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Unfinished Business
a sermon based on Acts 1:15-17; 21-26
by Rev. Thomas Hall

It always happens this time of year and it stays with us right through the Easter season. The reader steps up to the lectern and says, "Our first lesson is found in Acts, chapter one." First lesson? Acts chapter 1? The first lesson is supposed to be from the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Acts is on the Christian side of the aisle. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? we wonder. So from Easter to Pentecost we march this strange little book out for eight Sundays before we banish it to the sweater box for another year.

Ever wonder why this ancient book by Luke makes its yearly appearance? I wonder if it’s because the book of Acts functions a lot like the first book of the Bible. In Genesis, (which means, beginning,) we meet a number of "firsts"-the first human beings, first family, first civilization, first culture, not to mention other firsts like, the first temptation, first sin, first lie, and first murder. So just like Genesis, the book of Acts is also a book of firsts-the first Pentecost, the first Christian community, the first miracle, the first converts, the first persecution, as well as the emergence of the first racism and discrimination and the first martyrdom.

Some Christians insist the book of Acts should be the standard by which all succeeding Christians and congregations are judged. The vision maybe idyllic, but the vision of a pure Church eventually turns people into slaves to structures; what worked adequately in first century ace, may not always work so well in other times and places. Luke probably never intended for his portrait of the Church to be plagiarized. But there are some valuable things to be gained from our annual pilgrimage to the book of Acts. We can look beneath the stories to discover transferable values that can yet coach us who are two millennia removed from the birth of the Christian community. So listen with me today for one of those "firsts" and also for a truth that may well be as useful to us as it was to them.

In today’s lesson, Luke brings us to some unfinished business. He closes his gospel with the disciples gawking skyward as Jesus blesses them on his way to heaven. Seems like a happy ending to the story for Luke says, "And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God" (Luke 24:53).

What could be clearer? Just go back to town and wait around for the next red-letter date on God’s calendar-the Day of Pentecost. Not only that, but when Luke begins his sequel-the book of Acts-same thing happens. Jesus leaves and the disciples are gawking skyward. Jesus yells a parting word to them. "Don’t you worry about anything, the Spirit will come upon you next-that’s Resource with a capital "R"-and you’ll continue my work just fine."

What could be clearer? They have a promise from Jesus and directions-just go back to Jerusalem and wait until further notice. That’s what we’d do. Just go and wait for Pentecost or whatever is to happen next. Sometimes being a follower has its advantages-just follow the orders of the person in charge.

But Luke clues us in on some intriguing details about this clear instruction. The eleven stay together; maybe they pool their money and rent out a big apartment. They have time on their hands-so they spend some significant time praying: "All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer" (1:11). Not only that but the small band grows to about 120 people during the formal prayer gatherings. You’d think that this was all they’d need to do-just pray and wait. Wait and pray. What a better way to pass the time than in prayer?

Many of us at DPS are clergy types so prayer is part of our vocation. The effectiveness of our ministries depends on daily communion with God a well-meaning seminary professor once told us, so we pray. And we’re not alone in our belief in the priority of prayer. Haven’t you received those letters in the mail? The sender is beginning something new-a new ministry, a missionary is itinerating, a youth is going on a summer missions trip, someone’s planting a church or putting in a new heating system at the church. Then enclosed in the envelope is a little card:

The $10,000 doners may be as sparse as hen’s teeth, but that last box will receive big check marks - after all, prayer is the most important thing that we can do. So thankfully, we can pray instead of sending money. So the eleven and many others join in prayer.

You’d think that Luke would connect this holy activity of prayer with the coming of the Spirit which happens in the very next chapter. Hand and glove kind of cohesion. Pray and the Spirit falls and Pentecost happens and the Church is propelled into mission. That’s what I would have thought judging by the numbers of Pentecost Sundays I’ve celebrated over the years. But have you noticed the odd detail that Luke adds? He describes a "first"-the first business meeting. Maybe it’s the first nominations committee meeting. Now why would a historian go and include a business meeting on the eve of something so momentous as Pentecost?

In my usual reading of Acts, I skip past verses 15-26 and go from the 120 praying together right into the day of Pentecost. Subconsciously I omit the business meeting altogether. Yet stuck right in the middle of an otherwise dramatic story of prayer and Pentecost are Luke’s minutes from a board meeting. Peter stands up and wants to replace Judas. The Eleven, he says, are supposed to be The Twelve. Matthias and Justus make the short list of candidates.

This time of the year a lot of us clergy types have some unfinished business to attend to, for come early summer, we make our "pastoral changes" from one parish to the next. As it happens, I have been appointed to plant a new congregation. That means that prior to the thousands who will pour into this new church, I first have to deal with some unfinished business, like packing. So at present my office looks like the inside of a boxcar-boxes of books stacked high and those bubble things that absorb shock, and lots of packing tape.

I now realize that I will not accomplish everything in my congregation that I had hoped-consecration of the participants who attended the gifts assessment seminar, final congregational approval of our newly appointed committee members, and the even more tragic loss of going to Family Fun Park with the acolytes. Unfinished business. Ten years from now it won’t be quite as pressing as now, but in the immediate timeline of things, we like to have all our bases covered. We like closure. Teleos.

So Luke suggests that there’s some unfinished business to attend to: the election of the Twelfth disciple. Who’s ever heard of Matthias? It’s not that he makes a notable difference in the grand scheme of things. In fact, we’ll never hear of him again nor from Justus, the guy who loses the election. Yet Peter stands up and claims that before Pentecost comes they have this unfinished business to attend to. So what are we to make of this unfinished business?

Let me suggest four values embedded in our lesson that will help us in discerning leadership and direction in our own Christian communities.


"Peter stood up . . .and said, "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled . . . " Had to be fulfilled? What Scripture? Jesus had told the twelve disciples at the very last meal they shared together: "You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you . . . a kingdom . . . and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." Twelve disciples. Twelve tribes. If one of the Twelve messes up what does that say about God’s faithfulness or Jesus’ promise? God has a redemptive plan, but never will God coerce any of us to accomplish it. Even though Judas’ "accidental" death and Matthias’s "lucky" selection will ultimately further God’s plan, God will only act because of and inspite of freely made human choices.

From the beginning Christians went to the Scriptures to listen for God to speak. In many congregations, the reader begins with these words, "Listen for the Word of God found in . . . " And so we anticipate not only that God might to want to speak to us, but we listen for the specific word that God might choose to be heard. And later in the worship we listen again for God’s Word to break into our lives through the sermon. A sermon is, Barbara Brown Taylor says, "a conversation between a preacher and a congregation at a particular time in their lives together, informed by their common worship and reading of Scripture." When it comes to worship as in matters of discernment, we listen for God to speak through the Scriptures.


"The Holy Spirit through David foretold . . . " The Spirit is the real Author behind Scripture, Peter says. That makes sense. God who stands outside of all words and worlds contains full knowledge. At our best, we see through a glass dimly, but God sees our life and universe with 20/20 clarity. So the early Christians from the beginning appealed to the Spirit who could help them to hear the Scripture in ways that were appropriate and necessary for each circumstance.


"One of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." The criterion was already in place. They have to have been with us from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, they agreed. But about how they reached this criterion, Luke is silent. But the community had decided that not just any volunteer would do. Not just any apostle wannabe should be chosen. So they developed a plan, a one line job description. We don’t know how many candidates originally stepped forward or were selected, but by the time we read about it, the candidates had come down to only two-Matthias and Justus.


"And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added . . . " We’re not talking about Atlantic city and hoping for boxcars on the second roll to determine who gets on the Trustees. These earliest Christians were following an ancient and honorable tradition of discerning God’s will. They whittled the list to two persons, but the final decision would be up to God-as their own Scriptures attested: The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone. Luke reminds us that the community drew on tradition to help in the discerning of God’s will. The learning curve: different situations will probably require different processes for selecting a congregation’s leadership or for discerning direction. Luke says that they drew upon an existing and honored tradition.

So in this unfinished business we discover a set of values that still today will help us in discerning God’s guidance in the selection of leadership and direction. From the beginning, Christians have listened to the Scripture, the Spirit, and Tradition and prayed for God’s guidance.

How do we discern guidance from God? That’s the question my own faith community asked recently as we met for an "All Church Meeting" that we hold every several years to review our direction of ministry and to map future direction. What we heard was a yearning to become more prayer-centered and discerning. But becoming a discerning community is more than the "all those in favor say aye" votes. It’s a process in which we’ve stumbled more than walked. But the renewed commitment to Scripture, prayer, the Spirit, and Tradition has led us to develop a gifts assessment tool that has already changed the way we select leaders and ministers within our community. We no longer play "pin the tail on the donkey" at nominations meetings. We are also being freed from viewing congregants and newcomers as potential members or "giving units" or people to fill our committee rosters with.

So we’re attending to unfinished business and on our way to becoming a discerning community. May you and yours also breathe draw deeply from Acts chapter 1 and draw life-renewing breath from Scripture, the Spirit, community, and tradition as you seek to discern leadership and direction from God. Amen.