In the aftermath of the General Election at least three political parties are in the throes of choosing a new leader, and it isn’t proving straightforward. I’m not sure what’s going on in the Lib Dem camp, but the Labour party has any number of candidates setting out their stalls, and in Chukka Umuna’s case taking it down again. Then there’s Nigel Farage and Ukip, what is going on there is anyone’s guess…
But however strange modern political decision making seems to be, it can’t be as strange as the method we see in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Judas, one of Jesus’ chosen followers, has killed himself, so the twelve who Jesus chose to lead his followers, according to the Gospels, are down to eleven, and there needs to be a replacement. So what do they do? They don’t have an election. They don’t talk until they come to a consensus. They don’t have interviews or set challenges and vote off the unsuccessful candidates until only one is left. No. They draw lots. It’s true they have come up with a shortlist of two, and the lots are drawn after prayer, but in the end it all comes down to the tossing of a coin or the drawing of straws. This might seem very odd to us for such an important decision, but at the time it was very normal. People didn’t see this as gambling or trusting to luck. After all, it was God who controlled how the coin fell, or who got the short straw. All it was doing was giving him the deciding vote.
But the result is that Matthias makes it into the company of the apostles, while Joseph Barsabbas doesn’t.
What were their reactions? Did Matthias let out a triumphant “Yes!” even if only under his breath? Was Joseph crestfallen? Even if it had just been down to luck, no one likes being the one who isn’t lucky, but for these people, remember, it was God who was doing the choosing through this. Matthias may well have felt like it was a divine pat on the back, and Joseph might have been left wondering why God didn’t think he was Apostle material. Of course, apostleship wasn’t meant to be a prize, and Jesus’ followers weren’t supposed to count some people as more important than others, but when it’s you it’s happening to…
What are we recalling, I wonder, as we hear this story. Maybe we remember times when we weren’t chosen ourselves – for the school sports team, for a part in the school play, for a job, or by the person we hoped would notice us and love us. Most people have disappointments like this somewhere in their history, and sometimes we can end up carrying a chip on our shoulders for evermore.
We don’t know what happened to either of these disciples afterwards with any certainty. Tradition says that Matthias either went to Cappadocia with the Gospel and died there, or that he ended up being killed in Jerusalem. Joseph Barsabbas, again only according to tradition, became leader of the Christian community in the town of Eleutheropolis, near Hebron. So in a way perhaps it made little difference to their personal happiness – life wouldn’t have been easy for either of them. But they didn’t know that as the lots were cast, and they wouldn’t have been human if they hadn’t read something into the results.
That is perhaps why it is good that this reading is teamed with our Gospel reading today. This is Jesus’ last prayer for his followers on the night before he dies, and in it, Jesus prays for those he will leave behind. It is a profoundly compassionate prayer, which recognises how lost they are likely to feel when he isn’t there to guide and comfort them. It is a prayer which emphasizes above all that each of them is chosen and precious to God. “They were yours and you gave them to me” says Jesus – whatever else we are chosen for the really important thing, which surely overwhelms all the other triumphs and disappointments of our lives is that God has chosen us as his children and his friends, and called us beloved. But it is easy to forget this, so Jesus asks that God will “protect them from the evil one”. I don’t think he is just thinking of the obvious evils of persecution, or grand moral failures. I think this is just as much about the insidious eating away of our spirits that happens through petty jealousies and rivalries that are never really acknowledged and dealt with. These are the things that usually destroy communities – Christian or otherwise – most quickly and completely. He prays that his followers will be one as he is one with his Father, in a relationships that are marked by love and trust, where no one thinks less of themselves, or others, because they are called to different roles.
In the end, maybe Joseph Barsabbas was quite happy not to be chosen. Maybe he never really wanted to be an apostle in the first place – I’m not sure I would have done. But his story invites us to look at ourselves, at the things we do, the roles we occupy, the times we feel we’ve been passed over, the chances we feel we’ve missed. It invites us to consider what our calling is – it may be to something we have never imagined, but it may also be to find what truly fulfils us in the place where we already are.