“Discerning God’s Will”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, May 13, 2018
The story that we read from the book of Acts is not a famous story, but it has a lot to teach us about how to make decisions and how to discern God’s will. It is a fitting topic for Mother’s Day, because our mothers and fathers often teach us how to make good decisions. What’s most special, however, is when they teach us how to make faithful decisions, godly decisions.
Between Easter and Pentecost Jesus reappeared to the disciples many times. He showed them that he had risen from the dead, taught them the mysteries of God’s kingdom and transitioned them for leadership. Jesus would soon ascend to God and the disciples would lead the Church.
Their mission was to go to the ends of the earth and preach the gospel. To succeed in their mission, they had to do some mundane things such as select leaders, build the Church’s infrastructure and maintain the consistency of Jesus’ message.
Now, after Judas had taken his life, the disciples felt called to replace him. Perhaps they did so because the number twelve mirrored the number of tribes in ancient Israel. In Matthew’s Gospel (19:28) Jesus told his disciples, “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Hence, replacing Judas was a weighty decision.
Jewish families often rented out the upper room of their house to poor people or to visiting rabbis. So, one hundred and twenty disciples gathered in a large upper room. There were 4,000,000 Jews living in Palestine at the time, but fewer than one in every 30,000 persons was a Christian. If ever anything started out small and grew big, it was the Church.
Peter served as the chief spokesperson for the new Christian community. He called for an election and laid out the two criteria for replacing Judas. First, the person had to have been with Jesus from the time of his baptism until his death. Second, the person must have witnessed Jesus’ Resurrection in order to proclaim God’s victory over death. Only two men met the criteria – Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias. We know little about either of them. Matthias was one of the seventy whom Jesus commissioned to visit every town where he would preach, teach and heal. After the vote to replace Judas, both men vanished from history and never reappeared in the Bible.
According to the text, several women, including Mary, Jesus’ mother, were present in the upper room. The text does not tell us whether or not they were considered as candidates to succeed Judas. We can only imagine how this would have changed the Church. The apostles were an all-male group and would remain so, despite the fact that Jesus included many women in his ministry. Sadly, almost two thousand years would pass before women became full leaders in the Church, and in some traditions women are still excluded from full leadership.
Jesus’ brothers were also present, but they had not witnessed his baptism, nor shared his ministry, nor witnessed his Resurrection. During his life, they opposed him. Yet, death has a way of opening our eyes, and Jesus’ family was now committed to carrying out his ministry.
So, the disciples prayed. Prayer is always the appropriate place to start when a Christian has a decision to make. Before starting his ministry, Jesus spent forty days and nights praying in the wilderness. Before selecting his disciples, he prayed. Before preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus prayed. Before and after feeding the five thousand, Jesus prayed. He prayed at the Last Supper and also as he hung on the cross dying for our sins. “Father, forgive them…” Prayer was central to his life, and a Christian with a decision to make always starts with prayer.
I don’t mean praying, “God, this is what I need you to do.” Rather, put yourself in the presence of God. Share briefly with God the decision that you have to make. Then listen and wait for God’s wisdom. The meaning is always found in the waiting. You may pray day after day and week after week without hearing anything, but keep praying and trust that God will guide you.
God always answers our prayer, but often not in the way we are seeking, because God knows what’s best for us. Prayer lets God know that we are open to God’s will, not our will, being done. So, we read in Acts, “All these with one accord were constantly at prayer…” After praying, the disciples cast lots. They put two names on two stones or dice, placed them in a bottle, shook it and whichever came out of the jar first was considered to be God’s choice.
This tradition dated back to ancient Israel, where the chief priest carried the Urim and Thummim, small objects like dice, made of metal or precious stones, which they used whenever the king or nation had a major decision to make. God was believed to guide the choice of the dice. Proverbs 16:33 tells us, “The lot is cast… but the decision is the Lord’s alone.”
Peter said, “You know the hearts of everyone, Lord; declare which of these two you have chosen to receive this office of… apostleship…” Then he cast the lots. Preacher Barbara Lunblad notes, “To some people, tossing the dice will surely seem an arbitrary way to choose a disciple. Would you call a minister by throwing darts while blindfolded? Would you choose a bishop by casting lots? …there would seem to be better methods for choosing an important leader.”
Indeed, in the sixth century, St. Benedict of Norcia instructed monks to elect their own leader and each monk, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, was given one vote. Centuries later, when England’s Parliament first met, they gathered in the chapter room of Westminster Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, and adopted some Benedictine practices, whereby each member could cast one vote. Hence, democracy grew out of the Benedictine experience.
Theologian Justo Gonzalez is critical of the disciples’ selection of Matthias. He notes that the disciples placed the organizational needs ahead of the Church’s mission. In their rush to fill a position, they preempted the work of the Holy Spirit and elected someone just like themselves, when in fact God often surprises us and selects someone unlikely.
Rather than asking who can make a significant contribution to expand the mission of the Church, the disciples chose maintenance over mission. Perhaps the fact that Matthias is never mentioned again should serve as a warning. We can only invite, but never force, the Holy Spirit to act. The real mark of an apostle is not that he knows about Jesus, but rather he knows Jesus. Jesus is not a figure in a book, but a living presence whom we turn to for guidance, wisdom, strength and comfort. We often say, “What would it be like if Jesus were with us today?” but the apostle knows that Jesus is always with us wherever we go.
Both Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias were ordinary people who carried the extraordinary gospel forward in ministry – much like each of you gathered here today. Who is Matthias for you? Who was chosen instead of you for something that you had your heart set on? Can you support this Matthias and rejoice for him or her? Or do you feel too slighted to see this as God’s will?
In his book Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church, Richard Lischer describes how church authorities assigned him to serve a tiny congregation in New Cana, Illinois. He hated their decision. After all, he had a PhD in theology and his wisdom would be wasted on this small farming community. He felt that these bureaucrats had misfiled his gifts, misjudged his obvious promise and had placed him in rural confinement. In his first sermon, he quoted James Joyce, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus and Walker Percy. He spoke about the problem of meaninglessness. “It didn’t occur to me,” he wrote, “that Marx’s critique of religion rarely came up for discussion at the post office.”
In time, Lischer met many ordinary people in New Cana like Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, who were doing extraordinary things. They took turns caring for a girl with cerebral palsy. They helped each other put up hay before the rains came. They grieved when anyone lost a farm and refused to buy his tools at the auction. They prayed before planting their seeds in the fields. These ordinary people taught him about the communion of saints. On his last Sunday, he looked out at the faces of the congregation and saw Jesus. He wrote, “We were his body…”
St. Thomas’ Church is the 27th oldest congregation in the United States. For more than three centuries we have made good decisions and have elected faithful leaders to help us serve God. If you have an important decision to make, remember this from today’s story in Acts.
- First, clarify the decision that you have to make. What are your options?
- Second, invite some trusted friends, family or colleagues who know and love you to help you discern your decision and invite them to pray for you as you do so.
- Third, lift your decision up to God in prayer. Don’t rush the process. Give the Holy Spirit time to reveal God’s will for you. It may take a lot of time.
- Fourth, if you are highly intuitive, trust your gut instinct. If you are very rational, go with what seems most reasonable. Your intuition and reason are gifts from God. But above all, ask yourself what is the most faithful decision that you could make. What would Jesus do if he were in your place?
- Finally, make your decision, and commit to making it the right decision by the way that you carry it out. If you feel uneasy after making your decision, you may need to revisit it. But if you feel a deep sense of peace, trust that this is a sign from God.
The existentialist philosophers note that you and I are products of the decisions that we make. We are always free to choose. Our decisions craft our character, and our character shapes our decisions. As we make virtuous decisions, we become virtuous people, and walking the path of justice and mercy gets easier with practice. Thanks be to God. Amen.