Sunday, May 27, 2012

Handoff (Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)

Good ol' Matthias.

He's apparently been part of a group of people who followed Jesus, although not one of the 12, and he's now brought forward as a candidate for that circle to replace Judas. The lots are cast, Matthias is named, and we never hear from him or about him again. Not anything for certain anyway.

Church tradition says that Matthias preached the gospel in an ancient area called Aethiopia, which is not the Ethiopia we know as a country today but a region in what is now Georgia. Not Rhett Butler Georgia, although the misnaming of the area might lead one to wonder whether some of the folks in the ancient world were any better at geography than those people we read about who keep failing geography tests.

Matthias was supposed to have been crucified there, although we have this only from some church traditions and we can't verify it by any of the New Testament or the better-known writings of the early church.

He was chosen through the process called "drawing lots," or sometimes "casting lots." We don't know exactly what this was. We know that it was a way of making a random choice, and that it was probably made up of pieces of wood or stone that had different colors or symbols on each side. When they were thrown, some would come up one way and some another, and the outcome of the decision would be made according to how many came up a certain way.

In other words, Matthias was chosen by the apostles shooting dice, which would have come as a surprise to my dice-avoiding, card-shunning grandparents.

Before deciding between the two men, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, the disciples prayed and sought the guidance of the Lord. Then they cast the lots. The idea was that since the lots fell in a completely random way, there was no possibility of human influence on the choice, and they could be confident God alone was involved.

Now, you might think they would have been more careful. After all, they're replacing the one member of their circle who betrayed Jesus, which is the kind of PR wrinkle you'd like to avoid bringing attention to. So perhaps we would have advised them to look for an "anti-Judas," and have a rigorous screening process.

But what screening process would have been better than Jesus' own perceptions? If Jesus couldn't guarantee a fault-free choice, what makes them think that they ever could? And Judas wasn't the only disciple who "failed" Jesus, either. Remember that Peter denied him and the rest abandoned him. So our instinct to rely on our judgment might not work so well, and they used the method that was most likely in their minds to follow God's will for them.

Perhaps the main reason was the understanding that if God was at work, then either man would be the right choice. If God was at work, then he would use Matthias, if Matthias let himself be open to that. If God was at work, then he would have used Joseph Barsabbas just as well. We know that even though we never really hear about Matthias again, he must have done something (along with the other apostles), because the gospel was proclaimed throughout the old Roman Empire and beyond.

It takes trust in God to bring someone in to help with his work, because we don't know if those people will do it the right way (or, if we're being honest, "our way") and we don't know if there will be problems or not. Or if those problems can be handled. Or if things will be the same. Since we don't know, we must trust.

The disciples trusted God to lead them to Matthias, and then trusted Matthias to do God's work in the way that best suited him and best followed God. That.s a pretty good example.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Commencement (Acts 1:1-11)

In some very small towns, there are just two or three churches, and the pastors of those churches will sometimes rotate as the speakers at the high school baccalaureate service. So I've had the privilege several times during my different tenures as pastor in those towns.

My goal was less to preach a straightforward Sunday-morning sermon and more to offer a couple of thoughts about what's next in life for the new graduates. Over time, those ambitions got a little less grandiose, until eventually I had just one piece of advice for them: Now that you're leaving high school, I encourage you to leave high school.

By which I meant that they shouldn't live in this moment forever -- I remember when people would tell me during my own commencement season that these years would be the "best time of my life." While smiling and saying "Thanks," which is what polite young people do when old people they don't know say things to them, I would be thinking, "Lord, I hope not."

If I'm 17 when my life peaks, I'm staring at fifty-plus years of a downhill slide. To suggest that high school graduation is the best time of my life is to suggest I'd never do anything better than that, even if what those folks meant was that I should take advantage of every opportunity available to me at that wide-open time in my life. Hey, maybe when I'm near the end I'll look back and say, "Wow, that was a really great time," or maybe it will be eclipsed by other times even better.

I'm sure the temptation for Jesus' disciples was to look back at the years with him as those "best years" of their lives, and I imagine that years in Jesus' presence would be a high point no matter what kind of life you had. And maybe they felt tempted to just stay in those memories, like they were staying on that mountaintop, but they had work to do.

Jesus' own words to them are that they will be his witnesses to Judea, Samara and the ends of the earth. Only one of those exists on that mountaintop -- Judea -- and only a very small piece of it is actually there. So they have got places to go, people to see, things to do, and thus the angels encourage them to not live inside their past experiences of being with Jesus. Those experiences matter, but they will only matter when they are shared or when they form and shape the people who will be sharing.

School gives us an education, partly for its own sake but also partly for the sake of others. Our employers are happy we can read and write. Our friends are happy we stay up on current events so they don't have to recycle Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan jokes. If we help people, those we help are happy we studied writers and thinkers who moved us to be helping kinds of folks. Commencement, whether it happens at high school or college or graduate school, is literally the start of that time when we now use what we have learned.

For the disciples on the mountain, Jesus' ascension to heaven was their commencement. They awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip and guide them in the work Jesus gave them, and then they moved out to bring that same spirit to others.

Of course, it's not exactly the same. We had to learn algebra even though we may still be wondering what good it did us, but I believe we find that every part of our encounter with Christ -- whether in the flesh as it was for the disciples or by the work of the Holy Spirit as it is for us today -- can bring blessing to our lives and the world around us.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Obedience (John 15:9-17)

John records some of Jesus' last long talk with his disciples, in which he sets out some of the guides they will need to continue his work after he has ascended. This part of that talk offers up the relationship between loving God and obeying God, and although Jesus says it pretty simply, much of the time we manage to get it wrong.

In a lot of cultures, obedience to authority wins approval from that authority. I don't even mean a dictator or a totalitarian regime, either. In school, following the rules earns good conduct or good citizenship awards. Eating your vegetables means you can have dessert. Cleaning your room means you can go play outside (and after all of the whining you did about it, your outdoor activities can't come fast enough, if I remember right).

And the flip side, of course, is that if you don't obey the rules, you earn disapproval. "Does not work and play well with others." "You can have just as much dessert as you had Brussels sprouts." "You don't need to go outside to play, because this room already looks like a tornado hit it."

Now, most of the time our parents and teachers showed us they cared about us in spite of our messy rooms, uneaten tasteless squash and inability to refrain from visiting with our neighbors. Most folks grow up with at least one or two people who model unconditional love in some degree. Not everybody does, though, and the conditional nature of the affection they received can really mess them up later in life.

But even though we were shown we were cared for no matter what, we still have the example of how our obedience earns even greater approval. And we will too often translate that child-level understanding of what it means to be a good person to our relationship with Jesus. We believe that if we act right, Jesus will like us better. Some folks hold that he will not only like us better, he will bless us materially as a reward for our obedience. Pray two hours a day and get a Cadillac. Pray three hours a day and get a BMW. Pray six hours a day and get a Lamborghini Countach. You can't afford to put gas in it because you lost your job from praying all day instead of working, but it looks great in the driveway.

In this talk with his disciples, though, Jesus is clear. Our obedience does not cause God's love. God's love just is. Our proper response to that love is obedience to God -- and in fact, obeying God's commands enables us to love each other all the more!

When he tells the disciples that they are no longer servants but friends, he highlights the difference. Servants obey commands because they have to. If the boss decides to explain why the command is given, great. If not, the command is still there and obedience is not optional. But friends have a choice.

We might question whether or not we "obey" friends, but think of it this way. We all have friends who are smarter than we are, at least in some areas. If one of those friends gives us advice in one of those areas, we are likely to do what they say. They have indeed told us what to do, but our obedience is not a matter of obligation. It's a matter of knowing that this friend knows better than we do and following their direction. We understand enough to know they understand more.

So Jesus says that we are his friends -- we understand enough about what he's doing to know he understands a lot more and we'll do well to follow his advice. We aren't required to obey him, but we know it's the better path and so we do. We know he loves us, and we trust both his love and his wisdom enough to do what he says.

And as it so often turns out, our lives follow the better path because of it.