Tossing dice

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

 Acts 1:12-26

May 17, 2015

 

Before I get into my sermon today, I want us to do something.  I would like everyone who has plans to travel this summer to stand up.  I know many of you are heading to cooler climates, some like the Gandelots have already left.  But if you plan to head up north for a few months or just be on the road for a day or two this summer, please stand and let me offer a prayer for traveling mercies:

Lord Jesus, you and your disciples were constantly traveling around Galilee, the surrounding providences and to Jerusalem.  Today, thanks to technology, we can travel great distances easily and sometimes we assume we have everything under control and then a tire goes flat or our luggage is lost or we come down with an illness.  O God, we pray for your mercies to be upon those who are traveling and who are away this summer.  While in transient and at other locations, help us to see your presence in the wonders of your creation.  When we face roadblocks, give us patience.  When we encounter difficulties, guide us through the troubles with your Holy Spirit.  And when it is time for us to return home, give us safe travels and a joyful reunion.  This we pray in your name.  Amen.

 

The Acts of the Apostles, which we’ll be working through for the next several months, is a book about an incredible journey of the gospel going out to the ends of the world.  But in our reading today, we have lull before the furry of travels by the Apostles as they wait for the Holy Spirit.  Read Acts 1:12-26.

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My mother would probably never forgive me for saying this (so we’ll keep it between you and me), but her great virtue had a flipside vice.  Her virtue was that she always thinking about how others felt and one of the greatest sins in her eyes was to say or do something that was hurtful to another person.  From my mom, I learned empathy firsthand and it’s a wonderful gift.  On the other hand, not only did she worry about other people’s feelings, she spent too much time worrying about what people thought of her and tried to instill this concern in her children. This brings me to a game night at the church of my childhood…

I was probably 13 or maybe 14 and we’d had a potluck dinner at church.  Afterwards there was a friendly game of charades.  Someone was acting out something, and our goal was to guess what they were doing.  He or she (I don’t remember who) bent over and pretended to throw something on the floor.  My brother, who is a year younger than me but obviously, at this young age, more worldly, shouted out “playing craps.”  It wasn’t the right answer, but everyone laughed except for my mom.  I laughed although I had no idea of what crabs, or shooting dice, meant.  The answer, I believe, was marbles.

On the drive home (my father must not have been with us that evening), mom lectured us about her embarrassment.  “Everyone is going to think we’re a household of gamblers,” she said.  I can assure you, we weren’t.  Had I been a bit more sophisticated in my Bible knowledge at that time, I might have pulled out this passage in defense of my brother.   “See mom, throwing dice is in the Good Book.”  I doubt that would have helped any more than throwing kerosene on a fire.

This week, in our passage, we are waiting.  Jesus has ascended into the heavens and the promised Spirit has yet to descend upon the disciples to give them the power to take the gospel to the ends of the known world within a generation.   If you look at the beginning of our reading, you’ll see that the disciples have returned to the Jerusalem, to the “Upper Room.”  Perhaps this was the place where they had enjoyed the Passover with Jesus or maybe the room in which they gathered when they heard the rumors that Jesus was alive and then were surprised with his presence amongst them.

In that room, they all bunk together.  Luke uses the same list of disciples here as he did in the fifth chapter of his gospel, with the exception of omitting Judas the betrayer and shuffling the names, moving Peter to the forefront, perhaps indicating the prominent role he’ll play in the early church.[1]   Also in the group, we’re told that there was Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women followers. Also in the group were Jesus’ brothers.  That Upper Room must have either been large or it was crowded.  We’re told they devoted themselves to prayer.  We’re not told what they were praying, but I has suspicion that one of their petitions had to do with upgraded accommodations.

Next, we’re told that Peter addresses all the believers (there were 120 of them).  He reinterprets what Judas did in light of scripture.  Instead of him ranting on about what kind of lowlife would betray a friend, as Judas had done and so had Peter, Peter points to the positive side, saying that what Judas did fulfilled scripture.  It doesn’t get Judas off the hook for his actions, but it does show how God can take the misdeeds of a wayward humanity and bring about good.  Peter is providing this insight as a way to encourage them to make a decision on someone to replace Judas.  The need for 12 apostles appear also to be a human need to fulfill the kingdom. Twelve is a significant number going back to the tribes of Israel, the number of disciples chosen by Jesus, and then moving forward to the various uses of the number in Revelation: the twelve candlesticks, the twelve elders and so on…

Before Luke gets to the decision about a replacement for Judas, he tells us what happened to the disciple they’re replacing.  All the Gospel speak of Judas as a betrayer, but only Matthew and Luke (here in Acts) tells us what happened to him after Jesus’ death.  Both speak of his death (in Matthew, he hangs himself and Luke tells us he fell down and busted open).  Both accounts speak of the property purchased with his silver payment (the property known as the Field of Blood).  As with his death, there are some differences in how the field came into Judas’ possession, but they both have the same name of the place.  Matthew tells us it was a place used to bury foreigners and Luke doesn’t contradict this by saying it became a desolate place and there was nothing living there.[2]   As for reconciling the differences, I’m not sure it is possible or necessary, but at the risk of being too gory, one ancient theologian attempting to reconcile these stories by suggesting that the rope cut through Judas’ neck and he fell to the ground and busted open.[3]

After a description of Judas’ demise, Peter continues on with the need for another apostle.  He sets out criteria:  they must have been around since the time John was baptizing and they must be a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.  There are two names who meet the criteria: Joseph, called Barsabbas, who is also known as Justin.  This guy must have been in a witness protection program or invading the IRS to have been known by so many aliases.  The other is Matthias, of whom we know nothing.  They pray, then they casts lots, and Matthias is chosen.

Now, before we begin to worry about the wisdom of selecting church leaders in this manner, which I would not suggest, we should remember two things.  The candidates had to meet the criteria for office and the disciples prayed and although it appears the choice was left to chance, they had put the choice into God’s hands.  Interestingly, however, we never from either of the two candidates again, but then the same can be said for most of the disciples.  We’ll just hear about a few of the Apostles in the next dozen chapters, after which God raises up another Apostle, “Paul.”  Paul will take center stage for the last half of the book.

What we can take from this passage and use in our lives to help us to be better disciples.  Certainly, according to Peter’s criteria, the days of the Apostles were over upon the deaths of those who had been with Jesus from baptism to resurrection.  But that’s okay because the promised Spirit will take over in the next chapter and lead the church forward.  We could deal with the gory parts of the passage and suggest that if we come across ill-gotten gain, we should use it to meet a need that wouldn’t benefit us directly, such as providing a burial location for foreigners…  But that, too, is kind of stretching it.  So let me suggest this…

How do we make a decision when we have two equally viable choices before us?  From what we’re told, Matthias and What’s-his-names were both equally qualified.  There are times when we have two good options and we have to decide between them.  It might be going to college and we have two good schools with nearly equal scholarship offers on the table.  It might between two possible spouses.  It might be between two jobs or two locations or you’re moving to a new location and you got to pick out between two similar houses live in or two worshipping communities to join.  Too often we have this idea that matches are made in heaven, that there is only one right answer, and that we have be super diligent and spiritual in order to make the right decision.  Sadly, such emphasis on the right decision leaves us feeling that other options would be a failure and we’d be somehow eternally doomed.  It’s as if we’re a rat in a maze and there is only one combination of turns that will lead us to the cheese.  But that’s not the way God works.

Where we have two equally qualified choices before us and when we have prayed over the decision, when we have gone to God for direction and realize that both options are equally viable, we should accept that regardless of which decision we make, God will be with us and working through us.  Instead of focusing on “getting it just right,” we need to step back and accept that regardless of what we do, God is in charge and if God allows us the freedom to decide for ourselves, we should be thankful (and give thanks) and move forward trusting that we will continue to be blessed as we live into God’s future.  And when we take a wrong turn, we ask forgiveness and move toward the right path.

The early church was known as “The Way.” We are on a journey (we are on The Way) and there will be many possibilities ahead in our personal lives as well as in our corporate lives.  “It’s not so much what you do,” said the Greek philosopher Epictetus when speaking on happiness.  “It’s how you do it.”[4]  Likewise, as disciples of Jesus, it might not be the path we take that’s important, but how we travel that path.  Ask yourselves, do you glorify God in your journeys?  Do you travel reflecting Jesus’ face?  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Cf, Luke 6:14-16

[2] See Matthew 27:3-10.

[3] Bede, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles 1.18b, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Acts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 16-17.

[4] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York, MJF Books, 1998), 92.


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