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Sermon for 20 May 2012

FIRST READING Acts 1:15–17, 21–26

15 In 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 — 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning 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.” 23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

PSALM Psalm 1

1 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! 2 Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night. 3They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper. 4It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away. 5Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous. 6For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall be destroyed.

SECOND READING 1 John 5:9–13

9 If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

GOSPEL John 17:6–19

6 I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.


Grace and peace to you on this seventh Sunday of Easter from God our heavenly Father and from Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords. This is also the Sunday that we celebrate the ascension of our Lord. The Easter season, or week of weeks, concludes this week and the Paschal candle is no longer lit. We celebrate the return of Jesus to our heavenly Father, while at the same time longing for His return. One of His last instructions, before He ascended, was that the disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait. This command to wait is one many hate to hear for in this final directive, one can in some ways, almost hear Jesus telling the disciples, especially Peter, “Don’t get into things!” Or as my father used to tell me, “don’t go off halfcocked”.
How many times did you hear that directive as a kid, “don’t get into things”? Mom had to run to the store for a minute or Dad was tied up with a project in the garage. Knowing what children will do when left to their own devices, the last ditch effort of “out of sight” parenting is the generic and ultimately unenforceable order — “Don’t get into things!” Like that ever kept the curious junior chemist from testing things like putting Mentos in soda bottles or trying to melt chocolate chunks into “hot chocolate.” Or ever stopped kids from raiding the cookie jar or burrowing into the back of closets as Christmas closed in. Being empowered by freedom, coupled with being unsupervised, makes it far too tempting for any and all of us to “get into things.”
I remember one Christmas season in particular. Mom and Dad were pretty good at hiding presents, which of course only made the suspense of Christmas even more intense. One evening about a week before Christmas, Mom and Dad had plans to go to a gathering and left the three of us boys at home. Phil was about 12, I was 9 and my younger brother was about 7 at the time. As one would expect, as Mom and Dad left the house we got the command, behave and “don’t get into things”. Phil for some time had been begging for a BB gun and curiosity was getting the best of him. Within minutes of Mom and Dad departure, Phil led the three of us into Mom and Dad’s bedroom on a scouting mission.
Low and behold, beside the bed was a long box, wrapped in Christmas paper, just the right size and shape of a BB gun. It of course, had no name on it, but Phil knew it was the gun he had been wanting. Because of the length of the box, two pieces of wrapping paper were needed to wrap it and Phil though he could simply slip the one end off and take a quick peak. Surprisingly it worked. However, the problem came when he tried to slip the paper back on. As you can guess, the paper tore and Phil did his best to try to cover up the evidence. We all knew we were in trouble when Mom and Dad returned. But to our surprise, nothing was ever said.
Christmas morning came without a word and sure enough sitting under the tree was that same box. However beside it was another box the same size with Mark’s name on it. Phil of course tore into his present expecting to find the coveted BB gun. However, when he opened the box what he found was a pop gun. He didn’t know what to say. While he was sitting there mystified trying to figure out what to do next, Mark opens his box and finds a brand new BB gun. Needless to say Phil didn’t know what to do or say. Finally, Phil sees his name in the corner of the BB gun box and Mark’s name on the corner of the pop gun box. As you can guess, he appealed the error and had to admit that he went into Mom and Dad’s room, without permission, before the guns were switched. Lesson learned. What he learned was that doing things on your own, without permission, can have unintended consequences.
Jesus’ resurrection was the miraculous “happy ending” His disciples had never imagined possible. His physical presence in their midst, eating and talking with them, filled them with wonder and confused joy. Then His “opening up the Scriptures” opened their blurry eyes to read God’s drama of salvation, of which they were now a part. Receiving Jesus’ blessing and witnessing His ascension, finally brought these disciples to a place of faith that they had never before inhabited. They were first-hand believers in the resurrection. They took to heart His promise of the gift of the Spirit. Their faith went, almost overnight, from being unhinged to being certain and untroubled by doubt.
In this newfound joy and confidence the disciples obediently stayed in Jerusalem, praying in the temple, offering blessings to God, and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Jesus had specifically told them to “stay there and wait” for the promised gift of the Spirit that was to come. Jesus, in essence, told His disciples, “Don’t get into things” until His presence, in the form of the Holy Spirit, returned to them. But for Peter, this instruction seems to have lost something in the translation.
Jesus redefined His “disciples” now as “witnesses” to this new truth, this new post-resurrection reality. This same event found also in Luke’s gospel, provides some tension as Jesus offers His last words. Jesus pledges that He is “sending” (“apostello”) that which the Father has “promised” — the Holy Spirit. But it’s a “not yet” event. This promise is joined to a final directive to the disciples — that they “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” In other words, Jesus promises that a tremendous power is to be bestowed upon them, but for now these “witnesses” are to sit tight and do nothing but wait.
But Jesus’ disciples — now “witnesses” — seemed to grow a bit impatient with their regime of waiting and witnessing. In this Sunday’s Acts text, Luke continues their story, focusing on this odd interstitial period between the Ascension of Jesus and the Day of Pentecost. The disciples are “witnesses” to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But they have not yet been empowered with the transformative gift of the Holy Spirit that will give their words wings.
Not surprisingly Peter steps forward, in this moment, and takes it upon himself to orchestrate some seemingly essential “housekeeping” tasks. The betrayal and death of Judas Iscariot had reduced the number of Jesus’ chosen ones from the symbolically significant number of twelve to the awkward prime number of eleven. Peter decides that now is the time to rectify that problem and restore their numbers. In other words, Peter gets antsy.
And as was common for Peter, he felt like he needed to do something. Peter had always responded to miracles with a physical “do something” energy. At the Transfiguration, instead of wondering at the glory of the heavenly presence of Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus, Peter is all set to break out the tools and physically build a holy encampment for these heavenly visitors — a kind of Moses-Elijah-Jesus museum if you will. When Jesus miraculously appears walking on the water towards His boat bound disciples, Peter is the one who eagerly jumps ship to join Him. Peter is a man of action; sitting and waiting on the Lord just isn’t his style. And to be truthful, he isn’t alone in this approach to life; I, for one, can readily relate to this.
Terry and I were joking the other day at lunch about this passage and I said my middle name should have been Peter instead of Paul, since I have a tendency to act when I should instead be waiting in Jerusalem. However, Terry pointed out that Paul was a better middle name since it yells better. Saying Steven Paul, when she or my mother is angry, apparently flows much smoother than Steven Peter. From a parental perspective I guess that’s important when naming a child. The name must yell well. But I digress. In Peter’s defense, his “get moving” tendency and taking action can be a good thing. At some point anything that needs accomplished needs to have action. Action is good so long as you do so without going off halfcocked. Peter was also known for being reactionary, and it often got him in trouble.
Peter, in the heat of the moment, was the one who swore to stand by Jesus even if it meant death; yet he was the one that denied his master three times in the face of opposition. Judas’ traitorous actions led to Jesus’ arrest, but it was Peter’s cowardly denials that denigrated his own status as a disciple. Yet throughout all this he remained faithful and continued to meet with the group. And despite his actions, it appears that he also remained a leader of the community. As a leader, and a man of action, he felt the need to do something. As an action oriented kind of guy, he decided that adjustments needed to be made within the inner circle. Maybe it was his way of righting a perceived wrong, or of diverting attention away from his past. For the Jewish thinker, there were strong symbolic reasons to have twelve disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. But one has to wonder if Peter’s actions were intended to shift the focus of his failure as a disciple fully onto Judas — and away from himself. So despite the direct instructions of Jesus to “Do nothing” until the Holy Spirit comes, Peter “got into things.”
Peter stands up among the believers and makes an appeal for the need to replace Judas. The twelve disciples were viewed as the representatives of the twelve tribes, the people of Israel. If all Israel was to be redeemed and restored then all twelve tribes, all facets of the population, must be represented. The concern is that the apostolic circle must be complete before the miracle of Pentecost occurs.
Other than this perceived need to have 12 disciples to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, there’s no other instruction or reason for Peter to make this suggestion. And when you take into consideration that the believers gathered that day amounted to 10 times or 120 believers, one is left to ask, why? Why would he decide to do this without instruction? Doing simply for the sake of doing can lead to problems. But one the other hand one could say: But nothing bad happened from the disciples going out on their own, or “getting into things,” and choosing Matthias as the “replacement” for Judas. And this appears to be a correct assertion.
But then again one is also forced to recognize the fact that nothing particularly good happened either. Acting without the living presence of the Spirit, the disciples were able to achieve some “apostolic accounting,” presenting good numbers. But their action had no tangible consequence. Their reaching on their own the Number 12, had no transformative power, no transmitted message. For their “divinely” chosen candidate Matthias simply sinks into a historical abyss. Unlike all the other disciples, his name is never mentioned again in any scriptural text, and can only be found once in the history of the church (and even then we’re not sure it’s the same Matthias).
Additionaly, we must also ask, what would have been different if Peter had chosen to wait? Who knows what might have happened, or who might have been chosen, if the disciples had done as they were told and waited to take any action until after the Spirit had come in its fullness. Who knows what surprises God had up the Spirit’s sleeve if only they had followed their instructions?
Sometimes “staying in Jerusalem,” not “getting into things,” is the hardest thing to do. God’s plan of salvation and redemption didn’t come to an end at the moment of Jesus’ ascension. There was more to come. Jesus’ “stay in Jerusalem” directive cautioned His disciple/witnesses to not get ahead of God, to not go ahead of Jesus. Disciples are followers — and no one can follow if they’ve run off, halfcocked, ahead of their leader.
When Moms and Dads warn the kids “don’t get into things” it’s because they know that children don’t yet have the tools and talents to navigate the dangers of this world. The same concern and compassion for His children, had Jesus order His disciples to sit still and sit tight in Jerusalem, until the coming of the Holy Spirit. Once empowered, once united by the Holy Spirit, these “children of God” would be ready to take on the world. But not before. They had not yet received the power from on high.
The same is true for us today. We’re to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit, the living presence of the risen Christ, before we strike out into the world. Jesus’ disciples were always such a diverse, incongruent group. They got along to get along, but too often they operated as individuals, jockeyed for the position of “favorite,” worried about their individual reputations. But after Pentecost, after being empowered with God’s Spirit, those Jesus had chosen became an impenetrable force of faithfulness and fearless witnesses to the world.
In today’s text when Peter decides it’s time to elect a new disciple, he stands alone before the gathered group of believers and pitches his plan. After Pentecost, even though Peter still often acts as spokesman, he is described as “standing with the eleven” (Acts 2:14). When Peter stands alone, he gets in trouble. When Peter “stands with the eleven,” he is upheld, empowered, and informed by the uniting presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ. After being empowered from on high, these individual disciples, “Twelve tribes,” have been transformed into a coherent community of faith. It’s as a Spirit driven community, not as individuals, that the witnessing mission of the gospel goes out into the world.
The most recent movie to break all box office records is “The Avengers.” Yes, it’s just another bunch of comic book heroes waging yet another cool 3 D battle against bad guys. But “The Avengers” offers one new note to this traditional tale. In previous movies, comics, and adventures, these super heroes proved their “super ness” by using their own unique powers to overcome the forces of evil and destruction. In “The Avengers” not one of these chosen heroes are enough on their own. Alone, each reveals that they have an agenda, and that agenda means they end up fighting among themselves. What they come to realize is that they must work together as a team in order to achieve, in order to save the world. A uniting force must drive them and bind them to work together so that they might succeed.
Without the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide them, the disciples relied on the methods of the Old Israel to determine the newest member of a group that was to represent the New Israel. After Pentecost the disciples, the “chosen twelve,” and the 100 plus other faithful, and all those who were to come, were joined together on the same team. They were given the same “super hero” strength of the Holy Spirit, not to act alone, but to act together as a body, the body of Christ in the world.
The only special “numerology” that is required to make a difference, to make a mark, is one — together we are one in the Spirit, one in the Lord. The church, the one body of Christ. When we go off halfcocked or act on our own, problems can arise. When we stand alone, we get in trouble — little more than momentary stays against the confusion and chaos of this world. But when we stand together, we stand as one — more than conquerors, through the One who loved us and sent us His Spirit. The Power of one has never been greater. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we, as the one body of Christ, can move out into this world, reach out to help our neighbors and bring lost souls to the one true Christ.

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