Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“So they proposed two: Joseph called Barsabbas, and Matthias.
And the lot fell on Matthias.” (Acts 1)
Matthias is a rather shadowy character in Christian history. The first we hear of him is in the Book of Acts, when he is named as one of two nominees to succeed Judas among the twelve apostles. But then, once he is chosen by the casting of lots, we never hear of him again, at least in the New Testament.
Kind of makes you wonder if the disciples made the wrong choice, doesn’t it?
It’s true, that Acts notes that both nominees were men who had been with Jesus from the time of his baptism. That means that Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias had been pretty loyal, and though they were not among the inner circle, they were at least devoted followers of Jesus.
And it’s also true that although the Bible never mentions Matthias again, there are some other ancient texts that give some indication (though still not very certain), that he planted the Christian faith in Cappadocia on the coast of the Caspian Sea, and so might have been the progenitor of one of the greatest theological lineages of the early church, the so-called Cappodocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus). Other accounts, however, say that Matthias remained in Jerusalem, and was eventually beheaded there in the anti-Christian persecutions (that’s why he is often depicted holding an axe). Still other accounts merely mention that he died of old age in Jerusalem.
At any rate, Matthias doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression. Compared to a lot of saints, there are very few legends associated with him. There is no great shrine of St. Matthias, and very few churches are named for him (and even the great Matthias Church in Budapest is actually named for a local king of the same name). There’s no “Gospel of Matthias,” no “Epistle of Matthias to the Romans,” no Order of St. Matthias the Apostle.
So what if, in choosing Matthias, the other apostles actually chose the wrong man? What if Joseph Barrsabbas would actually have been much more successful at being an apostle? After all, the search process was a bit arbitrary: although both candidates had the qualification of having been with Jesus, when it came time to make a decision, the search committee just flipped a coin. Of course, it’s true that they were counting on the Holy Spirit to make their gamble come out right, but when push came to shove, they were still gambling on the decision. And so the one verse in the whole of our hymnal that makes any reference to Matthias whatsoever is simply this:
For one in place of Judas,
the apostles sought God’s choice:
the lot fell to Matthias
for whom we now rejoice.
May we like true apostles
your holy Church defend,
and not betray our calling
but serve you to the end. (Hymnal 1982, #231, verse 2 insert)
(Hmm … a bit thin on content, don’t you think?)
But it does bring us to a more serious question. Aren’t we all, in any significant decision we make in life, really just gambling? Sure, we can do our best to make informed decisions, and to think them through carefully—but when all is said and done, how much of an idea do we really have of how our decisions will turn out?
Decisions like whom to marry. Whether to have children. What career to pursue, or which job to accept. We can try to get the odds of success on our side, but the odds still … are that things will turn out altogether differently than we anticipated. And if you want to disagree with me, I give you one word in reply: Covid.
Surely one of the lessons of the recent pandemic (which thanks be to God, we are gradually coming out of, at least in this part of the world), one of the lessons of the pandemic is that life is an unpredictable gamble. How often, these past few weeks, I have been reminded of the big plans we had here at the church for last year before the pandemic hit, which then all had to be suspended: newcomer retreats in the Black Range, Faith around the Table discussion groups for Sunday morning, a reimagined music program, a new Rite 13 youth group.
Just yesterday, as a volunteer crew was working to spruce up the church campus for our first indoor service next Sunday in over 15 months, I was reminded as we did some repainting in the parish hall of how hard we were working in March 2020 to get that done in time for Easter. How naïve we were!
And even when we do gather next week to worship together here in church, it will not be the same: we’ll still need to wear a mask, to keep a safe distance, to take communion in our own seats, to refrain from singing. It won’t in other words be like old times, but a reminder of what new world we now live in, and how much it has changed. There may even be a tinge of disappointment in that.
But here’s the thing: times like these, when our best laid plans on which we’ve placed out bets are turned on their head … times like these are when we are perhaps most vividly reminded that at the heart of God’s relationship with humankind, are mercy, compassion, sympathy, understanding. Sometimes Christian faith is presented as being all about God’s judgment on what we do wrong. But the longer I live, the more I think that Christian faith is all about God’s compassion on what goes wrong.
Think of the fact that this time of the church year, the season from Easter to Pentecost, is full of Jesus saying things like “peace be with you,” “receive the Holy Spirit,” “I am with you always.” He doesn’t take leave of his disciples with words like “now watch yourself when I’m gone,” or “stay out of trouble,” or “don’t mess up.” His words instead are always positive, forgiving, and encouraging.
So … on second thought, maybe Matthias actually has an important role to play after all. Like the disciples who chose him, we too have to do our best to make right decisions, and then live with the consequences, both good and bad. Perhaps among the apostles, Matthias is the one who stands in for the rest of us. Some people have taken some pretty big gambles on us, just as the apostles took on Matthias—our parents, our spouses, our employers, you might even say we gamble on ourselves. Maybe Matthias did screw up after his appointment, maybe he didn’t do much—but then, maybe he did. We just don’t know.
But one thing we do know, is that he seems to have been someone who trusted in Jesus, and in his message of mercy and compassion. That’s why he chose to follow Jesus, why he said yes to being chosen, and why he accepted the lot that fell upon him. It’s what we all most yearn for, to be able to say “yes” to someone whom we can trust will be with us, no matter what, even to the end: to be able finally to make at least one decision, that is not a gamble: the decision to trust in Jesus. Amen.