Rolling the Dice

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter Sunday 7 May 16, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: After the death of Judas, the disciples met, nominated two candidates to replace him, prayed and then cast lots. That seems like an odd way to go about the work of the Lord. But regardless of what method we use to call leadership in the church, prayer is essential, as well as faith that it is God who strengthens us and makes us equal to the task.

The Dunkers were one of the Old Orders, the Pennsylvania Dutch who lived simply, peacefully, minding their own business, preferring to be in, but not of, the world.

They did a lot of things differently from their neighbors. One was the way they picked who was to preach on Sunday morning. Dunkers didn’t have special clergy like most other churches. They picked ministers from among their own ranks, and a church might have several of them — good, sturdy fellow farmers whose judgment they trusted. And it was expected that any one of them might be called to preach without warning.

One method used to select the preacher was to have all the ministers put their Bibles on a table when they arrived Sunday morning. The head deacon would put a slip of paper in a random Bible. Later the ministers would open their Bibles and one of them would discover he had been chosen to by lot to preach on the particular chapter marked by the paper. That minister would proceed to preach for an hour or more with no preparation. Other pastors at the table would then preach shorter sermons in response.

Since any one of them could be picked to preach on any particular Sunday morning, it was assumed the Holy Spirit could and would speak through any of them. But then, it wasn’t about them, anyway. It was about God’s Word, and the message from God’s Word.

The question of who’s preaching this Sunday is surely not as critical as the matter of how to fill the ranks of the apostles, but the same method — trusting to what appeared to be chance and a random lot — was used to pick a replacement for Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus.

Is that any way to pick the next apostle? And how would you feel if you also had your hat tossed in the ring and you weren’t selected?

The apostle who?

We read in the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, that after Jesus ascended into heaven Peter assembled the disciples to select a replacement for Judas Iscariot.

We can sense that despite the joy of the Resurrection and the experience of the risen Jesus, some of the confusion and loss surrounding the trauma that the betrayal by Judas had inflicted was still present. One of them had done the unthinkable — and yet it was thinkable because Judas had done it, and not only that, but Peter had denied Jesus after the arrest, and the other ten had run away. So there had to be a sense of shared guilt and the sneaking suspicion that given the right circumstances, any one of them might have done this terrible thing.

The confusion is apparent because Luke and Matthew don’t tell the same story about the death of Judas. Things hadn’t been sorted out yet. In the wake of this loss they needed to feel complete again.

So what were the qualifications to be an apostle? As Peter said, it would have to be someone who had “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 he was taken up from us ....”

The disciples considered and prayed, and then two names were put forward. The first was Joseph Barsabbas, who was also known by his Roman name of Justus. Bar-Shabba is Aramaic for “Son of the Sabbath,” perhaps signifying that he was born on that day, which could have been seen as a sign of holiness. Here was someone with a foot in two worlds. A “Paul” before Paul entered the scene.

The second was Matthias, a shortened form of Mattathias, the “Gift of the Lord.” His name called to mind the father of Judas Maccabeus, the great war hero who cast out the oppressors who profaned the temple, a reminder of the glorious (and brief) days of Jewish independence.

After further prayer, they didn’t vote, nor did the leaders offer a slate. They cast lots: They put flat stones or pieces of broken pottery, with their names written on them, tossed them in a hat or a bowl, whirled them around, and watched to see which name that fell out. Matthias was it, the new apostle.

Is that how you pick an apostle? Well, lots are cast many times in scripture. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was selected by lot to work in the temple. Nehemiah used lots to determine who should live in Jerusalem. The sailors cast lots and determined Jonah was the one who offended God. As it says in Proverbs, “The lot is cast into the lap but the decision is the LORD’s alone.”1

Okay, fine, they cast lots. And then what happened?

Who is that guy in the group photo?

Have you ever come across an old photograph that depicted a group of people at a family picnic, or a national park or some special event? You guess that picture was kept because one or two of the folks in it are relatives of yours — but who are these other people? You turn it over and there are no identifying names written on the back, nothing to indicate where or when or why this picture was taken or why it was saved.

If we found a group photo of the apostles in a drawer, I think we’d be asking the same questions!

Maybe you’ve seen a set of 12 portraits of the original apostles. You find these pictures in pamphlets or on walls, and they are either artist’s renderings or photos of men modeling the Twelve. Each is accompanied by a short biography. The thing is, they’re often speculative, because almost nothing is known about most of the apostles. Most of them don’t get much of a mention in scripture. The evangelists don’t even agree on their names.

That’s even more true of these two candidates to fill the twelfth spot. Supposedly both Joseph and Matthias had been with Jesus the entire period of his earthly ministry. What did they do during that time? The church historian Eusebius, who wrote over three hundred years after these events, says that the two of them were among the seventy sent out by Jesus. But really, who knows?

How about after the lots were cast? Clement of Alexandria, a writer of the second Christian century, speculated Matthias was really the tree-climbing tax collector Zacchaeus, but there’s no proof of that. Some accounts, written centuries later, say he was beheaded in Georgia, after which his body was shipped to Italy so he could be buried in Rome. Others say he was buried where he died.

And what about Justus? Some say he is the same Barsabbas who was sent out with Silas to carry the decision of the Council of Jerusalem to accept Gentiles into the faith without having to observe Jewish practices.2 But that is not explicitly stated.

Interestingly enough, while Peter considered it crucial that a replacement for Judas be picked immediately so that there would be twelve apostles, when the apostle James was murdered by Herod Antipas there was not another meeting to pick his replacement. The same seems to be true when the other original apostles died. Nor can we say that we have twelve today who stand in for the original apostles. There was no attempt to continue the succession.

And for that matter, there’s no record of the twelve playing a major part in the mission laid out by Jesus, to spread the gospel from Jerusalem through Samaria to the four corners of the world. So what are we to make of all this?

How we fit in

Perhaps this is the lesson we can take from all this: Whether or not we are selected for a particular task in our congregation, there remain important ways for us to contribute. Sometimes we’re disappointed that we weren’t elected to be the chair of a commission, or picked to be part of the deacon body or called to the ministry. However there is much to be done as part of the body of Christ, and if we are not contributing in one way, we might be better suited, whether we believe it or not, doing something different.

Discipleship is not about titles; it’s not about being what we imagine it is to be a star player on the Jesus team.

And if we’re troubled about the arbitrary method of selecting that new apostle — casting lots — we might take it as a sign that whatever we’re called to do, through whatever method, God will make us able to achieve the kingdom’s goals.

Maybe some of our qualms about being selected or passed over are based on the assumption that God needs our help. We are indispensable. God’s Son was sent to die for us for that very reason. However, we don’t need a title for God to be glorified.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings , a very frightened hobbit named Frodo Baggins asks plaintively why he was chosen for a great task. Gandalf replies, “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”

One thing is certain: God’s will shall be done.

Each of us has been chosen for a task. We may be uncertain about the wisdom behind the selection process, but of one thing we can be sure. If nothing else, when the disciples selected a new 12th apostle, they stopped to pray. Prayer is essential. Prayer is crucial.

So don’t forget prayer.