Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

Eyewitnesses to lead the Church (Acts 1:15-26)

If you have been following the news this week, you will know that the Liberal Democrats are facing a leadership crisis. After a dismal showing in the local elections, and a near wipe-out in the European vote, serious questions are being asked of their leader, Nick Clegg. After falling from third to fourth in the opinion polls, members of the Lib Dems are wondering whether Clegg is the man to lead their party into the next General Election, or whether someone else should replace him. If the Deputy Prime Minister does go, I gather that Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Tim Farron are among the front-runners to replace him. We shall see what transpires between now and next May!

In our Bible reading this morning we encounter another leadership crisis. A crisis that took place two-thousand years ago, but (I would humbly suggest!) of more lasting importance than the one currently facing the Lib Dems. Because it was a leadership crisis at the top of Christ’s Church. God’s people were lacking a leader.

If you were here last week you will know that Jesus had just ascended into heaven, leaving his first followers alone in Jerusalem. And what’s more, one of Jesus’ closest companions, Judas Iscariot, was now dead. Having betrayed his Lord to the Jewish authorities for thirty silver pieces, we are told in verses 16 and 18 today how Judas came to a sticky end. Having “served as a guide for those who arrested Jesus”, Judas used “the reward he received for his wickedness” to buy a field. “There he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.” A gruesome fate fell on the man who had betrayed God’s Son.

So now the first Christians faced problem. Who would lead them now Jesus was gone and Judas was dead? In one sense the answer was obvious. The eleven remaining apostles, the eleven men chosen by Christ, should surely carry on his work. After all, the word apostle means “sent one”, and we saw a fortnight ago that Christ had told them to lead the Church’s mission to the ends of the earth. But there was a problem. Because when Christ had hand-picked his apostles he said there must be twelve of them. Twelve apostles like there had been twelve tribes of Israel. With Judas gone, a new leader was needed. Another man was wanted as an apostle.

The apostle Peter clearly saw the problem, and in verse 20 quotes the Old Testament book of Psalms to prove his point. In Psalm 69 and then Psalm 109, the Old Testament had predicted that Judas‘ place would become “deserted”, and said “another” must “take his place of leadership”. Long ago, hundreds of years in advance, God’s Spirit had amazingly inspired king David to write down those words. Words which would guide his church in its future leadership crisis.

I hope you have confidence in God’s Word to help us in the crises and challenges we face in our own lives today? As I’ve said before, the Bible isn’t a just a dusty book to be randomly read during religious rituals with no relevance to daily life. Quite the opposite. Because when read seriously and sequentially, Scripture will speak to us today. It is God’s living Word, inspired by his Spirit, with wisdom for us all. Wisdom for our marriages. Wisdom for our career choices. Wisdom for our children. Wisdom for our finances. Wisdom for life. As Peter discovered, God’s written Word contains treasures of wisdom that can help us all confront our challenges today.

As we look at the remainder of our passage this morning, I want us to consider how the church chose an apostle to replace Judas, and why it mattered so much. In other words, what were the criteria used to choose an apostle? And why are the apostles so important – even for us here today?

  1. Making a difficult decision…

When I applied for the vicar vacancy here at St. Michael’s I had to fill in a 17-page application form. A form in which I had to set out my educational qualifications, my previous career experience and my theological training. I also had to explain why I wanted to serve God here in Gidea Park. If you yourself have ever applied for a job you will know that different minimum qualifications and selection criteria are set for every vacancy, not just for vicars. So what criteria did the early church use to shortlist candidates to be Judas’ successor? What qualifications were needed to be eligible for the job of an apostle?

Verses 21 and 22 today tell us the answer. Look at what Peter said: “it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us”.

The newest apostle should be like all the others. He must be a man who knew Jesus throughout his ministry, from his baptism in the river Jordan to his Ascension into heaven. A period of about three years, in which they would have seen and heard all that Jesus had said and done - his miracles, his preaching, his arrest, death and resurrection.

Over the past month we have been looking at various eye-witness encounters that people had with the risen Jesus. We’ve looked at Cleopas’ eye-witness encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus Road. We also looked at Jesus appearance to his disciples in Jerusalem, and last week we listened to the eye-witness testimony to his Ascension. The newest apostle needed to be one of these eye-witnesses – a man who had seen and heard Christ with his own eyes and could tell others about him. Above all, this new apostle (like the eleven others) needed to be a witness that Jesus was alive. Every apostle needed to be able to reassure believers that the resurrection had happened. And able to persuade sceptics that it really was true.

According to verses 23 there were two men who fitted the bill. The church “shortlisted” Joseph and the other Matthias as good candidates for the job. But they left the final decision down to God. They had great confidence in God’s knowledge and wisdom. They knew that the Lord alone could see into each man’s heart, and only he could choose the right replacement for Judas. And God’s chose Matthias. (I hope Matthias was as pleased as I was to get this one!)

Before we think about why Matthias and the other apostles are so important, it is worth reviewing the way the early church solved its leadership crisis. Its worth recalling what were the ingredients that helped them reach a decision. Because the same ingredients can help Christians make difficult decisions today. They are a guide as to how God can guide us today:

  • Firstly, as we’ve already seen, they consulted Scripture for guidance. That must always be our starting point too. Something forbidden in the Bible, like theft, murder or adultery, can never ever be God’s will for us to do.
  • The earliest Christians also consulted one another for advice. The hundred and twenty believers seem to have collectively come up with the two candidates. I hope we all have Christian brothers and sisters here whom we can talk things through with. Christian friends whose advice we seek.
  • Thirdly, the church used common sense. If a new apostle was needed it simply made sense that he should have the same qualifications and experience as the others. God has given us all minds, and we should use them when reaching difficult decisions today about our careers, our children’s education and so on.
  • And fourthly and finally, they turned to prayer. They asked God to show them what he wanted them to do. For them then, it was through the casting of lots. But for us today God might work through circumstances, coincidences or simply an inner conviction. We should be sensitive to the promptings of his Holy Spirit within us.

Taken together, the Bible, prayer, common sense and the advice of other Christians are a great way to discern God’s will for our life. Why not give them all a try next time you are looking for God’s guidance?

  1. Why the apostles mattered then…

 An omninous looking envelope fell through my letterbox last Thursday morning. It was an A5 envelope addressed to me, with CONFIDENTIAL stamped on the front cover in red capital letters. Was it a tax demand? Or a speeding fine? Or an unpaid bill? I feared the worst! Thankfully, it was none of those things. It was my contract from the diocese for my job here at St Michael’s. Or, to give it its full official title, it was my “Statement of Particulars under the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Regulations”. Quite a mouthful!

This contract contains all sorts of important information about my salary, my accommodation, my annual leave allowance and accountability arrangements. It is my formal job description, confirming my key duties and responsibilities. But what was the key task of Matthias and the other apostles? And why are these men so important for us today - two thousand years after their deaths?

As we look at our passage today, and as we look at the book of Acts in general, it is clear that the apostles were appointed to lead the church. Specifically, they were to lead the church by teaching fellow Christians how to follow Christ, and telling non-Christians all about him. In other words, their core responsibility was discipleship and mission.

Acts chapter 2 tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching”. These apostles were reliable witnesses to the foundational, historical events of the Christian faith. But they were also the authorised interpreters of those events. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had promised the apostles that his Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth once he himself had ascended.

The Holy Spirit would enable the apostles to fully understand that Jesus had died and risen again to pay the penalty for our sin, wipe away our guilt before God and open the way to everlasting life. They apostles alone had the God-given authority to set out the ethical implications of following Christ. They alone were given the right to say what was right and wrong for Christians to believe and behave. No wonder the early Church was devoted to their teaching. The apostles were also at the forefront of the church’s mission. They were compelling preachers and credible witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus and the truth of the Gospel. No wonder thousands of people came to Christian faith after hearing the apostles’ testimony.

  1. Why the apostles matter today!

As I finish this morning, I want to persuade you that the work of the apostles is still highly important today. After all, in our creed we claim to be part of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”. Here’s two quick reasons why the apostles still matter so much:

Firstly, the apostles are a great example to Christian leaders today. I’m quickly learning that there are lots of demands on a church leader’s time. Paperwork, PCC meetings, Pastoral Care, Presiding at Communion, Preparing parents for baptisms etc etc etc, the list goes on! But the example of the apostles is a great reminder of what my top priorities and primary responsibilities here should be - namely discipleship and mission. Or in other words, preaching, teaching and leading in evangelism - all underpinned by prayer.

Secondly, the apostles are so important to us all because their words in the New Testament provide the foundation for our faith. Every book in the New Testament was either authored by an apostle or authorised by them. Matthew and John, for example, were apostles and authors of their Gospels, while Luke was a companion of Paul and Mark was an assistant to Peter. So as we read, trust and obey what is written in the New Testament we too are devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, just like the first Christians did.

As we read what they wrote for us we can have great confidence in our faith. They were there when Jesus died. They were there when Jesus rose again, And they will be waiting to greet us on the day we join them in glory.