Acts 1:10-1, 15-17, 21-26
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.”
21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”
23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” 26 Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
Today is the day that the church celebrates Jesus’ ascension into heaven; we are told that Jesus was on earth for about 40 days after his resurrection. Our scripture for today comes from the first chapter of the book of Acts and speaks of the events immediately following Jesus’ ascension. Acts is really the continuation of the book of Luke, and you will sometimes simply hear them referred to as a two-volume book known as Luke-Acts. The first few verses of Acts tells the story of Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples and that he will send the Holy Spirit to them in a few days. They then watch him go, and they are left with a big question: now what?
Now what. I think that was an appropriate question for them to be asking. They have been following Jesus around for about three years, learning from him and doing some of the things that he has been doing. Jesus has been sending disciples here and there, giving them instructions on what to bring, where to stay, and even how long they should stay there. But now Jesus simply says to stick around for a bit because he will send the Holy Spirit and the Spirit will equip them to continue the ministry that he has begun.
I have to giggle a bit when I read this text because in verses 10-11 we are told that when Jesus is taken into heaven, the disciples are just left standing there, looking into heaven. The question that they don’t even know that they should be asking is Now what? I giggle because these verses tell us that two men dressed in white show up and ask, What are you looking for? Jesus went up that way, he’ll come back the same way. But we have things to do now.
I think that it would have been really easy for the disciples to just sit there and reminisce. They could have told stories about the good old days. Remember when Jesus healed that woman with the bleeding disorder? Or when he put the Pharisees in their place? Yeah, that was a good day. And on one hand it is really good to sit and think about the good old days. It is good to remember all that God has done and the way that God has led you through the challenges and joys that this world has to offer. We learn from the past and the past tells us who God is. But there are those who seem to simply live in the past.
I’m now in my mid 30’s and I know that there are a lot of people who are about my age that haven’t realized that they are done with high school. Perhaps you get together with your friends and there is this one guy who is always telling stories that begin with, “Hey, do you remember that one time in shop class…”
This made me think about a strange movie that came out several years ago that had a bit of a cult following by the name of Napoleon Dynamite. It is the story of an awkward high school student named Napoleon who is made fun of by his peers and rejected by the girls. He has an awkward older brother that spends all of his free time chatting with girls online and an awkward uncle named Rico.
This entire movie is meant to be satirical. But like all satire, it is only funny because there is an element of truth to it. At one point Napoleon and his friend Pedro are shown wearing their blue corduroy FFA jackets at a competition. FFA stands for Future Farmers of America. At this competition they have a milk judging contest, a soil judging contest, and a cow judging contest. Some of you might not think that this is too funny because that’s just weird. Who does cow judging contests? But guess who actually participated in milk, soil, and cow judging contests in high school. I did. And I was darn good, too. So for you, it may not be funny. But for me, seeing Napoleon and Pedro participating in these FFA activities is funny because I feel in a way like I’m laughing at myself.
Maybe you can’t connect with Napoleon and Pedro participating in cattle judging, but you probably know someone like Uncle Rico. Rico is always talking about his high school football team and how they should have taken state back in 1984. He is always throwing out random “facts” like how back in the day he was able to throw a pig skin a quarter of a mile. He even tries to go back in time so that he can make a few changes to win that big game. Rico still wears clothes from the 1980’s and has a 1980’s haircut. He is living in the past, in both his good and his bad memories.
The Uncle Rico character is funny because there is some truth to this fictional person. I laugh at Napoleon and Pedro judging cattle because it is real for me. We laugh at Rico because there is something real there, too.
There is a big difference between remembering the past and living in it. People who live in the past never move forward.
The Bible is full of examples of why it is important to remember the events of the past. One of my favorite images in the Old Testament comes from a commandment from God when the Israelites are about to enter into the Promised Land. As they are about to cross the Jordan River, God instructs the Israelites to pick up twelve stones from the middle of the river and take them along into the Promised Land. Joshua was instructed to stack these stones together, evidently in a strange way that wouldn’t naturally occur. And when the next generation asks, “What do these stones mean?” the elders of Israel are to tell the story of God’s blessings.
So much of the Old Testament is about remembering God’s blessings. Every day, at least twice a day, the Hebrew people are to recite the Shema as a reminder of who God is. Throughout the year they celebrate festivals and holidays that remind them of God’s actions. Remembering these blessings are a good thing! But living in the past is not.
We find as story of what it looks like to live in the past in Numbers 11:4-6. The Israelites have been miraculously freed from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule and God has been providing them with free manna six out of seven days of the week. Then we find this in the second part over verse 4: “And again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’”
This is Uncle Rico syndrome! We tend to remember the past a little better than it actually was. Uncle Rico probably couldn’t actually throw a football a full quarter mile, and I bet that these grumbling Israelites are overstating how good they had it in Egypt. They seem to be forgetting that whole being a slave to Pharaoh thing.
It is good to remember the past, to remember who God is and what God has done. I think that it is good for us as individuals and it is good for us as a church. Just this week some of our church history was shared at a council meeting. We heard about the buying of our church building and the houses around us. We heard about how people had to part in a lot down the road and how one neighbor put up a fence so people wouldn’t park in his yard. We’ve heard stories of how you all used to bring out plywood and put them over the benches for your fellowship meals and how you build our fellowship hall, kitchen, and bathrooms with your own hands. I am amazed by the lengths that some people went to make this church work. We cannot, me must not forget those stories. But we cannot live in the past because God has plans for the future.
When Jesus rises into heaven the disciples sit there and stare at the empty sky. This was a critical time for them. They could sit there thinking about the good old days, or they could move forward. Thankfully these men in white, angels, perhaps, ask “Why are you looking at the sky?” In doing so, they encourage the disciples to get back to the work that Jesus had commissioned them to do.
Our scripture tells us that Peter stood up and addressed all of the followers of Jesus, all 120 of them. And Peter addresses the elephant in the room, the topic that nobody wants to talk about even though everyone knows how huge it is. Peter talks about Judas. And he is pretty generous toward Judas. He talks about Judas’ betrayal as something foretold in the scriptures, and he tells about Judas’ guts spilling out, which the lectionary kindly skips over. And after acknowledging the past, Peter proposes a way for moving forward.
For some reason Peter feels that it is necessary to replace Judas with another disciple, and he lays out some criteria for this person. He must have been with the other disciples from the very beginning and he must have been a witness to the resurrected Jesus.
A quick question for you all this morning: where did Peter come up with these standards? Nowhere in the Bible are we told that there must be a group of twelve giving leadership to the Christians. And who says that they have to have been with Jesus from his baptism? Only Peter says that! And if you look at the story of the calling of the original twelve disciples, many of them would not meet this requirement!
I mention this because we are not told that Peter received a clear message from God or the Holy Spirit, but the others agreed that it was a good idea. Even though some may have quested Peter, they decided to go along with him. Verse 23 continues, “So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.” Out of the men who met the criteria laid out by Peter and agreed upon by the other disciples, these two men were chosen. So how do you decide which of them gets one of the most important positions in the church? Do you take a vote and the person who receives a majority wins?
Nope, you choose the next leader of the church with the 1st century equivalent of a coin flip.
Actually, since we aren’t told how lots were cast in those days, it might have been a coin flip. Heads, we go with Joseph. Tails, we go with Matthias. The other option for casting lots in the first century was to roll something like a pair of dice. I’m not sure that is any more reassuring to me.
I’m probably not the only one here that grew up in a church were leaders were selected by the lot. Elders and pastors in some conservative Anabaptist groups are still chosen today using this method. The way I understand it, several people are nominated and some method of randomly selecting a person is used to decide who will lead the church. In my home church a series of Bibles were used and a person placed a bookmark in one of the Bibles. A different person would then place these Bibles at the front of the church and the nominated individuals would each choose a Bible. The person that selected the Bible with the book mark in it was the next pastor or elder.
This may seem insane to some of us. Today we go through a complicated system when calling a pastor that includes filling out a bunch of forms and interviewing potential candidates. The candidate often meets with the church for a weekend and gives a candidacy sermon. The congregation then votes on the person, and if everyone agrees that the vote is strong enough, the person becomes the pastor.
But Matthias was chosen by a coin flip or a roll of dice.
The lot was actually an unbiased and impartial way to make a decision. Peter could simply select his favorite, nor could Thomas, Matthew, etcetera. The lot chose for them.
Yet there is one thing that I have been leaving out. Verses 24-25, “Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.’”
Yes, they get one more shot in there at Judas, but what I really want you to notice is that they pray over this decision.
So let’s put it all together. We must remember the past, but we cannot live in the past. The disciples were challenged to not just hang around looking at the sky, but to go back to work and do the things that Jesus had been training them to do. But they didn’t have exact instructions on what that might look like. So they decided together that they needed another disciple and where they should find that disciple. And when they had selected two people from whom to choose, they prayed over a method of selecting the right person for the job. And they applied this method, which seems absolutely ludicrous by most standards, to select one of the twelve most powerful people in the movement that would become Christianity. And when the lot fell upon Matthias, they accepted him as God’s chosen disciple.
So my question for all of us today is What is next for Staunton Mennonite Church? We can look back and see all of the things that we have accomplished over the last 50 + years, and I think we should do that. But we do that to consider what we should be doing over the next 50 + years. I would love to have a clear command from God saying that we need to be more involved in this particular ministry or that particular outreach. I would appreciate it if the Holy Spirit would say that we need to stop investing our time and money in this area or that. But based on our scripture for today, I can’t say that this is always how God works.
I have no reason to believe that God commanded the disciples to select a replacement for Judas and I have no reason to think that God commanded that the replacement had to meet the criteria that Peter had laid out. And I can’t even fathom that God would command the selection of a major leader based on the flip of the coin. But here is what I do know. The disciples had lived with Jesus for three years, studying at his feet and practicing in his ministry. They knew Jesus and they weren’t going to intentionally make a decision that was outside of God’s will. And though we can’t say for sure if God commanded anything that the disciples decided that day, since the actions of the disciples were within the boundaries of what God would allow, we can assume that God will work with the disciples and their decisions to bless them and use them for his kingdom.
Today we begin another toilet paper drive for the Valley Mission. How silly is that? In a few weeks we are going to have rolls and rolls of toilet paper all over this sanctuary. Did God command that we collect toilet paper? I didn’t hear or read that anywhere. We could have just as easily collected canned food for the Mission or donated time to Habitat for Humanity. All of these are ministries that seem to be within God’s broad will. But we have decided together that we want to support this local ministry, and we have flipped our coin. And it didn’t come up heads.