Sermon: The Word of God and Prayer (Acts 1:15-26)

Text: Acts 1:15-26
The Feast of St. Matthias, Apostle
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The Church faced a particular problem with the filling of an Apostolic vacancy. It was like the kind of problem you might have experienced yourself. You’ve bought something from Ikea. You open the package, and begin to sort out all the bits and pieces that have to be assembled. Soon, you begin to panic, because they didn’t send the instructions. That must have been exactly how the apostles felt in the very early days. What are we supposed to do

Judas had abandoned his office, betrayed his Lord, and hung himself in despair. Eleven apostles simply would not do. You need to have twelve. Twelve apostles like the twelve tribes of Israel. There they were, about to spearhead of Jesus’ plan to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins to the whole world—and there were supposed to be twelve of them.  The vacancy had to be filled. But how were they going to do that? Did they just have to stay like that, and if not what should they do about it? Jesus hadn’t left them a constitution and by-laws. There was no divinely inspired procedure to fill a vacant apostolic office. So what were they to do?

They went to two sources for instructions: to the word of God, and to prayer. Verse 14 says that this little church “were constantly at prayer.” As they prayed their Psalms they began to meditate on the Psalms which talk about a time when God’s people, and God’s true king, would be opposed by a traitor from within their midst, betrayed by one who had been counted a close friend and colleague. Peter shows clearly that he understood the verbal inspiration of Scripture: the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouth of David. It was this Spirit inspired Word which enabled them to see how to feel their way forward in this new and unprecedented situation. The Psalms made it quite clear: it is not only all right for someone else to take the place of the one who has gone, it is the proper thing to do.

Then, they must have reflected upon the Words of Jesus himself. In verse 8 of this same chapter Jesus tells the apostles, “you will be my witnesses.” The person to take Judas’ place must be someone who could testify about Jesus. It had to be someone who had gone around with them all since the time of John’s baptism, all the way to the end. They had to be someone who was with them for the full three years of Jesus ministry. No short cuts or accelerated programmes of fast tracking to the apostleship. A full three years. And they had to be an eye witness to the resurrection of Jesus. No secondary sources. The apostles were unique in that way. They were trained by the Lord Jesus himself. They needed to be able to testify before the Church and the world that they had seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes. So, they discovered what they had to do. Their sense of direction was rooted in scripture and in what Jesus had told them. That is a main point Luke wants us to get here.

They narrowed the list of candidates down to two men: a man named Joseph Barsabbas, and Matthias. Joseph and Matthias. And then they did a remarkable thing by our procedural standards: they prayed! Imagine that! They didn’t decide and THEN ask God to bless their decision. No, they intentionally didn’t decide and asked God to decide. They prayed. And they knew that God wasn’t likely going to speak to them directly, and give his choice. After praying, how were they going to know who God’s man was? Was it Joseph or Matthias?

To make the decision, they used the well-known method of casting lots. They rolled the dice, flipped a coin. They assumed that God would show his will through dumb luck, with 50/50 odds of the lot falling on one or the other. Imagine that! Narrowing your choice to two options, praying to God, and flipping a coin! And so they chose Matthias. Or rather, they would say, God chose Matthias. Some may think this is rather arbitrary. Some think they should have done it differently. Luke doesn’t seem to think so. 

Luke is not telling us to pick the next synodical president by flipping a coin. He’s telling us what the Apostles did. This is not a set of by-laws or procedures for the church. However, this isn’t to say we can’t learn something and perhaps emulate it in our own day. Luke’s point is to show how, from the beginning, the apostles did what they did in the light of the scriptures and in the context of prayer. Now that applies to us! Are we control freaks, who want to take control over things that should not be entirely in our hands? Do we pray, “Thy will be done” and then go and do whatever we were planning anyway? Are we willing to have our choices overruled, our plans disturbed by God? Do we really pray, “thy will be done?” Or do we mean, “Thank you in advance for your cooperation”? 

I fear that far too much of what we do as a congregation, as a church body, is predetermined, the outcome is already known in advance, and we ask God to bless it. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 they said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” but we tend to say “It seemed good to us, and the Holy Spirit.” The Apostles made their decisions by turning to the Word of God and in the context of prayer. The Word and Prayer. The example of the Apostles is that they let God have the last say. Do we trust the council given in God’s word? Do we know the council given in his word? Do you pray for his will to be done, even if it isn’t what you want? Do you let God have the last say, instead of making sure you get the first and the last word with a pious prayer sandwiched in the middle?

The first congregation recognised that Jesus was running the show. Not them. Jesus. When they needed a man to round out the Twelve, the Lord provided. When the apostles died, Jesus provided others, and He multiplied their office. And He continues to call and ordain men today. Yes, he uses instruments like congregations and seminaries and call lists and call committees. Sometimes these get us results more random than flipping a coin. But in the end, it’s the Lord’s congregation, His church, His ministry. And He provides.

What happened to Matthias? He became an apostle. Tradition links Matthias with the country of Ethiopia, where he is believed to have met his martyrdom. The known facts about the missionary work and martyrdom of Matthias are not many. What is known is that he loved Christ and that he lived and died to spread the Good News as far as possible.

We say in the creed we believe in one, holy, apostolic Church. We are the Church that rests on the foundation of the apostles with Christ as the cornerstone. This means that the Apostolic Church trusts in the prophet and apostolic Word, God’s Word. This is the apostolic Word that restores, confirms, strengthens, and establishes you and the whole Church and keeps it in Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is the Word that proclaims this day the repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus name. This is the Word that assures you that your prayers are heard by God. This is the Word that restores us and keeps us in the faith, until we share in Jesus resurrection. 

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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