The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
I have become increasingly convinced that the stories in the Acts of the Apostles, the first work of church history, are not set before us simply to remind us of what happened when.These stories are preserved because they shed some light on ways that the Church can faithfully respond to its ever-changing circumstances.So what we have in the Acts of the Apostles is not only a recital about the past, but a guide book to the future.
This is certainly the case with the story set before us on this final Sunday of the Easter Season.This story fits the pattern of crisis and response.
What’s the crisis?The death of Judas and the vacancy this leaves in the number of the twelve.
A full complement of twelve disciples is considered of vital importance, not as a practical matter, but as a reminder of Israels’ twelve tribes and the twelve patriarchs for whom they are named. The claim of the Christian community is that it is a new and reformed Israel.Having its own dozen patriarchs is, at that time, an important part of its claim.
What’s the response?Matthias is elected to fill the empty place, thereby restoring the apostolic group to their full strengthof twelve.
We have here a foundation text for the idea of apostolic succession, in other words, the Church in every age as a community in continuity with the earliest disciples. We have here as well a basis for the historic episcopate, the belief found in some churches that every bishop ordained in that succession enjoys a ministry rooted in that of the apostles.
But something more is happening here.We have a crisis and response pattern that can be applied to numerous circumstances in the life of a Christian community.
Consider how itmight have happened otherwise.Judas betrays Jesus, then later dies, apparently by his own hand.A space is empty among the twelve. The early Christian community, a group of some 120 people, could respond differently than they do.They could spend their time preoccupied with the failures of Judas.They couldfragment into parties that would eventually opposeone another. They could become stuck, waiting passively for the next one of thetwelve to go the way of all flesh.Any of these responses is possible given human nature and how groups function.
What they decide on is a different option.Peter seems to have a big role in this.He stands up and makes a speech summarizing the situation and proposing a course of action.That speech occupies most of today’s reading from Acts.But the most brilliantspeech is worth little unless people choose to act upon it.
Peter manages to strike the right chord.He urges that someone be found to replace Judas.That person must fit certain criteria. What’s needed is somebody who has followed Jesus since the earliest days and who can testify to the reality of his resurrection.The community responds by putting forth not one candidate, but two. Through prayer and the casting of lots, one of them is chosen, Matthias.Thus the crisis is resolved.
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Again, it could happen otherwise.Peter’s proposal could be shouted down or condemned by silence.There could be no candidates to put forward, or those suggested could decline the honor.These things are known to happen in human groups.
But instead Peter exercises leadership by proposing a solution to the community’s dilemma.The community responds, not simply with verbal assent, but with two qualified candidates willing to serve.A process of choosing is employed which has been blessed by community prayer.The result is a crisis resolved.
Whatever else is happening in this episode, I dare to say that a principle is at work here that can benefit the Church in every generation.Here’s how I would express that principle: Faithful response to a crisis involves calling forth additional expressions of ministry.
Faithful response to a crisis involves calling forth additional expressions of ministry.
On the level of understanding, this seems obvious, but on the level of practice, it may not be obvious.
In practice, groups and individuals often resort to other options, including those I mentioned earlier as refused by the original Christian community.These options include blaming somebody, becoming fragmented, and staying stuck. Each of these is a grand way of helping a crisis go from bad to worse.Each one is popular among individuals and groups.
Instead, those 120 Christians gathered together exercise some trust in the God who raised Jesus from he dead and is not through with any of us yet.They recognize themselves as a blessed community possessing gifts waiting to be put to use. They remember what God has brought them through already, in the light of which this deployment issue doesn’t seem insurmountable.And so they respond to Peter’s proposal.They put forth not just one qualified candidate, but two. They respond faithfully, leave the rest to God, and the result is a new twelfth apostle.
As we hear the story in Acts, it seems as though both Matthias and Justus step forward at this moment, urged on by those around them.They are not mentioned previously in the New Testament and they are not mentioned ever again. They simply come forth at the right time, when additional expressions of ministry are needed.Thank God for their willingness!
At times of crisis, the Church needs additional forms of ministry.Do we dare to ask for such help?Do we dare believe God intends to provide it?
We might well recall the Old Testament story about the prophet Elisha, whose city was surrounded by the great army of a hostile king. Elisha’s attendant was distraught about this, fearing the worst, but the prophet told him, “Don’t be afraid; for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed for his attendant. Lord, “please open his eyes, that he may see.” So the Lord “opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire around Elisha” [2 Kings 6:15-17.]
May we recognize that horses and chariots of fire surround us, additional forms of ministry waiting to be called forth.For whatever the crisis, far more numerous than the forces of destruction are the forces aligned with God. His horses and chariots of fire are always there on the mountain of our lives.
Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.