Sunday, May 13, 2018
Seventh Sunday of Easter Year B
Love Leads the Way
Gracious God, in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, you have given us eternal life and glorified your name in all the world. Refresh our souls with the living streams of your truth, that in our unity, your joy may be complete. Amen.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, "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--for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry....
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 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."
So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
1. What do we learn about the life of the church from this story?
2. Does it bring comfort and confidence to remember that God knows our hearts (better than we do) as we make these decisions?
3. How do you accept disappointment when the discernment of God's will does not lead where you wish it had?
4. What does this story tell us about what mattered at that moment to the disciples of Jesus?
5. In what ways do you make difficult decisions about leadership in your church? In what ways do true dedication and faithfulness lead us?
by Kate Matthews
Most if not all congregations know what it feels like to be in an "interim" period, between one pastoral leader and another. Asking for God's guidance is a key part of that experience, and the Book of Acts provides an illustration of just such an interim period for the earliest followers of Jesus. We are between the Ascension and Pentecost, in that "interim" period of leadership clarification and preparation while the disciples wait for the Spirit who has been promised to them by Jesus.
They will be granted power, too, but in the meantime, they set out to fix a problem caused by the defection of Judas, one of their own, one of the Twelve Apostles, as they are historically named. According to Paul Walaskay, all disciples are not apostles, for the latter were a special lot chosen by Jesus as "representatives appointed to carry out the teacher's mission"; they were a special number as well, Walaskay writes: "Twelve is symbolic of all Israel....Eleven simply will not do."
Who can be an Apostle?
Paul, of course, also claims the name Apostle, and the question of "apostolic authority" has been at the center of much contention within the Christian tradition. If witnessing the Resurrection is a necessary condition to apostleship, one might ask why Mary Magdalene did not "qualify," along with Paul, for example. One might ask that question, as feminist theologians have, for women were always the witnesses at the empty tomb. Notice, too, that in verse 14, "certain women" are also with the named disciples now gathered to discern their next steps.
Nevertheless, it's the eleven men who were left after the Ascension who turned to God for guidance in filling the place vacated by Judas' death. They were surely filled with feelings of betrayal and loss, and yet they clearly were setting out toward a new future, rather than dispersing after Jesus was taken up from them. This is a sign of trust in the midst of the unknown, a willingness to follow and to be open to what would unfold next.
Fulfillment and continuity
There is also the theme of fulfillment and continuity with what has come before, as Scripture is cited even about the death of the betrayer. Michael E. Williams describes this "model of interpretation as envisioning scripture as promise fulfilled in the events of redemption. In effect, believers begin with fulfillment and peruse the Scripture to find promises of that fulfillment." Thus, "divine providence...makes sense of mysterious or disturbing events and empowers believers to act. God is in charge."
In that same spirit, Sarah Henrich notes the importance of "Peter's insistence on the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture. Scripture which has spoken beforehand must be fulfilled." And how does one listen for God's will in Scripture, that is, the Old Testament that was "the Bible" for these early Christians? According to Henrich, "The Holy Spirit had been an active participant in the life of the people of God long before Jesus appeared on the scene" and "had been a trustworthy prophet."
Trusting in God
In all circumstances, the followers of Jesus put their faith in God and trust God to direct their next moves. That is how the discernment of a replacement for Judas is seen, made with the guidance of God, before the great event of Pentecost, with the Spirit guiding them. They use the practice of casting lots, which Walaskay reminds us is a "custom described in Proverbs" 16:33--"The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord's alone." Walaskay says that, in this way, "God's providence invades the human process."
One commentator (in Texts for Preaching Year B) has interestingly focused on the characters and later absence of Matthias and his non-chosen alternate, Barsabbas. For all of the importance of making this discernment and rounding out the Twelve, we don't hear about either Matthias or Barsabbas again, and Paul instead claims the title of Apostle and captures the attention of future generations. Still, one wonders how Barsabbas felt about not being chosen and whether he continued on in his ministry, though we might assume that the very strengths and experience that led him to be considered surely made him a worthy preacher of the good news.
Ordinary, faithful Christians
Of course, since we don't hear anything again about either Matthias or Barsabbas, Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis notes "that we know as much about this one who was not selected as we do about the one who was." However, Barbara K. Lundblad provides a beautiful reflection on the "ordinary people who have carried the extraordinary gospel from one generation to the next," and reminds us that our churches hold so many of these faithful ones, whether we recognize them as "born leaders" or not.
Lundblad also draws on Richard Lischer's book, Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church, and the lessons he learned in a small, rural congregation where he experienced the true meaning of the church as the Body of Christ.
God sees into our hearts
Sarah Henrich draws our attention to the way that God "knows the hearts" of all people. Perhaps this offers a good approach for reflection on this text: we can have confidence in a God who knows our hearts: "It is a most profound characteristic of God and of Jesus that they can know the heart and respond in ways that bring comfort, judgment, and even a promise of right leadership as in Acts 1."
Perhaps we might explore the ways this text about faith and trust and God's guidance speaks not only to leadership in the church but in the path of each Christian, for each of us struggles at one time of another in discerning God's will for our lives. May we learn to trust as well.
Living in the interim in every age
How does God lead the early church, and the church today, even when it feels like we're in an "interim" period? What are the new directions in which this God leads us? What are the ways that we can hear the voice of God still speaking in our lives, individually and communally? How do we know it truly is the voice of God? What does the word "Providence" mean to you?
Sarah Henrich notes that this text is not a favorite choice of preachers, so perhaps you won't hear it preached on this Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year B, so our Bible study provides an interesting challenge for us in reading this "other" text. She also suggests that we expand the lectionary text to include the verses about Judas' death, which may make us uncomfortable, but it's also possible that we are doing ourselves a "disservice" by skipping the difficult passages.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 20th century
"I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got [there]. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track led me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which you were even then preparing to be my rescue and my shelter and my home."
Rob Liano, 21st century
"Don't ask for directions if you're not going to start the car."
Chriscinthia Blount, poet and artist, 21st century
"When God throws something your way, catch it!"
Francine Rivers, As Sure as the Dawn, 21st century
"God's will isn't hidden away like the myths and philosophies and knowledge of the world. Jesus told us openly and daily what his will for us is. Love one another."
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