Saturday, May 16, 2015

Filling the Chair

Acts 1:15-26
Easter 7
May 17, 2015
William G. Carter

Here is a page out the scrapbook of the early church. The author of the Gospel of Luke has begun a second book. We call it the Acts of the Apostles. Volume One tells the story of Jesus, from the shepherds at the manger to the angels at the empty tomb, with a little bit before and little bit after. Volume Two picks up where Volume One leaves off, with Jesus going up to heaven and the disciples wondering, “Now what?”

All the razzle-dazzle is over. Crucifixion is over, Easter is past, Jesus is now out of sight. It’s back to business. They return to the familiar upper room, and Mary his mother is with them. They spend a good bit of time in prayer. They share meals together, and then Simon Peter banged .the table with his goblet and began to speak.

“I know we are all missing Jesus,” he said, “but we are missing more than that. Judas Iscariot leaves behind an empty chair. What he did was terrible, and that sad episode has shaken us all. But it’s time to move on. There’s a verse in Psalm 109 – ‘Let someone take his place of leadership’ (109:8).” The room buzzed, people nodded their heads.

It was the first significant decision before a church that had no visible Lord. So how did they handle it? I’ll tell you how they handled it: they formed a committee.

Oh, I know. Luke says nothing about a committee. The text does not mention a nominating committee. But let me assure you: that was an inadvertent omission. I mean, you know they must have formed a committee. They had 120 voices, each chiming in their two cents. That's too much advice and too much confusion. I don’t know how you get a large group of people to agree on anything, especially if they are nominating candidates for office.

And so, they hand the work over to a committee, somewhere between verse 22 and verse 23. They appointed eight committee members, gave them a room and two ground rules. The first: the nominee must have followed Jesus for at least three years; no fly-by-nighters in our leadership. The second: we need a decision by tomorrow morning. So they put on the coffee pot, elected a moderator, and began their work. From the beginning, there was no small debate. No sooner had they started, and hands shot into the air.

The moderator recognizes member number three. "Yes sir. I've been thinking about this, and we need a young person. When I look around and see how old the apostles are, it bothers me. Look at Matthew, James, and Bartholomew! Each of them has one sandal in the tar pit. They're not going to last long, and it’s time to get the next generation involved. God knows, I'm no spring chicken. That's what I wanted to say.  Thank you."

The moderator recognizes member number four. "I'm from Caesarea. My name is Eliezer. I agree it might be good to have someone young, but let's remember we really need is someone who can handle money. Judas was good about that. He knew how to hang on to the purse-strings.  I haven't been a Christian long, but I see us giving away our money to all the wrong people. It makes me nervous. That's all."

Member number two. "I'm Bob, from Bethany. I have a bakery. I saw a lot of Jesus that last week. I think we should pick someone with a thick skin. I saw that no matter what they do, church leaders always get hammered with criticism. We can't choose someone with a tender heart, who takes everything personally."

Member number six. "I beg to differ with Bethany Bob the Baker. Sure, there's criticism, but must we nominate some insensitive fool? Jesus cared for the weak and vulnerable, and so must we. There is no room in the church for some fool who bulldozes over other people's feelings. I don’t want a leader like that. Thank you."

 Member number seven. "As always, I'm the only woman on this committee. I want to point out that none of the eleven are women. Jesus always cared about women. He treated us like real human beings. He taught us.  He included us in his work. And Mary, Joanna and the others raised money for his journeys. I think we have an excellent opportunity to take a prophetic stand. The Church can be different! We must not pass it up. Let's elect a woman to be the next apostle!  Thank you."

Member number one. "Well, it's no secret to anybody that I wasn't happy with all of Jesus' choices. I don't think he should have picked Thomas. It's wrong having someone with so many doubts. Christians have to be strong. They need to have a strong faith, not a lot of questions. We need a strong believer, not some namby-pamby curiosity seeker. That's all I want to say."

Member numbereight. "I'm from here in Jerusalem. I wasn't happy with Jesus' choices either. I want to choose someone to be proud of, someone who can stand before the crowds and preach with a silver tongue.  Personally, I'm tired of those foul-mouthed fishermen from Galilee. They are sloppy, smell of tilapia, and have no class."

Member number five. "I've been sitting here listening to all of you rattle on. None of you are facing facts. We should sign up the first sucker we can find. This is a big job we want them to do. The less we tell them, the better. Jesus never told the twelve what they were getting into. Why should we? Let’s be practical. No one is going to take the job if they discover how much it involves. Wake up, people! We are trying to fill a slot."

On and on, the committee continued their work through the night. They worked. They argued. They drank coffee. When Peter arrived in the morning, the committee said, “We’ve done what we can.” Peter said, “Great! Who do you have?” They had two candidates, equally qualified: Joseph Barsabbas with four votes, and Matthias with four votes. “We can't decide," said the moderator. "How about if we have thirteen apostles instead of twelve? There is plenty of work to do. What is one more?"

"No,” said Peter, “that can't be. Jesus picked twelve. There are twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve is the number, no more, no less."

The moderator said, “We did what we could. We have two candidates for one position. We are unable to decide. Something else must be done."

 “Yes," said Peter, nodding slowly. "Something will be done."

With that, what follows may be the oddest scene in the entire New Testament. The whole church prays, hands over the whole matter to God. Then Luke says they cast lots and Matthias is chosen.

Now wait a second. The nominating committee had worked carefully. They had reviewed every possible option. The lives of two men were at stake. The future of the Jesus Movement was at stake. But when the committee reaches a stalemate, the situation is simply tossed into God’s lap. Whatever will be, will be. Is that how the story goes?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. For one thing, the committee did its work. They weren’t looking for merely anybody. They were looking for a witness to the resurrection of Jesus, searching for someone who knows Christ is alive and rules over all. It couldn’t be just anybody to fill the empty chair. It had to be the right person.

That’s what our own nominating team has been doing. These days, when we look for an elder or deacon, our nominating team asks first, “What does the church need to get done?” The next question follows logically: “Who would be the best person to do that kind of work?” When they spend some time upfront, asking those kind of questions, we have more of a sense that God is leading us to the right people. And it is far more satisfying and affirming for the people we ask.

So the early church gave some prayerful thought about who their leaders could be. It wasn’t sloppy or quick. They didn’t hand off the task to a headhunting firm and say, “Get us an apostle.” No, they looked around the room – who has the ability? Who could do the work with the right encouragement? Who is God working in at the present time? And they came up with two – Joseph, who some called Barsabbas, and others called Justus; he must have been widely known by a lot of people; - and Matthias, about whom we don’t know very much at all.

They came up with two, two possibilities for one position. Because it’s generally true that two or more people can do the job that somebody has to do. And to decide which one, they “cast lots.”

What does that mean? At various times in history, to cast lots was to put a number of stones in a small cup. They stones would be marked or colored. The cup would be shaken until one of the stones would jump out. It was widely believed that this was a fair way to decide, like flipping a quarter and calling heads or tails. As the book of Proverbs said, “Casting the lot puts an end to disputes and decides between powerful contenders” (18:18).

More than that, it leaves the matter in God’s hands. The church has done its part in discerning the right people. Ultimately the final decision is God’s decision – so it is possible to say, the first little stone to pop out of the cup is the stone God selects. So the church could look back on the decision and declare, “The Lord chose Matthias, from the two that we carefully selected.”

It’s a different way of thinking about decisions, you know. We will cast our votes in local elections this week. Some believe the candidate with the most signs will win. Or it will be the candidate with the biggest financial war chest. Or the candidate with the biggest promises to repay. Or the candidate that some anonymous business man has in his pocket. Imagine if we were to spend more time reflecting on who is the best person for the good of the whole group, the leader that God would choose?

How is it that God makes these kind of choices, untainted by manipulative hands? The story from the early church suggests that the church folks did the upfront work, but they all agreed to hand it over to God.

Years ago, I heard about a church that was looking for elders to govern the congregation. They had six available seats, and they went to the congregation with eight names. The pastor was new. She said, “Why did you come up with eight when you were looking for six?” The committee leader said, “We may get a couple more nominations from the floor.” This was curious, and indeed, two people were nominated at the meeting when the vote was taken. Ten people for six positions. What are we going to do?

And they passed out ballots and instructed them all to vote for only six people out of the ten. If you voted for seven, only the first six would count. Then they had a hymn sing while the counters tallied up the votes, and declared the six next leaders of the church.

The pastor said, “Don’t you worry about hurting someone’s feelings?” “Oh no,” replied one of the losers, “we believe God speaks through the majority of the people who love God. It’s never about any of us. It’s about doing the work of God.” Then she added, “Frankly, I’m glad God didn’t pick me this time.”

What an amazing thing: a blend of human discernment and Divine selection.

I have a friend who grew up as a Mennonite in Lancaster County. She told me her father was chosen as a minister by casting lots. The last minister moved on. The people looked around the church, took notice who was there, who was paying attention to the sermons, who was living the Christian life, and who was available. They saw a number of possibilities, took stock of the consensus of the group, wrote the candidates’ names on slips of paper, and placed the slips in a Bible. Sylvia’s father was one of the names written down.

The whole congregation knelt in silent prayer. After a few minutes, the Bible was shaken. The first name to fall out was God's choice as their next minister. It was Sylvia’s father. “I accept this as the will of God,” he said with a shaky voice, and everybody applauded. Then the congregation passed the plate and collected enough money to send him to Bible school, so he would have some idea what he was doing.

Human discernment and Divine decision – that’s what we seek in the Christian church. Today, in a church not far from here, the congregation is voting on a new pastor. The pulpit has been vacant for two years. The search committee has looked through two-hundred-thirty dossiers. They have met every week or two to pray for God’s guidance, to talk about what their church needs, to look diligently, and to wait for the Holy Spirit to make it happen. Today may be the day. If so, there will be a presbytery meeting right here at 11:00 tomorrow to confirm what God has done.

I was talking with the chair of the search committee. “You’ve been at it a long time,” I said. “Yes,” he said, “but some things happen only when God wants them to happen.”

I said, “How are you feeling after 230 applications and a hundred weekly meetings?” He replied, “This has been one of the most spiritual seasons of my life. God has not been in a hurry, but God has prepared us for the right person at the right time. Our meeting room has become holy ground.”

Maybe the selection of Matthias isn’t so unusual after all. He was not picked as one of the original twelve, but he was the next one that God wanted. He didn’t have to campaign to get the position, because he knew the decision wasn’t ultimately up to him. And when he was selected, he did not gloat or boast or strut around like a champion – no, he got to work for the people of God.

You know, there are these moments in our lives, yours and mine, when the stars align, when the angels sing, when the heart is confirmed, and it is as clear as anything is clear that God is ruling over us. There are moments, even seasons, when the work we do feels like the work that God wants to get done. Praise God for when those moments come, because they declare that every one of us has a purpose, that every one of us has something we can do for God and his rule over earth.

As for the other moments, the moments when the vision is foggy and the way is not clear, I leave you with one of the best things one of our own church members ever said to me. I saw the lights go on in her eyes as she declared, “So what you’re saying is this: we are the only people that God has to use.”  Uh huh -- all of us.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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