I always have to smile when I hear our First Lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles. I smile because, 24 years ago, this was the weekend when the Diocese of Iowa met in Convention to elect their 8th Bishop. I was one of four finalists and, during the week, I had awaited Saturday’s phone call from Convention with real anticipation and no little anxiety, I can tell you!
Of course, I had to prepare a sermon for that Sunday in my parish, St. Mark’s inCocoa,Florida. And what Lesson confronted me when I started the preparation, but our First Lesson today — The story of those early Apostles selecting a new member to join their ranks and replace the traitor, Judas. They discussed the matter and prayed, and finally “cast lots” (rolled the dice!)… and the text says, “The lot fell on Matthias.” Of course, there were two candidates in that selection process, Matthias and a man called Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Justus.
We know that Matthias went on to become an Apostle and tradition says that he was eventually martyred for his faith. We don’t know anything about what happened to poor old Justus. But, as I prepared my sermon for that Sunday, trying to ready myself (and my congregation) for whatever might happen in Iowa’s election, I sort of felt like both of those early Christians. So I actually prepared two sermons – one from the perspective of Matthias (the “winner” in that apostolic election) and one from the point of view of Justus (the supposed “loser!).
Fortunately, I was able to preach the Matthias sermon because I was elected Bishop of Iowa on the fourth ballot. But what I had come to understand was, it was going to be OK either way! If I was elected, if the “lot fell on me” I was off to a new adventure in ministry. If someone else was elected I got to stay in a wonderful parish with people I had come to know and love over the last nine years, and stay in the diocese I grew up in and in which I had so many friends and colleagues. I kept thinking of the words of Julian of Norwich (a 14th century English mystic) – “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things, shall be well!”
I’m not sure those earliest Christians, written about in the Book of Acts, would have that same confidence during the time we are observing in the Church Calendar today. Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day on which Jesus’ physical presence was withdrawn from the apostles. He had told them to return toJerusalemand to wait for a new gift he was going to give them. He had prayed for them in the words of today’s Gospel, he had promised them that new gift, but they had almost no idea what he was talking about.
It would only be on the Day of Pentecost (which we will celebrate next Sunday) that they would receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit and be transformed from timid, frightened followers of Jesus into bold and committed Apostles who were to take the message of Jesus all over the Mediterranean world! But, on a day like today – poised between Ascension and Pentecost – they must have wondered if all things would indeed “be well” for them…and for the Church.
That sort of sounds like the position many of us are in today in The Episcopal Church. We are Christians at a time in history facing enormous change. And we don’t know quite what to expect. A scholar named Phyllis Tickle has written a book called “The Great Emergence” in which she points out that historically, about every 500 years, the Church has undergone a huge, transformative change — Change which unsettled everyone and shook the faith of many as to whether the future of the Church was secure or not.
In roughly the year 500 Europewas entering the so-called Dark Ages when many would wonder if even Western civilization, let alone the Christian Church, would survive. Five hundred years later, in the year 1052 the Eastern Orthodox Churches split away from the Roman Catholic Church in what came to be known as “The Great Schism.” And in the 16th century, 500 years later, the Catholic Church itself blew apart as Protestant Christianity was born in the Reformation. Many believe we are in a similar situation today.
Old certainties are being challenged. New perspectives and approaches are confronting us. And we’re not quite sure what the future will bring. Lest you think this is only happening in The Episcopal Church, let me assure you (as one who spent nearly a decade as ecumenical officer, working with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and many others), exactly the same thing is happening to them. So…what do we do?
Well, I’ve always loved the image in today’s Psalm. The Psalmist is trying to describe the people of God as opposed to “the wicked” who he says, “will not stand upright when judgment comes…(for) the way of the wicked is doomed.” (Psalm 1:5-6). God’s people, on the other hand, “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:3).
The Psalmist is saying that we need to be like trees, planted along a rushing brook. Our roots need to go deep and be well grounded. But our branches and leaves need to be green and flexible, to be able to sway in the breeze and turn toward the sun. In a time of rapid change like this, as Christians, we need to be even more deeply committed to the basics of our faith, and to our spiritual disciplines of daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, and perhaps an annual retreat or experience of ongoing adult education in our Christian faith.
Deeply rooted, firmly planted, we can then afford to be open and flexible about what God may be doing in the life of the Church. Not every new development or trend is of God, certainly, but our God is a God of change and a God of the future, so we need to be open to what that God may be doing in our day. Very few of us find change easy. But it is also true to say that whatever is not growing and changing is probably in the process of dying.
But our confidence is this: Jesus promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. And our Gospel today reminds us that he is continuing to pray for us. He says, “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…Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes, I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
That’s what Jesus prayed for the Apostles. That’s what he is praying for us. And that is why we can be confident along with Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well…all shall be well…and all manner of things…shall be well!”