Sermon; Easter 7B; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
We are coming to the end of the Easter season. We are coming to the end of our walk with the resurrected Christ. This past Thursday was the Day of Ascension, 40 days after the resurrection when the eleven apostles stood staring up into the sky as Jesus ascended to heaven. The next ten days, liturgically speaking, are the seeds of what would eventually become the Church.
The Church today, honestly, is a mess. According to Google, there are some 200 different denominations in the US, and 45,000 worldwide. The reason there are so many is primarily because people can't agree on religious doctrine and practices. We fight over everything from the role of women to pre-millennialism vs. post-millennialism to what's a valid baptism to the place of incense and almost anything else you can think of. We fight with ourselves internally over carpet, windows, music, children, and anything else you can think of. I have heard more than once, “I just wish we could get back to the days of the early Church when everyone got along.”
When I hear people express that sentiment my answer back is, “Have you actually looked at what the early Church was like?” Peter complains that Paul is hard to understand. Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy. Paul and Barnabas have “no small dissension and debate” with certain individuals about the importance of circumcision. Paul and Barnabas themselves split up over a disagreement about the status of John Mark. And just look at how Paul has to deal with problematic congregations in Corinth and Galatia; not to mention how Jesus himself address five of the seven churches in Revelation.
I bring all this up not because we are currently experiencing any of this dissension here at Saint John's but because today's reading from Acts helps us to understand that it is from this dysfunctional, sometimes hostile, group of people that the Church sprang forth.
A little history. For Luke, the author of both the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles, the words “apostle” and “disciple” have two distinct meanings. Apostle refers specifically to one of the twelve chosen by Jesus and sent by God, while disciple refers to anyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is important because Peter stands up in front of the believers (disciples) to announce the need for a twelfth apostle.
It's important to note that the person selected wasn't simply a replacement for Judas, but was to fulfill the original calling of the twelve by Jesus. This person would be elevated to the status of Apostle. Getting back to twelve would symbolically align this group of faithful Jews with the twelve tribes of Israel. Getting back to twelve would help solidify the fact that they weren't doing anything radically different, but were completely faithful to the history of Israel and faith of Judaism.
As a side note, the 120 believers mentioned in this passage reiterates their faithfulness to Judaism because that was the number of men needed to form an independent synagogue. So again, Peter and the others are doing everything by the book, so to speak.
It is here that we might be tempted to use this story as an example for how well the early Church got along. Peter lays out what needs to happen (the need to fill the opening left behind by Judas), along with specific parameters (one of the men who has been with the group from the time Jesus was baptized until his ascension), and specific goals (to be a witness to Jesus' resurrection). There were two men who fit this criteria – Barsabbas/Justus and Matthias. They then formed a committee to evaluate the two on their fitness for ministry and gave them a week-long exam testing their knowledge of scripture, church history, theology, practice of ministry, worship, and ethics and moral theology. No . . . I'm only kidding. What they then did was to pray to God asking for guidance and then basically drew straws with Matthias being the winner.
See how easy that was? See how everyone got along and that nobody stormed out to create their own church because Justus wasn't chosen? Those are the halcyon days of the early Church for which we long. But hold on for a second.
Notice how Peter's speech begins: “Friends, the Scripture had to be fulfilled concerning Judas . . .” He begins by referring back to the traitor in their midst. Those first twelve men whom Jesus called to be apostles, to be sent by God, who learned, preached, healed, and ate together harbored a traitor in their ranks. And notice who gives this first speech to the gathered assembly: none other than the one who proclaimed he was ready to go with Jesus to prison and death, but then denied three separate times that he even knew the man, eventually hiding behind locked doors out of fear.
This speech, this story, and those other events I mentioned remind us that there was never a perfect, idyllic time in the Church. There was no time when everyone got along. There has always been conflict. There have always been times when people fell away for one reason or another. There have always been instances of betrayal. There have always been dissension and strife.
That dissension and strife go beyond the conflicts I have named. All Christian churches, by their very nature of being Christian, have core beliefs based on the divinity of Christ, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. Other aspects of belief, too numerous to name, may also come into play. And here, I think, is where we get into trouble. We get into trouble and arguments when we try to codify belief, or turn belief into a litmus test.
Emo Philips tells this great joke about seeing a man ready to jump off the Golden Gate bridge. After a long intro, he says to the jumper, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
Jumper: A Christian.
Emo: Me too! Protestant or Catholic?
E: Me too! What franchise?
E: Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?
J: Northern Baptist.
E: Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?
J: Northern Conservative Baptist.
E: Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?
J: Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist.
E: Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist Eastern Region?
J: Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist Great Lakes Region.
E: Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or
Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?
J: Northern Conservative Fundamental Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.
E: And I said, “Die, Heretic!” and I pushed him off the bridge.
If all we have is belief, we might just find ourselves pushing heretics off the bridge.
Faith, on the other hand, allows us to get past the litmus test of belief. Faith allows us to stop fighting over our differences. Faith allows us to move past betrayals and denials and actually do God's work. We believe people should be fed. Our faith drove us to create and operate the Community Cafe and open the Blessings Box. We believe children are important. Our faith asks us to step up and volunteer as teachers, nursery attendants, and at VBS. There are many other examples of faith in action.
Peter believed Christ was resurrected. But it was faith in a resurrected life that caused him to step up in public to call for the replacement of Judas in order to continue the mission of Christ.
Belief will only get us so far; and it may drive us to push the heretics off the bridge. But it will be our faith that will drive us to look past our differences, recognize that the jumper is, like us, made in the image of God, pull him back from the edge and look for help.
The apostles and disciples believed that Christ had been resurrected. But it was faith that drove the disciples to come out of hiding, speak publicly, and move forward. And it will be this same faith that allows us to move from simply believing in the resurrection of Christ to living a life of resurrection.
Christ has ascended to heaven. Let us not spend our days looking up to the sky, but let us spend our days living a life of resurrection that boldly proclaims the good news to the world around us.