May 13, 2018

2018 May13

Easter 7 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


This is the Sunday after The Ascension. On the 40th day after The Resurrection, Jesus bodily ascended to Heaven to sit at the right hand of The Father. The post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus are wonderful, and we heard some of them as the Gospel readings over the past 7 weeks.  The more recent Gospel readings have been pre-Crucifixion stories, but the ones closer to Easter Day, like the story of the Road to Emmaus, were really focused on the Resurrected Jesus. One of the problems with The Ascension is that in those 40 days after The Resurrection,

Jesus didn’t do a very good job
of succession planning.


“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”


Uh...what? That’s not a good succession plan. It’s a bit vague, as Jesus often was.


Now The Disciples have to fend for themselves, and they were one short. So, they chose Matthias to become the 12th Apostle to replace “the one destined to be lost” – Jesus’ reference to Judas in today’s Gospel. “Simple. It’s done. Let’s just sit and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon us, and we’re set to take over Jesus Corp.” Well, nothing in the Bible is ever that simple!


The election of St Matthias to replace Judas seems pretty straightforward, but it was actually a bit of a soap opera. Spiritually, it’s beautiful. The Apostles felt a little incomplete, and the Holy Spirit guided them to choose this man whose name means “Gift of Yahweh”.  


Apart from what we read today, we know nothing else about St Matthias.  Everything that you hear about St Matthias is made up...or legend. It’s possible that he was one of the 70 Disciples commissioned by Jesus in Luke 10; he might have hung out with Zacchaeus or Barnabas; and there are 2 different stories of his death. You don’t have to look too hard to find references to “The Gospel of Matthias”. The text is completely lost except for a couple of mentions from the Early Church Fathers and this reference from Clement of Alexandria that St Matthias wrote:


“We must combat our flesh, set no value upon it, and concede to it nothing that can flatter it, but rather increase the growth of our soul by faith and knowledge”.  


We have enough texts from St. Paul about denying the flesh that we don’t really need more from St Matthias.


There is another work called “Traditions of Matthias”, probably from 2C Egypt. It sometimes was thought to be from “The Gospel of Matthias,” but there is not enough evidence to confirm this. The text is available online.  


So, we are left with no reliable information about St Mattias other than what we heard today. And when that happens, we look at the theology behind our stories.


Luke and/or the Apostles probably had the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures in mind. Luke makes it very clear that those who are called Apostles are the 12 who were witnesses of Jesus’ ministry as His companions, not just bystanders. Luke establishes this with Peter’s assertion:  


“ 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.”


Remember that Matthias means “Gift of Yahweh”.  To Peter and the other Apostles, it was clear that God selected Matthias to assume the vacancy left by Judas, and thus The Apostles are once again an expression of the True Israel. But, here is the real drama: Was Paul the one meant to be the 12th Apostle? Did Peter and his pals overstep their authority? It’s like the season finale of a 1980s nighttime drama, except that we won’t find out what really happened next Fall.


The requirement that the 12th Apostle be from those who had seen Jesus from His Baptism to The Ascension excluded Paul, because Paul didn’t encounter Jesus until well after The Ascension, and in fact Paul, when he was a Pharisee, had persecuted the early Christians, and was witness to the stoning of the first Christian Martyr. And who was that? It was St. Stephen!! Of course WE don’t want Paul to be one of the 12 Apostles!!! He oversaw the execution of our patron saint!!

So...drama and politics are part
of our Christian heritage, a part of
our human nature.


Well…what about this magic number of 12 and “the expression of the True Israel?” It refers to the 12 Tribes of Israel. Who are they? A very, very quick OT history lesson on The 12 Tribes, including the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel.


Jacob was renamed Israel in one of my favorite OT stories in which Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed at a location that Jacob names Penuel – which means “Face of God”. Jacob goes on to have 12 sons. After the Exodus, upon conquering the Holy Land, and ignoring his daughters, the area was divided among the 12 sons, forming the 12 Tribes. There was a bit of maneuvering, which included the priestly tribe, the Levites, not getting land, but cities, and the Tribe of Joseph being divided into the Tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh…the number still comes out 12, which  were:


  • Reuben
  • Simeon
  • Levi
  • Issachar
  • Zebulun
  • Dan
  • Naphtali
  • Gad
  • Asher
  • Joseph (later Ephraim and Manasseh)
  • Judah
  • Benjamin


No surprise, there was a dispute over who should be king after King Solomon died. 10 tribes formed the Northern Kingdom called Israel under Jeroboam. The 2 remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, formed the Southern Kingdom call Judah. The 10 Tribes of the Northern Kingdom were captured by the Assyrians…and never set free. They are thought to have either been assimilated into the Assyrians or formed the Diaspora after their eventual freedom generations later or both. But nevertheless, they are known as the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. The 2 Tribes of the Kingdom of Judah, were later captured by the Babylonians…but were set free. They re-established themselves, and the Judahites, as they were known, are the ancestors of today’s Judahites, or Yehudi, or Jews.


So, going back to the Book of Acts, written by Luke, and the significance of St Matthias rounding out the Apostles to the number 12: The importance of filling that empty spot had to do with the coming of The  Messiah as described in the Old Testament. The 12 Apostles symbolized the 12 Tribes of Israel – the full set of 12. Now that the representation of the 12 Tribes was once again complete, and only by those who knew the earthly Jesus well, this early community of followers was ready for the Gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, and their anointing as the True Israel.  


None of us would have gotten that on the first read. But...many of the Jewish readers of the day would have spotted the significance right away. The symbolism would have led them to belief in this man Jesus as The Messiah, The Christ. Their significance wasn’t really widespread, probably not outside of Jerusalem or for very long. But it was significant nonetheless, and Luke’s telling of this story about St Matthias restoring the 12 Apostles would have convinced some readers that this was truly the foundation of the Church, which reflects the True Israel.  


So, what does this have to do with the Gospel since the Gospel is not only before The Ascension, it’s before The Crucifixion?  This prayer that Jesus says is at the end of a very long Farewell Discourse that goes on for several chapters in John, for which the setting is the Last Supper. This chapter-long prayer comes directly before Jesus’ arrest. Of course, Jesus knows that He is going to die, that’s why He’s been saying all of this obscure stuff that The Apostles don’t really understand. But the Farewell Discourse as a whole is Jesus’ Succession Plan. It’s not very helpful or very effective, mostly because it’s neither directive nor understood by the people He is addressing. So, when we get on the other side of The Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, to the choosing of St Matthias, we’re kind of in this place where we think: What do we do now?


This is where The Apostles, Paul and the Early Christians must take their leap of faith and pass it down the generations to us. We find that in today’s Second Lesson:


“Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”


This New Covenant in Jesus Christ is one of faith, rather than one of obedience as with the Old Covenant. Both Covenants require faith and obedience, but the balance has shifted toward faith. And faith is harder to maintain than obedience when He in whom your faith rests cannot be seen. Thus, the drama and politics of choosing St Matthias to replace Judas plague us today in the universal Church which doesn’t even see itself as tribes, but rather, 10s of thousands of splinters formed by groups of people who cannot agree or get along.


Jesus’ poor succession planning has been evident throughout Christian history.  We do a poor job at emulating the love that Jesus instructed us to give freely to others. We say The Confession weekly (except in Eastertide), which is sort of our “out” for failing to be the Body of Christ – a family in unity – in the world that we are called to be.


But, we have been selected by our Baptism  – our profession of Jesus as the Son of God – to carry on the apostolic  tradition of telling the Good News. Jesus, through John’s lens, wants us to be as close as Jesus and the Father are one. That’s a tall order, one we will never achieve. But we can try.  


As we endeavor to bear witness to our experiences of the Risen Jesus, let us remember that it is

Christ’s prayer for us to be a close-knit family. As we fulfill our part of the Succession Plan for Jesus Corp, lets us not be “ones destined to be lost”. Rather, let us know that we are like St Matthias:


“Gifts of Yahweh” Chosen by God
to proclaim the Good News.


Our time here today and every time we meet for The Eucharist, for prayer and for fellowship, we represent the Body of Christ in this world. The long lineage that leads us back to The Apostles, to the 12 Tribes of Israel and to Godself is our authority to love one another in Christ’s name.


Holy God,
protect us in Your name
so that we may be one,
as You and Jesus are one.

© 2021 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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