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Pick Me! … Or Don’t / Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1:12–26

Let another take his office.’ So, 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 men must become with us a witness to His resurrection.                                  

How do we select leadership in our churches? Do we sometimes overlook one key leader, the Holy Spirit? Our lesson today talks of the first church and how it selected someone to fill a vacancy. We can learn a lot from it regarding what is good practice and what isn’t.

“Pick me; pick me!” Those simple words might conjure up an image of kids lined up waiting to be selected for a game of kickball. Many of us can identify with the pride of being picked first to make up a team or the embarrassment of being picked last. When you’re a child, selection can be based on skill level or simply popularity. The strategy is to pick the strongest players to build the best team. Imagine that there’s only one position left, and two possible players left to choose from. Either way, one of them is going to end up watching from the sidelines.

We as adults do things differently. We announce a position, list the requirements, and then wait for the applicants to come in. Once we narrow the applicants down to the best, we invite them in to be interviewed. It’s all very methodical and thorough. At least we like to think that.

Leadership in the early church is the subject of today’s reading. At this point, the followers of Jesus still comprised a Jewish community that didn’t yet understand its mission as going beyond the Jewish world. In Matthew 10:1 Jesus sent out the 12 disciples on a mission to heal the sick and announce the Gospel Israel. In Luke 22:2 Jesus promised that these 12 men would sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel. Thus, in their minds, the 12 tribes must have 12 witnesses, and that’s where we find the connection with this passage today and the predicament of what to do about the slot left open by the death of Judas. So, they wanted to fill the post.

This selection process gave Peter the opportunity to define what an apostle was. His definition was first, that it must be someone who had been with Jesus from the Baptism of John until the day He was taken up into heaven, and second, that the apostolic group was drawn only from eyewitnesses who could give a reliable report of Jesus ministry. Out of the 120 gathered in the upper room, it came down to just two men.

Churches can have elaborate systems for selecting leaders. From nominating committees and written qualifications to examinations of candidates and congregational elections, it’s designed to identify leaders and place them in their offices. We take this seriously and want to ensure that the person we’re considering has a sense of call to the wider community. Some churches would say that the two standards of their leadership selection process are prayerful consideration. This is especially important when calling a pastor. Even in churches where bishops appoint pastors, however, we still have a process in place for picking our lay leadership.

The disciples, however, had no selection processes in place. They felt it was important to replace Judas. Among the 120 who were present, there are only two found to meet the criteria as defined by Peter; Matthias and Joseph, also sometimes called Barsabbas. So, the group prayed, asking God to show them the one who had been chosen to replace Judas.

What happened next would probably never happen in our church. They cast lots to make the decision. In other words, they flipped a coin or drew straws or threw dice. Do we find ourselves wondering if this decision was so trivial, that they could take a chance like this? The text says otherwise. It says they prayed, believing God was in the process, but it’s not clear if they waited for God’s answer. By lots, Matthias became part of the twelve.

Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that we never hear of Matthias again in the New Testament, though early Christian tradition assumes he was one of the 70 people Jesus sent out in pairs to prepare the way for His ministry, as recorded in Luke 10. Some New Testament scholars speculate that the subsequent absence of any mention of Matthias indicated that Jesus’ followers moved too soon to fill the Judas gap, that they acted before the Holy Spirit provided guidance. If you look at the placement of this event in Acts, it occurs while Jesus’ followers were waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit to arrive. We wonder whether there might have been a different outcome if they had waited till that happened. Would they still have chosen Matthias, or would they have needed to replace Judas at all?

So possibly, the disciples pushed to do this so soon because of the organizational structure that Jesus had put in place. They could see no other way other than 12 followers who knew Jesus. How often do we in the church let the organizational structure drive us in terms of decision-making as well as ministry? Are we open to the Holy Spirit moving us in a new direction if the Holy Spirit’s intent doesn’t fit the way that we’ve been working under for who knows how many years? What if the church has grown smaller or larger and the structure we currently have no longer works? Can we examine that and listen to the Holy Spirit and change it to accommodate what that same spirit is doing in our church today?

It’s clear that the disciples were looking for someone like themselves. They didn’t even consider that someone unlike them might be called by God to fit in that spot. Later in the book of Acts, Paul enters the picture, and that leaves us room to consider if he might have been God’s choice to round out the apostolic dozen. For that matter, God might have preferred one of the faithful women that Acts tells us were also present in the upper room.

In any case, Paul’s arrival into the early Christian community was a game changer, and it was solely the work of the Holy Spirit. Peter probably would haven’t been able to enlarge his thinking beyond the structure already in place (you know, “the way they had always done things”). To accept Paul as an apostle, as one who had seen the risen Christ and been called by Him, was too big a leap for Peter, at least initially.

Whatever the case, Paul knew without a doubt that he was called to leadership in this community of faith. And, because that call was initiated by the Holy Spirit, there was no hesitation on Paul’s part. He never looked back. He didn’t question it, he just did it.

So, can we learn to wait for the Holy Spirit to show us what direction we need when selecting leaders? So often today, instead of asking the Holy Spirit, who among us could really make a contribution to the mission of the church in an ever-changing world, we just find a warm body who can continue what we’ve always done. The very fact that Matthias is never mentioned again may be a warning to us that we should never try to force the Spirit to accommodate our own purposes.

So how do we discern the will of God? Are we able to see when the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and are we willing to go with that movement and follow the spirit? These are important questions for the church. No doubt the early followers were worried about what would happen to this movement after Jesus had left them and the Holy Spirit had not yet come. We can easily understand how they were figuring things out and wanted to do what they thought would be pleasing to Jesus. That’s the church in a nutshell. But we have the same gift that the early church had, the Holy Spirit.

A man agreed to interview for a pastorate in Darien, Connecticut. When he was called to meet with the Church leadership, he told one of them, I won’t even consider coming to this church unless there is a totally unanimous vote. He believed God could move people to unity, but the church leader said but, that’ll throw the whole thing out. Nothing has ever been unanimous in this church.

Nonetheless, the vote was unanimous, and he took the position. But once there, he told the congregation that when they met in any decision-making capacity, every decision must be made through prayer, and he insisted on 100% unity. If even one person dissented, they would table it and come back the next month to discuss it. The idea was to listen to what the people had discerned and what the spirit of God was telling them. Sometimes they would move in an opposite direction because they were willing to wait and listen to God before taking any action.

Imagine if every church, or our Church for that matter, made that kind of commitment! Prayer is key, but prayer is not simply us talking to God. Prayer also consists of us actively listening to God.

Not everyone is called to be on the church board or to serve as a deacon. But every one of us is called to pray and to listen and share what we feel God is telling us for the sake of the body of Christ. Clearly, this was an important time for the early church. They were at a crossroads. They were on the precipice of receiving the most precious gift of all, the Holy Spirit. Whatever mistakes they may have made, they continued to pray and wait.

May prayer and active listening be our focus as well, and may it sustain the church.