Pick Me! ... Or Don't

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter 7
May 12, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: How do we select leadership in our churches? Do we sometimes overlook one key leader -- the Holy Spirit? This passage speaks of the first church and how it selected someone to fill a vacancy. We can learn a lot from it regarding what is good practice and what is not.

"Pick me; pick me!" Those simple words might conjure up an image of elementary students lined up waiting to be selected for a game of kickball during recess. Many of us can identify with the pride of being picked first to make up a team or the discomfort of being picked last. When you are a child, selection can be based on skill level or simply popularity. The strategy is often to pick the strongest players to build the best team. Imagine that there is only one position left and two possible players left to choose from. Either way, one of them is going to end up watching from the sidelines.

We adults do things differently. We post a position, list the requirements and then wait for the applicants to come in. Once we narrow the applicants down to the best, we invite them to interviews. It's all very methodical and thorough. At least we like to think it is.

Early church leadership

Leadership in the early church is the main concern of today's reading. At this point, the followers of Jesus still comprised a Jewish community that did not yet understand its mission as going beyond the Jewish world. When we look at Matthew 10,1 we see Jesus sending out the 12 disciples on a mission to heal the sick and announce the gospel to some towns of Israel. In Luke 22,2 Jesus promised that these 12 men would sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel. Thus, in their minds, the 12 tribes must have 12 witnesses, and that's where we find the connection with this passage today and the quandary of what to do about the slot left open by the death of Judas. So, they seek to fill the post.

This selection process gave Peter the opportunity to define what an apostle was. His definition was first, that it must be someone who had been with Jesus from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up into heaven, and second, that the apostolic group was drawn only from eyewitnesses who could give a reliable report of Jesus ministry. Out of the 120 gathered in the upper room, it came down to just two men.

Selecting leaders

Churches can have elaborate systems for selecting leaders. From nominating committees and codified qualifications to examinations of candidates and congregational elections, our processes are designed to identify leaders and place them in their offices. Hopefully, we take prayerful discernment seriously and want to ensure that the person we're considering has a sense of call that the wider community can affirm. Some churches would say that the two benchmarks of their leadership selection process are prayerful consideration and democratic election. This is especially important when calling a pastor. Even in churches where bishops appoint the pastoral leadership, we still have processes in place for picking our lay leadership.

The disciples, however, initially had no selection processes in place. They felt it was important to replace Judas. Among the 120 who were present, there are only two found to meet the criteria as defined by Peter -- Matthias and Joseph (also sometimes called Barsabbas, Justus and Judas3). So the group prayed, asking God to show them the one who had been chosen to replace Judas.

Flip a coin

What happened next would probably never happen in a church today. They cast lots to make the decision. In other words, they flipped a coin or drew straws or threw dice. Do we find ourselves wondering if this decision was so trivial, that they could take a chance like this? The text says otherwise. It says they prayed, believing God was in the process, but it's not clear if they waited for God's answer. By lots, Matthias became part of the twelve.

Nonetheless, it's noteworthy that we never hear of Matthias again in the New Testament, though early Christian tradition assumes he was one of the 70 people Jesus sent out in pairs to prepare the way for his ministry, as recorded in Luke 10. Some New Testament scholars speculate that the subsequent absence of any mention of Matthias indicated that Jesus' followers moved too soon to fill the Judas gap -- that they acted before the Holy Spirit provided guidance. If you look at the placement of this event in Acts, it occurs while Jesus' followers were waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit to arrive. We wonder whether there might have been a different outcome if they had waited till that happened. Would they still have chosen Matthias, or would they have needed to replace Judas at all?

Organizational structure

So possibly, the disciples pushed to do this so soon because of the organizational structure that Jesus had put in place. They could see no other way other than 12 followers who knew Jesus. How often do we in the church let the organizational structure drive us in terms of decision-making as well as ministry? Are we open to the Holy Spirit moving us in a new direction if the Holy Spirit's intent doesn't fit within that tidy structure that we've been working under for who knows how many years? What if the church has grown smaller or larger and the structure we currently have no longer works? Can we examine that and listen to the Holy Spirit and change it to accommodate what that same spirit is doing in our church today?

It is clear that the disciples were looking for someone like themselves. They did not even consider that someone unlike them might be called by God to fit in that spot. Later on in the book of Acts, Paul enters the picture, and that leaves us room to consider if he might have been God's choice to round out the apostolic dozen. For that matter, God might have preferred one of the faithful women that Acts tells us were also present in the upper room.

In any case, Paul's advent into the early Christian community was a game changer, and it was solely the work of the Holy Spirit. Peter probably would have not been able to enlarge his thinking beyond the structure already in place (you know, "the way they had always done things"). To accept Paul as an apostle -- as one who had seen the risen Christ and been called by him, was too big a leap for Peter -- at least initially.

Called, not selected

Whatever the case, Paul knew without a doubt that he was called to leadership in this community of faith. And, because that call was initiated by the Holy Spirit, there was no hesitation on Paul's part. He never looked back. He didn't question it -- he just did it.

So can we learn to wait for the Holy Spirit to show us what direction we need when selecting leaders? So often today, instead of asking the Holy Spirit who among us could really make a contribution to the mission of the church in an ever-changing world, we just find a warm body who can continue what we have done previously. The very fact that Matthias is never mentioned again may be a warning to us that we should never try to force the Spirit to accommodate our own purposes.

Let the Spirit lead

So how do we discern the will of God? Are we able to see when the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and are we willing to go with that movement and follow the spirit? These are important questions for the church. No doubt the early followers were worried about what would happen to this movement after Jesus had left them and the Holy Spirit had not yet come. We can easily understand how they were figuring things out and wanted to do what they thought would be pleasing to Jesus. That's the church in a nutshell. But we have the same gift that the early church had -- the Holy Spirit.

A book called Miracle in Darien tells about a man named Terry Fullam who agreed to interview for a pastorate in Darien, Connecticut. When he was called to meet with the vestry, he told one of the church leaders, "I won't even consider coming to this church unless there is a totally unanimous vote."4 Terry believed God could move people to unity, but the church leader said "But Terry, that'll throw the whole thing out. Nothing has ever been unanimous in this church."

Nonetheless, the vote was unanimous, and Fullam took the position. But once there, he told the congregation that when they met in any decision-making capacity, every decision must be made through prayer, and he insisted on 100% unity. If even one person dissented, they would table it and come back the next month to discuss it. The idea was to listen to what the people had discerned and what the spirit of God was telling them. Sometimes they would move in an opposite direction because they were willing to wait and listen to God before taking any action.

That church grew in numbers rapidly.

Pray and listen

Imagine if every church made that kind of commitment! Prayer is key, but prayer is not simply us talking to God. Prayer also consists of us actively listening to God. Ironically, the man with many names who was not selected when the apostles cast lots -- Joseph/Judas/Barsabbas/Justus -- will be known forever because there's more about his work for the Lord in Acts.5

Not everyone is called to be on the church board or to serve as a deacon. But every one of us is called to pray and to listen and share what we feel God is telling us for the sake of the body of Christ. Clearly, this was an important time for the early church. They were at a crossroads. They were on the precipice of receiving the most precious gift of all -- the Holy Spirit. Whatever mistakes they may have made, they continued to pray and wait.

May prayer and active listening be our focus as well, and may it sustain the church.