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Always Wanted to Be an Apostle

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

May 13, 2018
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus—for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So 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 must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

As you hopefully know, the Bible includes a whole range of different kinds of literature. You’ve got your straight narrative storytelling, like the Gospels or the Old Testament histories. You’ve got your legal codes, like Leviticus. You’ve got worship materials like the Psalms and letters like the ones Paul writes and you’ve got poetry both prophetic and apocalyptic and sometimes you’ve got books with more than one of these happening back to back. And then here in the first chapter of the Book of Acts, sandwiched just between Jesus’s Ascension into the Heavens and the story of the first Pentecost morning, here just while the disciples are sitting around trying to figure out what comes next, here we have the most Presbyterian sort of Biblical literature, the minutes from a congregational meeting. I have read enough minutes of Presbyterian session and congregational meetings to recognize the telltale signs when I see them and I see plenty of them here, and in fact I have heard this text read such that upon closing the reader substitutes the familiar refrain “This is the word of the Lord” with “These are the minutes of the meeting,” and then you say, “Thanks be to God.”

The congregation of the First Church of Jesus Christ the Messiah met in the upper room in Jerusalem in those days after the Ascension. These minutes do not give us the exact date and time but “in those days” goes a long way. And likewise though the names are not all listed the recorder is careful to note that the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty, all those folks who had been with Jesus for some time and who had made the risky trip back into the city after his death and resurrection. Peter has called them together. Peter is moderating this meeting. I guess when Jesus says “on this rock I will build my church” and looks at you you’re the one who gets to moderate the meeting, and nothing in the Book of Acts suggests that Peter has any anxiety about public speaking, so he’s in charge. Peter has called this meeting of the First Church of Jesus Christ because the Nominating Committee has to make a report. The problem is that there is a vacancy on the Apostles.

Some folks call them the Disciples. For the purposes of this meeting it’s a distinction without a difference, the point is there used to be twelve of them, those twelve disciples, sort of an executive council for these 120 folks following Jesus around. The problem, and I hate to bring it up, and Peter hates to bring it up, because it’s kind of a raw nerve, but the problem is that Judas was on that committee and now he’s … rotated off … and so there’s a vacancy. And you know how churches feel about committee vacancies. So Peter has called this whole congregational meeting to hear a report from the Nominating Committee about search for a new Apostle. And in fact they are recommending a search among all the 120 members of the congregation: “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” — please note that this is not by any stretch of the imagination a gender-balanced search — “one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” Which, I suppose, if you have been on the outside looking in, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to be an Apostle? Who wouldn’t want to be one of the twelve? It’s 2018 and we never talk about the other 108 people following Jesus around. It’s always the twelve this and the twelve that. Who wouldn’t want to be in that number?

Two candidates come to the surface. Joseph, called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, I I don’t know why he has three names, and also Matthias. And there’s a prayer. And there’s literally a casting of lots. A roll of the dice. A drawing of Biblical straws. And fate chooses Matthias, and his name is added to the names of the other eleven apostles. And then. And then? And then, there’s nothing. And then, his name never appears in the Bible again. Not once. There are no other stories about Matthias. There are no other Biblical legends. This is not his origin story. This is his whole story. The story of Matthias is that from the whole congregation of the First Church of Jesus Christ the Messiah chooses him by committee and by a roll of the dice to the sacred work of witnessing to the resurrection and then, after he’s chosen, nothing. Nothing more. Scripture records nothing else. That’s it. These are all the minutes of the meeting. Thanks be to God.

Is there some tragedy here? It would be an American tragedy, to be sure, a tragedy of the zeitgeist, like Matthias has been plucked from the crowd to win America’s Next Top Disciple, and all the confetti streams down from the rafters, and the music swells, and all of his friends and family rush on stage, and in that moment is such promise for newness of life, like, from this day forward, everything changes for Mathias, from this day forward he will be counted among the real people, the folks who matter, the powerful, the rich, the famous, the ones whose names alone make the headlines and move and the dials move and the planet to spin on its axis. But of course it is for Matthias, like it is for so many of those winners, that this fame is fleeting at best, and the churn rate at the lowest rung of celebrity is incredibly fast. Peter goes on of course to have half of Christendom named after him, including the cathedral seat of the Catholic Church in Rome and congregations all around the world. Matthias is the patron saint of Gary, Indiana. It would be an American tragedy, to work this hard, to wait this long, to get only this far, and then to have it all disappear. Attention must be paid.

It would be an American tragedy, but scripture treats it almost like farce. With deep irony. After all, the story that immediately follows this text is the story of the Pentecost morning itself, the scripture we will hear next week in worship, the rushing wind and the speaking in tongues and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Which is to say that as soon as this First Church of Jesus Christ the Messiah figures out how select its leadership and how to manage its business, the Holy Spirit shows up and rearranges all the power dynamics and blows down all their bureaucratic structures. After Pentecost, the Book of Acts hardly mentions the twelve apostles ever again — a few offhand moments, but what’s clear is that throughout the book it is the Holy Spirit herself, and not any of these committee members, that are in charge of this young church. And so it’s not just that Matthias has been elected to the Apostles only to never be heard of again. Matthias has been elected to the Apostles in time for the whole enterprise to change. All of a sudden all the rules change, and now everybody is gonna get the Holy Spirit, if only for fifteen minutes. It would be tragedy, except that the church is about to be born, and the church plays by different rules entirely.

At least, the church is supposed to play by different rules. Most of us don’t come to church to get famous, at least I hope not. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t church celebrities, but I do maintain in general that if you come to a Presbyterian church on Sunday morning as part of a long-term branding strategy it is possible that the joke is on you. Congregational life doesn’t dole out celebrity; there is no confetti, no record deal, and no cross-promotional marketing strategy. What we have to offer, instead, is a lot of unsung work. Somebody has to fold the bulletins. Somebody has to take out the trash. Somebody has to make the coffee. Nobody does these jobs to get famous. Nobody does these jobs to up their Klout score or gain Twitter followers. Church folks do these jobs because somebody has to do these jobs. But still. A little recognition doesn’t hurt. It’s nice to be remembered. And everybody, even Mathias, wants to matter.

And maybe that’s all this story is. Maybe it’s not America’s Next Top Apostle after all. Maybe it really is just a committee meeting, and somebody needs to do a job. It is not at all clear to me in this story that being an Apostle is any longer a particularly desirable thing. Jesus is gone with no immediate hope of return. The Spirit is not yet among them. And Jerusalem is a dangerous place for those affiliated with this crucified revolutionary. It’s not at all clear that Matthias is signing up for anything that anybody should want, much less that anybody needs, except that  having 11 apostles just feels incomplete, and there’s some old magic in the number 12. And so Matthias signs up. Matthias signs up to help because the church needs some help, and the least they can do, the least that church can do, the least scripture can do, then in response is write his name in the book. Everybody wants to matter. Everybody wants to count. And I wish that the book of Acts would stop for a second and list out the name of every one of those  120 worshipers. But short of that. At least they remember Matthias. The Patron Saint of Unsung Volunteers.

We’ve got more than a few of them here at UPC as well. I’m not calling out names, because I didn’t get permission to call out names, but still. I want you to know that you’re in the book.  If you made the coffee. If you took out the trash. If you folded the bulletins. We see you, and you’re in the book. During the week, the church office works because of a regular rotation of volunteers who come to answer the phone and make copies and post on the church website and sort through the church database and do so much of the glamourless work that somebody needs to do and so much of it goes unseen, but we see you and you’re in the book. Sunday night, when most of us have done all the church we’re prepared to do for the day, there’s still a steady stream of volunteers who show up to cook for our UKirk students and welcome them into this church and those folks are the front line of who we are in this university community and still it goes unseen, but we see you, and you’re in the book.

If you’re here unloading Micah 6 supplies early Thursday morning. If you’re here setting up for UPLlift Monday night. If you’re here singing in the choir or serving with the Deacons or teaching Sunday school or handing out bulletins or if you came to a committee meeting because someone called you up and invited you to a committee and you said yes, God bless you, if you’re here doing one of the thousand little jobs that make this church work, if you are downstairs right now, getting a fundraising luncheon together while the rest of us sit here worshiping God,  if you volunteered just because the work needed to be done. I want you to know. The Gospel is that you don’t have to be famous out there to matter in here. Everybody matters here in God’s house. And for all of you that raise your hands to help the house along, I see you. I thank you. You are in the book.

In my previous church there was an actual book, a literal book, the rolls and registers of Amherst Presbyterian Church, an old leather-bound tome that held the names of every member of Amherst Presbyterian Church going back a hundred years, the names of every pastor, the dates of every funeral and every wedding, the names of every elder and deacon and their ordination, and the dates of every baptism. The membership roll was divided into sections by letter but the list of baptisms was simply chronological when somebody was baptized, their name got written on the next line, alongside the date, and then, when they died, their name got crossed out. And so if you read backwards through the pages of baptized members of that church, eventually you got to the point where more and more of the names were crossed out, and then you flipped back a few more pages, where every single name was crossed out, and then, once you made it back a hundred years, into the time of the first World War, then, finally, you found Judith. Nobody had scratched out Judith. Judith was still going.

Judith was born in the summer of 1912. Five years later, her family moved to Amherst, Virginia, and she was baptized at Amherst Presbyterian Church, and her name was written in the book, so that when I arrived in the winter of 2013, Judith had been continuously active in the life of that congregation for 96 years. In that time, of course, in a small church, she had literally done everything. There were not minutes from any meeting of that church for a span of sixty years that did not in some way reference Judith. Eventually, when the denomination finally allowed her to do so, she was ordained, but long beforehand she had served that church with faith and persistence. She was clerk of session. She was chair of everything. She was the final keeper of all the stories. She was in many ways the mother of that congregation, which  simply meant that she had spend 50 years saying yes when the Spirit asked her to do things. And then she just kept going. But by time I got there, of course, Judith was not running the show anymore. Most of her peers from those generations in the life of the church had moved on in one way or another. She couldn’t quite make it to Sunday mornings on her own, but she would come when her daughter could bring her. And we all loved seeing her. And she loved being there. And nobody ever asked her to be on a committee. We all knew she had done her share.

When Judith died, I expected us to pack the sanctuary, but the truth was that she had outlived most of the folks who would have come, and most of her descendants had left town a generation beforehand. Those who came gathered with me around the graveside and told stories about what a giant she had been, especially in our church, a colossus in the life of our small congregation. It seemed horribly unfair, that such a giant would cast such a small shadow, as do all of us when the time comes. And then I went back to the office with dread, to do the thing that I so did not want to do, which was to flip back through the pages of the baptized members of Amherst Presbyterian Church, back through the decades to find that one name unmarked by death and take my pen and scratch it out. But of course, even after I scratched it out you could still read her name as loud as day. And now it stood alongside all those saints who had served and loved and cared and folded bulletins and made coffee and taken out the trash and their names are written in the book for every generation yet to come. And your names will be written in the book for every generation yet to come, for that book is the register of witnesses to the resurrection of all the saints of every time place, thanks be to them, thanks to be you.

These are the minutes of the meeting. Thanks be to God.