The 7th Sunday of Easter (May 29, 2022)
No doubt as you came to church today you passed through quiet neighborhoods with little to no traffic. You, likewise, probably passed very few fellow church goers. Attendance at worship services in Christian churches is at an all-time low, especially when you consider it as a percentage of the general population.
Many would have us believe that this is a direct result of the fact that the Christian Church has become irrelevant to our world of the 21st Century. From our own experience it does seem that fewer and fewer people are coming to the church for answers to issues they face in their lives or for guidance or for comfort or even for hope in a world that seems to be void of all hope!
Why do you think this is? Even some of our fellow Christians are insisting that we have lost relevance because we have tended to be far too centered upon doctrine and not enough focused upon social action. In an attempt to remedy this, many Christian groups and churches have watered down their message and have more fully involved themselves in community service, social and political causes and established social welfare programs.
I’m afraid, however, all this social engagement under the guise of becoming more relevant is actually making the Christian Church more irrelevant to the people of the world. After all, other religious groups and organizations, as well as national, state and local governments, can and do seem eager to do all these same things. Who then actually needs the Christian church?
Our relevance as Christians to our world is not our social ministries. What we uniquely have for the need and benefit of our fellow man is the true message of Christ Jesus which we have been given to share.
In fact, here is where true love for our neighbors is borne out. Jesus’ commission to His church was not to go and open up soup kitchens… build hospitals… or open shelters for the homeless. His charge was to “make disciples of Jesus Christ by baptizing and teaching the people of the world all that Jesus has taught us.
Now, as the Holy Writer James is quick to point out, preaching Jesus to people without also being concerned for their physical welfare is not truly loving them either (2:15,16). But what you and I as baptized and instructed followers of Jesus have been uniquely given for the sake of the world is the life-saving truth of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. No government agency… no worldly organization… no humanitarian effort… not even any other religion can offer this to the world. Now, what can be more relevant than saving souls with the truth of Christ?
And on this last Sunday of the church’s Easter season, we are shown through our first appointed Scripture reading that this life-giving and saving relevance of the church is grounded in the apostolic witness of the living Jesus. So we confess regularly, “We believe in the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church.” The Church; that is, all those saved in Jesus Christ, is founded upon the living hope given us in the witness of the apostles of the living Jesus, the First Born of the Dead, He who is the Resurrection and the Life.
The fact that this cannot be understated nor dismissed is proven by the events of our text. A few short days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, we see Peter stand up among the assembled followers of Jesus and pronounce that it was crucial and necessary that the apostolic office of Judas, which he had been given by Jesus and yet shamefully vacated by his treasonous action of betrayal, be filled.
Now, today, many of us might scratch our heads and pragmatically ask: “Why did Judas need to be replaced? There were still the other 11. Besides we also know that Jesus had every intention of appointing Paul later on to be His apostle to the Gentiles. Couldn’t the other 11 handle things just fine? Then, too, given that the one who is eventually elected to fill Judas’ office, Matthias, is never heard from in the Biblical record again, it doesn’t seem that his position was all that vital in the whole scheme of things anyway.”
Clearly all is not as it might seem. As we are told, Peter’s insistence that Judas’ office be filled boils down to 2 important necessities. The first is that it was necessary to fulfill prophecy. In one of David’s psalms, Psalm 109, he lays out how the LORD’s servant will be attacked without cause, his good toward others would be repaid with evil, he would be falsely accused, and all not by his enemies but by His friend. David then states, “May another take his place of leadership.” Judas’ outright betrayal warranted that he be stripped of the honor the LORD had given him to be an apostle of Jesus and that one more virtuous than he receive his place of apostleship. The LORD’s divine justice needed to be carried out.
But the necessity of the filling of Judas’ apostolic office also had to do with the fact that the office Jesus had established had to remain filled despite the wicked actions of Judas. Some early century expositors looked at the established number of apostles, 12, and insisted that in God’s order of things, 11 apostles would never do. They insisted that the number 12 was a number of completeness. It is the number of God, 3, times the number of His created order,4, i.e. the four corners of the earth… the four winds… the four seasons… the four directions.
Was the filling of the college of the apostles merely a matter of mathematics and to preserve a sense of completeness? That somehow seems far too simplistic. Clearly there is another more noble and divine reason.
After all, the office of apostle was not just some human institution, another position to provide employment for some needy Christian. It would not do to simply call up the Jerusalem employment office to see who might be available! No, this office of apostle was created by Jesus to carry on His work of building the Church and saving souls for the Kingdom of God.
Apostle itself literally means “sent one,” not someone hired for a task but one alone sent by Jesus. Jesus said to those He sent, “He who listens to you listens to Me. He whoever rejects you rejects Me” (Luke 10:16). Holy Scripture itself states that the church is built on the very foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ being the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). No charlatan or betrayer can destroy even one of those 12 pillars of Christ’s church. The office is more significant than the occupier of the office. It must be filled to demonstrate to the whole world just what authority and significance Jesus placed on this ministry.
Furthermore, the requirements for the occupier of this office, as Peter delineates them, add to the necessity of it being filled. First, he must be a man, a male, just as Judas was a male, and more importantly, just as Jesus was male. After all, this office holder would be representing the man/God, Jesus, to the world.
Secondly, not only was it a good idea that this person not be a new convert but it was required that he be one of the men that had gone in an out with Jesus and the other apostles from the beginning of Jesus’ baptism by John until the day Jesus was taken up into heaven. The importance of this requirement cannot be underestimated. This was this man’s three years of seminary training, training we might add that was given directly by Jesus. As such this man heard with his own ears all that Jesus taught and saw with his own eyes all that Jesus did, divine miracles and all.
As one might expect, these requirements narrowed the field of possible candidates dramatically. Only two men fit the bill; Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.
Despite both having the proper credentials, however, neither man was fit for the office of apostle unless he would be sent by Jesus. A divine election needed to be held. All was placed into the Lord’s hands. Peter and the others prayed: “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” To allow the Lord to cast His ballot they cast lots. Customarily that meant two stones with one name on each would be placed in a vessel. The vessel would then be shaken so hard that one stone would fly out.
The lot fell to Matthias. The LORD had chosen. It was now official. Matthias now was placed into the vacant apostolic office of Judas. Honorable position? Most definitely. But being an apostle of Jesus was no mere figurehead. It meant at its very essence to be a witness of Jesus, the one rejected by His own people and crucified before the world as a common criminal. The Greek word translated witness is our word martyr. Many if not all of the apostles, would quite literally be called upon to witness to Jesus with their very lives becoming martyrs in every sense of the word.
And, yet, as Peter testifies, the heart of being an apostle meant being a witness of Jesus’ resurrection (v.22). I’m afraid this vital point is often overlooked, not only by the world but often even by Christians. This is no slight matter just as a man who was dead then truly and fully comes alive again is no slight matter! When was the last time you witnessed or even heard about a man raising from the dead? Oh, yeah, never!
The world has seen all kinds of teachers come and go, even great ones like Plato, or Socrates, or John Locke. The world has witnessed many stupendous and seeming miraculous acts. But in the history of our world there has only been one man who boldly proclaimed while He was still living not only in great detail how He would die but also that He would raise Himself from the dead in three days and then do it! (Jn 2:19) As the opening chapter of the Book of Revelations describes Jesus, He is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead (Rev. 1:5). In fact when Jesus dictates His letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor He identifies Himself this way, “Behold, I am the living One; I was dead and, behold, I am alive forever. I hold the keys of death and hades” (Rev. 1:18).
Now, to be precise, no one, not Matthias nor any of the apostles before him, was actually an eyewitness to the dead body of Jesus coming alive. That occurred while Jesus was alone in His tomb. But that is not what we are talking about when it comes to being a witness of the resurrection of Jesus. What Matthias and the other Twelve were able to do was to verify that Jesus had truly died and actually, bodily, become alive again. They had seen Jesus expire. They witnessed the centurion confirm with a spear thrust into Jesus’ side that He was dead as they saw the blood and water pour out from His body. And, yes, they saw with their eyes, felt with their hands His living flesh. They felt on their faces His breath as the raised Jesus breathed on them giving them the Holy Spirit. For forty days they met with the living Jesus as He ate and talked with them. They saw Him bodily rise into heaven.
Now, such a witness is crucial to the veracity of the Christian Faith. For unlike all other religions and faiths promulgated in this world, the Christian faith is not based on hearsay, rumors, or the mere word of man and his visions. The Christian Faith, the one and only true faith and way to God and salvation, is founded upon the very eyewitness testimony of 12 men personally sent by Jesus.
And how they witnessed to the living Jesus! The whole Book of Acts, literally titled the “Acts of the Apostles,” is a running account of these apostles of Jesus witnessing to the fact that He was alive from the dead. We read: “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (4:33).
Already in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost Peter proclaims: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (2:24). At the home of the Gentile Cornelius, Peter also boldly witnessed to the fact that Jesus did not remain dead but rose again and continues to live. Johnny Come Lately, the 13th apostle, the apostle Paul also made the heart of his preaching the fact of Jesus’ resurrection (13:30 ff; 17:1ff). In fact, at Athens it was Paul’s witness to the resurrection of Jesus that brought him sneers and rejection from the elite on Mars Hill.
The place where Paul most clearly proclaims the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us all, however, is in his epistle to the Corinthians: He wrote: “…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
So what does all this say to us members of Christ’s apostolic church 20 centuries after His resurrection? It makes it clear to us that this is why we are still here. Yes, we can be of service to the people of Miles City and our world through our acts of mercy and love. We might even make a difference in people’s present lives by supplying their physical needs.
But in that regard, we as Christians are not unique. Others, even some who are enemies of Christ, can and do the same for their fellow man.
But what we are in the unique position to provide to the people of our world is the saving truth of Jesus Christ that can and does save their souls and bodies for eternal life. And that truth, whether it be of God forgiving their sins for Jesus’ sake, or that their sins have been fully atoned for by the death of Jesus on the cross, or even that they are saved alone by faith in Jesus Christ, is only verified and proven in the apostolic witness of the living Jesus. We dare never get tired of proclaiming and sharing with the world that witness. Without that witness we have no hope, our life of faith in Christ is totally for naught and the world will die in futility.
In Jesus’ name and to His glory, Amen!