12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning 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.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
Baseball season begins today, and so I’m reminded of the story about the young man who went to the big game on opening day, but was having difficulty finding an empty seat. Finally he saw one in the front row, right behind home plate. He couldn’t believe his good luck, so he asked the elderly lady next to the empty seat if it was taken. She replied, “No. My husband and I have been at every opening game together for the last 40 years, but since he passed away, I’ve come all by myself. The young man, touched by this, said “I’m so sorry…but don’t you have someone else, any children or grandchildren would could come with you?” The woman replied, “No, they’re all at the funeral right now.”
Today’s sermon is titled, “Let another take his position.” Our scripture text is the story of the replacement of Judas, and the election of Matthias to the role of apostle. It is a story about transition and change in the leadership of the church. In many ways, the entire book of Acts, which we are studying this month and next, is a story of transition and change in the leadership of the church. And this is a story that is at once ancient–dealing with the first days of the first church–and also timeless: Every church in every generation goes through transition and change in leadership.
In its 134 years of existence, this church has had 39 pastors, and although it’s difficult to come up with an exact count, well over 2,000 elders, deacons and trustees. That’s a lot of transitions, and, God willing, there will be many, many more before our work in this community is done.
Change and transition happens everywhere, though, not just in the church–and so I’m sure most of you have, in the past few years experienced some kind of change or transition in your workplaces, in your family systems and structures, as well as in our communities, large and small.
In fact, our nation is currently in the midst of choosing new leadership, and as crazy as this election has often seemed, there is a reassuring constancy in remembering that this happens every few years, and has for a long time. Our American system of government was based on Presbyterian principles, so much so that British newspapers in colonial times referred to the American revolution as a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”
The early Presbyterians, in their turn, were looking back to the early church for their example, and I suspect that this passage from Acts was at least one of their influences, as they tried to rebuild and reform the church in the 16th century. One of their mottoes was “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei” It’s Latin for “The church reformed, and always being reformed according to the word of God.”
The early Presbyterians, like the earliest Christians, realized that not only was constant change inevitable, it was also a good and necessary thing for preventing stagnation, superstition, and decay. But I don’t think they believed in random change for change’s sake. The other motto of the Presbyterian movement comes from 1 Corinthians 14:40: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Even our change and transition.
I believe that in the 21st century, our church (I mean the global church as well as this particular church!) are once again in dire need of being re-formed, in need of change and transition, especially when it comes to leadership. In our nation (and I suspect in our local community as well), the percentage of people who identify themselves as Christians continues to fall drastically, approximately ten percent every decade, and at a faster rate each year, while the fastest growing religious affiliation is not Muslims, Hindus, or people of other faiths, but rather those who select “none” or no particular religion at all.
Some church leaders blame this decline on the media, the government, or on secular culture. But I think the blame most likely rests squarely with us, with the church. As the world around us changes, we have been reluctant to change. As the world transitions, we have been reluctant to transition, for fear that we might lose our identity as the church, and start to look too much like the world. That’s an understandable fear, and one we should be mindful of, but I think the answer is not to resist or refuse change, but rather to be intentional and deliberate about it. To go about it decently and in order.
How do we do that? I think today’s scripture passage from Acts holds out some useful principles for change and transition, especially when it comes to leadership. Again, while these principles specifically apply to the church, I think they also transcend that and apply to any kind of leadership change or transition.
The first principle comes from verse 20. Standing before the gathered community, the Apostle Peter says, “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.'”
In other words, the earliest Christians looked to their sacred scriptures in order to make sense of what was happening around them, and how they should respond. In their case, that was the Old Testament and the book of Psalms. This is also what the early Presbyterians meant when they said the church reformed and always being reformed…according to the word of God.
But contrary to what some churches today teach, interpretation of the Bible is not a one-way-street. Peter doesn’t only look to the scriptures to make sense of the world around him…he also looks at what’s happening in the world around him in order to make sense of the scriptures. Any respectable student of scripture in Peter’s day would have said that those verses he quoted had to do with King David and events from centuries before. Peter says, in effect, “No. They speak to our situation here and now, too.”
So in times of transition and change, we enter into a conversation with the Bible, letting it guide and influence our worldview and our actions, but also recognizing that our context and our worldview influences our interpretation of scripture.
Principle number two has to do with the criteria for leadership. The community in Acts agreed on one simple criterion, and it’s not at all what we might expect. In verses 21 and 22, Peter says, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning 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.”
Peter says one of the “men” but there are other places in the new testament where women are referenced as apostles as well, so gender is not among the criteria. But also notice what else is NOT included: There’s absolutely nothing here about being good, honorable, respectable, righteous, or virtuous. There can’t be, because remember who they are replacing–Judas Iscariot, the evil, treacherous, betrayer of Christ! And Jesus himself was the one who picked that guy.
This is important. I think we often expect from our leaders–whether they are pastors, elders, CEOs or Presidents, a sort of saintly perfection that is impossible, and what’s more is quite hypocritical. Because we are all sinners. We are all liars and cheaters and prideful, broken human beings. What’s more, this insane expectation that our leaders should be different from us, when it proves false, only drives leaders to cover their sin with more deceit and denial, because they know how merciless, cold and unforgiving we can be when we realize they are just fallen humans, like us.
Peter, on the other hand, experienced forgiveness from Jesus, whom he had denied three times on the night of his arrest. So I’m not surprised that the criteria for being a leader among the earliest Christians was not that one be a “good person” but simply one who had walked with Jesus. Of course, the earliest apostles literally walked with Jesus, but the criteria holds true for leaders today: It’s not about how awesome you are…it’s about how awesome is the Lord in whose footsteps you are walking.
Principle number three: The community nominates, but God chooses. First, note that the community is diverse. It includes men and women, old and young, and (judging by the names) people from different cultures and geographical regions. We read in verse 23 that after Peter had articulated the criteria, “they proposed two.” Then they prayed for guidance, and then they cast lots. In our Presbyterian polity, instead of casting lots, the community votes after nominees have been presented, but even so we believe that the result of the vote is the same: It is an expression of God’s will, working through us.
And that’s important, because we also believe that God (unlike people) doesn’t mess up. Leaders, of churches and of governments, are put in place by the Lord of all, whose divine providence orders all things in the universe. Now…that doesn’t mean that leaders are not accountable for their actions, or that they always make wise (or even good) decisions. Once again, remember Judas, who was chosen by God.
What it does mean–and I think this is especially important in our 21st century climate of anger and derision–is that we owe a certain degree of respect and honor to those whom God has placed in leadership over us, even when we disagree with them, and even when we feel their actions don’t merit respect and honor. Although Matthias was chosen to replace Judas, we certainly don’t see Joseph Barsabbas storming angrily out the door to start his own renegade band of apostles somewhere else.
The final principle, number four, is this: Everyone is replaceable. Apostles, pastors, church officers, business leaders, elected officials. No one is so special that they are absolutely indispensable from anything. And not only can any leader be replaced, but under certain circumstances, leaders are far more likely to be replaced. In verse 24-25, the community prays, “Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” When we turn aside from the role God has called us to, when we place our own interests, our own ambitions, our own agendas, our “own place” above the community and above God’s calling…then we are especially prone to being replaced.
In the medieval church, priests, bishops and popes began to accrue so much authority, so much importance, that some decided they didn’t really need anyone else. So they locked the doors to the churches, said prayers and sermons in a language that only they understood, and withheld the services of the church from those who could not afford to pay for them.
And so in the 16th century, the Reformers, the early Presbyterians, said “That’s not leadership. That’s tyranny.” And they championed a doctrie called the “Priesthood of all believers.” In other words, everyone leads. Everyone serves. Everyone is equal. Some in the community are called to be pastors, some teachers, some elders, some administrators…but none of these is more important than the others, and none has any authority without the consent of the community.
One place where this kind of radical equality is most evident is each month when we gather around this table. Yes, it’s true that as the pastor I get to stand behind the table and say all the magic words. But there’s not really anything magical about the words themselves–they serve to remind us of why we do this, and what it means to us. There’s also nothing particularly magical about the elements–the bread and the wine or grape juice. The magic is that when we gather around the table as a community, in some tangible/intangible way, Jesus is present with us, in spirit and in truth.
Radical equality means that everyone is invited to this table: Adults who have heard and understood its meaning, and little children who are gradually beginning to learn; Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians. People of our faith, people of other faiths, and skeptics, too. Jesus, in his lifetime, welcomed them all to dinner. People who are married, people who are single, people who are gay, straight, or anything in between. People who are rich and people who are poor. People of every race and language. This table belongs to you.
In our church, typically (though not always) it is the elected officers of the church who serve communion–this doesn’t make them special or indispensable…it makes them servants. And that’s really what leadership among the followers of Jesus means: To lead others is to serve others; not to step up, but to step down, and let another take your place.