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The Spirit Speaks

I have once again had the privilege of serving as a guest preacher at Grace Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago. On February 4, 2007, my turn came up in an expository series working through the book of Acts. Here's an "extended cut" of the sermon (with two deleted paragraphs restored) that I delivered on Acts 1:12–26.

It's a sobering thing for me to stand up among you this morning. It might not be obvious why that is, but it's because, in the passage you've just heard read, it was Peter who stood up among the assembled congregation to speak from Scripture — Peter, that rock that Jesus had said he was founding his church on, the one whom we saw becoming so powerful a leader in our midst.

Oh yes, and I do mean "in our midst," because I was there. I guess I should introduce myself: I'm Number Twelve. I'm Matthias.

I think you can see why I of all people might be invited to expound this passage of Scripture this morning. Frankly, it's my very favorite. Actually, it's not — not at all. Actually it makes me more than a little uncomfortable to read this passage. Not that I'm complaining, but it hasn't been easy being me, not easy being "the new Judas." Not easy actually getting my name in the Scriptures — me! in the holy Scriptures! — but then disappearing without a trace, never heard of again. Well, I guess you're going to hear a little from me this morning.

If you'll allow me, I'd like to talk with you about what Luke says in this passage. Please open a Bible so you can follow along. I'll wait; do have it? In my day, it wasn't so common to be able to read — let alone to have your own copy of the Bible — so wouldn't it be a shame to take it for granted? You should also follow along so you won't let me say anything that doesn't accord with the Scriptures, even me the Twelfth Apostle. Don't ever let anyone do that from the pulpit. Your tradition of testing all wisdom with the question, "Where is it written?" is a good one. (I bet my fellow apostle Paul wishes he'd thought of that one.)

You see, that's what it really meant to be an apostle: not to make stuff up, not to start something new, but to carry on the teaching of Jesus and to carry it forth. We twelve were sent out not to be consumers of the Word ("hearers only") but proclaimers of it, and "doers." But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Think about this scene and try to put yourself in our shoes. Sandals, actually, but whatever. We had ridden quite a rollercoaster: from the excitement of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday — to the horror and shame of his betrayal and execution — to the mind-bending delight of seeing him, with our own eyes, risen from the dead — through 40 amazing days with him, stuffing ourselves with more of his teaching, feeling like we were getting a second chance to get it, this time — and then he was gone.

He had taken a bunch of us out for one of his long rambles in the countryside. (He might have been risen from the dead, but he still loved all the same old stuff, loved to consider the lilies of the field.) He's talking with us, and all of a sudden it starts to sound like a farewell address. And yeah, then he disappeared, kind of "up" and kind of "bigger" and kind of "brighter." We watched him as long as we could, and none of us were sure the very instant we couldn't see him anymore. We must have looked pretty funny, staring into space. The two angels who appeared seemed to think so; I'm pretty sure I saw one of them elbow the other and roll his eyes. Easy for them not to be freaked out: they had a lot more practice being aware of Jesus' constant presence than we did. We were going to have to get used to that. But we did know enough to be glad for the time we'd had with him, and to keep on seeking him. That's why (as it says in our passage here) that we devoted ourselves to prayer, and why we went to the Temple to worship all the time. Jesus had given us a taste for God, and we were still hungry for more.

Anyway, in those last days, one of the most amazing things he said — and Luke has this right there in chapter 24 of his gospel — was that {quote} "'Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures." That's exactly how it happened. So we prayed, we worshiped, and boy did we read the Bible!

Now keep in mind that the Scripture we had at that day was the Hebrew Bible, what you call the Old Testament. We read it up and down, backwards and forwards. (You know, you read Hebrew backwards already, so that was actually the easier way to do it.) And the whole time we read, we couldn't stop thinking about Jesus. We'd learned a whole lot about him by being with him, but we couldn't believe how much more there was to learn about him there in the Bible, too! I suppose it was a little like being a fan of, say, Johnny Cash's music (and I am a huge fan, by the way): you own all his records, you go to live concerts to hear him and everything, you feel like you're the biggest Johnny Cash fan there ever was — and then you discover there are a bunch of books by or about him. If you're a serious fan, you're in hog heaven (as Johnny himself might say).

Anyway, man, how do I get on these tangents? (You can see why they never let me write a book of the Bible myself.) The point is, we couldn't stop reading the Bible, and we couldn't stop thinking about Jesus. It was awesome.

But there was someone else we couldn't stop thinking about. And it surprised us. It was Judas.

If you think it should have been easy to put Judas out of our minds, then you've never been tricked. Not like at a bar-mitzvah magic show, really tricked: fooled. If you think it would have been easy to put Judas out of our minds, you've never been betrayed. Or abandoned or rejected by someone you were really close to.

When Peter says here, "He was one of our number and shared in our ministry," he wasn't kidding. This guy was one of us! He'd really stiffed Jesus, of course, but we felt the betrayal, too — and he was one of the most puzzling things in this whole puzzling time for us. The truth is that no one really knows what was going on in Judas's mind. It's true that he was a greedy son-of-a-gun. (We had figured out later that he'd been stealing from the ministry fund.) But he wasn't so greedy that he'd sell any human being (let alone Jesus) just for money. I think that's why he was so disgusted by the money he got for being a collaborator: he loved money too much not to understand the power it had over him.

Some think he was trying to force Jesus' hand, that he was fed up with Jesus' confusing relationship to the Romans, trying to make Jesus unveil his almighty power and crush Israel's enemies just to get out of their little prison. There's even this theory (that y'all may have heard surfaced in an ancient manuscript of The Gospel of Judas last spring) that Jesus told Judas to turn him in and promised to reward him as his very most favorite disciple. Give me a break. That theory could only have been dreamed up by someone who never met Jesus, I can assure you; someone who lived more than a century after Jesus was gone — which is exactly when it was written, by the way. Or maybe it sounds a little bit like the story Satan might tell about his own favorite apostle. We were having a hard time figuring him out, and I'm not sure anyone ever has. When we heard about how he died, it was hard not to feel like he got what was coming to him. But still, we were shocked; it was a horrible death.

But once we dug into the Psalms, we could see that God's "suffering servant" had always been opposed by enemies, traitors, and false friends. You just try reading all those "Lord, defeat my enemies" psalms without thinking of Judas; we sure couldn't. That's why Peter quotes two Psalms in his speech here. That line, "let another take his office" really hit us hard: it really seemed like we needed to fill the gap Judas had left. We knew the Spirit was speaking.

Sure, this was before the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon us so dramatically and we spoke in many languages. (You'll hear all about that next week.) I bet you might think of Pentecost as the day fire from heaven was invented, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The Spirit has always spoken in Scripture; that's what Paul meant when he wrote that "all Scripture is God-breathed." The Spirit sure was speaking to us as we read, addressing our biggest questions, filling us in. I highly recommend it, this Bible-reading thing. What are you puzzled about? What's really bugging you? Maybe you haven't just had your beloved leader betrayed into the hands of the stinkin' Nazis by one of your closest friends, but you probably have something that's eating at you. Bring that into your Bible reading. The Spirit speaks there.

Anyway, we'd already been wondering whether we should replace Judas. After all, Jesus had told the apostles that they would sit on "twelve thrones" to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. (That's in Matthew 19, you can look it up.) The number twelve, especially in our day, had really strong connections with renewal movements within Israel. For instance, the Qumran community out in the desert (where y'all found the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls) had twelve leaders. We always figured that was why Jesus had chosen the Twelve in the first place: so that no one in Israel could fail to get that he was connecting with them, that he was renewing God's ancient covenant, not doing away with it.

So I can assure you, Peter had been reading the Bible. That's the first thing, the primary thing. (I still read it to this day, and I've been dead for centuries.) But the second thing is, Peter had been thinking about what was needed now. He had been thinking about himself and the other Ten, thinking about who they were, thinking about their job description. He had been thinking about qualifications for the Twelfth.

And once he had it all worked out, it turned out to be pretty simple. Just think how it could have been otherwise: he could have gotten bogged down in a virtual civil-service application. (I can just see it: section one, education; section two, professional ministry experience; section three, recommendations from former employers.) Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things, but Peter realized it was going to be more straightforward. The Twelfth apostle was simply going to have to be, first, someone who had been with Jesus throughout his entire ministry; and second, the one whom the Lord himself chose.

Didn't he put it strangely? Peter said that the twelfth apostle would "become a witness with us of [Jesus'] resurrection." This probably strikes you as strange, but that's because of the strong visual connotations of the English word witness. When you say "witness," you mean somebody who saw something with their own eyes. So how could the twelfth apostle become a witness of the resurrection so long after the fact?

But Peter's statement isn't as strange as it seems at first. When we said "witness," we meant as much that the person with first-hand knowledge would speak up about what they saw. And you know, the two things are not the same. Lots of people saw Jesus in my day; we saw him on the street all the time. But not all of them added love and faith and became his witnesses. Or it's like this: there are lots of crimes that never get justice because the people who saw something won't say it. There's a security alert on your CTA trains and buses that puts this well: "If you see something, say something." That's good advice for Christian folks. This doesn't come naturally to us fallen people; we often see even the most beautiful things in the world and we clam up. That's why the Scripture is full of notes-to-self like "Praise the Lord, O my soul." "Tell of his lovingkindness." "Declare his mighty deeds among the people." That's what Peter was talking about. This new apostle had to be someone who had seen it all and who would speak up about it.

So on the one hand, the Twelve apostles were totally unique. But on the other hand, you're in just the same situation, aren't you? Have you seen the Lord's goodness? Have you recognized his voice and responded to his teaching? Have you met him? Then you, too, can be an apostle when you speak up about what you've seen, when you proclaim his good news. There are other people right here in the book of Acts, not among the Twelve, who are called apostles. Being a witness means a lifetime devoted to listening to the Lord and passing on what you hear.

Anyway, back to the story. So as I've said, Peter had been reading Scripture, and the Spirit spoke there. He'd been thinking about the future of the church and what kind of people it would take to spread the gospel, and the Spirit has spoken there. Now, the whole lot of us looked around to see who met the qualifications and who we thought might be called to this once-in-history job opening. It turned out there were two of us, me and Joseph aka Barsabbas aka Justus. (Myself, I always just called him Joey. We was real tight, me and Joey.)

Oh, and you might notice the lack of women in this list. Sorry, ladies, but there was nobody among us — from Mary on down — who thought it would be a good idea to violate the powerful customs of our culture quite so blatantly as that. As it says right here in this passage, there were women in our company, some of whom had been with Jesus throughout his whole ministry. Luke is especially fond of showing how significant women were throughout Jesus' life and on into the early life of the church. (Stay tuned in this sermon series for lots more about powerful women in ministry.) In our own way, we were going to shatter the prejudices of our times, proving that in the Lord there is neither male nor female. But this twelfth apostle needed to be able to appear in any public setting (many of which were closed to women) in order to speak about the Lord — he would be subject to gossip and insults foul enough without adding the sort of slander a woman would have faced — he was going to get sent out solo to travel the highways of the ancient world — he would almost surely get thrown in prison from time to time.... It just wouldn't have made any sense to commission a woman as number twelve. I'm pretty sure this is why Jesus had chosen twelve men in the first place from among his disciples, many of whom were women.

So. It was down to the two of us, Joseph and me. Next we did something that probably seems really strange to you: we cast lots. Basically, that means we flipped a coin. (Later today when you watch the opening of the Super Bowl, think of me as the one who got to receive the opening kick-off.)

But I know you modern Americans. You're thinking, what's the deal here? You're thinking, these two candidates won the primaries, so why didn't they just vote on it? Eleven is an odd number, so there was no danger of needing a runoff.... You've got a lot of confidence in the will of the people, more than we did back then. I've heard some of your political philosophers say, "vox populi, vox dei": the voice of the people is the voice of God. Tell me that's not blasphemy.

Anyway, about casting lots: first of all, you have to realize that this was a normal way to make decisions in the Hebrew tradition. Right at the beginning of Luke's gospel, it says that Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband and the father of John the Baptist, was chosen by lot for his stint of service in the Temple (where he saw the angel and lost his speech). In ancient Israel, they used what they called the urim and thummim as an similar decision-making tool. And casting lots was common throughout the Greek world. You probably still think it sounds crazy, but it made sense at the time.

But the more important point is a theological one: we knew the Lord had already made his choice, and the Lord's choice was the only one that mattered. We had done our best to discern it: Peter had proposed restrictive qualifications, we had examined the members of our congregation, we had deliberated among ourselves — each of these was an important step. But there we were with two viable candidates, and we just didn't know which one the Lord had chosen. So we prayed. And notice what Peter prayed: "Show us which of these two you have chosen." We weren't resorting to the coin-toss because we wanted chance to decide it — we wanted the Lord to decide it. And we knew that he could show us by our casting lots. Proverbs 16:33 says, "The lot is cast into the lap, / but its every decision is from the Lord." That's good enough for me.

I don't know what to tell you about whether you should ever cast lots yourselves. You're picking a new pastor soon, aren't you? Maybe you're wondering whether a good roll of the dice might not come in handy. Well, I will say this: we never again (so far as I know) cast lots to make a decision in the New Testament church. After Pentecost, I guess it never seemed as if we needed the extra assistance to learn God's will. All in all, I don't recommend it.

What I do recommend is what we were really doing, at the heart of it: we sought the Lord's choice for this twelfth apostle. This was one buck we were going to pass all the way back up to Jesus. Wait upon the Lord and seek his counsel, by every means you can. I know your pastoral search committee is doing just that. They're using all their smarts and also all their hearts as they seek to discern the Lord's will for your congregation and the Lord's call to the right candidate for you. I urge you to pray for them, and I urge them to persevere, not sparing any effort as they seek God's will.

See, that's how it was for us. Even before Pentecost, the Spirit spoke to us. He guided our reading of Scripture, just as he had inspired its writers. He challenged us to fulfill our mission no less than to fill out our full number. He spoke wisdom to us when we reasoned and when we deliberated together. And in the end he gave us his choice for Number Twelve, when he spoke through the casting of lots. He had spoken my name.

That moment when we all saw that the lot had fallen to me, everyone turned their faces toward me — what a sober moment. It didn't feel like winning a prize, not in any way. After all, it wasn't some game I'd won. It was a race, and the starting gun had just gone off.

That race, my race, has become yours. Here at Grace the Word is spoken and his praises are sung. Here in a few moments you'll gather for the Lord's Supper, to proclaim his death till he comes again. Here today you welcome new members into this congregation.

As the Spirit spoke through the Psalmist: "He remembers his holy promise given to his servant Abraham. / He brings out his people with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy; / he gives them the lands of the nations, and they fall heir to what others had toiled for — / that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws. / Praise the Lord" [Ps. 105:37-45].


first published Feb 9, 2007

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