Since Easter we’ve been hearing about the flurry of activity around Jesus and his growing number of disciples. The resurrection was a stunning moment where tragedy and grief turned into celebration and rejoicing, but all of it carried forward into the world as a means of spreading the gospel message. Not only is there an ever-growing crowd of people who want to know more about the teachings and ministry of this Jesus of Nazareth who is returned from the dead and said to be the Son of God, but Jesus is working hard as can be to prepare the disciples for the moment when he is no longer present on earth.
On Thursday, Ascension Day, we commemorated that moment, when Jesus departs and leaves his disciples to carry on the work. This is a critical moment and tells us much about Christ, about humanity, about our bodies, and about God’s desire for our relationships with one another. But today, the Sunday after Ascension Day, we read the next portion of the Acts of the Apostles and we begin to hear the next chapter in the story of Christ’s followers. Not the story of the ascension, but of its consequences. What happens when the newborn Church is left to sort things out without Jesus’s earthly presence to guide it?
The first item of business is the selection of what to do about the empty chair left by Judas. Everyone grieves Judas’s death because, even though he betrayed Christ, Judas was one of the closest people to Jesus and was given a share in Christ’s ministry. Christ chose twelve for this task, not eleven. There must be ministry for twelve and therefore this is not a position that can be left vacant. The eleven apostles agree that the newest of their number should be one who “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.” The requirements for the new apostle are clear as is the work that they are being set out to do: to witness to Jesus’s resurrection to the world. Two men are identified, lots are cast, and the Spirit identifies Matthias as the twelfth apostle.
This moment is important, even though it gets just a few verses in the Acts, because it demonstrates the way in which the Church will get on with its work after the Ascension. It tells us a great deal about the stance of the Church, its priorities, and its relationship to God in these early days. And, I suggest to you, provides an excellent model for discernment and decision-making that we would do well to emulate more closely than sometimes happens in these places.
We see the apostles and gathered disciples quickly determining their priorities. They need to replace Judas, but not to maintain numbers for their own sake. To put it in terms we use today, nobody is worried about the number of names on the parish list. They are worried about their ability to spread the gospel in the world, a task for which Christ identified twelve apostles as necessary. None of the apostles know exactly what this new, resurrected life will hold for them, but they do know that their teacher and Lord intended that the spreading of the medicine of the gospel into the world after the Ascension would start with twelve.
This arrangement of priorities is critically important. The apostolic community here places the work to which God has called it as its highest purpose. Secondary to that are other concerns, such as the maintenance of their communities. We will hear in just a short way further into the Acts of the Apostles that all of their property and money was shared communally. Pooled into a common purse and distributed as people had need and that, somehow, there was sufficient for all.
This prioritizing of God’s call first, with a sense of humility and trust, reminds me of the readings for Rogationtide that we heard earlier this week. The famous passage from Luke 12 about ravens, which neither sow nor reap nor build barns but who somehow eat, and the lilies of the field which neither toil nor spin but are somehow clothed in divine glory. And the example that both ravens and lilies give to those who follow Christ, that our first purpose must always be the work to which God calls us, not to worry and toil for ourselves. Imagine a community that first sets its priorities through discernment and prayer, and then trusts in God to provide the blessings necessary to carry out that work. Quite the opposite from how we tend to plan for ourselves today.
We also see the apostles demonstrate a deep humility in beginning the work to which they have been called. Even these men, given authority by Christ to carry on the preaching, witness, healing, exorcisms, and teaching, acknowledge their limits of discernment and trust in God to carry out the rest. Without Jesus to make decisions like who is to be an apostle, those who remain on earth still pray and invoke God to assist in choosing their path forward. They lay out a set of requirements that they believe necessary for an apostle to possess, but they leave it to God in the casting of lots to identify which of the “short list” is to be made an apostle. The apostles, for all of the trust Christ has placed in them, for their positions they are already adopting as leaders and elders in their communities, understand that God is still the primary agent. They know God to be present and active, even if Jesus has left the earthly places behind.
In the presence of God’s activity, they are humble. The apostles carry out work so far as they are able and then return to prayer, trusting in God to look after the rest. What would decisions in our own lives—our houses and families, our parishes, our dioceses—look like if we acknowledged the limits of our own ability and wisdom? Even more, what would it look like if we trusted God to guide us and received the changing circumstances of the world as signs of the mission and work to which God was calling us, rather than as obstacles to be overcome? Signs of necessary change in our own lives and communities, rather than threats to maintaining what “has always been”?
In all of this activity, we see the deep and abiding trust the apostles have in God. The apostles know their task is to spread the gospel message through the world, that they have been sent like seeds scattered in the wind. They know from their experiences with Jesus that the world will not always be welcoming to what they have to say, will not want the healing they bring, will not want the medicine of the gospel, and that this work may cost them their lives, but for the life of the world they must continue in it. The apostles also know that they have been given certain authority and certain gifts to carry out this work, but that they are not the gospel Word themselves. They are only the ones it has sent.
The apostles trust that God has called them to ministry and places where they are needed, where Christ is needed, where the medicine of the gospel is needed, and that their lives have been transfigured into shining icons of God’s love sufficient to make known the Kingdom of God, even amongst those who do not want to acknowledge it. They have made God’s call to them their first priority, they have approached their preparation for this call with humility, and they trust that God will provide the blessings and work that they cannot.
The apostles exercise the gifts they have been given, they pray, and they trust, like seeds traveling on breezes, that they will land where they are needed and that God will see to the hard work of making new life blossom from the soil. We trust God to care for the ravens and the lilies and the seeds on the wind. Do we trust God to care for our neighbours, those to whom we have been sent, as the ravens and seeds? Have we the humility to trust God to care for us?
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.