The Feast of St. Matthias
Readings: Acts 1:15-26 – Phil. 3:13b-21 – John 15: 1, 6-16
Can you remember what it feels like to be chosen? Perhaps you can recall what it was like to be chosen as a very young child – to be first in line or to help the teacher. Or perhaps you can remember being chosen to be part of a team, or to play a role in the school play, or to become a member of an organization. As an adult you’ve probably known the experience of being chosen as a friend or partner by someone who loved you, or the experience of being chosen for a job by someone who had reviewed your qualifications and selected you out of a field of applicants. It can be a thrilling experience – to be singled out for a particular job or task; to be entrusted with responsibility; to be given a role, an identity, and a purpose.
Today we are remembering Matthias, who was chosen by the casting of lots to take the place of Judas Iscariot following Judas’ tragic death and to restore the number of apostles to twelve. We have no way of knowing what this experience of being chosen was like for Matthias, whether it pleased and satisfied him, whether it brought him honor and recognition – or whether it was somewhat ‘less-than-affirming’, as Sam Portaro suggests in his book, Brightest and Best. He writes,
It was a dubious honor at best, being selected to fill the space of Judas, who had so ignobly failed; being selected not by desire but by the draw of the lot, and for no function or merit save the fulfillment of [Peter’s] notion of propriety, procedure, and institutional symmetry.i
Matthias was chosen to be an apostle, one of the twelve. The word in Greek is apostolos, and it means “one [who is] sent forth, a messenger, especially one authorized to act in a particular matter for the one who sends him.”ii The twelve apostles had been chosen by Jesus to accompany him throughout his ministry and to carry on his mission after his death, resurrection and ascension. They were sent forth, as messengers, authorized to speak and act on behalf of the One who had sent them. Matthias is deemed qualified to become one of the twelve, according to Peter, because he has been in the company of Jesus “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us”, and therefore could reliably “witness with [Peter and the other apostles] to [Jesus’] resurrection”(Acts 1:22).
In the early Church, the term apostolos was applied not just to the twelve, but also to others who had received a similar commission. St. Paul, for example, is listed as an “apostle” of Christ, even though he did not known Jesus personally and was not an eye witness to the resurrection in a literal sense. Paul defends his apostleship by claiming that he too was selected by Jesus as a messenger of the gospel, and that he too ‘saw’ the Risen Christ, even though these experiences took place years after Jesus’ ascension. “Am I not an apostle?” he writes to the believers in Corinth, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (I Cor. 9:1). Paul claims the role of apostle for himself because of the very personal and deeply spiritual encounter with Christ he experienced on the road to Damascus and because of the commission he received from Christ to carry the gospel message to the Gentiles.
Apostles, then, are those who have had a personal encounter with Christ; who are prepared to witness to his life, death and resurrection; and who have been chosen to proclaim the gospel to others. In a sense, that is all of us who accept to be called “Christians.” We are all called to be witnesses and to proclaim the good news of Jesus as we have received it, as we have heard and understood it, as we have experienced it in our own lives. This is what the Nicene Creed is speaking about when it refers to the Church as “apostolic.” “The Church is apostolic,” the Catechism tells us, “because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people” (BCP, p.854).
Part of what we are to proclaim to others is the apostolic tradition that has been passed on to us: the gospel stories that tell us of Jesus’ life and ministry among us; the witness of his early followers to his life, death and resurrection; and the good news of forgiveness and salvation that has been the core of the Church’s message from the beginning. We continue this tradition by handing it on to others.
But we are also called to be “witnesses” to the gospel as it has impacted our own lives. In a court of law, a witness must be able to speak out of his/her own experience in order to be credible. No court would accept the testimony of a witness who began by saying, “Someone told me that this is what happened.” Witnesses must speak out of their own experience; they must testify to what they have seen or heard or known.
To what can you bear witness? Have you encountered Christ in a way that has transformed your life? Do you have a message of good news to proclaim – not just one rooted in the tradition of the Church (which it is important to know and pass on), but one rooted in your own experience as well? What is the gospel that you can pass on to others? What is the good news that you have to tell?
“You are my witnesses,” Jesus says to each of us. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (cf. John 15:16). Yes, that’s you. You have been chosen. You have been given this role, this responsibility, this new identity, this purpose and mission.
A few years ago I was leading a retreat for students from Harvard University. On the retreat, I had an opportunity to share a conversation with a young Harvard student. After we had talked a bit, she leaned forward in her chair, looked into my eyes, and said, “Br. David, tell me what you know!” She was not asking for an explanation of the Church’s teaching or practice. She was not asking what scholars and theologians had to say the Scriptures or contemporary issues. She wanted to know what my experience of God had been. She wanted to hear what was real and life-giving for me. She wanted to hear how I had encountered God and how that encounter had transformed my life. She wanted to know what I could give witness to.
There is this hunger in the world today – a hunger for truth, a hunger for God, a hunger for an encounter with God that has the power to transform our lives. It is to this world that we are called to witnesses of what we have seen and heard.
In the First Letter of John, the author writes on behalf of the community of believers:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (I John 1:1-3).
Consider that this letter is believed to have been written around the year 110, about 80 years after Jesus’ death. And yet these believers claim to be witnesses to the truth that was revealed in Jesus. They are declaring what they have heard and seen and touched. They are testifying not only to the tradition that has been passed along to them, but to their own personal experience. What they have found is real! What they have found has transformed their lives!
Is this your experience as well? Have you encountered Christ? Has your life been transformed by what you have seen and heard and touched concerning the word of life? Are you able to give witness to the good news of Jesus Christ? Are you aware of your call to be an apostle of that good news to others?
You have been chosen for this purpose. You have been chosen to spread this good news, to offer to others the message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that has so transformed your own life. You have been chosen to bear fruit, fruit that will last. This is a great honor and privilege: to be bearers of God’s light and love in the world, to give testimony to God’s compassion, grace and peace. It is a profound mystery and yet it is true: we have been chosen for this.
ii Richardson, Alan (ed.); A Theological Word Book of the Bible; (New York: Macmillian Co., 1950), p. 20.
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