There’s no business like church business, eh? There’s a lot of it too. From the budget to the baptistery and, yes, the color of the carpet, church business has to get done. Thus, has it ever been.
In this morning’s readings, the apostles have to get down to business and select a replacement for Judas who had died. It seems like a small administrative matter. One wonders why it is even in the Bible. The newly selected apostle, Matthias, isn’t even mentioned again in the Bible, and it was Paul who took on the defacto role of the 12th apostle. It might have made more sense to leave this story out.
But there it is.
The thing to note about this story is that it is between two pretty big events: Ascension and Pentecost. Because of that, we have to pay more attention to it. It’s not just a story about selecting an apostle, it tells us something about what is going on in this time between Ascension and Pentecost.
For the past few weeks, the Jews have been looking forward to Shavuot, and have been preparing to receive the Torah since Pesach. And later this week the Muslims will begin the month of Ramadan which will end in a celebration of the Koran being given to the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). And we Christians have been getting ready too. Since Easter Day we have been counting the Great Fifty Days of Easter in preparation for receiving the gift of God’s spirit.
We have seen that these things take time. But what exactly is going on? I mean, is it just about waiting patiently? Jesus did tell the disciples to wait in Jerusalem. But what were they supposed to do while they were waiting? Interestingly, the story of Matthias’ selection gives us some clues about what we should be doing during The Great Fifty and what it means to be an apostle in the world today.
The 11 apostles who were left agreed that the new apostle should be someone who had been a witness to the whole ministry of Jesus. That is, they should have been around for a period of time, long enough for their hearts and minds to have been formed by the presence of Jesus. A witness of Jesus doesn’t tell a second-hand story, nor does the witness grow into his story all at once. It takes time. Fortunately, the apostles had plenty of witnesses to choose from. Matthias was selected, and we never hear anything else about him in the canonical writings. End of the story, right? But this is not a story about Matthias. It’s a story about time, and sometimes time takes a long time.
The reason it took so much time for the Hebrews to get from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, for example, is that a slave mentality can’t be shaken off in a day. It takes time. Even today, there is something precious between Pesach and Shavuot: Time.
Similarly, Muslims will spend the 30 days of Ramadan praying and fasting but mainly reading the Koran from cover to cover, because it takes time to grow into the fullness of God.
And, we Christians have our Great Fifty during which we mainly don’t do anything, but we should. But, seriously… what to do?
Well, to be witnesses like Matthias and Paul and the others, we have to have our own story, not something second-hand. So, each individual should read the Bible and find themselves in its pages. The stories of the blind beggar, the woman at the well, the unjust stewards, the prodigal son, the withered fig tree, and the Syrophoenician woman are as modern as a new iPhone X. Like all those wacky, loveable sinners in the Bible, we are also confused and hurt and looking for a way out of the mechanized violence of the world and into the light of Christ’s Kingdom. When you read the Bible and something about one of those characters seems familiar to you… Well, it is! It’s about you.
And the other thing we should do is become witnesses to the ongoing work of Jesus in the world. It’s true that Jesus is not here teaching and doing miracles anymore. But, it is also true that his spirit has come into the world, as we’ll celebrate next week, and his spirit is not some inert thing sitting in the sanctuary trapped in a plastic wafer and a jug of cheap wine. It is alive and moving around, unpredictable and wild; and, if you look carefully, you can see it! Whenever you notice the movement of God in the world you are doing the work of an apostle. You are witnessing Jesus’ continuing work in and among God’s people.
These things are the work of preparing for receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Next week in cathedrals around the world rose petals will be tossed into the nave, trumpets will sound, and in congregations large and small people will celebrate the coming of God’s spirit to dwell, not on a mountain and not in a temple, but with all of us.
Now that is really, really big! The spirit of God is coming to live with us. If you aren’t ready yet, start looking around and noticing the Holy Spirit in your office, during your commute, in the breeze, in a friend’s laughter, and in unwarranted hope. She’s in there. And start looking in scripture too. Those Bible stories are about you. The freedom from sin, the dawning light, and total emancipation that the characters in our Bible stories experiences are there for you too.
What can you do to become more aware, more sensitive, to God’s presence in your life? Where might God be quietly working, out of sight? What new things might God be doing in your life? It’s exciting, isn’t it?
Sunday’s coming! The Holy Spirit will be here soon enough. Are you ready?
Linda McMillan still lives in al Jouf Province in Saudi Arabia, but only for a few more days.
Image: Photo credit: Lawrence OP on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Let’s remember that Judas wasn’t the only follower of Jesus to betray him. Peter betrayed Jesus too. The difference is that Peter managed to find forgiveness in this life, Judas only found it in the next. So, it is really not helpful to go on and on about how Judas was a betrayer and met a just fate for his sin. His only real sin is that he failed to trust in the friendship of God and God’s unending mercy.
Though he is not mentioned again in the canonical writings, Matthias is mentioned in other writings and there are at least four stories about where he went, what he did, and how he died.
Interestingly, the Greek word for witness is martyras… as in martyr!
Having 12 apostles was important because it was a cultural shorthand for the 12 tribes of Israel. But, also, the text tells us that there were about 120 people gathered on that day and so there would need to be 12 apostles to mirror the 12 officers of the Sanhedrin and its 120 members. There are other mentions of being grouped by tens too. So, this imagery would have been very clear to those gathered in the upper room waiting. There had to be another apostle.
Exodus 18:21… But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. (NIV).
Maccabees 3:55… After this Judas appointed leaders of the people, in charge of thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens. (RSV).