If someone asked you what the book of Acts is all about, what would you tell them? The most common answer is probably that it’s the history of the beginnings of the Church. Another is that it’s the story of Paul’s travels as he spread the Gospel beyond the walls of Jerusalem. But, Acts is more than either of those. It’s the story of how Jesus’ followers went about trying to figure out how to live in light of the resurrection. It’s about a community of believers as they pondered what God had done in Jesus and how God would continue to act through them. It’s a book about how those first followers felt their way through an uncertain time—a people who were learning to live as Easter People.
And, isn’t that who we are, too? We’re constantly trying to figure out how Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension should shape our day-to-day lives. What does life after Easter look like for us? How can we be Easter people? We’re going to spend the weeks between Easter and Pentecost—the Easter season—in the book of Acts. So, we’ll get to know some of those first Easter people and the lessons their lives have for us.
First, let’s set the stage. It’s widely believed that the anonymous author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the book of Acts. Luke was not an apostle, but it’s widely thought that Luke was a contemporary of Paul—maybe even a traveling companion. He appears to have been an educated and well-traveled Greek. One verse in Colossians suggests that he may have been a physician. It’s possible that he became a Jewish convert long before he became a Christian missionary. None of this is known for sure; there are other possibilities. But, as we spend time together in Acts, we’ll accept Luke as the author of both books and someone who was well-acquainted enough with Paul’s work to write about it later.
Luke addresses both his Gospel and the book of Acts to someone named Theophilus, which means “dear to God.” Some scholars speculate that Luke wasn’t writing to one particular person but to any Christian seeking instruction in their faith. That makes it easy for us to put ourselves in Theophilus’ place. It’s more likely that Luke was writing for a wealthy, socially prominent patron who, like Luke, had been a “God-fearer” and then had become a Christ-follower. Like the other Easter people we’ll be meeting, he’s trying to navigate his way through a new way of thinking and believing and being. He needs a framework that can clarify and support his faith as he faces the challenges and confusion his decision for Jesus creates for him.
Luke provides that framework. Acts is not simply a history of what took place after Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a story told with a particular theological purpose in mind. Luke wants to show Theophilus how the events before, during, and after Jesus’ resurrection all showed that God had kept God’s promises to restore the nation of Israel and then the entire world.
Acts begins where Luke’s Gospel leaves off—with Jesus’ ascension. We’ll revisit that moment on Ascension Sunday in a few weeks. During the forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, he had made numerous appearances to hundreds of his followers—in a locked room, on the road to Emmaus, on a beach at breakfast time, and others. He ordered the disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then, Jesus ascends, leaving the disciples behind to watch and wait and figure out what to do next.
The disciples number more than 120, including the remaining eleven apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and probably Mary Magdalene among other women, and his brothers. They all must have felt a sense of uncertainty as they returned to Jerusalem after watching Jesus ascend into heaven and basically being told by the angels not to expect a return engagement any time soon. What were they to do, now that Jesus appeared to be gone for good? Where should they start to live out the commission Jesus had given them: to be witnesses who would proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations. How should they begin to carry on Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? Where do they start?
The first thing they did was to follow Jesus’ instructions and return to Jerusalem. They went back to the upper room, where so much had already happened. There are theological reasons for them to go back to Jerusalem—reasons having to do with fulfilling the prophecies of how God would restore the world. But, there’s a human benefit for their return there, too. It was a place they all knew and had experienced together. It was a place where they had shared memories. Together in that room, it was clear that they were a community. No one had to figure out the answers or make decisions alone. They would face their unknown future together.
They didn’t rush into anything. As they waited together, they prayed together. Our translation doesn’t make it clear for some reason, but Luke’s Greek tells us that they did more than simply pray next to each other in the same room. They prayed together with one mind, with a single passion. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what they prayed for, but I think we can guess: for direction, for wisdom, for the ability to discern God’s will for the days ahead.
At some point, Peter comes to a conclusion about a step that needs to be taken: filling the vacancy left by Judas. The number twelve was significant; it stood for the twelve tribes of Israel that were to be reunited. If they remained only eleven when the gift of the Holy Spirit came, the script for God’s plan of salvation wouldn’t be intact.
The first step they took toward making this important decision was to adopt some parameters. Peter proposed some qualifications for the one who would take Judas’ place: it had to be a man, and he had to have accompanied Jesus and the apostles from the time of Jesus’ baptism right up through his ascension. Of course, there were women there who were qualified as well, most notably Mary, who had, from the announcement of her pregnancy, demonstrated prophetic power and Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus had chosen as the first herald of the resurrection. Why it could only be one of the men, none of whom had encountered Jesus at the tomb, is a sermon for another day. Suffice it to say that Peter led the group in setting some limits that helped narrow their choices to two: Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.
We don’t know what if anything beyond Peter’s specifications qualifies these particular men for the office they’ve been nominated for. And, we don’t know much about what happens to them afterwards. There’s a Judas called Barsabbas who’s sent to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, but that may or not be the same person. We hear nothing at all about Matthias after his election. There are a number of traditions about Matthias’ life, death, and the burial of his bones, but Scripture is silent about him. Surely something distinguished them, aside from their gender and their presence for Jesus’ ministry, but we don’t know what it might have been.
In any event, the gathered community nominated these two based on the guidelines Peter laid out. With the options before them, the community took the next step: they prayed. And their prayer was specific: knowing that God knew these men better than anyone else could, the community asked that God show them which one God wanted.
Then, they did something that may seem rather strange to us. They cast lots to see who would be chosen. It seems like a risky way to fill such an important role. But it would have made perfect sense to them. Casting lots was the way some jobs in the temple were assigned among the priests. Other decisions and choices were made by lot as well. Sometimes the options were written on pieces of pottery, or on a small piece of wood. Sometimes white and black stones would be used. Whatever method they used, they believed that by casting lots, their human bias could be eliminated, ensuring that God’s desires alone would govern the outcome. In this case, Matthias was the chosen replacement.
The last step the community took was to act. Matthias was added to the eleven, and the apostles’ number once more conformed to the elements of prophecy. Later on, in Paul’s letters, we hear about plenty of controversy and conflict among church members. But that doesn’t appear to be the case here. There are no reports of grumbling or protest. There are no calls to reconsider, recount, or revote. There’s no suggestion that the process was rigged. They chose their candidates, prayed, cast lots, and acted as one body.
I put Matthias’ name in the sermon title but, as I said earlier, we don’t really know anything about Matthias. It’s not so much from Matthias himself that we can learn something about being Easter people, but from the process by which he became an apostle. The story of how his community chose him can guide us as we make choices, as individuals but especially as a community.
Like those first Easter people, when we face an uncertain future, we may well wonder where we should begin to act. A good beginning place for us is the same as it was for them: to return to the place that helps us remember who we are. We return to the place where we can remember our history and the stories and memories we share with others. For the first disciples that was the upper room. Our upper room is Scripture, where we find our footing on the solid ground of Jesus’ teachings and the stories of our ancestors in the faith.
We do this in community. We talk together and pray together. At first, our prayers may not be specific. We may need time to simply ask God to make God’s presence known. We lift up our trust in God, and our confidence that God wants what’s best for us. We ask for God’s guidance, and for patience while we wait for the nudging of the Spirit.
As we discern what our next step must be, we brainstorm together about what God may want our lives as Easter people to look like. We think through our needs and our questions. We begin to lay out some guidelines—some parameters that will produce an acceptable solution. We ask, “What are the minimum needs that this decision must satisfy?”
Based on those parameters, we discern what options are open to us. If we do a good job of determining our true needs, all the options should end up being acceptable. The summer when Peyton was two or three, she wanted to pick out her own clothes. Left to her own devices, she could end up looking like a little clown–cute, but not the way I would have preferred. But, she was adamant about making her own choices. So, I came up with a plan. All her shorts were in solid primary colors. All her shirts were prints in primary colors.
Her choices weren’t always what I would have picked out, but I could live with them. Both of us were happy with this solution, because all the options were acceptable to both of us. It was the Toddler Version of what the disciples did in Jerusalem. They whittled down the possibilities until they had two that would be acceptable for everyone, no matter what the final decision was.
The next, and perhaps hardest step, is to try to move beyond our own biases and preferences. The early disciples believed that by casting lots, they not only removed their own human biases but that God actually determined the outcome. I’m not sure I would go that far. But, if we’ve done a good job in arriving at several options that are at least acceptable to all, then we can begin to practice what the Jesuits call “detachment” or “indifference.”
This doesn’t mean we don’t care about the outcome. It’s not apathy. It’s not a matter of saying “whatever.” Instead, it means that we aren’t overly attached to one outcome or the other. It’s an interior freedom from the things that would have us indulge our own preferences instead of following God’s will. As the Jesuit writer and teacher Matt Emerson says, it’s “a radical availability to the will of God.” It gives us the ability to truly embrace whatever path is chosen.
I think that God sometimes practices a similar kind of detachment towards us. That doesn’t mean that God is uncaring or distant. But I think many times, God looks at the options we have before us and approves of all of them—that each in its own way would further God’s intentions for our lives, for our community, and for the world. So often people come to me, seeking God’s guidance. They’re troubled when they don’t feel a strong sense of God’s leading or affirmation that one path is the right path. I believe that, in those times, God is simply saying that the options we’re considering are all OK, and that we can freely exercise our own judgment and desire.
What would it look like if we mirrored the steps that the disciples took in replacing Judas with Matthias? Imagine how much more unified we could be in our families and in the public sphere. Imagine how much more peaceful our civic discourse could be if the process were bathed in prayer, grounded in our shared human experience, and focused on choices that are acceptable to all—maybe not everyone’s first choice, but acceptable enough that everyone could say, “Yes, I can live with that.” Picture a world where each person lets go of his or her attachment to one outcome or another and opens themselves to whatever outcome results. Then, when a choice is made, whether it’s by a vote or a roll of the dice or a slip of paper pulled out of a hat, envision everyone involved acting on that choice, wholeheartedly, cooperatively, and without resentment or score-keeping.
This is not an impossible dream. These steps worked for the first disciples, and they can work for us today as we wrestle with our decisions, beginning in our own hearts, in our families, in our church and community and, yes, I dare say even in our nation. After all, as the Lord said to Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” We begin by working on the decisions that are ours to make When we do, these steps can help us to carry out the mission Jesus left to those first disciples and to us. They foster care and respect for others, and peace-filled relationships that reflect our love for one another and for our neighbors. They lead us to productive action that can transform the world.
The story of Matthias is not really the story of one man. Like the entire book of Acts, it’s about a community of Christ-followers trying to shape their lives in the midst of great uncertainty, in light of the resurrection. Their first decision together as a post-resurrection community set a tone for how they would live as Easter people. As we continue to explore their story, may we learn how we can be faithful Easter people here and now. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young