GUIDED BY PRAYER
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on May 17, 2015 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16“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— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”
21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning 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.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
– Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
– John 17:6-19 (read from “The Message,” by Eugene Peterson)
This morning’s reading from the book of Acts portrays a time when the early Christian community was really in a state of limbo. Their Master/Teacher had been executed by the great political powers of the time, and they thought then that might be the end of all they had hoped for. But then – he was raised! And he appeared to them alive again – although different — for a few weeks. But now he was gone again – this time for good. At least as they had once known him. The gospel of Luke and the book of Acts — which was written by the same author and is a continuation of Luke – say that the risen Christ appeared to the disciples for forty days, and then he was taken back up to heaven. He ascended. This past Thursday was celebrated in some churches as Ascension Day.
Jesus had promised that his disciples would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit after he was gone. We will celebrate the coming of that gift next Sunday – Pentecost Sunday. But at this time, they were in-between. They were without their teacher and leader, and they really didn’t know yet what the coming of this Holy Spirit would mean for them, and what the future would hold.
So what did they do? They got ready. They got their ducks in a row. They waited. And in the meantime, they prayed.
I see this time as similar to what one does to build a fire. First you prepare a place, and then you gather up the fuel you will need – paper or bits of leaves that can catch fire quickly, then small, dry twigs that will start to burn, and then larger branches and logs that will burn for a long time. Then you arrange them in order so one will help ignite the other. When this Holy Spirit came, they wanted to be ready to catch the spark and keep it going.
During his life, Jesus had called twelve disciples. That was a significant number in their history. It was the number of tribes that made up the kingdom of Israel – twelve tribes descended from the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel. There were other disciples – other people who followed Jesus during his ministry – but these were the inner twelve – the leaders of the early church. As I’m sure you know, they were hardly a distinguished group of believers. One of them – Judas Iscariot – betrayed him by turning him in to the authorities who wanted to get rid of him. The story says that he later took his own life. Another – Simon Peter – denied knowing Jesus three times when he was being interrogated. The rest of the disciples often had trouble understanding what Jesus was trying to teach and do. Not a particularly promising group on which to build a movement – which is greatly reassuring to me when I have my doubts or fail to grasp what Jesus was about!
Jesus had chosen twelve disciples, and now – with Judas gone – there were only eleven. They wanted twelve apostles. Do you know what the difference is between a disciple and an apostle? The titles are often used interchangeably, but basically a disciple is a student of some master teacher; an apostle is a witness to Christ’s life and resurrection. Eleven of the original disciples were also apostles. The young community wanted to choose a twelfth. But how could they choose a new leader whom Jesus himself had not chosen?
They decided what they needed – someone who had known Jesus during his ministry and experienced him after the resurrection. They had two good candidates: Joseph (Barsabbas/Justus) and Matthias. But choosing leaders for God’s people is a two-pronged process. It is “bottom-up” (chosen by the people), but also “top-down” (confirmed by God). And so they prayed about their two candidates. Then they cast lots to decide, trusting that would make God’s will known. Matthias was chosen. Prayer is a vital part of church leadership.
Many years ago our Fox Valley Association was looking for a new Association Minister. I was asked to chair the search committee. We went through a similar process – we got profiles (resume’s) from interested candidates, chose some of the best prospects from those, interviewed several people, and then met for longer conversations with three. But when it came time to choose one, we shared our thoughts about the qualifications of each, and then dispersed around the church (our final meeting was held here), and prayed. I tried to imagine each of the candidates leading an association meeting, and only one seemed to fit. We all agreed on that one candidate, and Rev. Cheryl Burke was called to be our new association minister.
What intrigues me about this process described in Acts is that it doesn’t say anything about whether Joseph or Matthias wanted the job of being one of the twelve apostles! Maybe our church nominating committee should work like that – we don’t care if you want the job or not; if we think you would be good for the job and we pray about it and God seems to agree, then the job is yours even if you don’t want it!
With Matthias chosen for the twelve, the community was ready with its leaders. So when the Holy Spirit came upon them in tongues of flame, they were ready to catch fire and spread throughout the Roman Empire.
I thought it was interesting that the children’s story for today, although not one of the Bible passages I had chosen for worship, is also about choosing leaders for the church. The apostles were busy with their task of preaching and praying, but people were needed to serve the widows in need. So what did they do? They chose seven good men, and prayed over them and laid hands on them.
I was trying to understand what these old stories might have to say to us as a church today. It seems to me (and many others) that the Christian church in America is in a period of limbo. Several decades ago the church was a cornerstone of most communities. The majority of people were part of one church or another, and the churches seemed to just keep running like machines, and everyone assumed they would always do so. But these days the number of people who are part of a church is decreasing. A Pew Research Center report just released this week confirms that the number of Americans who identify as Christian (including mainline Protestants like us) continues to decrease. Americans who belong to Non-Christian religions have increased slightly, but the biggest increase has been in the number of people who don’t affiliate with any religion. Our world has changed.
In the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples in the gospel of John, he asked that God would protect the disciples because he was sending them out into a godless world that would hate them because of what they had heard and the life they lived – just as the world powers of 2000 years ago hated Jesus and had him crucified. Many of those early Christians suffered persecution for their faith. Today, American society may again seem more godless than it has been for many centuries – not because we can’t make students pray in public schools like they once did, or because we can’t put nativity scenes on city property at Christmas. Personally, I don’t think either of those is a good idea. Instead, the biggest challenge the church faces is that more and more people think the church is dangerous, or completely outdated and irrelevant. It’s not really dangerous to be a Christian in America today; to many people it is a joke.
I don’t believe that. I still think the church of Jesus Christ offers hope – perhaps the best hope –to save the world – one lost and wounded soul at a time.
The leadership of this church has been thinking about a better way to organize ourselves to be an effective church in changing times. Our current by-laws really require more people than we have to work well, and they just don’t seem suited to these changing times. We are working on new by-laws that we hope to present to the congregation for discussion soon. But one piece of those new by-laws we can begin to practice even before all the revisions are adopted. It calls for each committee or group that does the work of the church to spend some time when they meet in some kind of study (Bible or otherwise), or just sharing with one another where we have seen God at work in our lives (or not!), and in prayer. Not the pastor saying a prayer because that’s the pastor’s job – but church leaders praying together.
I know that will be different. It may even seem scary at first. It may seem like a waste of time – taking away from precious time for doing business. But churches that have put it into practice claim that it actually helps work get done faster, and it increases participation. Because those who do it grow in their faith – aware of how God is at work. And they get to know fellow church members in deeper ways. Instead of just meeting to do business, they are being fed on their spiritual journeys. And isn’t that what we ultimately want to be – a home for the spiritual journey?
And besides, it is biblical. It recognizes that being effective leaders of God’s people requires that we be guided by prayer.
And it also recognizes that we need to be modern apostles – those who have heard the teachings of Jesus, seen him heal the sick and welcome outcasts, and are witnesses of the risen Christ. We may not see him like those first apostles did, but he is still alive, and still here among us when we gather to worship and pray and break bread together and serve others.
Robert J. von Trebra