Tonight we mark the seventh and final Sunday in Eastertide (doesn’t Easter Day seem a long time ago?), and following the timeline Luke sets out in the Book of Acts it lands us in a kind of in-between zone. According to that timeline, in his resurrection Jesus appeared to his followers “over the course of forty days… speaking about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3) At the end of this time, he ascended from them, though not before telling them to remain in Jerusalem and to wait for “the promise of the Father;” for the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This same order of things is followed in the liturgical calendar, so this past Thursday was “Ascension Day,” next Sunday is Pentecost, and today is part of the ten-day bridge between the two.
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Had you even noticed that last Thursday was Ascension Day? Probably not. You see while the “Ascension of the Lord” is designated a major feast day in the liturgical calendar, it clearly doesn’t have near the profile of Christmas, Easter, or even Pentecost. Certainly in North America, the churches that did mark it as a liturgical feast day will likely have drawn only smallish congregations, and I’m pretty sure the day was all but invisible in the society outside of those church walls. That is partly because it always falls on a Thursday, which is not typically a day for going to church in our generally pluralistic and secularized society, but I suspect it might have something to do with a bit of modern uneasiness around the story that is told that day, which says that the resurrected Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9b). That works very well within a pre-modern cosmology—a flat and stable earth, around which the stars and planets rotate, and above which is heaven—but now that we know that the earth is a spinning globe and that “up” is really only relative to the vastness of space, what do we do with such an image?
It is a question that has been raised by modern biblical critics for at least 150 years, leading the controversial writer John Spong to bluntly state, “My knowledge of the size of this universe reduces that concept to nonsense.”
Yet I would want to state that a belief in Christ’s ascension is not about a set of directions for getting to heaven. The gospels are united in their sense that in his resurrected life Jesus was so utterly and vibrantly alive that the world as we know it could barely contain him. Things like walls and doors pose no barrier; he’s with them, and then suddenly not; he speaks with them, but they don’t always recognize him; and yet he is not a ghost or a mere spirit, for his hands and feet bear the scars of his crucifixion, and he shares food with them… in fact, he even grills a bit of fish for them. But he will not remain with them, or at least not in that immediately physical form. He must go from them to the Father; and given how they understand the cosmos to be structured, how could that possibly be experienced and described other than as an ascension, as a “going up” from them?
He will go from them to the Father, yet they will not be left without the presence of God, for the Spirit of God will come upon them in a new way. The story from Acts that we tell today is located in the space between those two experiences, the time Karl Barth called a “significant pause,” in which their primary task was to wait in expectant anticipation for the promised gift.
Not that they just sit on their hands. We’re told that they returned to the upper room in Jerusalem, where they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Not just the remaining eleven disciples, either, but also “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” The mention of the women is a signal that this community is about to carry forward Jesus’ insistence that room be made for those to whom the wider society did not grant status, and the presence of the brothers of Jesus suggests that whatever reservations they might have had at an earlier stage of his ministry, they were now firmly a part of this movement.
But it wasn’t simply an extended prayer meeting either, for as today’s lesson opens we heard that Peter stood up to address the believers—and it is noted that they numbered “about one hundred twenty persons,” so we again are reminded that we’re dealing with more than just those designated as “apostles.” Of course it is Peter who stands up to raise a practical matter… Peter is always the one who wants (or needs!) to do something. In this case he is concerned that the gap in the twelve left by Judas be filled. That number twelve is important, as it symbolized the twelve tribes of ancient Israel, and the prophets had proclaimed that the tribes were to be re-gathered and reconstituted as one people. With Judas gone, a twelfth needs to be added.
Incidentally, the lectionary gets a bit squeamish here, and omits the handful of verses that indicate how desolate Judas had become, and how he died “falling headlong… bursting open in the middle… his bowels gushed out.” Not that we need to dwell there, though it is perhaps interesting that Peter’s concern is raised at what seems to be the same time that Judas dies. Was Peter holding open even the faintest hope that Judas might yet return to their company?
With his tongue firmly in his cheek, N.T. Wright notes that their method for selecting a replacement “if applied today would simplify clergy appointments no end.” They cast lots, which is pretty much the same thing as rolling dice or drawing straws. Or that was a part of their process, for those in the running were to be ones “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us;” they needed to be drawn from those who had been part of the company that followed Jesus over the course of his ministry. They needed to be witnesses to it all, and a part of the fabric of the community life, and apparently there were two solid candidates: “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.” “Then they prayed,” which in some sense really means that they understood the casting of lots to be a way of releasing their own hold on the decision, “and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship.’” “(A)nd the lot fell on Matthias,” which really makes you wonder how that left “Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus” feeling. On the other hand, winning the lots doesn’t seem to have been much of a prize, really. Matthias is never again mentioned in the New Testament, and the one thing we are pretty clear on is that one after another the apostles are killed for their beliefs. And notably, there seems no need to replace them after they’ve died, no pressure to continue to structure the leadership of the early church around the symbolism of the twelve tribes. It seems to have been something that was important for them only during that “significant pause” between the ascension and Pentecost.
I don’t mean to be flippant here, as if to suggest that this whole business of filling the twelfth space was rooted in little more than Peter’s need to do something—I do think it was a powerful symbolic act for its moment—but with the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost a whole new way—a whole new world, in fact—opens up before them. And soon enough it won’t be the reconstitution of the twelve tribes that will catch their attention, but the in-gathering of all peoples; Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. That will be championed by another one called an “apostle;” Paul, who calls himself “someone untimely born,” “unfit to be called an apostle,” and an apostle only “by the grace of God.” (1 Cor 15:8-10)
But that is to get well ahead of ourselves. Maybe for this week what we most need to consider is the posture of Peter and the others, as they wait with expectancy in that “significant pause,” open to where the Spirit of God will take them next, and acting faithfully according to their understanding of what they need to do. Never mind that we don’t ever again hear of Matthias or even of Justus; they’re part of that movement that will roll forward according to God’s good purposes. And the world has not been the same since.