Monday, 21 May 2012

Easter 7: Who'd be an apostle?

Breathing Space Sermon: Easter 7

I have often wondered about Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, who we meet for the first and last time in tonight’s reading from Acts. They were both, presumably, part of the crowd of disciples who had followed Jesus during his ministry, but not part of the inner circle – the twelve. When Judas’ suicide takes the number down to eleven, it is felt that someone has to take his place, to make up the numbers. Twelve was a very important number to Jewish people. There had originally been twelve tribes of Israel so twelve meant “all” to them, the whole people of God. Jesus came to announce a new kingdom, a new people of God which was open to all and in which everyone had a home. Of course, the new people of God had to have twelve leaders, just like the old one had. So here they are, trying to find someone to fill the gap. Their method might seem strange to us, whittling it down to a shortlist of two and then casting lots, but it didn’t to them. The assumption was that God, who controlled everything could control the way the lots fell so that he would have the final word.

In this case, Matthias was chosen, Joseph was rejected. But I wonder how these two men felt when the result was announced. Was Joseph gutted – had he always wanted to be an apostle? Or was he secretly relieved? Did Matthias rejoice, or did his heart sink at the responsibility that was being thrust upon him? There’s no mention of them being asked whether they wanted the job. It makes me wonder how I would have felt – probably completely overawed, and absolutely unready for this, full of doubts about whether I would be up to the task. Apart from the daunting realisation that this precious message was entrusted to my hands, I am sure I would have wondered whether I might find myself sharing the same fate as Jesus had – not an appealing thought.

I expect that many of us would rather be Joseph than Matthias, left in comfortable obscurity rather than being thrust into the frontline. But let’s not be too quick to heave our sighs of relief, because the truth is that we are all chosen, all called to bear witness to God’s love anyway. The word “apostle” literally means “sent out”. We are all apostles, because we are sent out “to love and serve the Lord”, as the communion service puts it, in whatever situations we find ourselves. We might not be asked to be great leaders, or stand on street corners sharing our faith or go to the ends of the earth and live among the destitute, but we are all placed daily in situations where we find ourselves challenged. That might be at work or at home, as parents, children, neighbours or friends.  Are we able, when push comes to shove to do the loving and good thing, despite the fact that the selfish thing might be infinitely easier? The small choices we make in those situations often have a far deeper and wider impact on those around us than some grand, heroic gesture would. We all notice and appreciate those around us who act with integrity and trustworthiness, those who show us genuine love and care, those who go the extra mile. We ask what inspires and strengthens them. There is nothing that speaks more powerfully of the love of God than the loving lives of those who claim to follow him.

So we are all called to be apostles. The lot has fallen on us. But if we feel daunted we would do well to remember the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading, because he seems to have a great deal more confidence in our ability to live lovingly than we probably do ourselves. This Gospel reading is part of his final words, his farewell message on the night before he died. He prays for his disciples, and for those who will follow him in the future too –us in other words. “The words that you gave to me,” he says, “I have given to them”. He doesn’t beg God to help us out of the hole we will surely get ourselves into. He doesn’t say, “Look frankly, Father, they haven’t got a hope in hell.” Instead his message is that whether we know it or not, whether we dare to believe it or not, we have what we need, the word of God, working deeply within us.

In the silence tonight I’d like to invite you to ponder those words. Do you feel that you have what you need to deal with the situations you face? What are the sources of strength you draw on when you feel challenged beyond your own capabilities? Perhaps in the silence you might like to repeat to yourselves that phrase that Jesus spoke so confidently “the words that you gave to me, I have given to them”, and ask God to show you where those words, that wisdom, is to be found in your life.

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