The opening scene to the book of Acts sets up a challenge. Jesus gives his departing words and then, well, departs! The disciples are left in a state of confusion with a little awe thrown in from the spectacle of Jesus, resurrected from the dead now going to heaven above. The Ascension of the Lord is a part of the story we tell about our faith in the one who lived, died and was resurrected. Eventually, the faithful standing there with proverbial “jaws on the ground” will proclaim that Jesus is returning, to come back in glory when all things come to an end. Their sad disappointment will turn into abiding hope.
How do they get from despair to determination? Some would say that answer is found in next week’s story, as we read the story of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower the Church. Certainly, this is the big moment, however, what happens between the Ascension and Pentecost should not be forgotten. In these brief verses, sort of in between the scene changes” of these two great set pieces of Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus have some important moments, even if brief and less bedazzling than what happens before and after.
For starters, the disciples decide to wait and trust. They have been through a lot with Jesus. The author of Luke wrote the book of Acts, a part two to the gospel’s Part One, so if you read Luke/Acts as intended, these characters have been along for nearly the entirety of Luke’s story. In Luke, the disciples learn of the kingdom of God envisioned by Jesus while in Acts, they are now charged with spreading this message while living very much in the world as they know it. In the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts alike, the disciples discover the juxtaposition of being faithful to God while persecution, rejection and other adversity interweave the stories of the disciples spreading the gospel.
Waiting and trusting are difficult to do under “normal” circumstances, yet here we find a body of believers willing to learn how to persist and keep a faithful witness. Indeed, the first words of Acts may be ones mixed with certainty and uncertainty. The last word of Acts, though, gives us a good reminder of the old song’s lyric “everything’s gonna be alright”.
As the book of Acts closes, the church is spreading across the known world, just as Jesus commissioned his disciples to take his gospel to the ends of the earth. In the last chapter of Acts, we find Paul, a one-time persecutor of the Church turned into one of its most effective witnesses.
Paul is on a preaching mission, surviving adversity of many kinds, and he is last seen in Acts in Rome, the very center of the first century world. He preaches before Jew and Gentile alike, sharing the good word. The last word of Acts is the best word as Luke narrates an ending to this long story of Jesus and his first followers. Paul is “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).
Indeed, the last phrase in the Greek text is “hindered not”. Such a phrase is a good motto for the early Church and those who came in the centuries after. Life is not easy. Living out the gospel is a challenge. Yet we are a people who are somewhere between the Ascension and the Return of Jesus, keeping the faith of the One who lived, died, and rose again. We are a people well acquainted with adversity as well as living in Acts’ promise to be a people who “proclaim the kingdom of God, teach about Jesus and do so with all boldness”. We know this is a challenge, yet we take faith in the promise that we are “hindered not”.
Meanwhile back at chapter one, we return to the anxious moment between Ascension and Pentecost. The disciples regroup and head back to Jerusalem. You’ll note that the narration points out the disciples are a small yet diverse group of women and men, gathered from various walks of life, all together in their belief in Jesus and his teachings. From this small group huddled up in a room comes a faith eventually stretching around the world, including the wilds of southwestern Vermont.
How did they do it? They began this new era, devoted to prayer with one another. They also realized that they needed God’s guidance in the midst of all things. Even as Jesus departed, the promise to these Christians was that they would not be alone in the meantime. The Bible tells this story continually of God at work, even if not immediately perceived or when the signs and wonders weren’t as obvious. The book of Acts recalls and builds upon this thread within the Hebrew Scriptures: God will be with us, even when we do not realize it.
In turn, the disciples have decisions to make. In these early days, they feel the need to keep to a familiar pattern of twelve apostles, just as Jesus maintained around him. On this side of history, we consider “the Twelve” as part of the woodwork, generally recalling them as an “inner circle” to Jesus. For these disciples, they saw the Twelve as a symbolic role, recalling the twelve tribes of Israel. With the demise of Judas, they wanted to restore the twelve among them.
The decision to replace Judas, the disciples worked together. It was not a decision made by any single disciple such as Peter, often recalled in some Church traditions as carrying more weight (primacy) than the other disciples. In their decision making, they spent time deciding who among them befit the role. They arrived at two candidates and then they opted to leave it to God.
We puzzle over the casting of lots, as it sounds a bit arbitrary at best. The Bible mentioned casting lots in two ways: a form of gambling and as a form of discerning the divine will. In the more positive use of casting lots, important decisions would be left to the uncertainty of the outcome being up to God. All these centuries later, we would not claim this as a method we would take stock in, though the underlying principle of leaving some element for God in the midst of things, working beyond our plans and predictions, assumptions and biases is good for our humility.
Usually, most people read this passage and think “good riddance” at the mention of Judas and “who in the world is this guy” when the name of Matthias comes up. Matthias is considered a long-time disciple, yet the entire gospel of Luke passes by without a mention. He appears briefly and never mentioned again, odd considering the role he is called to play as an apostle.
Matthias and the other candidate Joseph are well suited as good examples of persons who keep the faith and live out the gospel. Judas is understood as one who failed, turning against Jesus and evidencing other failings that are jarring with the emerging values of early Christianity which takes a communal view of possessions and power alike. Judas and Matthias have the same opportunity to hear and follow Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the last week of Jesus’ life. They hear the same message, yet they respond differently. One keeps the faith. The other loses it altogether.
I find the selection of Matthias as yet again a word of encouragement. He is raised up for his gifts and his faithfulness, not his popularity or his profile. The writings of Paul will speak of the diverse gifts of the Spirit among the body of believers, summing up the gifts not as one greater than another, an even playing field where all are together in the ministry and mission of the church. Matthias may not have had quite the extensive coverage of Peter or Paul, yet he models in even the scarcest of mentions in the text the type of disciple Jesus calls and the gospel aims to cultivate.