I have a confession to make: I have never had a job interview worthy of the name. Granted, there was my video-meeting with Patheos about signing on as a featured writer. It wasn’t really the same thing. Apart from this concert, I work on my own as a piano teacher. I didn’t see the point of interviewing me.
Acts 1:15-26 tells us about one of the most important recruiting exercises in history: the selection of an apostle. Judas threw his career into the water by turning on the boss, and so Christian HQ declared a vacancy. Help wanted in the Apostles Department. It is vital that they find someone else quickly, as there is important work to be done.
By putting us in the picture, Luke – the author of Acts – gives us moderns a sense of the bewildering scale by which Christianity has grown in the two millennia since he put pen to paper. Christianity claimed only 120 followers – or thereabouts – at the time of Acts 1 (v. 15). Judging by this progress, they have chosen the right person for the job when co-opting a new apostle!
Coming just before this clever cooptation, we could consider Acts 1:16-22 as the first papal speech. We know that St. Peter was the inaugural pope of the Church, and this is his first address to believers. It’s not as grandiose as a balcony speech by Francis from St. Peter’s Basilica — that iconic Vatican building — but it’s a papal speech nonetheless.
In his mini-sermon, Peter summarizes the tragic events of Good Friday, the Passion of Our Lord. As painful as the memories are for Peter, there is no doubt that Easter is important as background information for the upcoming selection process. His Holiness reminds the faithful how Judas fell from grace; he makes sure everyone is aware of everything that has happened.
In doing so, he posits what is later codified at Nicaea as one of our central doctrines: the Holy Spirit speaks through the prophets. “My friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit had foretold by David concerning Judas, who became the leader of those who arrested Jesus” (v. 16).
Peter points to the sting of Judas’ betrayal in v. 17, ‘for he was numbered among us and received his part in this ministry.’ Judas was not just playing with being a disciple to further an ulterior motive. Not initially, of course. Until his heart yielded to the devil, he loved Our Lord like a brother. Until we realize this, it’s easy not to see how far Judas has fallen.
Speaking of the fall of Judas, Luke then gives us a bloody description of Judas’ death after spending his ill-gotten money. “Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (v. 18). Book.
I have to wonder if any urban legends about the field of Judas arose in Jerusalem after these events. Judas’ death was widely known in the city: “It became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood” (v. 19) . With a name like that, Hakeldama wouldn’t feel out of place in Stephen King Pet semataryplaying the role of a ghostly graveyard.
Was Hakeldama a place that all Palestinian parents had warned their children to stay away from? Has every ten year old in Jerusalem shown their courage by venturing to where old Judas fell? How many children in the city have woken up at night with the terror of a certain disciple chasing them, their intestines dragging on the ground as he stomped after them?
It’s scary stuff, albeit happier business calls. Peter uses verses from the Psalms to move elegantly from the narration of Judas’ death to the beginning of the matter at hand: electing a replacement apostle. Taking Psalm 109:8 as a reference to Judas, Peter declares, in v. 20, ‘Let another take his position as overseer.’ But it’s not a first-come, first-served situation; an orderly procedure will determine the successor of Judas.
First, there are criteria for who can run in this election. Unfortunately, the apostolate was not open to women. Fortunately, however, many parts of the Anglican Communion are now happy to consecrate female bishops as modern heirs to the apostles. Only men who have observed all of Jesus’ earthly ministry can step forward for this role (v. 21).
And what are the parameters of Jesus’ pastoral among us? “from the baptism of John until the day he was taken from us” (v. 22a). It’s reasonable. There doesn’t seem to be any gerrymandering – no one stopped running because they didn’t see some obscure episode from Jesus’ childhood. It is a fair election with rules known in advance.
An apostle must also witness to the resurrection of Christ (v. 22b). But the apostolate is as much an ecclesiastical as an evangelical role. The twelve apostles, and the bishops who came after, are those who safeguard the message of the Church and ensure that we, the people of God, remain faithful to the faith once received.
So it is time, in v. 23, to meet our candidates for the twelfth apostle: Barsabbas and Matthias. In the best Western political tradition, it comes down to two suitors. I like to think, however, when imagining the procedure, that choosing an apostle was less exuberant than choosing an American president!
As always, John Calvin’s gloss on this verse is interesting: “when the apostles wanted to substitute another in place of Judas, they certainly did not venture to appoint someone”, writes the reformer, “but proposed two, that the Lord could declare by lot which of them he wanted to succeed” (Institutes, 4.3.13). In other words, the nomination of two candidates revealed a certain humility on the part of the remaining eleven apostles.
What then is the best way to choose an apostle? Is there cross-examination by Saint-Pierre? an essay contest? Well no. They cast lots (v. 26); after praying, of course (v. 24). Now, to the modern reader, casting lots – essentially rolling dice – feels more like a move in a casual game of Monopoly than a believable way to choose an apostolic luminary. But it is a practice with a pedigree drawn from the scriptures.
Matters as serious as the finding of a culprit (1 Samuel 14:42; Jonah 1:7), or as important as the distribution of land (Numbers 26:55; Joshua 18:6), were settled in the old Israel by lottery. The name for such a practice is cleromancy, which sounds like something Harry Potter would find in his Hogwarts timetable. Nevertheless, cleromancy was the modus operandi of the Jewish people!
After shaking the lots and throwing a shot, Matthias emerges as the man of the hour. There is a sense of order that is restored in v. 26 as eleven becomes twelve again. With staffing shortages resolved, it is now time for the great adventures of Acts to begin – beginning with Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will arrive.
And what are we going to do with all this talk of apostles? ‘We believe in a holy catholic and apostolic church.’ In the teachings proclaimed by Mattias and all the other apostles, we find a message that unites every Christian – a gospel that belongs to the Church to be defended until the end of earthly times.
As a rarely sung verse of an often sung hymn beckons, ‘Lo! the apostolic train. Join with the holy name to sanctify. It is an invitation to stop and hear what the apostles of centuries past say in the scriptures and to honor the news they bring. Whenever we come together as disciples of St. Peter and all of Our Lord’s Apostles, we do just that. We turn our eyes upward as we worship, adding our voices to theirs in grateful praise to God.