by Daniel Harrell
My last sermon had Jesus getting carried away in Luke’s gospel. Luke is the only Gospel writer who records the Ascension, and he does so twice, both in his Gospel and then with detail here in the Book of Acts. The language recalls the Old Testament prophet Elijah being whooshed up to heaven; and this is intentional. Jesus said everything written in the law of Moses, experienced by the prophets and even sung in the Psalms was ultimately fulfilled in him.
The disciples watched Jesus soar, only to have two angels appear and ask what they’re staring at. It’s like the two angels who asked the Easter mourners why they looked for the living among the dead. Are you kidding? Jesus rose from the dead and takes off up into the sky? Who does that!? I think this was the angels’ point. From this point forward, to speak of Christ is to speak of God. Among the earliest Christian hymns embedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians equates Jesus with God, but then insists equality with God was never a power grab on Jesus’ part. Instead, he humbled himself, to the depths of humiliated flesh, crucified, dead and buried, all for love’s sake. “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place,” it says (that’s the Ascension part) “and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord, “to the glory of God.”
Next Sunday is Pentecost when we’ll talk of tongues on fire in their confession of Christ as Lord. But the words for today are patience and prayer—two of the hardest disciplines of the Christian life. We so want what we want and need now without having to ask. We crave healing and wholeness and freedom from worry, we want peace and justice and true joy and relief from our sadness. We want to know what God is calling us to next, and the delight of obedience and conviction and purpose. We want to know what’s right and that we’re right, that our lives are headed in the right direction and that somehow everything will be alright.
The eleven disciples still standing want all these things. Jesus is gone and the Spirit’s coming, but for now they wait and pray constantly. We read Jesus’ brothers are with them in an upper room, along with the women who always believed in Jesus more than the men, and Mary the mother of Jesus. This is the last time we see of Mary in the Bible.
Mary was the devoted mother and first disciple, filled with self-surrendering love, an exemplar of faith and hope. She followed her son from his mysterious conception through his nativity and childhood, into his young manhood and baffling destiny to proclaim and advance the kingdom of God. She did not always understand his words or his actions, yet her conviction stayed true, her heart always open to God’s merciful will, even at that divinely appointed hour when hope was at its darkest. She collapsed to her knees in grief at the foot of the cross, and here in Acts she kneels in prayer, waiting fervently on the Spirit of her risen Son to rain down. Hers is a mother’s love fierce yet forgiving, focused and refusing to idealize so to hold tight to the genuine and the beautiful. It is her fidelity, and its fulfillment, that inspires those holding their rosaries to ask longingly and persistently, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
If you grew up Catholic you prayed your Hail Marys, and perhaps you also prayed another prayer apropos to our passage. It’s called the prayer of St. Matthias: “Almighty God, who chose Saint Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve, grant us joy that your love has been allotted to us and that we may we be numbered among your disciples. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” We read Matthias was chosen “by lot,” which some imagine was like drawing straws. As such Catholic tradition suggests celebrating St. Matthias by eating cheese straws, a tasty snack you might consider adding to your Mother’s Day brunch.
If you grew up Episcopalian, your prayer of St. Matthias is meant for the church: “Almighty God, who in the place of Judas, the traitor, chose your faithful servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve: Grant that your Church, being delivered from false apostles, may always be guided and governed by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” John Calvin saw in this passage the awesome responsibility on congregations to choose ministers. Speaking for myself and I’m sure for Sara and Carter and Marie and Jeff, and for all ministers who so strive to be faithful and true, we do need your prayers.
I know my preaching needs prayer—it’s a challenge to be faithful and true to Scripture when all you want to do is make people feel good. Episcopal vicar Sam Wells describes bungling a funeral sermon for a woman who’d taken her life. Trying to make the best of the worst, he preached how her loved ones couldn’t know the depths of her anguish and despair, but “we did know that her life was beautiful and that those who knew her loved her and would always cherish what she meant to them.” A week later Rev. Wells visited the widower, fully prepared for him to say how beautiful the funeral was. Instead, the widower, weary with grief, pressed back: “We knew exactly the depths of her despondency. She told us how she felt. Maybe you just didn’t want to hear it.”
Rev. Wells concluded his role as a pastor was not to make things better. Given the option between the bright side and the hard truth, always tell the truth. Optimism is sweet but can also turn saccharine and make us addicted to sugar—falsely craving for a hope we cannot digest. False hope, once realized, leaves
us worse off and isolated. But if we will name the truth and speak it—and stay with it and walk through it—we will taste the genuine sweetness of a love stronger than death. As a wise mother once wrote me in my hardship, “when you’re going through hell, you have to keep going.” Hold on to Jesus and get through and you’ll find hell can’t hurt you the same way anymore. Death loses its sting.
There is hard truth to be heard in this morning’s passage. Peter stands before the gathered believers—Luke counts 120, a quorum in Jewish tradition. Their official task is to replace Judas, the traitor, and bring the number of disciples back to twelve, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, the fulfillment of God for a new chosen people to be his presence of earth. “The scripture must be fulfilled,” Peter says, meaning both the replacement and the treachery itself.
In Psalm 41, we read “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, turned against me.” Echoing Psalm 41, Jesus informed his disciples at his last supper how he would be betrayed, the guilty party being “the one who dips bread into the bowl with me.” To share bread accentuated the intimate friendship Judas and Jesus shared. It also expressed a sacred cultural norm. In Scripture, to eat with another was to foreswear ever doing him harm. Ancient covenants and peace treaties were ceremonially sealed over meals. Jesus declared his last meal to be a new covenant between God and his people. Thus the evil Judas perpetrated would not only violated the bonds of friendship and polite society, it violated the bonds of heaven. “What you must do, do quickly,” Jesus said.
Judas was stricken with remorse after realizing what he had done. But rather than turn back to Jesus, Judas turned to the priests who recruited him and tried to give back the money they paid him to do their dirty work. The priests haughtily refused, and Judas threw their blood money on the floor and went out and hung himself. Luke goes into parenthetic detail about a field being bought and Judas’ gruesome demise. It is all very troubling. If Judas as one of the twelve so willingly betrayed Jesus for money, what chance do you and I have to be faithful? Peter himself recounts Judas’ deceit with great reserve—aware perhaps of his own duplicity. The Bible indicts us all; it declares, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” So we should always be hesitant to cast judgment on others and leave justice to God who sees the heart.
The gospels speak of “Satan entering Judas’ heart.” There is a Satanic evil, that Judas represents. Not only in the horrific crimes we commit, but in the bonds of trust we so willingly violate, in the relationships we righteously ruin, in the conflicts we cheerfully nurture, in the deception and disloyalty and lies we relish. And yet, just as Jesus extended forgiveness to his executioners as they hung him to die, so Jesus extended grace to Judas, even as he accused him. The bread that gets dipped as an indictment of betrayal is the same bread offered as Jesus’ own body broken. Only Judas does not accept it. He “turned aside to go to his own place.”
Still, Peter does not judge. He moves on to the business at hand because “the Scripture must be fulfilled.” Sometimes we have a choice, sometimes the choice chooses us.
Peter says “the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas,” and then cites Psalms 69 and 109. The Holy Spirit showed up long before Pentecost. Inspired by the Spirit, the disciples nominate two candidates for replacement, Justus and Matthias, about whom we know nothing and hear anything again. The singular requirement was being present at Jesus’ baptism and throughout his life, witnessing his work and watching him die on a cross and seeing him risen from the dead and carried off to heaven. Many would have been qualified, and apparently either Justus or Matthias would have worked out just fine. Though at the same time, with the memory of betrayal still fresh, Justus and Matthias likely had other qualities too. The disciples prayed, “Lord you know everyone’s heart,” which is important because our hearts can be murky, especially as to motive, our best intentions tinged by self-interest.
Instead of casting votes for their favorite, the disciples cast lots and left the choice up to God. Casting lots was like flipping a coin, drawing straws or rolling dice—except nothing was left up to chance. Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast but the decision comes from the Lord.” In this season of ReForming for our church as we seek what God is calling us to next, casting lots feels a little too dicey. So in addition to prayer, we hired a consulting firm and taken surveys, analyzed data and polled focus groups, to make sure we leave nothing to chance. We’ve commissioned a visioning team to discuss and to dream over the course of three retreats, and we’ve planned a rollout of God’s will for our church right on time for June.
Except it won’t be in June. Our ReForming plans have been fraught: first by the death of Billy Graham (his nephew Kevin is our chief consultant and was delayed in coming to lead our initial visioning retreat). Last month that freak springtime blizzard chased us home from our second visioning retreat we were holding out at the Arboretum. Last January there were the technical glitches at the congregational presentation of our survey data and exasperation at slides nobody could read. And this week, tragically, the consultant who presented the survey data to us died in his sleep. Todd Hahn was a 49-year-old father of six, a devoted follower of Christ whose life Jesus redeemed from numerous trials. His death is devastating for his friends and his family, his wife Miranda and his children and the organization he served. Todd and Kevin were best friends and Todd’s funeral is scheduled for our last visioning retreat weekend. Our plans will once again have to shift. Todd was my personal coach in this ReForming process, a thankless assignment which he performed with aplomb and grace, never failing to encourage and push me to be a better pastor. We were scheduled to talk again last week. I am so sad—but I do not despair. This life is not all that there is.
The Proverbs declare, “the human mind may devise many plans, but God’s purpose prevails.” Judas had to be replaced because he forfeited his calling. True disciples, faithful unto death cannot be replaced. A few chapters in Acts forward and James the apostle, the brother of John, is slain by King Herod Agrippa, and the church surged on. Tradition teaches that Matthias was stoned for his faith after taking the gospel to Ethiopia. The church persists there today, persecuted most recently by ISIS and still in danger, but faithful unto death as we’ve witnessed ourselves. Ethiopian Christians were among those brutally beheaded on that Libyan beach in 2015.
We read of persecuted churches and instinctively pray for their rescue or relief. And yet throughout Christian history, the church under fire burns with fire and is vibrant in ways safely situated churches often aren’t. A persecuted church gets persecuted because they’re serious about following Jesus: pressing hard against the cultural grain in the pursuit of peace and justice, caring for the poor, loving enemies, speaking hard truth, refusing to worship idols of prosperity and power, and hoping in resurrection and new creation that will not disappoint. This life is not all there is. When you’re going through hell you keep going. Today, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus is the fastest growing Lutheran church in the world. Fired up by the Spirit, they have a holistic approach to serving their members and neighbors, proclaiming the good news and providing care through a myriad of social ministries. Today, Mekane Yesus sends missionaries to Europe where Christianity has waned to revive the Lutheran church there. Today in Minneapolis, vibrant Ethiopian worship is happening right now over on 28th Avenue South at Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church.
The Scripture must be fulfilled. Every knee will bow and tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord. The Holy Spirit does her work. True hope that does not disappoint provides power enough to endure. Serious faith in Jesus shows its strength through suffering and sacrifice, through grace and forgiveness in ways that don’t always make sense, but it brings a depth of joy simple happiness can’t touch. God’s ways are not always our ways. Jesus ascended into heaven and also abides in your heart by the Spirit. But having Jesus in your heart does not mean you’ve got God in your pocket. Sometimes you have a choice, sometimes the choice chooses you.