Sunday, 16 May 2021

Called to be apostles: Easter 7

Yesterday in Rochester Cathedral, Jess Heeb was licensed as a Lay Minister – an LLM for short.
It’s the term that now covers all those who have some authorised ministry within the Church of England but aren’t ordained – Readers like Kevin, and those who used to be called Parish Evangelists and Pastoral Assistants.  Their ministries are all different, depending on their gifts and enthusiasms and the context they are in, but they are all selected, trained, and eventually authorised by the Bishop in the same way, as Jess was yesterday. It was a lovely day, a great celebration, even if numbers were very limited in the Cathedral. I know some people watched online too, and you still can do at the Diocesan Facebook page. 

I have no doubt, though, that Jess will have felt a bit daunted at times – I would be worried if she didn’t, and I know she very much appreciates our prayers and support. Maybe, too, she is quite surprised to find herself in this position – it wasn’t something she’d envisaged, and yet, here she is, a gift and a blessing to us. It’s fortuitous, then that today we heard the story from the Acts of the Apostles of Matthias, who unexpectedly found himself chosen for ministry – in his case as an Apostle - and of Joseph Barsabbas, who wasn’t chosen.

I have often wondered about Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas. We meet them for the first and only time in today’s reading from Acts.  The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about them except this. They were both, presumably, part of the crowd of men and women who had followed Jesus during his ministry, but they weren’t part of that inner circle which the Gospels often just call “the twelve”.. When Judas’ committed suicide after betraying Jesus, they felt that someone had to take his place. Twelve was a very important number to Jewish people. There were twelve tribes of Israel – descended from the sons of Jacob - 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, so 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 seem strange 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 and the right person would be selected. Jess might be a bit envious of that – no interviews, no essays to write!

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 either of them being asked whether they actually wanted the job. It makes me wonder how I would have felt – probably completely overawed, and absolutely unready, full of doubts about whether I would be up to the task. And I’m 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. The word “apostle” literally means someone who is “sent out” and that means all of us are 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 say in the creed that we believe in an apostolic church, a church that is outgoing. 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 or do something that seems grand and noble, but we are all placed daily in situations where we find ourselves challenged, “sent out” beyond our comfort zones. 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 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 wonder 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”. 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. 

That should be an encouragement for Jess, but also an encouragement for the rest of us, if we can take in and ponder Jesus’ promise. Do we feel that we have what we need to deal with the situations we face? If we don’t, Jesus’ words invite us to turn to God, to turn to his word, to turn to one another, and find the wisdom and strength we need to do what he has called us to. 


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