Now and Then
How do we know what God wants? I know - I’ll think of a number between 1 and 20, or let’s get out the Ouija board, or we’ll draw lots and see who gets the short end of things and then we’ll know what God wants! We all want to know what God wants, and we want to do what God wants. So let’s find the formula for what God wants. The simpler the better. Let’s create a simple, easy practice like rolling dice, or doing rock-paper-scissors, or eenie-meenie-miney-moe, and let’s get our answer now with the certainty that that’s the way God wants it. In ancient Judaic society, drawing lots (as we see from our passage in the Book of Acts and in other parts of scripture) was fully understood to reveal the will of God. There could be nothing random about the outcome – that could only be the will of God. At so many points in our own lives we believe certain events or outcomes not to have been random at all, but certainly the will, even the divine intervention, of Almighty God. And yet – today we (or certainly I) find it strange to think that a quick rock-paper-scissors could be thought to reveal divine will. Now and then – now we would pray about an issue, even for a long period of time, and try to discern God’s voice and will in response. Then, God was thought to speak through a quick game of chance.
The question of leadership in the community of apostles was a first crisis for the small, fledgling group. They handled it in a very inward-looking way, even a fearful way. They were a very homogenous group and it didn’t occur to them to change that. They had the same experiences, the same past, and they wanted to be sure that their new fellow leader would be as much like them as humanly possible. Most of us know that impulse very well. If whatever project we are a part of is going to thrive it’s going to be because we keep the voices and input as narrow and honed as possible. We don’t want to dilute the strength of what we’re doing and who we are by bringing in anyone with other views or experiences. How many congregations today are like this – like our forebears in the faith, the very first followers of Jesus’ Way: we may say that we’re open to all people, and that we really want to grow, but we really want to be surrounded by people just like us . That’s what we mean by growth.
Now and then – the apostles try to make “now” as much like “then” as possible. They are Jewish, so they know that their leadership number must equal twelve. Jesus himself had told them that the twelve of them would judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Judas is gone because of his own tragic decisions. They need a twelfth and they need him now , not then.
Matthias and Justus become the candidates for Judas’ slot, but interestingly, they are not the only ones present who meet the criteria of having been present with Jesus throughout his ministry and through his resurrection. Mary and other women followers were present, and so was his brother James. Mary had understood the Gospel (and began to proclaim it herself) from the moment of Jesus’ conception! We aren’t told why these people aren’t considered, but rather how the honor falls to Matthias. And we never hear of Matthias again in the Bible or in Christian history.
I’m not saying that this makes Matthias a dud, but I join a lot of contemporary commentators on this passage in seeing much helpful advice for the church today as it is rendered here through negative example. The apostles had been promised the Holy Spirit, and they’d been promised that it would come very soon. When the Spirit does come, it chooses Paul to be the twelfth apostle (Matthias who ?). But the other eleven can’t wait. They decide that, because they don’t know when the Spirit will come, they’d better act now. And they decide that because they don’t know what the Spirit might do , they had better pre-empt its choice by effecting something now. In the end, the Spirit will choose someone very different from the apostles’ criteria. They want someone as much like them as possible, someone following Jesus since his baptism by John. The Holy Spirit chooses a person who is now just beginning to persecute these apostles, and who will later stand by while Stephen is stoned to death outside the Jerusalem city walls. This choice of Paul would seem an obscenity to the apostles, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is centered on God’s upside-down project of salvation that puts the last first, makes the Messiah of an illegitimate carpenter, and the primary formulator of the church’s theology of a mean religious scholar who hates the new Jesus movement with a passion. Go figure! That’s the way of the Gospel, reversing all our common sense, our responsible planning (and the apostles are very responsible), our well-ordered structures! The apostles (and I identify with them greatly) sought structure before mission, control over promise, order over a messiness that may have been disconcerting but wasn’t bad. Periods of waiting are often, by necessity, kind of messy, unstructured, out of control, nail-biting, worrisome. It’s easy to want to clean it up fast. But that can divert us from the way that the Spirit will be taking us in due time. Waiting is hard. Control is something that every human being wants, to a greater or lesser extent, and most of us, like the apostles, only so that we may truly work things for the good .
Jesus knew this about us all too well, and in our passage from John’s gospel, we see him praying his heart out to God to help us with all our challenges of discernment. He offers this prayer towards the end of his earthly ministry. He will be executed, he will be resurrected, he will send the Spirit, but he won’t be walking amongst us to guide us. We will be so much more on our own .
Jesus asks God to guide and to be present to the disciples. He prays that they and we will know God’s name. He prays that we will always know that we belong to him and to God come what may, He prays that we will have unity in our diversity – unity of right faith in spite of so many beautiful differences of personhood and of experience. (In the community to whom John wrote, there were already a wide variety of interpretations of Christ’s gospel.) And Jesus prays that his followers will not retreat from the world but engage fully in it. We can be in the world but not of it – we can be ourselves in the midst of cultures and institutions that challenge and even deny the gospel ethic of love, justice, mercy, an end to all dominations. If we are to dismantle dominations and practice love, we’ve got to be engaged, not looking on from afar. Apparently, there were a number of people around John the Evangelist who wanted to disengage from the world, to be “spiritual.” Being “spiritual” is wonderful – go on retreat but then come back and get busy. The Christian life is not about escape but engagement says Jesus. The world can be exhausting, but don’t decide to be done with it. Take care of yourself as you need to, and keep at it.
Jesus’ prayer is one that hopes against an ingrown, parochial life of faith, such as the apostles come to display in our passage from Acts. They are only thinking about how things have been, and how they are now. They are thinking of now and then, with “then” being in the past. They are afraid of change, of losing control. Jesus is praying about now and then, but the “then” is not the past but the future. Now is the fledgling church as it is; then is the church and the world as they might be, with our effort. Jesus mixes otherworldliness with realism, realism with otherworldliness, an other world that we can bring into being as partners with God and Christ. Or we can keep our circle small, tight, and under control. We can keep our lives small, tight, and under control. We know where we are, and we can choose to stay here, or we can move forward in faith into the promises of our faith. We can spend our lives drawing lots and saying that God approves of our own small choices, or we can wait, even with anxiety, for the Spirit to moves us upward, outward, onward. “The world” is a hurting, difficult, beautiful, fallen place, and it remains the intense love object of God and Christ, who want and need us in it to try to make it whole, even to join them in redeeming it.
The apostles are thinking of now and then as a comparison of the present with the past; Jesus Christ thinks of now and then as a comparison of the present with God’s future. As easy as it is for us as individuals, faith communities, nations, the community of nations to hunker down and base the now on the past then, let we who are Christians hear Jesus’ loving prayer as a reminder that God will support us as we base our now on a future then, a then that we may even call the Kingdom of God. We are not fools to do so; we are simply faithful to that upside-down gospel of our Savior. Jesus says in his prayer that we can do this because of God’s love. We can do this because of God’s love. Let me say it again: we can do this because of God’s love. We can make it through now, and we can work towards that then. We can do this because of God’s love.
Feasting on the Word , ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008), pp. 526 – 531, and 544 – 549
www.workingpreacher.org , Commentary on Acts 1: 15-17, 21 – 26, by Jacob Myers, Commentary on John 17: 6-19 by James Boyce, May 20, 2012