Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 24, 2013

Sermon on Acts 1:21-26

WHAT’S SO DIVINE ABOUT THE DIVINE CALL?

  1. Ministers are called to be witnesses to Jesus
  2. Ministers are called to be witnesses by Jesus

 Text: Acts 1:21-26

 Introduction

Cartoon from the Green Bay Press Gazette

Cartoon by Joe Heller of the Green Bay Press Gazette

The cartoon appeared in the Green Bay Press Gazette.  Pictured was a large, majestic building with the word “Vatican” above the front entrance.  The “quote bubble” coming from the building said, “You’re giving up what for Lent?!!”  Unless you hadn’t had any contact with the news, you knew what the cartoon was all about.  Joseph Ratzinger, more commonly known as Pope Benedict XVI, announced that he was stepping down as the head of the Roman Catholic Church due to declining health.  A papal resignation hadn’t happened since the middle ages, and then it had much more to do with scandal than anything else.  And so now the religious news for the next month turns to the conclave that will take place at the Vatican, were the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will hold secret meetings until a new pope has been elected.  Most of us remember the media attention that surrounded the death of the previous pope and the papal election that followed, and I suspect that we’ll be in for more of the same in the weeks ahead until the white smoke rises in Rome.

Of course, we Lutherans and even you members of St. Mark’s know all about the process of calling someone to replace another servant of the church.  Oh, sure, there’s no secret conclave or white smoke when we issue a call, but between pre-call meetings, special voters’ meetings, declined calls, accepted calls, and installation services, we have our own carefully established procedures for calling people to serve in the church.  With three pastors and multiple teaching positions here at St. Mark’s, rare is the calendar year that a divine call is not extended to someone to serve here or received by someone here to serve elsewhere.

We believe that anyone called to publicly serve others with the gospel on behalf of a group of believers has a divine call.  The scope of the divine call varies from one situation to another (for example, a pastor’s call to serve an entire congregation is far more comprehensive in scope than the teacher who is called to serve a particular group of students), but in both cases we believe that person has a divine call—a call not just from that group of believers, but a call from God himself.  That’s a pretty big claim.  And that claim looks a little bigger when we look at reality.  Sometimes divinely called workers show their sinful shortcomings, and the divine call doesn’t look so divine.  And sometimes the people that divinely called workers serve show their shortcomings, and the divine call doesn’t look so divine.  The church is always and only the family of God, but the family of God is still filled with sinners whose failings might make us wonder how divine the divine call really is.

The minor festival remembering St. Matthias that occurs today in the church calendar provides us a chance to talk about the divine call.  Our Second Lesson from Acts helps us to answer the question we just asked: What’s so divine about the divine call?  This reading helps us to realize, remember, and renew our appreciation for the truths that ministers are called to be witnesses to Jesus, and they are called to be witnesses by Jesus.

I.

The Second Lesson for today (Acts 1:15-26) took place during the ten days between Jesus’ Ascension, 40 days after Easter, and the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter.  During this transitional time, the small group of believers recognized that they had a problem.  They were short an apostle.  Less than two months earlier, Judas had taken his own life when he fell into spiritual despair for betraying Jesus.  Now the Twelve were no longer Twelve.  The approximately 120 believers in the pre-Pentecost Christian Church recognized from the Old Testament that God had said another man should take over Judas’ apostleship. 

Peter tended to be the apostles’ spokesman; here also, he spoke up and addressed the little church about this dilemma.  He quoted two Old Testament psalms written by David that predicted Judas falling away.  Based on the Old Testament, it was clear to those earlier believers that God saw these sad events already in eternity, and he had a plan for his church to replace that tragically fallen apostle.

The church recognized that God had called them to call another apostle.  The church also recognized that this new apostle must be qualified for the position.  Peter said, “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”  This replacement apostle needed to have been a follower of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry.  Notice that Peter also mentioned that this man needed to especially be a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.  Peter could have said all sorts of other things:  “He must be a witness of Jesus’ miracles.”  “He must be a witness of Jesus’ teaching and preaching.”  “He must be a witness of Jesus’ passion.”  All of those were important, but Peter rightly recognized that the key ingredient of any apostle and of any preaching is that the crucified and risen Jesus be the center of that minister’s message.  Peter and the other apostles certainly practiced what they preached.  Read some of the sermons contained in the book of Acts, and the key theme that repeats itself is the resurrected Lord Jesus.

What an honor!  What an opportunity!  What a privilege, to be called into the Holy Ministry as a witness to Jesus and to his resurrection!  And yet, in many churches, that honor and opportunity and privilege is wasted.  Every preacher who steps into a pulpit on Sunday morning has a golden opportunity, but the sad state of affairs today is that many preachers pass by that golden opportunity to preach the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection and, by omission, preach another gospel that is no gospel at all.  You don’t have to look far.  The most popular television preachers in America today believe that the message of Scripture is to speak positively in your life so that God will bless you.  The most populous churches in our neighborhoods are the ones that preach the Christian instead of the Christ.  And the most prestigious Christian schools in our area are the ones that turn Scripture into a book of morals instead of the Book of Life.

Lest we think that we’re in a church body that is immune from such disappointments, let’s not forget that Satan is probably harder at work where the Word is faithfully being preached, because faithful preaching is Satan’s worst nightmare.  We must confess the sad reality that there have been less than faithful preachers even in our own church body, perhaps more often then we’d like to admit.  And when the pastor isn’t being faithful, sometimes the people in the pew fail to speak up and demand that their pastor return to being a faithful witness of the resurrection.  When external matters become more important and consume more time and generate more discussion than the spiritual message of the gospel, then God’s people need to ask themselves if there isn’t a problem.  Then we need to ask ourselves if we aren’t close to losing the very message that opens the gate of heaven to our audience, and if we aren’t in danger of losing that message and that key to heaven ourselves.

But the remarkable truth is that you and I find forgiveness for our failures and fuel for the future in the very message God has given his ministers and his church to proclaim.  The very message you call ministers in the church to proclaim to you is the message that absolves your shortcomings.  The very cross that is the centerpiece of our ministry is the cross at which Jesus shed his blood to wash away your sins.  The empty tomb that provides the worldview for all our subjects taught in our school is also the tomb that provides the heavenly view of peace with God and the promise of paradise.  The message of the risen Jesus that is the reason we gather together for worship each Sunday is the very gospel that has nurtured and is right now nurturing your faith, erasing your guilt, increasing your trust in the One who came to be your Savior, and filling your heart with greater thanksgiving for the truly divine calling God gives his ministers!

II.

During my vicar year at our sister congregation in North Hollywood, I taught a Bible study series on Christian worship.  On one occasion we looked at some of the minor festivals that occur in the church year calendar, and today’s festival remembering the ministry of St. Matthias was brought up as an example.  I asked the members of the class what a pastor would preach about for St. Matthias; someone joked that there was nothing to talk about, because we hardly know anything about Matthias.  There is a little bit of truth to that.  The only place he’s mentioned in the Bible is here, in two short little verses (vv. 23, 26) of Acts 1.  Some early church fathers mention Matthias in their writings, but others believe that they’re really talking about St. Matthew.  About the only thing that scholars and early church writings agree on is that Matthias died a martyr’s death.  (Incidentally, that’s the reason why the paraments, banners, and stoles are red today; it’s a reminder that Matthias’ blood was shed for his confession of faith).

It seems that the only thing Matthias has going for him is that he was called to be a witness by Jesus.  It’s true that he was called through the church, but he was called into this ministry by Jesus.  The apostles proposed two men for Judas’ replacement.  Luke writes, “they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.’Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.”

We can’t say with absolute certainty how the “casting of lots” took place.  The church picked two men who stood above the rest based on their character and qualifications, and they left it to the Lord to decide who the new apostle would be.  They may have drawn straws or cast something like dice.  The “casting of lots” could also be understood as voting.  We honestly don’t know what the method was, but we do know what the result was, and we do know that the church accepted this as a divine call from God and that Matthias was considered an apostle as much as Peter, James, John, and the others.

Matthias really isn’t well known in the grand scheme of things.  He’s only mentioned here in this section of the Bible, and we don’t have much information about him from extra-biblical sources.  Matthias doesn’t have much of a claim to fame today.  There is not one church in the Wisconsin Synod named St. Matthias.  We have dozens of churches named for Peter, James, John, and Andrew.  We have churches named after Luke and Mark and Timothy and even the angel Michael.  We have a St. Bartholomew and a St. Nathaniel, a St. Martin and a St. Jacob.  We even have a St. Katherine.  But no Matthias.  Matthias’ claim to fame is not his popularity (or lack thereof).  His claim to fame is not who he is, but who called him into service.  If the early church recognized that Matthias was rightly called into the church’s ministry through the casting of lots, then it is also true that the Lord calls people into the ministry today through means like a church’s voters’ assembly.  Isn’t it true when the Scriptures say that “Christ was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”?  Then it is also true when the Scriptures say that it is “Christ who gave some to be pastors and teachers.”

When I conduct weddings, I often make it a point in the sermon that God brought that couple together.  That’s a point that couples need to remember later on, when challenges and crosses and tensions come into their lives.  But that point can be a tremendous comfort, too: We know God brought us together, so we know that we can make this work through thick and thin.  The same can be said for ministers and congregations.  God brought us together!  What amazing confidence that gives us!  What certainty that gives us in our ministry together!  The Lord Jesus calls us to service together.  He brings pastors and congregations, teachers and schools together.  And he who brought us together will bless our ministry according to his will and wisdom.

Conclusion

It has been said that John the Baptist is a good model for the ministry.  John’s greatest joy was to point people to Jesus.  John said, “He must become greater; I must become lesser.”  And I suppose if we wanted to find another example of someone who fit that motto, Matthias would be at the top of the list.  We know next to nothing about him; all we know is that he was called to be a witness of the resurrection of Jesus, and that the Lord Jesus was ultimately behind Matthias’ call to serve.  At the end of the day, that’s what the ministry is about.  The man behind the pulpit is irrelevant.  He is nothing.  But the message he proclaims, and the Messiah who put him there in the first place, is everything.  So as we think about St. Mark’s ministry—as we recruit students for our school, as we witness as a congregation, as our task force makes suggestions for our ministry’s future—let’s take comfort in the truth that the ministry and the call are divine, and let’s proclaim the divine Son of God who makes that ministry and those calls divine. Amen.

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