May 28, 2017
Introduction to the text
The Book of Acts is the story of the early church; part II of the story, if you will – it’s the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. After Jesus was raised from the dead, Luke tells us, he appeared to his disciples, and gave them some final instructions. Part II begins where Luke left off – with the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and the disciples waiting for the coming of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Listen for the Word of God:
Acts 1:1-17, 21-26
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
During this time, the group of believers numbered about one hundred twenty people. Peter stood up among them and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled concerning Judas [Iscariot], who guided those who arrested Jesus— this was predicted long ago by the Holy Spirit, who spoke through David. For Judas was one of us and shared in our ministry.”
For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
May his place be deserted; let there be no one living in it; and
Let another take his place.
So now we must choose one of the men who have 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 will join us as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.”
So they nominated two, Joseph called Barabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen as an apostle to replace Judas [Iscariot] in this ministry, for he turned away and went to his own place.” And they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
* * * * *
The disciples are at a turning point… Jesus has left them, and the Holy Spirit has not come. They are betwixt and between, at loose ends, unsure of themselves, with nothing to do but wait. There’s no timetable, no estimated time of arrival for the Spirit to come. Jesus told them where to wait, but not how long. There they are, trying to absorb the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and appearances to them… The world has become a completely different place, and they don’t know what’s coming next.
And they have time to kill. Lots of time. Nothing to do but wait.
So Peter does what any respectable leader would do. He makes up something.
Something Important and Meaningful.
Something that gives the illusion of being in control.
Something that might help relieve the anxiety of waiting.
It’s not that he does anything wrong; quite the contrary.
He identifies a perceived need: the loss of Judas from the 12.
He finds scripture that seems to address their situation: in this case, from the Psalms.
He creates criteria for the decision, and outlines appropriate credentials: someone who has witnessed the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, from his baptism to the ascension, from beginning to end.
He has them pray, and not just any prayer, but one that recognizes that God does not judge by appearances, as humans do, but by what is in a person’s heart. In fact, that’s exactly what God said to the prophet Samuel 1,000 years before when he had to choose a new king, and chose King David. [1 Samuel 16:7]
Peter is doing everything right. They nominate two people, cast lots, and the decision is made: Matthias it is.
Boom! Done. Mission accomplished.
Now all they have to do is wait some more.
But you know what’s curious?
We never hear of Matthias again. Nowhere else in the entire Bible is he mentioned.
And “the twelve”? They’re only mentioned once, in Acts 6, and never again in the entire New Testament.
And you know what’s really odd? Jesus never told them there needed to be twelve disciples.
Peter made that up.
Whose idea was this? Peter’s. Because he thought he ought to do something, is my guess. And the best he could come up with was to try to make things as much like they used to be as he possibly could. Jesus had twelve disciples; that must be the way things should be.
It’s a very human thing to do, isn’t it? Especially in times of uncertainty, and change. It’s absolutely natural to want to control things, and the best way we know how is to go back to what we know for sure.
As I was working on this sermon, I found myself thinking about something Anastasia Anderson told me years ago. Now, this may seem to have nothing to do with Peter and the twelve and waiting for the Spirit, but there’s a connection, really…
Anastasia is our Veterinarian, and she helped us when we had to have our dog put down. It was really, really hard. We loved Sammy; he was a great dog. But he bit people, not just once, but twice, and there were children next door he would snarl at. We had to. There was just no choice.
It was an awful time in our lives. Gene and I had just separated, Ben was about to graduate from High School, and our world was in turmoil. Nothing about life was normal. But Anastasia gave me really wise advice. She said, “Don’t get another dog right away. Because what you really want is your old dog back, and that can’t happen. Wait till your ready.”
Then she said something really surprising. She said, “When it’s time, don’t go looking for a dog; your dog will come to you.”
And she was absolutely right. A few months later, I was ready, and we talked about what sort of dog we might want. Something gentle. Something medium sized. A mutt. Ten days later she called to say, “I think I have your dog.” Someone had found him on the side of the road, limping, recovering from a broken leg. We’ve had Charlie for ten years now, and he is the perfect dog for our lives.
Now that may be a terrible analogy to use, and I hope Jesus will forgive me, but that gets at the feeling, I think - the human desire. Wanting what is familiar. Wanting what we loved and lost. It is really hard to trust that the future is going to be OK – even when you know the Spirit is about to come. But when you do trust –God has amazing things in store.
It’s hard to prepare for a future you don’t know. I remember a couple of years ago when Luke was graduating from High School, and I was trying to prepare for an empty nest. I girded my loins, tried to think of ways I would want to occupy my time; I got appropriately nostalgic and teary… I was a mess. It was important work to do, and I don’t regret it at all. In the meantime, Luke was preparing for his life – buying stuff for his dorm, signing up for classes, registering for a freshman orientation, getting to know his roommates.
But nothing could have prepared us for the way the last couple years have turned out. It’s completely different than anything I could have imagined. We’ve had crises and tragedies and unexpected joys – wonderful joys. At some point I threw up my hands and said, “OK, God, I give up trying to guess what’s next. You tell me."
That’s what waiting for the Holy Spirit is like. We need to be responsible, we have to plan – but we are not in control.
Peter thought he needed to be in charge, needed to fill out the ranks, needed to find the next Apostle so there would be 12. He thought he had it all figured out. But do you know whom God chose to be an Apostle?
It wasn’t someone who had been with the followers of Jesus from the beginning, like Peter thought it should be.
It wasn’t someone who came to follow Jesus because of his teaching, or his ministry, or miracles.
It wasn’t one of the 120 waiting with the disciples for the Holy Spirit to come.
It wasn’t even one of the thousands of people who were baptized because of the disciples’ teaching and preaching after the coming of the Spirit.
It was Saul. A Jewish leader from Tarsus, whose sole mission in life had been to stamp out Christian belief because it was corrupting the Jewish faith. He was in Jerusalem specifically to deal with the rising interest in these Jesus-followers, “people of the Way,” as they were called. He was present at the killing of Stephen, which was just the beginning of a severe persecution against the church.
According to Acts,
“Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women and putting them in prison,” [Acts 8:3]
He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.
He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” [Acts 9:1-2]
That’s the person God chose to be the next Apostle of Jesus.
It was while Saul was on the road to Damascus that Jesus appeared to him. In a blinding light, Saul was stopped in his tracks, struck blind. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” came a voice. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
The Spirit of Jesus sent him to a Christian named Ananias, who was incredulous. “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” At Ananias’ house, Saul is healed, and his sight restored. He is baptized, and filled with the Holy Spirit.
He is no longer Saul. His new name is Paul. The founder of the Christian Church throughout the Mediterranean. The author of half of the books in the New Testament. The one who wrote the words, “Love is patient, love is kind; love isn’t arrogant or boastful or envious or rude.” The one who knew, “There are many gifts, but the same Spirit.” The one who said, “You are the body of Christ.”
Think back to those days before Pentecost, while they were waiting for the Spirit to come. If you had told Peter what God had in mind, he wouldn’t have believed you. Never in a million years.
There are seasons of our lives when we are living in in-between times. Graduated, but not gone. Getting ready for an empty nest. Pregnant, and expecting, but not sure what to expect life will be like. Unemployed, and searching. Retired, but not sure what the next chapter will be. Sick, and recovering, but knowing life will never be the same. Engaged, but not married. Grieving, and unsure. A refugee, without a country to call home.
So many times when people face these windows of uncertainty….
You know, it’s the most natural thing in the world to want to control things, or try to. It’s completely understandable to want to make things certain when you’re living in uncertainty.
And no matter how eager or curious or open we are, most of the time, our only frame of reference is the past: what we’ve known, and felt, and seen, and done. That’s all we have to draw from. So we try to stabilize our shaky world by reaching back for any tool that we can think of.
But there is more in store, so much more…
More than we could ever hope for, or even imagine…
Challenges, and opportunities we cannot see.
Scripture says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
We go in faith, trusting that the Spirit will come.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
(At end of the service, we gave this blessing to our graduating seniors)
Would the class of 2017 please stand to receive a blessing
Before you were even formed, God knew you.
While in your Mother's womb, God named you.
At your birth, God's breath filled you with life.
Today we celebrate what you have become
at this moment in time, and we look on with you,
eager to see where God is calling you.
And so we go before God in prayer to invite God to bless your journey, Let us pray.
God of our beginnings,
We thank you for the gifts of these graduates;
their excitement, their awesome wonder and curiosity,
their gifts of voice, melody and song,
their open speech and, encouraging words.
Their contributions have blessed and challenged us,
and we have become a richer
and more diverse community because of them.
As they step forward into the world that awaits,
help them follow where you are calling them.
comfort their fears with the full knowledge of your divine presence.
Strengthen their resolve to walk in the footsteps of Jesus
as modern-day disciples in a world that needs their spirit.
Guide their feet as they move through life,
protecting them from the pitfalls of darkness
while they help to lead future generations
into the warmth and promise of your light.
We ask this blessing upon each of them,
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!