An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The Leadership Lottery

A sermon on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 by Nathan Nettleton

The story of Judas Iscariot raises all sorts of questions for the church. Always has, always will. In our first reading tonight, we heard the end of that story, and it gives us a little snapshot into the infant church’s confusion and uncertainty about what the Judas story meant.

For those who held the view that God knows everything in advance and controls everything absolutely, the defection of Judas from the company of the Apostles turned their world upside down. How could it be that the all-knowing God had chosen as one of the twelve disciples, a man who would reject and betray their mission and turn Jesus over to his enemies? And how could an all-powerful God who had carefully chosen twelve apostles to be the new patriarchs, the representative leadership of a kind of new Israel once Jesus was gone, so carelessly lose one of them and be left with only eleven? And the questions were not much less bewildering for those who didn’t imagine God as micro-managing everything that happened in the world. It still raised questions about Jesus. How could someone who had been one of the privileged insiders on the whole ministry of Jesus fail to be fully persuaded that he was God’s chosen one. For those who were fully persuaded that Jesus was the messiah, it was bewildering that one who had been so close to him al the way through his ministry might doubt him and turn against him. How could this be? And for all of us, from then to now, what does Judas’s defection and the early church’s response to it mean for our understandings of ministry and leadership and the mission of the church?

The thing that most surprises me in this story is something that the text doesn’t address at all. And that is that if these questions about the demise of Judas and the need to appoint a replacement for him were such a big deal to the rest of the disciples, how come it hadn’t occurred to them to ask the risen Jesus to explain it all to them and appoint a replacement himself during the forty days that Luke says they had him with them between the resurrection and ascension? I’m not about to get an answer to that question, and you’ll be pleased to know that I’m not about to preach a speculative sermon about it!

I’m also not going to pursue the questions about the importance of there being twelve apostles because of what it symbolised about the relationship of the church to Israel. Perhaps if I was a little braver and a lot more knowledgable, it could have been a good angle to take since we have spent the afternoon learning more about dialogue between Christians and Jews. But all I want to say about it is that it was clearly important to the Apostles themselves. Jesus had explicitly connected the idea of the twelve apostles to the twelve tribes of Israel, and immediately prior to the ascension, which Luke relates immediately before this story, the disciples ask the risen Jesus if now is the time when the expected restoration of Israel was to take place. They clearly understood the mission of Jesus and the ministry he was leaving to them in the context of that expectation. But I am just going to leave that there as the background to this intriguing story of how the infant church went about selecting a replacement for Judas, and set out with the more modest aim of exploring a little of what that might now tell us about our ministries and our leadership now.

The first thing I want to note is that Luke tells the story in such a way as to make it clear that the failure of Judas need not have ruled him out from returning and being accepted as one of the twelve. Luke appears to quite deliberately present us with Peter as the one who had also spectacularly failed Jesus, but who is now emerging, forgiven and restored, as a key leader of the fledgling church. Both had failed. Both had turned their backs on Jesus. But only one had sought and accepted Jesus’s mercy. There is no doubt that there are situations today in which we have to conclude that someone’s failure is of a type that it is not safe to entrust them with the responsibilities of pastoral leadership again, but this is only to be seen in terms of ensuring the safety of others, and never as a self-righteous purging of the evil-doer from our midst as though we were so much more pure and perfect ourselves. All of our leaders are failures in all sorts of ways, and the leadership that Jesus delegates is always and only shaped by an acknowledgement of our shared brokenness and an absolute dependence on God’s healing mercy.

The second thing I want to note is the criteria that Peter sets out for a suitable replacement for the missing apostle. He specifies that it must be someone who had been with them during the whole of Jesus’s ministry, and that it must be someone who can be a witness to the resurrected Jesus. Given that the gospels so often focus on the presence of the twelve with Jesus, it is nice to have a reminder that actually there were a bunch of other men and women who were followers of Jesus throughout his ministry and who thus qualified on this score. But it is also instructive to note that these very criteria would have ruled out the two men who within a short time became the two most prominent leaders of the early church. James, the brother of Jesus, who becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the Paul, who becomes the Apostle to the gentiles, had not been followers of Jesus throughout his ministry. Paul definitely, and so far as we know James too, had only become believers after Jesus’s death and resurrection. So clearly there is no one definitive set of selection criteria for Christian leadership. Obviously only the first generation could have required that the leaders be drawn from among those who had followed Jesus throughout his ministry, but in fact, even that first generation were soon accepting the leadership of James and Paul. The Spirit is constantly doing new things, and gathering in to the church’s membership and leadership those who we have previously assumed were unqualified. It is only a few decades ago that most of the church agreed that women could not be pastoral leaders in the church, but the Spirit has opened our eyes and shown us how impoverished our life and ministry was without female leadership. Also just a few decades ago, I could not have been considered suitable for ministry because I had been divorced and remarried. Not many of our churches would still be worried about that, although some of them might think that any reason to exclude me would be good enough! The debates about homosexual people in the church are currently focussed on marriage questions, but as soon as that is behind us, we will be arguing again about whether homosexuality rules people out of church leadership positions. And no doubt we will again look back with embarrassment on our resistance to the new things the Spirit was doing among us. I say “new things” but they are not nearly as new to the Spirit as they are surprisingly new to us. It is only a couple of pages after this story that Luke tells us the story we heard recently of the conversion and baptism of the racially and sexually “other” Ethiopian eunuch. Sometimes we take an awfully long time to catch up with what the Spirit is doing among us.

The third thing I want to note is how they went about choosing Matthias to fill the empty post. The bit that probably caught your attention was that they tossed a coin, or drew lots, which strikes as as awfully random, and we certainly don’t do ordination selection by lottery these days. Although I will admit to occasionally having had cause to wonder whether we’d get it wrong that much more often if we did! But before I come back to consider the lottery, please note with me that even here in this story, that certainly wasn’t the whole process. Considerable attention is first given to the scriptures to establish whether in fact they should be seeking a replacement at all. Then they give some attention to agreeing on the criteria. Then they had some sort of process of discernment and consensus which is not described but which led them to narrow the possibilities down to a shortlist of two. Then they spent time praying and asking God to show them who God wanted in the role. And only after all that did they toss a coin. Which sounds a bit to me like the coin toss was not in the original plan but was only a tie breaker. So please note that the process of selecting our leaders is not to be taken lightly, but carefully and prayerfully. And please note too that discerning the will of God is not something that we are expected to find easy and definitive. From the way some Christians talk about God telling them this and God telling them that, that if they’d been there with Peter, he could have just asked them and they’d have told him with great certainty who God had chosen. But it seems that the early church was more real and rather more like us, and discerning the will of God is not nearly so simple or precise.

The fourth thing I want to note does relate to drawing lots. In this congregation, we are not likely to ever resort to tossing a coin in selecting our leadership group, because our Host Group does not have a fixed number of places that must be filled. But there is an interesting and, I think, important bit of symbolism that is not often enough noted in the drawing of lots in this story. You see, people typically think of Matthias as the lucky one for being chosen and Justus as the unlucky one for having been left out when the lots were drawn, but is that really what the story is inviting us to think. You see, although there are various stories with various uses of the drawing of lots, one of the most common uses of the drawing of lots in the ancient world was the choosing of a scapegoat to the sacrificed. Even in the Hebrew scriptures, we have a number of stories where lots are drawn to determine the identity of the guilty party who has brought disaster on the community and who must now be executed to restore peace and prosperity to the rest. And note the job description that Peter sets out – “one of these must become a witness with us”. A witness. Do you know what this word is in Luke’s Greek? A martyr. Witness and martyr are the same word in Greek. Matthias is chosen the way scapegoats were chosen, to fill the shoes of a man who had failed and died, and to join the company of early church leaders, many of whom were indeed martyred.

That said, the fifth thing I want to note is that neither Matthias nor Justus are ever heard of again. We have no idea whether he was martyred, or even whether he was a good and faithful servant of the church or as big a failure as the man he replaced. That partly reinforces my previous point about the rapidly evolving understanding and practice of leadership in the early church. The importance of the twelve doesn’t seem to have last long. But it also tells us that the leadership of the church is not to be made up only of those who are charismatic high-flyers, with spectacular skill sets, significant public profiles, and impressive performance indicators. Which, speaking as a member of the rather modestly skilled and frequently inefficient leadership group of this church, is a big relief! And part of why it is a relief is that the subsequent anonymity of Matthias reminds us that in the final analysis, there are not really big and small jobs in the ministry Jesus has left us. We are all called to play a part and all the parts are important, whether they have high profiles or not. And all any of us are called to do is play our part, faithfully, and without seeking to draw attention to ourselves. When we are getting it right, all the attention is being drawn to Jesus, the crucified and risen one.

Given the prominence of the symbolic number twelve in this story, it is tempting to go on and find another seven important lessons to note so that I can have twelve points, but I’m out of time, and that would probably just be trying to be clever for no real purpose. So let me wrap up by urging us all to take these things seriously in our understanding and practice of congregational leadership here. Obviously Alison and I, as your pastors, have the most visible leadership roles among you, but this church is dependent on everyone playing their roles, including various other leadership roles. Some of them are as low key and anonymous as Matthias, but they still need your prayerful support and encouragement. And maybe they also need you to step up and join them in a role that you haven’t yet imagined for yourself. Maybe you know that God is asking you to get involved in new ways and to offer gifts you haven’t previously offered. We won’t be drawing lots or seeking to martyr you, but we do see your own sensing of the call of God as an important part of the process of identifying our leaders. So if you’re sensing that maybe there is a new task opening up before you, don’t be afraid to come and talk with me or Alison about it. We are here to help you discern God’s call. For ultimately, when all of us are responding to God’s varying calls on our individual lives, and all of us together are responding by becoming the kind of community God is calling us to be, then forgiven failures though we all be, we will together truly be a witness to the resurrected one, and to the resurrection life he is sharing with us, and shares with us now around this table and among these people.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.