May 16, 2021

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
John 17:6-19

“Nominations, Please!”

Back at the beginning of April on Good Friday, some of you may remember that I preached about Judas. I titled that sermon, “One of the Twelve” and reflected on the fact that Judas was not some evil character or nasty spy who inserted himself into the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, but he was “one of the twelve” disciples and good friends of Jesus.

As Peter says in today’s text from the Acts of the Apostles, Judas was “numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” He was among the leaders in Jesus’ entourage. He was called by the Lord, participated in the mission, and even carried out a particular ministry of looking after the common purse. He was the congregation’s treasurer, you might say.

I would agree with what Peter says about Judas here – that he “became a guide for those who arrested Jesus.” But I suggested on Good Friday that he doesn’t necessarily deserve any more blame than the other disciples who also misunderstood and tried to impede his true mission, and later denied knowing Jesus, turning away from him at his darkest hour.

Thinking about Judas’ death – perhaps by suicide as one Gospel tells it, or by tragic accident as the Book of Acts says – I wondered whether Judas might have been saved, forgiven, and reconciled to the community if he hadn’t been left alone to cope with his guilt at what happened to Jesus because of what he did.

Our text from Acts today comes just after Jesus has ascended into heaven, but before the Day of Pentecost has arrived and the Holy Spirit is poured out on the church. I’ve never preached on this text before because usually we take the texts for Ascension Day (officially that’s the Thursday we just passed) and we move them to this Sunday, one week before Pentecost.

This year I decided to skip the Ascension readings and do these ones for the 7th Sunday of Easter instead. And I’m glad that I did because it gave me a chance to realize how practical, interesting, and applicable they are for the church today – maybe especially for Presbyterians.

Before the church gets going on its mission, it pauses to make sure that it has the people in place to carry it out. There had been twelve apostles appointed by Jesus, but one has died. Now, you might think that eleven apostles could go ahead and start getting stuff done, or that thirteen or fourteen would be fine too.

But twelve was a symbolic number, indicating the twelve tribes of Israel, making it clear that their mission was to all the people of Israel. So, when Judas dies, they have a problem of math that needs to be corrected. The circle of twelve must be completed again as the nucleus of this expression of the people of God.

So, Peter opens the floor for nominations to fill the vacant position. Of course, if they were Presbyterians, they probably would have set up a Nominating Committee that would have outlined the responsibilities of the role and the requirements for potential candidates. They would have mingled among the wider community of Jesus’ followers, who numbered about 120 people by this point, and they would have looked for people with the gifts, experience, and commitment to take on this position in the church.

But things weren’t so formalized yet. Still, Peter does begin the conversation by indicating the requirements as he sees them. He says: “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 must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

It’s hard to miss the fact that Peter only considered the men. It’s not that there weren’t any women there. It’s actually specifically mentioned in verse 14 that there were certain women present including Mary the mother of Jesus, and undoubtedly some of these would have fulfilled the other qualification of having been on the journey with Jesus from the time of his baptism and onwards.

I wonder how things might have been different if a woman had been appointed for that leadership position right from the beginning of the church. Think of the challenging influence that some of Jesus’ women disciples might have had – people like Mary of Bethany who listened to intently so Jesus’ teaching and gave so generously to honour him.

For the Jewish men of that time, twelve male apostles had symbolic significance for what they understood their mission to be. But soon they would be learning that their mission was bigger, and wider, and more wonderful than they had initially imagined.

The exclusion of women in leadership is just the kind of thing that a 21st century woman preacher is likely to notice, but in the chapters that follow in the Book of Acts the church leadership is going to discover that gender diversity is only one of the many things that will need to grow as the Gospel message goes out into the whole world for all the people.

Anyway, they don’t think beyond men (Jewish men) at this point. But they do pause to consider who would be most appropriate. Commenting on today’s lectionary readings, David Gambrell suggests that Psalm 1 could be read as criteria for discernment and insights for the eleven as they sought a suitable replacement for Judas.

They’re looking for someone that is more like a tree planted beside the water, and less like chaff blowing away in the wind. They’re looking for someone who stays close to God – meditating on God’s Word day and night, drinking up the goodness of Jesus’ teaching so that they are equipped to bear good fruit. They’re trying to avoid someone who chooses the way of wickedness – who betrays, who denies, who runs away – someone who ends up dead like Judas.

Of course, they must know that they will not find someone who is perfect. None of them stayed faithful to Jesus through the most challenging and confusing time in his ministry (at least, none of the men did), so they must know that whoever is chosen will be human and flawed just like the rest of them.

Perhaps that’s why they don’t mention detailed interviews or examination of the candidates. They just propose two names that qualify, pray about it, and then draw lots. That’s their way of asking God to decide for them. Matthias it is: God’s will or simple chance? We’ll never know.

I’m glad we don’t make our decisions about church leadership positions like that anymore. But I do think there is something we might learn from their example – something we can apply in our time for the good of the church and the world.

You see, Peter and the others firmly believed that the leaders should represent the whole. Twelve apostles for the twelve tribes. They had a mission to the whole people of God, and they wanted the leadership to reflect that mission.

Soon they would be empowered by the Spirit to speak different languages. Soon they would be pushed by the Spirit to welcome people from different backgrounds and cultures. Soon the church, including its leadership, would grow in its diversity as they began to engage in Jesus’ mission which started with Israel but extended to the ends of the earth.

That’s why I believe that our church leadership must continue to grow in its diversity too – so that it moves towards representing the whole people of God and is equipped to minister to the whole world. Leaders on Sessions and Committees at all levels of the church should be people who are committed to walking with Jesus and staying close to God’s Word. But beyond that, they can be beautifully different and diverse from one another.

I can’t say that I’ve ever been particularly excited about serving on a Nominating Committee, whether for a local church’s leadership, for Synod, or for General Assembly. But I appreciate that there are people who are dedicated to this work and take the challenge seriously. They don’t just sit back and wait for nominations, but they call for them and encourage them broadly, they consider them carefully, pray about them faithfully, and trust that God will guide the final decisions.

Our national church policies continue to move us towards intentionally building diversity into our leadership teams so that we truly represent the whole church. We now pay attention to gender, age, ethnicity, colour, language, sexual orientation, and geography, as well as the balance of clergy to lay people. And as that diversity grows, our ministries are enriched, and we are equipped to reach out to the world.

Nominations are important, because the church cannot do its work if we have not chosen and empowered leaders. The leaders don’t need to be perfect, just as none of the first apostles were perfect. But I believe that when leaders come together in teams to listen for the Spirit’s direction and serve God together, we actually help each other to stay close to Jesus and remain rooted, nourished, and directed by God’s Word.

We read Scripture together. We listen for the Spirit together. We pray for and encourage one another. And we remind each other of the good news from today’s Gospel text – the assurance that Jesus prays for us as we strive to continue his mission in the world. Jesus prays for us to be protected from evil, guided on the right paths, and made holy by God’s Word of truth.

Perhaps this has been a strange sermon to preach to a congregation. I mean, unless you happen to be serving on a church Nominating Committee, how is it relevant for you? I guess I want to tell you that your particular unique qualities are a gift to our church – your language, your abilities, your experience, your identity and characteristics. And even if you don’t see someone who looks exactly like you serving in a particular role now, that by no means excludes you from being called and equipped to become a leader in the church.

Our future First Church nominating committees may come looking for you, and I hope you’ll consider that call – for the sake of the whole church’s mission to the whole world.