The Ascension story is one of emotional goodbyes and loss. It’s been 40 days since the amazing events of Easter. 40 days of being around the risen Jesus, 40 days of wonderful encounters, in locked rooms, out in the country, by the lake-side. Jesus has been talking with his disciples, explaining his mission, teaching them to see again the Bible stories in a new light, and encouraging them to go on.
At the beginning of the passage in Acts he marches them up to the top of a hill, and he isn't coming down with them again! There on the Mount of Olives he takes his leave and they watch him go.
We pick up the story a few days later – as they start to pick up the pieces of their lives and their mission, and how they cope with loss. I’d like to explore these themes with the help of St. Matthias. You remember that Matthias was the man chosen to replace Judas – to make up the loss in their numbers.
The Need for a replacement
Not only have they lost their Lord and master Jesus; they are also learning to come to terms with the way they each let down Jesus – especially Judas, whom they have lost as well. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles neatly skips over the gory bit about the death of Judas – how he was filled with sadness and remorse, went out and bought a field, then fell head-long on the ground, dead and his bowels burst open. We won't go onto that any more.
How hard must it have been for them to find a replacement – a bit like a close knit football team choosing a new player to come into the team and work closely together.
So – it is Peter who for the first time steps up to lead the small band of disciples in dealing with the loss of Judas. He reminds them of Psalm 109, that his place should not be left empty forever, someone else must take on his ministry – the word here is episcope – the word we translate today as Bishop. Another must be chosen to be an apostle, leader, overseer, Bishop in his place. They decide that the chosen person must be a true follower of Jesus, who had been with them from the beginning, a witness to all that Jesus had done.
The whole group of 120 or more disciples propose Joseph and Matthias as good people who fitted the requirements – and then they pray that God’s will be done, and draw lots. Matthias is chosen.
Matthias may be an unfamiliar person to you – and we don’t know very much about him, except that he is chosen to replace Judas.
Personally I feel I know him well. You see my Mother grew up in Madras in India, as a member of a church named after St. Matthias – and so as I grew up Matthias was often mentioned in an everyday kind of way.
Clearly Matthias was one of the many hundreds of disciples who followed Jesus around and shared Jesus’ life. Perhaps he was always someone on the fringes of the group, never really someone who stood out or shone; after all he never gets a mention in the Bible and we don’t know anything else about him really. He’s almost the perfect description of Mister Average.
But he was noticed. When it came time to choose another Apostle, and all the disciples thought about who would be a good candidate – they thought of Matthias.
Imagine how hard that must have been to be called to become an apostle and to be chosen? Even more amazing than being picked to play in the school football team.
That never happened to me – I was always the one left behind that no-one wanted. Aahhh!
Yet I dreamed of being chosen one day. I think deep down everyone wants to be loved and chosen. But at the same time it can be a scary thing, being chosen – think of all those expectations that people might have?
I wonder how Matthias felt about being chosen.
I wonder how would you feel if you were picked for such an amazing job.
One part of me might be thinking – well Judas wasn’t much good – at least I can do better than that!
But another part of me would be thinking of the high calling that God has bestowed on me – how can you – how can anyone with all our faults and weaknesses live up to that?
Responding to God’s Call
I think it can feel like that for us today. My friends – you may not be called to become an apostle and fill the shoes of someone important. But we ARE called by God to be followers of Jesus Christ. To rise up from our everyday lives and to follow Jesus our Risen Lord wherever he may call us.
God calls us to dare to be known as Christians – however unworthy or ignorant we may be.
God calls us to risk giving ourselves to serve other people – even those who are unlovely and ungrateful.
God calls us to be open to his Holy Spirit – living a new dimension of life, as spiritual beings in a spiritual world, moved by God’s Spirit and alive to his guidance here on earth.
God calls us to live lives that do not invest too heavily in the things of this earth – because we are just passing through, on the way to a better place, and a better future that God has planned for us in eternity.
That is what it is to be a Christian. I wonder how that makes you feel when you hear it put like that? Perhaps like Matthias felt?
We might feel that that’s too much – how can we live up to that? Perhaps just like Matthias did.
Jesus’ Prayer for us
In our Gospel reading Jesus is praying for his disciples. He longs for them to be kept safe and protected from evil. For them to be united together as they face the world.
Jesus is not praying for the whole world at this point – he is praying for his own, the disciples around him, and those who will follow in their footsteps. He is praying for Matthias -- and he is praying for us – knowing the problems and the pain we will suffer – and asking God the Father to help us through the losses we bear.
The book of Acts is the story of what happened when those first Christians trusted God, and allowed his Holy Spirit to be part of their lives – moving them, inspiring them, and giving them all they need to live for God here on earth clothed with power from on high.
I’m struck by how resilient and responsive these people are. They’ve been through so much, the pain and loss of the cross, the emotional shock of the resurrection, have enjoyed his presence with them again and have seen Jesus leave them to ascend on high -- and despite all that they are still positive and optimistic for the future – and they are still ready to respond to the call.
They know deep down that Jesus is alive and with them always, everywhere, and they are determined to respond to the call – to trust in God, and get on with the job that he has given them to do – inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit every day of their lives.