luke is saying, before we move from Easter to Pentecost, before we go from the person of Jesus to the body of Christ, before we go from resurrection of the dead to new life in the spirit, we have to get our house in order.  And the new house God seeks to build is not in order.  Jesus says in Luke 22 at the Last Supper that the disciples will sit on "thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel."  Twelve tribes, twelve disciples.  Only one problem.  There is one missing, the group is incomplete.  The story cannot continue. 

How can the disciples represent the 12 tribes of Israel with only 11 members?  The real problem is not how or why Judas could betray Jesus, or how he died,  but who will take his place.  A replacement for Judas would be needed then, someone who can witness to the resurrection, who can continue the cause.  A nominating committee is formed.  All the possible candidates reviewed.  Two appear the most qualified:  Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias.  They pray for divine guidance from God that they might pick the right person for the job and then they mark their ballots, place them in the ballot box--no that is not what they do at all. 

They drew names, according to the CEV, or cast lots, the ancient equivalent of drawing straws.  We are not talking about some junior deacon here, this is for an apostle and they use a lottery system to determine God's pick!  Does that strike you a little odd?  When was the last time you asked for help from God and then threw the dice to get an answer?  Maybe we should have used this system for electing our new officers.  Roll a one and your are a deacon, 2=elder, 3=board, etc.  It would be a lot easier and quicker than the method we use! 

The selection of Matthias by casting lots may seem odd to us, but what it really says is that the only qualification for office in the body of Christ is the ability to witness to the resurrection, the rest is left to God.  What a concept!  Rather than evaluating potential candidates according to past performance, training, ability to run meetings and other critical items for building the commonwealth of God, we ask one question:  How has this person given witness to the resurrection of Christ?  Imagine, leaders of the church, all those who actively demonstrate the power of God in their lives, who shine forth as part of Christ's light to the world. 

I know Matthias was not one of the better known figures of the New Testament.  In fact, this is the only time he is mentioned.  For that matter, 8 of the 12 apostles are not mentioned beyond chapter 1.  As a matter of history Matthias played a very insignificant role.  As a matter of symbols, however, he played a very critical one.  For not only is Matthias together with the other 11 symbolic of the 12 tribes if Israel, he is also symbolic of a God who defeats death--the death of Jesus and Judas.  He is symbolic of a God who raises leaders when leadership is needed.  He is symbolic of every person who is called to fulfill a role within the body of Christ.  He is symbolic of God's mission which continues to move forward in spite of betrayals and human failures.

You know there are many things in this world I do not understand, as I know there are many things for you.  We may not understand everything in the Bible, we may not understand how Jesus could pick someone like Judas or how Judas could turn on Jesus, we may not understand why there is so much pain and evil in the world--we may not even understand the resurrection--but if we can speak of how Christ lives in us, if we can point to God's presence in the world, if we can sing of the power, beauty, wonder of the living God, then we too, can take Judas' place and bear witness to the resurrection.

Are we ready to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus?  Are we ready to receive the gift of the spirit?  Are we ready to let go of the scandals and sins of the past and to move ahead with a sense of purpose and mission?  Are we ready to let the church be the instrument of God in the world today?  Well, let's see, we'll need the 12--there is Peter, James & John, that's three.  And there is Andrew, Philip and Thomas, three more.  Bartholomew and Matthew, make eight.  James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas son of James, that's eleven.  We need just one more and we are ready to go, one more and the church will have all that it needs, one more willing to let God be their guide.  

One more.  How about you?



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