Seven weeks ago, we trudged in the early morning light towards a tomb, deep in grief for the One we had called Lord—and our world exploded with a stone rolled away, an empty space, and the astounding appearance of the One we thought dead. Since then, we have met Jesus behind closed doors, we have met Jesus on the road, we have been invited to touch and feel, to see and believe, we have explored the image of the vine and the branches, the image of the good shepherd, talked about the way we are to love one another, and held onto the truth that God lifts us up and strengthens us through trials. We have reached the place in the story, where the people who were closest to Jesus have stayed in Jerusalem, waiting for the giving of the Spirit—as Jesus asked. And we are so close. Next Sunday, the 50th day, is Pentecost.
But even while we wait, the story continues. Even now, even for us, the story continues. And so this very mundane passage, about the election of Judas’ replacement, has much to tell us about God and God’s workings in our world. So let us listen.
This could be seen as a quintessentially Presbyterian story. Doing things decently and in order. Jesus had chosen 12 disciples to be the inner circle (at least according to them), and now they were 1 disciple short. And since, in the numerology of this religious world 12 was a super important number (symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel), and they now were NOT 12, those in charge stepped in and decided that they needed to fix this deficiency—and they called for an election.
Now, I notice that it was the group itself that saw this as a problem. Nowhere, that I know of, does the resurrected Jesus bring this matter up. I mean, Jesus has been showing up and teaching them all things. Why didn’t Jesus take care of this hole in the fabric of leadership? Why didn’t Jesus pick someone to replace Judas? They had six weeks to bring up the problem, if this was so pressing.
I notice that this election takes place AFTER Jesus has ascended “to the Father”. But 12 is the magic number, so 12 it needs to be, and they are going to be sure that they have 12 apostles. (Just as an aside, in a few years, Paul is going to show up on the scene and become, in every sense, an apostle—then, making 13—or 12, if the establishment had waited just a little bit).
But let’s give Peter and the gang the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they were still reeling from being betrayed by one of their close knit ensemble. I’m sure they wanted to do things the right way. I’m sure they wanted things to be right. And so, they felt they needed to replace Judas. At least, they realize that they need to get God involved in this decision. The election isn’t a forgone conclusion; they put up 2 candidates.
And there are only two (when the idea first was brought up I’m sure there were as many candidates as there are in the New York mayoral race)—but they narrow it down to two because there are pretty stringent qualifications—you had to have “accompanied us during all the time that Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” It probably wasn’t a huge number of people who had been there, the whole time. In fact, I’m not sure that all the other apostles fit that description. But no matter. These were the parameters. These were the prerequisites. And they whittled the race down to two.
The fact that the apostles put so much emphasis on knowing Jesus, on understanding the story of Jesus, of having someone who experienced the whole arc of what happened, is important. They wanted someone who was there from the baptism of John (when Jesus first showed up on the scene), through the ins and outs of life with Jesus (challenged by the parables and seeing the miracles and hearing the discussions about Jewish Scripture), through the highs of entering Jerusalem, to the lows of Golgotha, to the stunning empty tomb, to the meeting with the resurrected Christ, to the ascension into the clouds. Isn’t that a guide for us?
Isn’t that why we read the Bible, listen to the gospels that tell us about Jesus, muse over the Scriptures (old and new), and create a conversation with those who were involved in leading the young church, in advising how to take Scripture and apply it to life?
The story of Jesus, the story of God with God’s people, is the bedrock of our trust and faith. It is what we go back to, time and again, to center ourselves. There is a reason why the writer of the gospel of John starts off with “In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Words matter. The story we tell matters. Those who Jesus had picked knew that if they were to add to their number, it had to be someone who knew the story, who had lived the story, who could pass on the story.
So, it was down to two. One was Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus. Now don’t you find it odd that this person has three names? I could forgive two, maybe Joseph was a popular name and so people called him Barsabbas, to differentiate. But then there is “also known as Justus.” And what came to my mind as I read this, was all the cool kids in high school who had “fun” nicknames. You know the ones—they are the homecoming king and queen; or they are the ones who run for student government; or they are the popular first trumpet player in the band; or they are the captain of whatever sports team; or they are the ones who always get picked as the leads in the musical. They waltz through the corridors calling to each other for all to hear. Today, they would have the most followers on whatever social media is popular with young people at the time. We still see this in the adult world—you provide your own examples.
So on the one hand we have, the ever popular, ever known, Joseph, called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and then we have Matthias. Which one would you pick? “Justus”/Matthias. Aaaaahhhh. But it isn’t up to you. It wasn’t even up to the “leaders of the pack.” They left it up to God. They prayed and they cast lots. And …
…the lot fell on Matthias. Now Matthias shows up in the Bible only once, here. He is put up for election. He wins the lottery. He disappears. And you could say that he wasn't important. You could say that the other disciples rushed the election, and they should have waited until Paul showed up. You could say that they misread the tea leaves and if only the lot had fallen to Justus, we would have had Justus stories coming out our ears. You could say that. But you might also see the story of Matthias as one of the most consequential stories in the Bible, for us. Because Matthias is one of us, one of those who are called, are chosen, are elected, and then disappear from the picture.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women, merely players” says Shakespeare (in As You Like It). But if this world is a stage, Matthias isn’t a player—he’s backstage hand. He works “behind the scenes.” If you talk to anyone in the theater world, they will admit that although those “out front” are the face of a show, it could not happen without all those who do lighting and put on mics and make costumes and set props and move sets and call the show, not to mention the orchestra or sound effects or …
Matthias is like most of us. Invisible to the audience, but essential to God’s show.
The story continues. It reminds me of the ending of Mark’s gospel (and we are in the lectionary year of “Mark” after all). In the ancient (and shortest) version of Mark’s gospel, the narrator who has been rushing us through this incredible story—urging us “immediately… and immediately… and immediately” all of a sudden gets to the empty tomb. The women who have come to anoint the body are greeted by a young man dressed in a white robe who tells them Jesus of Nazareth has been raised…”Go, tell the disciples and Peter… He will meet you in Galilee.”
But the last verse says “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And the narrator, done with the story, closes the book, leaves the stage, and sits down. So, how do we know the story? Because we are hearing the story.
Something must have happened after the end of the narrative, after the fear and amazement had seized them and they fled. After they said nothing to anyone. Something happened. Someone talked. Somehow the story continued.
Some commentators have seen this as a brilliant literary ploy—you, those who have just heard the story, it is now up to you to tell. If you don’t say something, then the story stops right here and now. But for ages upon ages, we know that the story didn’t stop. So someone, somewhere, has to break through the unbelievableness of a resurrected Christ, to pass the good news on.
Here again, is evidence of more people like Matthias. We don’t know their names. We don’t know their ages. We don’t know their sex. We don’t know where they hail from. They are lost in the mists of time. But that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. And it doesn’t mean that they weren’t important. The ending of the gospel of Mark (in all its truncated glory) forces the question. Who is going to tell the story? It begs for someone to stand up and say, “I will. Let it be me.”
Next week, the story will continue in a big way. The Holy Spirit, in a decidedly indecent and unorderly way, is going to fall on EVERYONE—in Pentecost there is a radical inclusivity. The hierarchy, the importance of “the 12,” for a second, for a God second, disappears—and the Spirit rushes in to anoint all to move out and witness, each in their own way.
The story continues with some people, even some people in high places, trying in good faith, to make sure the system works. And the story continues with God and God’s Spirit blowing where it will—and often picking the second born, the outsider, the outcast.
Today, I want you to leave this space, remembering Matthias. Take heart, all you Matthias’ out there, all you, and that means ALL of you, who the Spirit has picked, who have been chosen and gifted, who are “elected” (to use a very Presbyterian word), all those who won’t be in the bright lights, or get to use a large megaphone. The story continues because of you, because of each and every one of us.
The story continues because we read about it, and tell it to one another, and argue about its meaning for us and our world. The story continues because we participate (we throw our names into the ring), regardless of whether we are followed by anyone at all. The story continues as we lift our voices up in prayer, as we invite God into our lives, as we await wisdom and courage and imagination and love. The story continues because the Spirit falls on us, the Spirit urges us, the Spirit empowers us to play our part, whether it be out front, onstage, or more importantly, behind the curtain, in the wings, out of sight of the throngs—but so important, so critical, to the whole production.
The story continues because it is bigger than just us. It is bigger than whoever our leaders are. It is bigger than any one denomination. It is bigger than any one nation. The story of an unknown, itinerant preacher and a scraggly band of followers; the story from a backwater country; a story that had no reason to become told world-wide; a story that includes so many people like Matthias; that is God’s story. That is our story. And the story continues.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.