Seventh Sunday of the Easter season, Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Let us begin this time of reflection in the spirit of prayer:
God of heaven and earth,
we celebrate Christ who came to live as one of us.
We celebrate Christ who proclaimed
your love for all people.
We celebrate Christ who showed us
that in life, in death, in life beyond death,
you are always with us.
And we celebrate Christ who, leaving his earthly body,
entrusted us to be the body of Christ in the world.
For this sacred calling,
we give you thanks and praise, O God.
(Seasons of the Spirit, June 1, 2014, adapted)
The book of Acts, or Acts of the Apostles as it often called, gives us a glimpse of the early Christian movement immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Acts begins by noting that in the first forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, his followers had many experiences of his presence. (Acts 1:3) This initial period of awe and excitement emboldened the disciples and gave them the courage to worship together, organize themselves and await the inspiration and empowerment of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised. (Acts 1:8)
Acts tells us there was a core group of Jesus’ closest followers who were meeting in the upper room of the place they were staying in Jerusalem. This core group of followers included the eleven remaining disciples who were present at the last supper with Jesus. Acts tells us that these people were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)
It is here that the story picks up with our reading today. We hear that Peter takes a leadership role by addressing one hundred and twenty believers who were gathered. (Acts 1:15) He acknowledged that Judas, who was “allotted his share of this ministry”, (Acts 1:17) was no longer with them and that there was a need to fill the vacant position.
This is where the reading gets interesting and has implications for the Christian Church today. Criteria is clearly set forth with respect to what was necessary to qualify for key leadership positions in the earliest and formative stages of the Christian movement. Peter outlines these requirements when he says the replacement needs to be,
“…one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)
The most important criteria for the core work of apostleship – travelling to teach and proclaim Jesus’ good news about the Kingdom of God – is someone who knew Jesus intimately at every stage of his ministry. Eyewitness accounts and a passionate retelling of experience was the type of personal testimony that was required to inspire others to believe these accounts and for them to dedicate their lives as followers of Christ.
Having the criteria clearly articulated would have aided the short-list process. The fact that Peter declared that all potential candidates were required to be men is a troubling precedent for some of us. We know there were women who were actively involved in Jesus’ ministry and that it was women who stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion and women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection. I won’t belabor the point but it may be that there was some tension in the Christian community after Jesus’ death between the patriarchal culture of the time and those who favoured Jesus’ inclusive and counter-cultural approach to community. It is also very likely, with the earliest disciples being predominantly Jewish, that the number twelve designated as the core group of leaders was meant to correspond with the historical twelve tribes of Israel which were headed by male descendants of their ancestor Jacob. Also, the original mission of the twelve as described in the Gospel of Matthew is that,
“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6) And the Gospel of Luke says, “Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority…and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” (Luke 9:1-2)
While initially Jesus focused his, and his apostles’ ministry, on reinterpreting Jewish teachings for Jewish people, his ministry expanded well beyond those boundaries by the end of his public ministry. At the very beginning of the account from Acts, the disciples have an experience of the risen Christ in which they ask,
“ ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Jesus replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ ” (Acts 1:6-8)
There’s that word witness again that we heard in today’s reading. During the time of my formal theological studies, one of my teachers often used the word witness. She’d declare that as Christians we are called to witness and be witnesses of Christ’s presence in the world. In my first year of theological studies that word made me very nervous because I associated it with people standing on street corners or going door to door trying to convert people. But, of course, that is not what my teacher meant. The word witness simply means “one who testifies to what is known to be true”. Witnessing is more than simply observing something and knowing the profound truth of that experience. Witnessing is also about responding to the experience with words and actions. In a Christian context a witness is someone who through words or actions testifies to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he stated that the one who was a good neighbour was the one who showed compassion and he encouraged his listeners by saying, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
The early Christian community, as described in Acts, took the role of witness very seriously and so they chose two candidates who were suitable to witness to Jesus’ life and ministry. Since both candidates fit the criteria the community needed a way to choose between them. As a community, they prayed asking God who knows everyone’s heart, which one should be chosen. After they prayed they cast lots in order to make the final decision.
As 21st century people, casting lots sounds as bizarre as short-listing two candidates for a ministry position and then blindfolding someone on the selection committee and asking them to throw darts at dart board to choose which one is the successful candidate. I’m sure there have been selection committees who have been faced with equally qualified candidates who have had difficulty making the final decision who may have wished they could have a simple way of knowing which was the best choice.
We don’t know much about what casting lots really entailed other than it was a traditional way of acknowledging that God played a part in the calling of a person to special ministries. What is important for contemporary churches to remember is the importance of prayer in decision-making, listening to the lessons of our faith tradition and listening to the wisdom of the witnesses in our midst.
The current Manual of the United Church of Canada sets three simple criteria to follow when members of a congregation make decisions. The Manual says that decisions are to be made
a) on the basis of an understanding of scripture and of the ethos of the United Church;
b) in the light of Christian experience; and
c) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit moving in the discussion during the meeting of such a body.
(The Manual 2013, The United Church of Canada, pg 46)
This is why, even if we’ve just finished worshipping together, when we have a congregational meeting we always pray and invite everyone to remember that God is present and that everyone is encouraged to intentionally open their minds and hearts to the influence of our faith tradition and to the prompting of the Holy Spirit at work within the gathered community.
Harvey Cox, who is a theologian and the author of the book, The Future of Faith, believes that Christianity is entering a new era that he calls the Age of the Spirit. Cox notes that the,
“ ‘emerging church movement’…like that of the earliest Christians, …is a movement of the Spirit that focuses on following Jesus and striving to actualize the Reign of God…and its view of the Christian life as ‘relational and transformational’.” (HarperOne, 2009, pg. 218)
It seems to me that the renewal and revitalization of the Christian movement lies in remembering the lessons of the past and rededicating ourselves as witnesses, in word and deed, to the ministry of Jesus Christ.
With this in mind, I’ll close with words of encouragement and affirmation:
As Jesus called and sent forth the disciples
to live the Word of God’s love,
so Christ calls us and sends us out
to live words of hope in our own lives.
We hear this call and respond by being
God’s people in all parts of our lives.
We can share in Christ’s ministry in our daily lives
with our families, in our communities, with our friends,
and in our community of faith.
When we leave this time of worship,
we leave knowing the assurance of God’s love,
the grace of our communion in Jesus Christ,
and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit –
the fire that warms the heart of our ministry together.
May this be our experience, today, tomorrow and always. Amen