Sermon #232 St. James the Less #139 5/16/21
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.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
In our reading from Acts this morning we get yet another small snippet of the inner workings of the early church. As you all well know, we have been venturing through the Book of Acts most of the Easter season, and it will finally come to its culmination next week for Pentecost. We have been hiking and climbing for the past seven weeks, and now the summit is just around the corner.
The passage we just read can be found right after Jesus ascended into heaven. Naturally, you would think that after they saw their Lord go to heaven the apostles would automatically start running in every direction proclaiming the gospel. Jesus did tell them to preach to all nations and baptize, right?
But instead of venturing around the world, they decided to take care of something in-house first, an issue that needed to be resolved before they could do any evangelism.
With the tragic end of Judas, their brother and friend turned betrayer, they were not at full strength. They were down one apostle. They knew very well that Jesus had a reason for choosing twelve of them. There had been twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve apostles in some strange way represented the fulfillment of Israel—they were a part of a New Covenant that had been established by Jesus’ death, resurrection, and now his ascension into heaven.
Now, you could make the case they were wasting their time with this formality. The Lord had risen and ascended to the right hand of the Father, it was time to go out to the ends of the earth preaching this good news!
What we see as an unnecessary formality, the disciples saw as an essential part of their ministry, especially now that Jesus was gone.
This restoring of the Twelve shows us what the apostles thought of themselves and what they represented. They were ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that was breaking into the world in a whole new way.
This New Covenant that God was making with all humanity had its roots in Israel’s scripture, and they weren’t going to just forsake that. Rather, they held onto it, but interpreted in light of the cross and resurrection. Something new was afoot, and yet it was also something ancient, foretold long ago by the Old Testament prophets.
And so, they looked for someone to take the place of Judas—someone who had been with them from the beginning. Someone who had watched John baptize Jesus in the Jordan and had journeyed with them ever since.
It is important to point out that there were others who were with Jesus the whole time but were not mentioned in the gospels. Normally they are referred to as disciples, while the Twelve are known as apostles.
Choosing the Twelfth
And in our reading this morning we meet two men who had been faithful disciples, but only one could become an apostle. Their names were Joseph, who also went by a few other names like Barsabbas and Justus (don’t ask me why), and then there’s Matthias.
They casted lots and Matthias was chosen to become one of the Twelve. With his presence he would bring balance and harmony to the force, or at the very least it would restore the important image of the twelve tribes of Israel.
I don’t know about you, but when I read this story my heart breaks for Joseph, the other guy. We can’t help but root for the underdog. He must have been disappointed and heartbroken.
He wasn’t rejected because of his heart was in the wrong place, or that he was unworthy or unable to become an apostle. “He was, after all, one of the last two in the consideration by the Eleven. They would have trusted him [had the lot fallen on him]” (Wright 20).
But sadly, we never hear what happens to him, he simply fades out of the story. And surprisingly, the same is true for Matthias, the one who was chosen—we never hear about him again either.
I have always wondered what happen to the two of them. Did Matthias get a little cocky chosen, or was he able to stay humble after being chosen for such a grand position?
Did Joseph have to leave the group for a while to let his pride heal, was he jealous of Matthias or angry at God, or was he able to just move on from the tough decision?
We humans are not very good at being rejected.
Though Joseph was not chosen, his name still appears in the Bible—what a great honor. Of all the Christians there have ever been, he’s one of the few that actually made it into Holy Scripture.
And that makes me think about all the other Christians who have lived and whose name are not only missing from the Bible, but are missing from any written record. We know the names of individual Christians in every century, but most of them either knew how to write, or were close to someone who could write about them.
There are millions upon millions of Christians we don’t know. We don’t get to hear how the Lord spoke to them, or the amazing ways they served God through their lives. Their story is lost from the written record.
I think we live in a culture that not only teaches us to fear death but also to fear being forgotten. Many of us wonder, what people will remember about us when we’re gone. Or worse, “Will anyone remember us when we’re gone?”
One standard we use for how successful our life has been is whether we are remembered or not. How much good can we accomplish so that people have something nice to say about us when we’re gone?
But this fear is nothing new. The Pharaohs built pyramids as a monumental tomb to show how great and powerful they were. If you go to Paris, you’ll find Napoleon’s tomb displayed in grand fashion in the center of a church. Walk around any cemetery and you’ll see the different sized tombstones—some larger than others, some with pictures etched on it or descriptive words of who they were or what they were like.
More than being remembered, we just really, really don’t want to be forgotten.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce, and it’s all about a man from hell who goes to visit heaven and see what it is all about. The whole book is about what this man sees as an observer of heaven.
At one point he notices a grand procession coming his way. As they get closer he sees a whole host of heavenly spirits who are dancing and singing and throwing flower pedals on the ground, jubilantly announcing the presence of a woman at the back of the line. When the woman finally comes into view, the man who is watching all this unfold before him is struck by her radiant joy and beauty.
Naturally the observer wonders who this woman could be. Is it the Virgin Mary or another great saint from of old?
Next to the man is standing his heavenly guide who has been with him throughout his visit. He asks his guide if he would know this woman from church history. The guide says, “Not at all…it’s someone you’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
The curious observer then says, “She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
His guide replies back, “Aye. She is one of the great ones. You have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
The observer then asks, “And who are all these young men and women on each side [of her dancing and singing]?”
“They are her sons and daughters” the guide says. And then the guide tells him that everyone she met became like a son or daughter to her. She loved them like family, no matter who they were, or how long they had known each other.
Though she had no children of her own, everyone she met was transformed by her genuine compassion for them. She loved them, and in turn they loved her—no strings attached.
Even animals flocked to her because of her love. The guide then tells him, “And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows into them.”
Quietly and persistently this woman transformed many lives with little to no fanfare on Earth. And yet, she’s one of the “great ones.”
In my mind, I like to imagine that both Matthias the Apostle and Joseph the Almost-Apostle did amazing things in the name of the Lord Jesus. Though Joseph’s feelings may have been hurt for a time, he didn’t let his pride get the best of him. He was charged with a mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus and he didn’t need a fancy title to do it. He knew God had called him to this important ministry, just as God calls everyone to this ministry.
Though Joseph fades away from the biblical record, that doesn’t mean that he is forgotten. As Christians we make the bold claim that greatness in this world is not the same as greatness in the Kingdom of God.
In fact, the mission and ministry that you and I are called to will likely not be very flashy or newsworthy; News Channel 5 won’t be doing a feature story on us, and that’s okay. In that case we will be like Joseph and Sarah Smith, whom little is known about them, but that does not determine their worth or what they were able to do in their life.
Like them, we are simply called to share the abundant life and love that God has freely given to us through his Son with others. We are to be cups that “runneth over.”
With that in mind, we must remember that it’s by God’s generosity and grace that we are never forgotten. Instead, we are always and forever held in the sight of God. Though our names may fade from the written record, we are remembered by God, eternally held in his sight.
7th Sunday of Easter. Year B. Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. N.T. Wright’s Acts for Everyone. The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis Ch. 12, pg. 528.