Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sermon: The Minutes From the Church's First-Ever Business Meeting

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2015, Easter 7B
Acts 1:15-17, 20-26

The Minutes of the Church’s First-Ever Business Meeting

One of my favorite writers of any sort is the science-fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury. The author of such renowned works as Fahrenheit 451 (my personal favorite), The Martian Chronicles, and Dandelion Wine had, to me, a knack for finding just the right words to express the particular moment of the story, no matter how expansive or how pithy.  One of the prime examples of this knack is found in Chapter 31 of another of his most popular novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Because it is so precisely worded and so particular to its moment in the story, I feel that I must quote the chapter in full:
"Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night."
Yes, that’s the whole chapter.
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, the remaining disciples find themselves in Chapter 31. You may remember from last week that the disciples were instructed by Jesus, just before he ascended and was taken up to the presence of God the Father, that they would soon be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” but that in the meantime they were to go back into Jerusalem and wait. It’s been a few days now since that ascension and that promise, and…the disciples are still waiting. And nothing much else is happening, all the rest of that day or night.
When we last left the disciples they were being chided by the two men in white for staring up into the sky, which seems unfair to us; a person being lifted up and disappearing into the clouds seems stare-worthy to me, at least. The intervening scriptures tell us that the disciples then returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they had been staying (possibly the same upper room where Jesus had had his last supper with them? Possibly). We learn that their days were occupied with prayer, along with “certain women” and also members of Jesus’s family, who haven’t been part of the story for a while now. We also get a roll call of the disciples, all eleven of them.
Ah, there’s the rub. Eleven. It was the elephant in the room; their number was reduced by one, and the one was about as painful a subject as possible. The traitor. The one who went beyond denying Jesus (like Peter) or running away at the first sign of danger (like the rest of the disciples). The one who collaborated with the ones who wanted Jesus out of the way. Judas Iscariot. One has to feel sorry for the “other Judas,” the disciple listed with the others in verse 13.
Luke had, in an act of blatant foreshadowing, identified Judas Iscariot as the one “who became a traitor” all the way back in the gospel of Luke; now the author slips in a rather gruesome account of Judas Iscariot’s demise, as if to reinforce that the betrayer’s absence was permanent. There would be no chance either for any kind of reconciliation or for holding Judas to account. He was gone, and his crimes would live on well after his death, even to this day. The name “Judas” still works as a shorthand for a betrayer or traitor.
Besides Judas’s act of betrayal, though, there is another factor nagging at the disciples, though. “The Twelve” aren’t twelve anymore. The original disciples, reminiscent of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, are no longer whole. Eleven just doesn’t have the same impact or historical heft. Already feeling a bit cut off with Jesus departed, the disciples seem to be cognizant of their incompleteness and perhaps of their seeming loss of connection to their heritage.
At least this seems to be part of what motivates Peter when he begins to address the gathering of Jesus’s followers in verse 15.  It’s as if he can’t go any longer with this specter of the traitor hanging over the group. Not surprisingly, he turns to the scripture to back up his idea; verse 20 mostly consists of two different citations from the Psalms. As Peter quotes them, Psalm 69, verse 25 and Psalm 109, verse 8 respectively, they sound quite respectable and important and certainly appropriate to the situation; when read in their context, as parts of Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, however, their citation by Peter here seems to be a stretch at best. Psalm 109:8 seems to be particularly inappropriate, as the psalmist is decrying the actions of his enemies against him, accusing them of seeking to bring a false accusation against him and to have another take his position. Still, Peter is moving on, and armed with these conveniently picked verses he moves forward with his agenda item; choosing a new apostle to replace the traitor Judas.
Aside from his psalm verses Peter doesn’t really get into why he is so eager to get a replacement in place, aside from the idea that someone “must become a witness with us to his resurrection” as expressed in verse 22. It’s possible that he’s really hung up on the idea that the twelve apostles should somehow mirror or replicate those twelve tribes of Israel as recorded in the Torah. Maybe he’s just determined to get over Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and move on somehow. Maybe it’s just his well-established and often-demonstrated impulsive personality that can’t sit still.
For whatever reason Peter makes his proposal and the group, numbering around 120 in all, goes along. Two names are proposed, or at least two individuals – one of them, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus” was a three-named monster – and one was chosen by casting lots. This no doubt sounds bizarre to us, and is not a recommended course of action for nominating committees, so don’t get any ideas. It did, though, have a fairly extensive place in Hebrew tradition as a way of removing the human element and leaving a choice entirely up to God. The lot fell on the man with a simpler name, Matthias, and he was from then on numbered with the apostles.
If Matthias is of particular interest to you, you’re out of luck; he is never mentioned again in the Bible. But he is hardly alone; most of the other, “original” apostles don’t show up again either. Peter and John make appearances in the early chapters of Acts, some of which have been heard in sermons in recent weeks. Peter in fact manages to maintain some visibility throughout much of Acts.
On the other hand, the apostle James is only named one more time, in Acts 12, when he becomes the first of the apostles to be martyred. A man named Philip appears preaching in Samaria and then witnessing to the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts 8, but it is not Philip the apostle but Philip the deacon, one of the seven appointed in Acts 6. Otherwise, none of the apostles names in verse 12 appear again in the history of the church recorded in Acts.
This is not to say that they are somehow “failures” by any means. But it is to point out that the church – such as it was at this point – was not going to stay under the control or leadership of this particular group of twelve. It was going to grow, and expand, and branch out in ways that could not be managed or controlled by this structure that they had known for so many years.
Instead, the figures who become increasingly important as the book of Acts unfolds are people like Stephen, one of the seven deacons appointed in chapter six and a very early martyr for the faith; the aforementioned Philip, possibly also one of the seven; and of course Paul, the unlikely persecutor-turned-apostle. Then individuals like Paul’s missionary partners, first Barnabas and then Silas; James, the brother of Jesus, who eventually becomes the head of the church at Jerusalem; and “foreign-born” missionary partners like Timothy, the wife-and-husband preaching team Priscilla and Aquila, and individual figures like Lydia, the “God-worshiper” who housed the missionaries Paul and Silas in Thyatira.
The point is not to denigrate the “original twelve.” The point is, however, that no matter how much they had devoted themselves to prayer, they hadn’t necessarily caught on to the kind of transformation that was coming to them. While they were busy preserving or recreating the structure in which they had worked and lived for their years in Christ, the Holy Spirit was getting ready to blow through that structure and break down the barriers the little group of believers had unwittingly built up around themselves. They had yet to truly grasp the truth of Jesus’s words in verse eight, about being witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The book of Acts illustrates this progress remarkably well. The group of believers in Jerusalem remains the focus through the first seven chapters of the book, before the believers begin to be scattered in a wave of persecution after Stephen’s death. Even though the disciples (we’re starting to call them “apostles” now) remained in Jerusalem for the time, the Holy Spirit didn’t remain confined to Jerusalem. As Philip the deacon (not the apostle) found himself in Samaria he began to witness to the resurrected Christ, and they began to believe and be baptized. Peter and John were sent out from Jerusalem to check out the story, but returned to Jerusalem after. In the meantime Philip the deacon was sent out by the Lord to witness to that Ethiopian treasurer, sending the faith even further along to an even more distant people.
In the meantime the newly-converted Paul stirs up trouble with his preaching, and Peter learns a hard lesson about God’s wide-open arms in his encounter with the centurion Cornelius and his family, having to process the fact that even (shudder!) Gentiles are receiving salvation, something with which the church at Jerusalem never fully makes peace. While Paul and Barnabas are sent out by the Holy Spirit to “the ends of the earth,” the church at Jerusalem, to the very end of the book, still remains deeply uncomfortable the idea that Gentiles can go straight to faith in Christ without becoming “Judaized” by undergoing circumcision or some other similar rite. And it’s hard to imagine what the Jerusalem church, which after all had gone along with Peter’s decree that only a man could fill the role of Apostle #12, would have made of such preachers and leaders as Priscilla and Lydia.
In short, the little group of believers really didn’t know what was coming. They would be faithful, to be sure, as we may recall from the experiences of Peter and John in the Temple. But the Church just wasn’t going to continue to be what they had known. The Holy Spirit wasn’t going to be contained in the ways they had known. That Jesus had ascended and gone to the right hand of God the Father did not mean “the restoration of the kingdom to Israel,” as they asked in verse six, nor did it mean the life that they had known with Jesus in person was going to be restored or restarted.
Yes, this might well be a cautionary warning to us here in this place; if we are truly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the future of this church we had better be prepared for the possibility that it might be something we currently can’t imagine. But it’s also a warning to each of us in much the same way. If you had told me eight years ago, when I was accepting a job offer at the University of Kansas, that I would end up back in Florida as pastor of a church in Hogto--, er Gainesville, I’d have laughed at you so hard.
And yet as a church this is all we can do. We cannot recreate what was before. We cannot grow this church, in numbers or in faithfulness or in spiritual maturity, only by replicating ourselves. We can keep doing what we do, and simple demographics state we will be gone in ten or twenty or fifty years – whether we speak of this church by itself, or our denomination, or the church more broadly.
But if we truly submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is the threat of change. It might not look familiar to us. It might involve people we don’t like or don’t trust. It’s scary. And yet, if we truly want to be the people of God, the body of Christ, we really have no choice.
Pentecost is coming. The Holy Spirit will come in like a rushing wind. Are we ready?

Hymns (PH ’90): “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (260), “The One Is Blest” (158), “Arise, Your Light Is Come” (411)

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