Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
I was ordained at Redeemer in Vancouver in 1994.
My first call was to a congregation in Winnipeg.
I knew that it was a difficult call. My predecessor had been asked to leave, and while I think that it was for good reason, it was not the whole story.
The bishop set me up up with another, seasoned pastor as a mentor, because he was nervous about a graduate going into that parish.
I went into the parish with energy and joy and I was welcomed warmly. I went thinking that I had grown up with conflict and that therefore I could handle it.
That was not entirely wrong, except that I did not realize that because I had grown up with conflict, conflict also transported me back to the place of my childhood and that my childhood was a place of anxiety. So, it was hard.
I loved the people of that parish. In fact, in the process of packing I came upon the guest book of our farewell party and the many cards given us. I could not read them all this past week, for then I would not have managed to pack, but I did read some.
We had seven good years in Winnipeg. They were hard years, always working at keeping conflict at bay and working to model and enable healthy relationships. We won many battles, as they say, but we did not win the war.
What happened, and the depth of which I perhaps had failed to appreciate, was that the level of trust was small but the level of distrust was great. That was the experience and those were the patterns.
Every year at the annual meeting the same member stood up and demanded that the organist and music director’s salary be cut in half. An older member of the congregation once told me that the pastor who had built the congregation – if pastors build congregations – had generally forced the congregation to give him what he wanted, until the year before his retirement when church council had called his bluff. The sad thing was that it had come this far, that no one had ever sat down with one another and said, this is not the way we do things, this is not the way of Jesus.
When my ministry in Winnipeg drew to a close I saw that good people were unable to step outside of dysfunctional patterns of behaviour. Their learned mistrust simply ran too deep.
I was reminded of this when I spoke with someone this past week who used to be active in the church until his priest changed. His primary relating to the gospel was through his priest and when his priest was gone it became difficult.
I thought of this also as I read the first chapter of Acts, our first reading. While the festival of the Ascension was on Thursday, our first reading today does tells us about the Ascension of Jesus.
Jesus’s ascension is not so much a disappearing as it is his enthronement. The one who was crucified, died, was buried and after three days rose from the dead, ascends to the right hand of God. This is less a geographic location as it is a title, a designation, and a confession of the church. Jesus reigns.
What follows – and is not part of our reading today – is that the church elects a replacement for Judas. Peter says these words, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning 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.” Luke continues, 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
Now, this is the only place we hear of Matthias. We never hear of him again, at least not in the Bible. So why is he elected an apostle, why is it so important that the number of apostles be twelve again?
The theologian James Alison helps us understand the significance of Matthias’ election. Alison says of the ministry of Jesus, “First he announces the closeness of the kingdom of God and works signs. At the same time he begins to choose people to be his witnesses. And he chooses twelve. This already tells us something about what he thought he was doing: that is, he was symbolically refounding Israel, with its twelve tribes. It’s … important that we notice this, since this number continues to be stressed until Pentecost. The ones who were chosen themselves understood that they had been chosen to bring about a restoration of the kingdom of Israel: that’s why they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if it is now that he will restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). And immediately after the Ascension, and before Pentecost, they choose Matthias to fill the empty place among the twelve which had been left by Judas.” So far so good.
By the way, Alison is not advocating supersessionism, i.e that Israel had been superseded by the church, rather in Jesus God was offering what God always offers, a new beginning, a new start, a new creation, to Israel and to the whole world.
Now the important part. Alison points out that the criterion for choosing a replacement for Judas was that the one chosen should have accompanied Jesus and the twelve original witnesses during the whole of Jesus’ public ministry up until his Ascension. That is, it was understood that fundamental to what Jesus wanted to do was the bringing about of some sort of new symbolic Israel, and that what makes this possible is the presence of people who had lived through the whole process of the change of mind and of heart produced by the ministry and passion of Jesus and then his presence as risen victim.1
Let me say this again: What was important about the choice of Matthias was he had been there all throughout Jesus ministry for him to understand what this was all about. This also meant that the ascension was definitely not about Jesus being light years away, rather those who had accompanied him, who knew him, also knew what his kingdom was about, for they were the ones he had taught to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on heart as it is in heaven. It is a prayer then that asks for heaven to come to earth, not the other way around.
And that brings us back to the beginning. It is important that we live as community, because we are the family of God. We are God’s children, Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and God’s friends. But our relationships with one another are not defined by how much we like the pastor, or how deeply loyal we are to one another, or how much we like each other. Love as Jesus prays for us to have in our gospel reading is not defined by liking someone but by God’s love dwelling in us.
Our community is defined not by how much we like someone but by all of us being here as God’s children and friends. Because it is God who has brought us together, God orders our relationships and makes community possible.
And that takes us one step further. If indeed we are people who have walked with Jesus, as imperfectly as Matthias did, then we understand something about that kingdom that we pray for. And if we understand something of that kingdom we pray for, we most certainly live in it not only tomorrow but today.
In my preparation for today I came across an old sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. The sermon is on this verse from Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” (12:2), which is a variation on Jesus’ word that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. King says that God calls us to “transformed nonconformity.”
The ascension is not about absence but about the reign of God among us now, which is why the disciples are not to gaze toward heaven. The election of Matthias and the calling of the church is to be the presence of the kingdom, to be people who know Jesus because he is present among us, and to be transformed in Christ for non-conformity.
What a gift!
1 James Alison, Raising Abel, “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 81-82, quoted at http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/easter7a/