Acts 1:15-26. (Ascension Sunday)
Where do we go from here? What does the new Jesus Movement do after Christ ascends into heaven? Acts of the Apostles is the next chapter of Luke’s two-part series. Forty days ago, two disciples walked to Emmaus and met the Risen Christ in the breaking of bread. After 40 days of wondrous appearances to many followers, Christ has now ascended into the sunset. How will this fledgling movement handle the loss of its leader? Imagine a church where your leader was convicted in court and brutally executed as a criminal. And yet he lives, hope is restored, but there he goes again. The disciples probably wonder, “Now what? It is all on us, and what will we do, who will lead us, how will we organize ourselves? The religious and civil authorities are still hostile towards us. We don’t have a budget. We don’t even have bylaws! Jesus didn’t really talk about these things.”
This scripture may sound like a mundane annual meeting where a new board member is appointed. It may strike you as peculiar as Mattias is chosen by drawing lots. We don’t know how that worked, but flipping a coin, drawing straws, or picking which hand has the pebble would all fulfill the task. We could try this at our next annual meeting. The short straws are nominated to the board. It may sound crazy, but the Coptic Church still picks bishops in this way. It beats vote-counting in Arizona.
Why am I even bothering with this passage when we have so many vital issues to face? How we organize ourselves for mission in ways that have integrity and inclusion are essential. We need a clear sense of security and order and open to innovation and the work of God’s Spirit. How does a church organize itself if God is still speaking? Are we more of an institution or a movement? Can we be a bit of both? If you don’t think this is important, imagine not being able to vote in elections because of your race. A large portion of the church names our denominations by our organizational structures rather than our theology. Think Episcopal, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic. How we discern God’s Spirit defines us.
This text is also important to us because we are at a critical moment. Even before the pandemic, the broader church of all denominations was struggling with doubt and division. Old fundamentals don’t always answer the new world where we live. Political acrimony can disable a congregation. Who would have predicted the next big church controversy would involve masks vs. no masks, singing or no singing? We are sorting out what a digital future looks like and what is worth keeping after a year without our buildings. Some will want to embrace a more technological future, and others will want to leave Zoom behind forever and just pick up where we left off on March 15, 2020. Like Peter and the early church, how do we get down to business and remain open to the Spirit’s lead?
Peter and the Apostles had several choices. They spent three years traveling with Jesus, often two-by-two, going from town to town, as itinerate messengers living on the hospitality of others. St. Francis adopted this model of Christian community 13 centuries later when he formed the Franciscans, based directly on Luke 10. I’m curious why Peter didn’t choose this direction as a way of imitating Jesus. Instead, Peter decides the standard practices of Judaism. First, The text says (v. 15) there are 120 believers (literally Brethren) gathered. That is not a random number; it is the exact number of men needed to form a synagogue with its own council. Second, Peter wants to replace Judas, showing continuity of leadership and the symbolic number 12 for the 12 tribes of Israel. Third, Matthias is appointed by casting lots, which happens six times in the Old Testament. Moses divis up land by casting lots (Num. 26:55-56). Solomon cast lots to determine administrative jobs in the new Temple he was building. (I Chron. 25:9ff). If it is good enough for Moses and Solomon, how could Peter go wrong? The text doesn’t say this, but I imagine a capital campaign committee formed too.
Everything is done decently and in order. It’s almost Presbyterian. Peter is following the best practices to launch this community. So how did that work out? Despite the best-laid plans, it is a bumpy ride. It starts well enough with people selling their goods and sharing in common and taking care of the poor. Then one couple withholds some of their wealth and is struck dead. A few days later, Stephen is stoned to death for blaspheme, and the apostles disperse to safety as Saul hunts them down. Whatever happened to Mattias? He is never spoken of again. But Saul is struck blind, becomes a Jesus follower, and in his letter to the Corinthians, he claims he is a true Apostle. Peter never gets to execute his strategic plan for a new synagogue. (Which reminds me, we had a strategic plan ready to share when the pandemic hit. And it didn’t include a digital church strategy.). The new community of Jesus’s followers gets shaken up and dispersed. They face all kinds of controversy over who is in and who is not. Do we welcome the uncircumcised? Can we eat with them? That’s a big deal if your central act is observing the Lord’s Supper.
The only actor with clarity in all this turmoil is the Holy Spirit. Throughout Acts, the Spirit moves people to travel, to speak, to baptize, to overcome prejudice and tradition for the sake of love, to live with courage, and with openness to all people. This book could easily be re-titled the Acts of the Holy Spirit instead of the Acts of the Apostles. But God likes to share the credit with those willing to follow.
I find inspiration in the book of Acts because I feel this mix of hope and trepidation as we come out into the pandemic and an unknown journey. Just as Jesus’s followers experienced the good news of the Resurrected Christ, I am excited to preach the good news in person instead of to my iPhone. I’m relieved to feel safer after getting the vaccine and eager to connect with friends, have a cup of coffee together. It’s great to see people planning, cleaning, and painting already. Here we go! As I said last week, the church building is like a beached ship we are hauling up, getting it seaworthy, and trying to regather the crew to put it in the harbor ready for the next journey.
But then what? All the challenges we had in 2020 are not only still here but accelerated. The face of Christianity in America is still exclusive, judgmental, and even racist and homophobic. How will we reach people with the good news of God’s welcoming love? I’m remembering all the challenges of finding enough leadership and volunteers to do our work, and now we need a new crew again. We have learned so much about church online because we had no choice. What do we keep from digital church now? While we are getting our sails up, we see democracy under attack by the big lie of voter fraud, and anti-racism work and climate change are still waiting for our courageous action. It’s exciting and overwhelming.
I’m not even sure we are recovered from the pandemic yet. We have been holding things together for a long time. Many of us are exhausted and now have to make a significant shift. We likely haven’t begun to grieve what we have lost the last year. As a wise friend said last week, “We don’t even know where we are wounded yet, let alone healed from it.” I get Peter, joyful about the resurrection, still traumatized by the fact the crucifixion happened in the first place, mindful of failures and short-coming, but seeing the time to step forward and push this boat into the water. I’m aware that we will need to be adaptable and ready to change with new challenges we haven’t even thought of yet.
I’m grateful to read that the Holy Spirit is a living presence with us still. Now as much as ever, we will need to listen for the still speaking God, who will get us through the uncertainty, push us out of our comfort zones of safe harbors and get us out in the faithful journey in open seas. I wholeheartedly have faith in our church to do this work, as challenging as it sounds. Remember this; our job is to get things ship shape. But the church is more of a sailing ship than a steamer. We rely on wind power for propulsion. It is important we pay attention to set our sails at the best angle. I trust in the winds of the Spirit to come and propel us forward. Friends, we are not alone. We have said for months we will get through this together, and now we will launch together. I don’t know our next voyage yet, but I am eager for the journey.