A lot is at stake in this story from Acts. I mean that quite literally, since the word translated “lot” appears twice in it. First, Peter talks about the “allotted share” in Jesus’ ministry, Judas Iscariot cast aside to “go to his own place;” then the story describes how the 120 believers chose Judas’ successor: by “casting lots.” Those instances of the word “lot” also point to a lot—as in a “considerable quantity”—of tensions facing this group as they wait, in the days between Ascension and Pentecost, for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus as he commissioned them to be his witnesses to the “ends of the earth.”
They waited ten days. And you know how hard it is for some personalities to just sit and wait! Peter, definitely one of those “do-something guys,” decides to make sure they are attending to organizational business. Now, they have no Book of Order to guide them, so, as they try to figure out their way forward, they draw from what they do have, their Jewish practices, the Psalms, and their prayer. From these sources, Peter names the mandate to replace Judas and restore the complete number of apostles Jesus seems to have intended, having promised in Luke 22 that the Twelve, would sit upon thrones in Christ’s kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
So there is a question of filling a gap in leadership. But the gap itself feels like a raw wound. Anger, distrust, and grief linger in relation to the absence of Judas, whose name is forever marked in the Church’s memory as the one who betrayed Jesus.
We get a deeper understanding of that wound as Peter names the replacement apostles’ necessary credentials: he must be have had a committed presence in the discipleship community from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, through and “beyond betrayal and death…into the time of resurrection.” The twelfth apostle must have the capacity to embody the full message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to others, and witness to the entire scope of redemptive grace.
Preacher Randy Hyde wonders if, even more than Judas’ act of betrayal, it’s Judas’ tragic absence which grieves the disciples. “As far as I can tell, all the disciples of Jesus were betrayers. None of them believed or endorsed Jesus’ mission,” Hyde notes.“The only difference between Judas and the rest of the disciples – especially Peter – was that Judas didn’t stick around for final redemption. Judas wasn’t a witness to the resurrection….…all of them were betrayers, but betrayal does not need – in fact it cannot be – the final word. Redemption is and always shall be the very last thing.”
Tradition is inconclusive on whether Judas died by his own hand or by a cursed accident. However it happened, he died isolated and alone, never knowing that his betrayal was not the end of the story. What a tragedy, that Judas didn’t fully experience the eternal kind of life Jesus offers, the quality of present and future life grounded in the good news of God’s unstoppable love.
All of us betray God and one another at some point; but rooted in the Risen Christ,
we find a new life in God’s forgiving love, which bears fruit as that love flows through us to release others from bondage to isolation and shame.
The believers in the upper room with Peter are grounded in that unstoppable grace
as they pray their way forward together. They have not yet received the Holy Spirit,
but their devotion to prayer throughout empowers them to go ahead and nominate candidates to replace Judas, and then they cast their lots together in the future of Christ’s people.
Now those who have recently participated in a rigorous leadership selection process
might be surprised by the means of deciding between Matthias and Justus. To “cast lots” is essentially like flipping a coin: heads, Matthias, tails, Justus. The believers saw it as a tried-and-true way to determine God’s will. And there is no evidence that the means or outcome were not okay with God. In the absence of a clear choice, sometimes we simply find a way to move forward.
But neither Matthias—nor Justus, for that matter—are ever mentioned again in scripture,
which makes some commentators wonder if the believers were too hasty in this decision. Would waiting until after Pentecost have allowed them to choose in concert with the greater perspective of the Holy Spirit? Paul, whom no one would have imagined would be called as an apostle, makes an indelible impact on the Church, so some interpreters suggest that Paul, not Matthias, was the Holy Spirit’s choice of the twelfth apostle.
Frankly, I doubt we’ll come to a firm conclusion on any of the questions this story raises for us. But I see good news here which meets us in the tensions faced by this generation of believers, as we seek to be the faithful church together.
We the Church are living through a profound time of transition. Author Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence,” when all previous assumptions about the Church have been thrown into question. Older expressions of being church are declining, making room for new, as-yet-unimagined expressions to emerge. Reading the book of Acts, we recognize this pattern of new emergence is characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s action. In a messy transition time, full of uncertainty, how do we, Christ’s community, faithfully discern our way forward?
We take our cue from our ancestors in the Acts’ story, committing ourselves to each other, devoting ourselves to prayer together, stepping out in faith and experimentation, “making our road by walking.” Sometimes it feels like we just muddle through, awkwardly grieving and moving through past wounds, doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. But the good news is that we have indeed been given something to work with! We have much, much more than basic necessity or chance to go on: we have God’s testimony in Jesus Christ.
1 John tells us that “whoever has the Son has life;” whoever trusts God’s unstoppable love,
revealed in the whole scope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is already immersed in the eternal kind of life, because you can know and trust, “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” that life in Christ wins through. Redemption—not betrayal—has the final word.
Learning and accepting that testimony in scripture and our faith community, we, too, become witnesses. We are empowered to bold engagement in Christ’s ministry here and now, trusting that God can work with whatever comes. Thus, we see and experience for ourselves Christ’s incarnation and resurrection right here, among this particular group of people, in this particular place and time.
Now, I’ve been thinking about this text in relation to welcoming Nick and Christy
to membership in our congregation today. The believers in that upper room committed themselves to waiting, praying, and making decisions with all the others, particular people of that time whom Jesus Christ had gathered to his side. Each of them “cast their lot” in with each other: in this case, that phrase means we accept the portion provided for us in whatever particular situation we find ourselves.
Baptism means that Christ has gathered us to his side, and we will follow him wherever he takes us. It is a welcome to the universality of Christ’s Church. But membership is all about particularity: we affirm that it is this particular place and people where he is presently calling us to share our particular gifts up-building of Christ’s community and witnessing God’s love to the world.
There are risks in planting our stake in this soil, this all-too-human community with its layers of history, where conflict and betrayal and loss are a part of the messy fabric of ministry together. So many people simply choose to just “check out” of community rather than
take the risks of messy relationships.
But we who have witnessed the resurrection know and trust that God shows up as we muddle through, covering us with grace as we step out again and again in faithfulness together. Betrayal and loss are never the end of the story: In Christ, the final say is always redemption and love.
Sources: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lot; Acts 1:4-7, Luke 22:28-30;
Frank L. Crouch, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2456;
Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008: 528.;