This morning’s scripture is positioned right between the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and the beginning of the disciples’ ministry without Jesus. We really can’t get from Easter to Pentecost without going through Jesus’ departure from earth known as the Ascension.
The writer of Luke-Acts explained in chapter 1 that following his resurrection Jesus stayed 40 days with the disciples and taught about the kingdom of God.
The Greek phrase most often used for the Kingdom of God is basiliea tou theou. Kingdom, basiliea, would actually be better translated as the reign or rule of God. The difference being that the idea of “the kingdom” can be reduced to as sense of a location, a boundaried area. But the reign or rule of God constitutes involvement over all creation. All life is swept into God’s saving power. When Luke’s readers in first century Palestine heard this expression “basiliea,” they understood it for they lived under the imperial Roman control. For Jesus and his disciples to proclaim that there was a new Ruler and a new Reign in the world meant that Rome was not ultimately in control. The new reign of God was manifest in Jesus’ life.
Under God’s reign there are no barriers between God and God’s children. The vertical relationship is free to love and to trust. God cares for you and takes care of you just as God takes cares of the birds of the air. So don’t be anxious about your life, Jesus said.
Under God’s reign there are to be no barriers built between humans. Horizontal relationships are to be free to love and trust. Under God’s reign, no distinctions are made that set one person or people over another. Under God’s reign there is to be no segregation— by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, rich and poor and any other barriers we construct. There is to be no subordination of the natural world to humankind because the horizontal is based on the vertical.
Where God reigns, Love reigns.
Jesus embodied the reign of God in his flesh.
Upon Mount Olivet, Jesus commissioned his disciples to take up his mission to embody the reign of God as well, to become his witnesses. “When he said this,” Luke described, “he [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And as he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. ‘They said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'”
There they were: staring up into heaven in awe, transfixed by the surreal experience of Jesus’ departure. They were forced to make a choice: either they would stay put and dwell in that experience-remember, clouds always represented the power and presence of God. Honestly, who wants to return to real life after a spiritual experience? The last time Peter experienced the cloud upon the mountain was during Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter then wanted to set up tent to live there.
The two messengers cleared their throats: Excuse us. Why are you staring into the sky? Galileans, get going! There’s work to do!
So the disciples lowered their eyes and looked around. What they saw was not the after-glow of the presence of God. They saw each other. Not a very spiritual sight. Peter saw his brother, Andrew. John looked over at the two James. There was Philip, Thomas and Matthew. Bartholomew was standing there with Simon the zealot, and over to the side was the “good Judas, son of James.” What? WE are going to embody the reign of God?
That band of eleven painfully ordinary men laid the foundation of what we today call the church, the body of Christ-2,000 years later.
Isn’t that amazing? We sit here because those eleven men wandered slowly back to Jerusalem to wait for their orders from Jesus. They returned to the upstairs room in the house where they had hidden after Jesus’ crucifixion trembling and terrified.
After Jesus’ departure, though, they waited for the Spirit to come, and they prayed and prayed and prayed. And the women prayed with them-Luke’s readers would not have missed that detail. Women were among the early leaders of the church because why-under God’s reign, all are included and barriers are broken down.
Peter discerned that the time had come to fill the unexpired term of the twelfth apostle left open after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his subsequent death. (That’s what we Presbyterians call it: an unexpired term. Today after church we are voting on to fulfill an unexpired term for elder-trustee.)
The calling of Judas’ replacement apostle is a great story about being faithful to process and then moving forward boldly. His call to leadership takes some of the weight off that we carry when we are making important decisions for our lives. I read that the most common question people have is, What is God’s will for my life? That’s weighty question! And a question that can keep us paralyzed from making many difficult choices because we’re afraid that there is a WRONG decision that will ruin our lives if we make it.
Would you cast lots, or draw straws, if you had to choose between one job offer or another, between one college or another, or who to marry, whether to stay in a relationship or end it, to remain at home with your children or return to the workforce, to commit to church leadership when the nominating committee calls… or to ignore the caller ID?
Probably not. But in the case regarding the 12th apostle, there was no long, drawn out committee process. No hidden ballots by a college of cardinals. No white smoke. The disciples narrowed the selection pool to determine by identifying two criteria:
1. The twelfth apostle had to be someone who had accompanied Jesus from his baptism by John the Baptist up until the moment he was taken up into the clouds.
2. Someone who would be a witness to Jesus’ Resurrection.
They chose two candidates: “Joseph called Barsabbas who was also known as Justus”-the other, Matthias.
The disciples prayed over the lots (or pebbles) which according to Hebrew scriptures was not an uncommon practice. Lots were cast for important decisions in other stories. The apostles asked for God’s guidance trusting that God knew the heart of those men. Then, they rolled the dice. Matthias was chosen. Who knows how Matthias felt about the outcome. He could have been praying, Not me, not me, not me.
I titled my sermon “A Surprising Choice” not only because the choice of Matthias entailed a strange process for such a paramount decision, but more because, as I kept reflecting on it, I kept coming back around to Judas.
Jesus chose Judas to follow him. Why? Didn’t Jesus know about Judas’ character? Didn’t Jesus know that Judas would end up betraying him? Why did Jesus take a risk on such an unlikely disciple?
Why? Because of the counter-cultural nature of God’s reign. God’s way of putting together a leadership team is not based on each member’s extraordinary talents or strengths. It’s not about “deserves.” God chooses us to be witnesses to God’s reign of love despite our weaknesses, shortcomings, insecurities, self-loathing, lack of faith, pride, ego, or our risk-aversion. God takes a risk on us, just as God did on Judas!
Jesus’ call of Judas didn’t work out so well. It’s a mystery to us why he took that risk. It’s not how I would have done it had I reviewed Judas’ resume. But for some reason, God knew his heart and Jesus invited him to follow, and Judas became one of the inner group. AND Judas betrayed Jesus.
We don’t even know how it worked out for Matthias. We never hear about him again.
Think about it. Even Peter, the one speaking for God, openly denied Jesus three times. The other apostles ran like the wind when the officials dragged Jesus away from the garden of Gesthemene. In other words, not one of the apostles was honestly faithful to Jesus to the end. They all failed-except the women who went to anoint the body and encountered the risen Christ. Jesus did not give up on any of them. He commissioned each and every one of them to become his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Jesus does not give up on us either. He continues to call unlikely disciples to be witnesses despite our fears or self-interest. We may not feel like we are ready for leadership in the faith community, but, here’s the news: It’s not about us. It’s about a faithful God who promised to equip and empower us-ordinary people to do extraordinary things-through the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Now that is a surprising choice, indeed.