Witnesses of Faith, February 20th, 2022
God of light and life,
We turn to your Word for guidance and inspiration week after week. Send your Holy Spirit to move in and among us this day as we listen to the Scriptures read and interpreted. Help us to hear your challenge and your promise, and to respond with our commitment to follow Jesus, your Living Word. Amen.
New Testament Reading: Acts 1:15-26
Two Sundays ago, in our journey through the book of Acts, we left the eleven disciples and a group of Jesus’ closest followers in an upper room of a house in Jerusalem. Here’s how Luke described that scene, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas, son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
They had just come from the Mount of Olives after having watched Jesus ascend to heaven to be with the Father and after having an angel remind them of the work they had to do. And so, these bewildered, confused disciples go back to Jerusalem and do the only thing that they know how to do, which was to pray.
As you can imagine, these disciples were frustrated, Jesus had built up their hopes that his resurrection from the dead might begin the restoration of Israel to its former glory. But things didn’t turn out the way they hoped they would, God had other plans.
And now they were forced to wait. Jesus had commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what God the Father had promised, namely, the Holy Spirit. That was worth waiting for, but they had no idea for how long. Waiting is always so much more difficult when you have no idea when it’s going to end. Just imagine the patience and faith that would require.
And there was going to be a change of leadership. Jesus, their Lord and guide, had ascended into heaven. For three glorious years Jesus was the one who had led them, taught them, and guided them. He was the one they had totally depended upon. But now he was gone. Who would look after them now?
So, in this turmoil they turned to prayer. But in addition to praying, they decide that one of the things they should do in the meantime was find a replacement for Judas, who, in his guilt for having betrayed Jesus, had taken his own life.
Here’s how Luke describes that scene, “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’”
So, Peter assumes the role of the new leader of the group of disciples. And that’s no surprise as he always was the outspoken one in the group. He was the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah, he was the one, who when he kept his eyes on Jesus, was able to walk on water. He was the one to whom Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Unfortunately, he also was the one who would deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed.
And now it was Peter who decided that it was necessary to have a replacement for the disciple, Judas. There had been twelve disciples and they would have to be twelve once again. Peter would have remembered these words which Jesus had spoken to him, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Thus, it was essential to appoint a twelfth disciple.
And so, Peter said to those in that upper room, “One 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.” They then selected two men, Barsabbas and Matthias, who had been followers of Jesus from the beginning, although not part of his inner circle of disciples.
This is what happened next, “Then they prayed and said, “‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’” It’s important to note that the first thing they did after selecting the men was to pray. They prayed for Jesus to give them direction as to which of the two men to choose. They knew that their wisdom wasn’t enough to guide them, they needed help from the Lord to make their decision. We often forget this, but prayer should always be the first thing we do when faced with decisions in our lives.
Interestingly enough, this is how they chose between the two, “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” One would expect that they would have voted to chose the successor to Judas, much like we do today in our election process, but no, they more or less drew a name from a hat. After praying to God for wisdom and insight you would have thought they would have voted.
Yet, in ancient Israel this wasn’t unusual, it actually was common practise which had originated from the Old Testament Laws. God spoke of this practise to Moses in the Book of Leviticus. And so, by casting lots, Matthias became the twelfth disciple. But from that point on there is no more mention of Matthias in the New Testament, he totally disappears from view. Legend has it that he was a missionary to Ethiopia and died as a martyr there, but there is no concrete proof of that fact.
And because we hear no more of Matthias there is a lot of debate among biblical scholars as to whether Peter was wrong in appointing a twelfth disciple at that time. A number of commentators believe that Paul was God's intended replacement. Paul, after his conversion on that Damascus Road, became an apostle with authority equal to that of the Twelve. Yet, Paul had not been with Jesus during his earthly ministry. And Paul never claimed to be one of the Twelve. Yet, there is no mention in Scripture that the decision made on this occasion was a mistake. And in the end, it was God who directed the final selection. The Book of Proverbs confirms this when it says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.”
Regardless of the method which Matthias was chosen to become a disciple, or whether or not he should have been chosen at all, is not what should matter to us. What should concern us how we can use the example of those disciples as a means to determining the will of God for our lives. We can learn a lot from the actions of the disciples at that time.
First of all, we see that they did their work through prayer and patience. They had been commanded by Jesus not to depart, but to return to Jerusalem and wait. And that was not an easy thing to do. Jerusalem wasn’t a friendly place for believers in Jesus just then. It would be easier to find a safe place out in the countryside. And they needed money to live. No doubt they thought about going back to fishing.
Also, they would have remembered Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations” and so might have thought, “We need to get going on the task of preaching the gospel.” But Jesus told them to wait, and so they waited. So, they went back to the upper room and began to pray. They were persistent in waiting and praying. They demonstrated their desire to really know God’s will. They were living their true faith.
So, we should ask ourselves, do we really persist in prayer? Do we have an attitude of openness and willingness to do whatever God wants? Are we truly listening and are we willing to wait for God? Are we really living in faith?
Secondly, they were examples of leadership to the community. They were examples of working together with one goal in mind, to further the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to build on that cornerstone he laid so long ago. And that’s why we need to come together in worship as a church. Covid has made this a real challenge but those of us that are able to be together can strengthen our faith and work for others now and in the future. Being here with a Spirit-filled group of believers will shed much light upon God’s calling in our lives. The church helps us to recognize these things in other believers. We support each other, hold the faith for others who can’t be with us and follow the example of Jesus and his first disciples. Our faith moves us all in different ways but just like those early disciples, we must work together in one common purpose of continuing God’s work in the world.
Finally, they relied on the word of God to give them guidance. The first thing that Peter said when he stood up to address those 120 believers was “it was necessary that scripture be fulfilled.” During that time of waiting and praying the disciples were also studying the Scriptures, seeking to understand the things that Jesus had been explaining to them. Peter, and the other apostles, found help with these difficult questions by going to God’s Word.
And that applies to us, as well. The Bible is the main way which God speaks to us now. The Apostle Paul knew this, for he said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Whether we hear the Bible being read in church or study it at home on our own it’s important that we hear the word of God. The Bible is essential for knowing God and his will for our lives. By reading the Bible on a consistent basis, we can find direction for our lives and learn how to best serve the Lord who gave his life for us. Reading or listening to the Bible should be part of our daily lives. Devotionals with scripture can be a good place to start if you find the Bible too difficult in the beginning. As you gain more knowledge, it becomes easier.
So, just like those first disciples in that upper room in Jerusalem, this is what we are called to do, we are called to follow God who always makes a way. Through prayer and patience, leadership, and work in the community, and knowing the word of God and being witnesses of God’s grace to all those we meet. The Lutheran Church in America has a great way of expressing this, “God’s work. Our hands.”
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, give us the faith, patience, and confidence to share the good news of the gospel to all those around us. Strengthen us to become witnesses to the saving grace of your Son, Jesus, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen