This week we continue in the Acts readings with the election of a new apostle to replace Judas. Acts 1:15 and more provides an early context for the election of church leaders. The 120 or so gathered in the room decide on a criteria for who the leader should be, they pray about it, and then they cast lots to decide. While we probably do not cast lots to decide about ordaining a new clergy person, or electing a new vestry member, we do follow the example of deciding on a criteria and of group discernment and prayer.
Jesus was with them for little more than a month after his resurrection and in Acts we find his followers trying to figure out how to be the church, how to organize themselves around the mission that Jesus has left them with. In the Episcopal Church we have annual meetings. My experience of the annual meeting is sensory memories of food and clamor and the smell of coffee brewing. One of the few times a year that almost all members come together to make decisions that will guide the community forward. At the meeting in my home parish we open with a song and with prayer, we make and receive reports, we vote for new leadership, and of course, we eat. These are messy and loud and sometimes too long, but they are the church being the church. This is represented in those gathered in the Acts reading, an old story about a group of people just like us who are trying their hardest to figure a way forward in the absence of the physical person of Jesus.
What do our ways forward look like? How are we making those decisions now?
If you want to preach on this pericope will you talk about the need for a twelfth person, the fulfilling of the occupied twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel? Will you teach about how we discern in community? Will you perhaps mention the fact that even though they were considered, and one elected, both Joseph/Justus and Matthias completely disappear from scripture after this story?
Perhaps the message is not in the election of a single new apostle who will never be heard from again, but in the greater faith and witness of the other members gathered there, the ones whose names we will not ever know. Their witness spread the gospel across the world and across generations. Perhaps we would not be here at all, perhaps the Jesus Movement would have died out, were it not for the voices of those lay people witnessing to the world, sharing the story of Jesus generation upon generation. Who can we lift up for their witness? Who testified for us and brought us into the larger family of the church?
Testimony and witness extend into the reading from I John.
All of human life is a testimony of some sort, and it seems that the testimony of the world is writ large in bloodshed and bullet casings. The testimony of God is the life of Jesus, who came to us in all our humanity, who harrowed hell and delivered the promise of eternal life.
The author of I John reminds us that our story is different. Our existence is already changed because we have the promise of eternal life, it lives inside each one of us already, not as something outside to be hunted or found. Our testimony is peace, our truth is love, and these are confusing messages to a world that deals in power and violence. God gave Jesus over to those same powers and Jesus rose victorious over them.
That is our powerful testimony, we are born for freedom and for life in Jesus. We are not born for power, wealth or violence. That testimony is how we can shape and change the world – by refusing to be party to what harms and kills and separates humanity from God, and instead insisting that a greater love is not only worthwhile but there for the taking; that we need only to pick it up, that we are already saved.
Finally, Jesus prays what is known as the High Priestly Prayer in our gospel selection. He prays to God for the deliverance and guidance of those he must leave to carry on his work. Jesus is preparing to depart for good, and for much longer than his followers initially thought, indeed, he would not return in their lifetimes.
We have prayed similarly for our own congregations recently, as we could not see them in person, as we did not know when we could be together again, we have had no choice but to commend them to God, to whom they belonged in the first place. Some of us will not be there when we reconvene, some of us have faded into the nearer presence of God. It is sort of comforting to remember that our people, present and passed, were never really ours. Unlike Jesus as he prayed this prayer, we often forget the bigger plan, that God is the real keeper and much larger than we imagine.
Jesus also reminds us that we live in the world, assigned the distinct job of reconciling all of God’s kingdom to God. Jesus doesn’t ask for his disciples to ascend with him, instead he asks God to protect and sanctify them as they continue that work here on earth. The entire purpose of John’s gospel is made clear in many places; that we may believe.
I wish you all Godspeed as you navigate the end of the Easter season.
Alicia Hager resides in West Michigan and is a Postulant to the Sacred Order of Priests in the Episcopal Church. Alicia enjoys spending time with her daughters and her husband, is bonkers about her cats, and blogs at astrawberrypointe.wordpress.com.
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