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 its 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 todays 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 Gods 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. "Dont you worry about anything,
the Spirit will come upon you next-thats Resource with a capital "R"-and
youll 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. Thats what wed 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. Youd think that this
was all theyd 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 were not alone in our belief in the priority of
prayer. Havent 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, someones planting a church or putting in a new heating system at the
church. Then enclosed in the envelope is a little card:
$10,000 doners may be as sparse as hens 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.
Youd 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.
Thats what I would have thought judging by the numbers of Pentecost Sundays
Ive celebrated over the years. But have you noticed the odd detail that Luke adds?
He describes a "first"-the first business meeting. Maybe its 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 Lukes 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
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 wont 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 theres some unfinished business to attend to: the election
of the Twelfth disciple. Whos ever heard of Matthias? Its not that he makes a
notable difference in the grand scheme of things. In fact, well 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 Gods 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 Matthiass "lucky" selection
will ultimately further Gods 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 Gods 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
dont 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 . . .
" Were 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 Gods 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 Lords alone. Luke reminds us
that the community drew on tradition to help in the discerning of Gods will. The
learning curve: different situations will probably require different processes for
selecting a congregations 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 Gods guidance in the selection of leadership and direction. From
the beginning, Christians have listened to the Scripture, the Spirit, and Tradition and
prayed for Gods guidance.
How do we discern guidance from God? Thats 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. Its a
process in which weve 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 were 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.