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Sermons > Sunday after the Ascension

17 May 2015

“Then they gave lots to them and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.”  (Acts 1:26)

In the name …

The earliest church really trusted in the power of God, and in a way much more dramatic than we would ever dare to do so today.  It all goes back to the very beginnings of our faith story.  When Israel was wandering through the desert, according to the Pentateuch, there were two holy sites that moved along with the community.  One was the Tent of Meeting, which was set-up on the edge of their encampment.  Here Moses, the great prophet, would talk with God.  The people of Israel would come out to the Tent of Meeting and pose their questions and problems to Moses who would then petition God for a judgment.  The other sacred site was the Tabernacle.  This was the priestly bastion at the center of the camp.  The priest would vest for liturgical functions and the vestments themselves were consecrated and made holy.  And in the Bible we read that inside the breastpiece worn by the priest for the liturgy were what were called the Urim and the Thummim.  No one any longer knows exactly what these looked like, but we’re almost certain that they were something similar to dice. When a gravely important question was asked of the priest, he would throw the Urim and Thummim.  In some fashion, the priest would then decipher the answer of God’s yes or God’s no.

Then today we hear that Judas had to be replaced as one of the twelve apostles.  Judas was the one who had betrayed Jesus.  Two men are chosen as replacement candidates who meet the qualifications of being eyewitnesses to the entire earthly ministry of Jesus.  They had to have been among the followers of Jesus from the time of His baptism by John until His ascension into the heavens.  This is Luke’s explicit and exact definition of who qualifies as belonging to The Twelve.  But the community after choosing two worthy candidates is not granted the privilege of making the final choice.  This belongs to God.  The people all pray together, then just like the Old Testament’s Urim and Thummim, they cast lots.  Joseph is assigned one and Matthias the other, and lo and behold, the lot favours Matthias and he becomes the replacement twelfth apostle.

The twelve tribes of Israel symbolized the full contingent of the people of God.  As a matter of fact, when Levi’s share was taken away from him when that tribe was named to serve God as His priests and ministers, then the tribe of Joseph was divided in two so that the number twelve would be restored to its symbolic fullness.  Likewise, it wasn’t so much the death of Judas that mattered.  It was his betrayal of Jesus that forced the other apostles to replace him and return their number to the symbolically important number of twelve, the number of fullness.  We can see this when King Herod orders the assassination of James the brother of John.  He was one of The Twelve, but he dies in the good graces of Christ and church.  He, therefore, never needs to be replaced.  James, even in death, remains part of The Twelve.  This is why Jesus states in the Gospel, “‘When the Son of Man is seated on the throne of glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” (Matt. 19:28)  The Twelve are never replaced for both historical and theological reasons.

But Luke still talks about other apostles, one of whom is Paul who never once in his life saw the historical Jesus, and Paul himself makes a rather big deal out of the fact that he truly is an apostle of Christ.  So apostle must mean one thing, while The Twelve must mean something different.  In our Bible study group this past week, in a phrase that I thought would have created a lot of discussion, the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to Jesus as the singular apostle of our faith (3:1).  This statement stands alone in the entire New Testament canon.  But it was passed over quickly and then we spent about 50 minutes talking about angels.  I was surprised by how God’s Word affects us.  We can’t be certain, in other words, where the Spirit will hit, how the Spirit will touch us, connect with us, excite us.  And that takes us back to Urim and Thummim and to the lots that let God choose Matthias as the last member of The Twelve.  I doubt very highly that church would ever turn back to letting God intercede in this way because the church doesn’t like to be surprised, not even by God.  And I think that may be something to mull over in this week before Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the emerging church, the actual birth of the church.

Think about what Luke is telling us in today’s Lesson.  The first followers have interacted with the resurrected Jesus.  They have watched as He ascended into the heavens right before their eyes.  And yet they have done hardly anything.  It was only the sharing of the Spirit on Pentecost that gave them the will and the ability to give public expression to this faith.  I’m sure the first followers were surprised by the Spirit.  I’m sure the first witnesses to this public display were surprised by the Spirit.  So when church pulls back from the willingness to be surprised she’s really pulling back from letting God be God through us.  And that may be some part of the reason why more and more Americans are leaving church behind, why 36% of those in their late 20s want nothing to do with organized religion.  Maybe by leaving surprise out of the church institution too many only see institution.  Let us pray in this week leading up to the glorious surprise of Pentecost that we may better appreciate what it means to be open to Christ, to trust enough in God to let Him make the decisions, and to be people ready to be surprised by the Spirit.  For these things we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.  (+)

Fr. Randolph Calvo


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