a sermon based upon Acts 1:8-26
Last week, we talked about how Jesus had appeared (as the Risen Christ) to his followers for 40 days after Easter, speaking with them about the Kingdom of God. (!) And he instructed them to wait in Jerusalem – to wait for the promise of God… wait for the power that would come upon them… Well, we are now caught in the “in between” time – those ten long days after Jesus’ final departure and before his return in spiritual form. They were still stuck inside the Upper Room for ten more days without either Jesus Christ himself to guide them, nor the Holy Spirit which would guide them in the future.
I guess you could say they were stuck between what was and what could be… where they were and where they might go… what they knew from their past, and what God may have in store for them for their future once Jesus’ Holy Spirit came upon them with power.
I think it was the long-enforced “sheltering-in-place” situation that we have all been through this year that sensitized me to this odd Sunday between Ascension (last week) and Pentecost (next week). What we’ve endured for ten weeks (since March 16) Peter and the other disciples have been doing for ten days. … Wondering about what the future would be like; wondering what the “new normal” would be after all the drama they had experienced with Jesus Christ.
The author of Acts says: “While he was with them, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of God.” (Acts 1:4)
Waiting. It’s not easy for most of us. We get impatient. If we know something’s coming, we want to get on with it. If it’s bad, well, let’s get it over with and get on beyond it. (!) If it’s a good thing, we can’t hardly “hold our horses” ‘til it’s here! Jesus had said “not many days from now… you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 1:5)
Not many days… but it’s been a whole week since then!
Peter and the other disciples don’t know that “Pentecost” is on the horizon. (!) So far as they would know, the festival that comes 50-days after the Passover – Pentecost (the word means 50 days) and we Christians count it from Easter – was the Jewish celebration of receiving Torah. It recalls the stone tablets of commandments that were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This festival drew Jews from every country to celebrate the Laws that became the Constitution of Israel.
The disciples didn’t know that God was going to choose that very day to be “the birthday of the Church”! They didn’t know that would be the day when the Holy Spirit kick-started the “Body of Christ” and got things into gear. That high, holy holiday was just on the horizon when Peter made his plans to replace Judas with another.
It looks to me like Peter jumped the gun! I’ll get into the details in a moment, but first, let’s set the scene… After their 40 “bonus days” with Jesus, which culminated with the Ascension, the disciples returned to the Upper Room, as instructed, but they didn’t do a good job of “waiting” for God’s next action. They felt the need to “do something”. (It reminds me of something psychiatric counselors are told: “Sometimes it’s best not to do something, but just sit there.”)
In our opening hymn, we sang: “Only the Spirit’s power can fit us for this hour: Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Unite, instruct, inspire, and fill us with your fire: Come, Holy Spirit, come!” (words by Fred Pratt Green, 1970)
It had been a week or more, and the Holy Spirit had not come! In those days, writes the author of Acts, Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about 120), and said: “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who was guide to those who arrested Jesus.” (Acts 1:15-16)
That made me wonder exactly what Peter was talking about.(?) What scripture had to be fulfilled? I mean, David lived a thousand years before Jesus was even born. How would he have known any-thing about their ministry as followers of Jesus Christ, the Man of Nazareth? More specifically, how could he have written about Judas?
Peter says to the 120 people gathered there: “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it.’ And ‘Let his office another take.’!” That’s what David said about Judas, the betrayer, according to Saint Peter. As a good Protestant, I looked up the Psalms that Peter was quoting to see how they related to Judas… in fact, I wondered how David’s words could have possibly related to the Church in the first place!
Here’s what I discovered:
There are 36 verses in Psalm 69, and Peter chose one of them to quote to the disciples who were gathered in that Upper Room: “Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it.” (Acts 1:20a) Now, what verse 25 actually says is in the plural: “May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents.” (69:25)
It is part of a curse being called down upon the enemy’s war camp. Peter has taken it out of context and has made it personal (singular). He says those words were from the Holy Spirit speaking through the mouth of David concerning Judas. So, since I’m working from home… I read the whole Psalm to see how it fit their situation.
We are told that this Psalm 69 is a Psalm of David, while he was afflicted and in pain (69:29); “I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God,” he writes near the beginning of the Psalm (69:3).
I can see why Peter may have resonated with the sadness of this particular Psalm, in as much as he & the other disciples were in grief over the loss of Jesus. I can imagine that Peter felt anger toward the crowds who had turned on them, people who had mocked them, and especially angry at the Pharisees & priests (& other civic authorities) who had secretly orchestrated the collapse of their social reform movement… a movement which had begun with such promise up in Galilee.
I can see why Peter thought of Psalm 69, which goes on to say: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause! Mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies.” (69:4) Psalm 69 pleads: “Rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies” (69:14) and “Hide not thy face from thy servant; for I am in distress. Make haste to answer me. Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free from my enemies!” (69:17-18) This Psalm 69 expresses a lament, deep frustration, and a sense of injustice & pain.
It was a good choice, if they wanted to do a relevant Bible Study!
I’m sure all of those 120 followers of Jesus were going through those very same kinds of emotions in the ten days after Jesus’ “Ascension” -- when they saw him “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9) -- and before the coming of “Pentecost” the next Sunday. They did not know what to expect as they waited in Jerusalem… waiting to “receive power… when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Acts 1:8)
They were waiting for Jesus… who was taken up into heaven! The two messengers had said that he “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) But those 120 believers did not really know what that meant… it was all so brand new!
Somewhere during those ten days, Peter remembers Psalm 69: a Psalm of lament and suffering -- that expresses pain and anger, frustration and helplessness -- and which pleads for rescue, for God to draw near, and to set them free from their enemies! … Oh, yes, that captured the raw feelings of the early Church perfectly! However, out of the 36 verses of Psalm 69, Peter chose only one single verse to quote. (!) And he used it totally out of context!
He then did the same thing with the 109th Psalm… another Psalm of David, even more angry than the first one! David wants his assailants to be put to shame (109:28) and his accusers to be clothed with dishonor (109:29). David bemoans the fact that people are “speaking against me with lying tongues. They beset me with hate, and attack me without cause. In return for my love, they accuse me, even as I make prayer for them. They reward me “evil” for good and “hatred” for my love!” (109:2-5) Again, I am sure that Psalm 109 captured their emotions perfectly -- and it expressed their sense of unfair judgment and hateful animosity that Jesus himself had endured, and they, too, as his disciples, do.
But Peter lifted only one sentence out of the 31 verses of that Psalm 109 – “His office, let another take.” (Acts 1:20b) Again, as in the earlier citation, this verse is part of a curse being called down upon one’s enemy. “When he is tried,” says David, “let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin! May his days be few; may another seize his goods! May his children be fatherless, & his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg… May the creditor seize all that he has. May strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!” (109:7-11) “And may his memory be cut off from the earth!” (109:15)
Oh! That’s a long litany of wishing bad things to happen to one’s adversary, isn’t it!? Peter might have wanted all those nasty things to happen to Judas, I suppose. But he chose only one sentence from the long list of curses to make his case that the disciples needed to choose a replacement for Judas. We call that “proof texting”.
I hope you noticed that, as he did with the first citation, Peter has taken this one out of its context and has made it personal. “His office, let another take” is a paraphrase of verse 8 of Psalm 109.
Why have I belabored the “source material” from which Peter drew his two sentences? What’s wrong with taking a single verse of the Bible -- taken out of its literal context, and then paraphrased, and then added to another single verse from another part of the Bible -- and then applied to another situation altogether…? Isn’t that what a lot of preachers do? (!) I mean, if it’s in the Bible, can’t we quote it as an authoritative instruction? (!) If those sentences are in God’s Holy Word, can’t we base our decisions on it? Shouldn’t we?
This pattern of “proof texting” -- using snippets of Bible verses out of their context, often without regard to which book it comes from or who the author was addressing, or even what kind of literature it is – has unfortunately become a habit in many Bible-believing churches. “The Bible says it, and that settles it!” Well, Peter (on this occasion, a few days after Jesus had left and before the Holy Spirit has come) is the first person among the newly-forming Christian community to use “proof-texting” to make a case among the members. It’s the first time, but (sadly) it wasn’t the only time. It’s like he set a model for ministers & priests, evangelists & preachers (& even theologians) to cite snippets of Bible, out of context, to advocate a position they held.
If “exegesis” means looking to the Scripture to discover the message it has for you; “eisegesis” is knowing in advance what you think, and then going to the Bible to find a text or two to support it. (!)
Real Bible Study ought to be faithful to the authors of the text and try to discover what they can reveal to us without preconceived out-comes; Fake Bible Study is to know in your own mind what you think is true, and then going to the Bible to find sentences here or there that will help you make the case in order to convince others.
I always say: “Quote it the way the poet wrote it!” If you look at a Bible text in its context, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be led astray.
This is one of those times I want to say: “Oh, Peter, if only you had waited…” You see, Jesus had told them to “wait for the promise of the Father, which,” he said, “you heard from me: for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5) Wait, Peter; wait for the promise. Wait for the Spirit!
But Peter apparently has a plan and he wants to get on with it. He thinks it is time to put Judas behind them, admit he’s gone for good, and fill his slot on the roster of Apostles with someone else. He makes the case by citing Scripture, and it’s enough to convince them.
But then, Peter is doing the best he can -- I suppose -- after Jesus had left them, and before the Holy Spirit arrived. This bad habit of “proof-texting” the Bible to make a case (which Peter initiated) might not have happened once Peter and the others had the Holy Spirit with them, in them, instructing them. Giving them the Holy Spirit as an indwelling power was God’s way to make sure that Jesus Christ would continue in their midst. I like to say that “Pente-cost” was the promised “second coming” of Jesus, as his Holy Spirit returned from heaven (in the same way they saw him go).
Well, not exactly the same way – there is a lot more whiz-bang special effects on Pentecost than there was at the Ascension… when the “cloud” (the “shekinah”) took Jesus out of their sight. There will be tongues like flame, settling on each one of them…
… on all 120 of Jesus’ followers in the Upper Room. There will be the sound of a mighty, roaring wind, inside the Room (not outside)! It will draw the attention of the crowds out in the street! … But that’s a story for next week! (I hope you’ll be here on May 31-- in church face-to-face, with appropriate social distance, of course.)
But before we leave today’s story, there’s something else that Peter initiates that’s been a heavy burden for the Church ever since.
We are given the names of eleven male disciples, together with certain women -- including Mary, the mother of Jesus -- as well as Jesus’ brothers! That’s really noteworthy since Jesus’ family (during his lifetime) was not all that keen on the things Jesus was doing! On one occasion (you may recall), they tried to get at him while he was teaching, to take him away, thinking Jesus was out of his mind. But now, after the Crucifixion, his family is numbered among the 120 followers who are sheltering-in-place in the Upper Room. (!)
Peter stands up in the midst of that crowd of believers and says: “Let’s wait for the promised Spirit before we take any hasty actions!” NO… Sorry, that’s NOT what he said! That’s what Peter should have said, but he just couldn’t wait to start what he thought should happen.
Judas, who had been one of them – who had been their trusted treasurer -- not only led the guards who arrested Jesus, but then he killed himself. (!) It was probably as hard for the disciples to believe Judas could have done such shocking things as it was for them to come to grips with Jesus’ own death! After all, Judas had been “allotted his share in the ministry” just like the other eleven men!
Peter wants to put Judas in the rear-view mirror as soon as possible. He wants to fill that empty chair and put Judas behind them, so that they can get on with being the Church Jesus wants.
I appreciate what Peter is trying to do, just not how he goes about it. He is not waiting for God. He’s got his own big ideas… He uses the Psalms to make the case that another person must take Judas’ position as an apostle... and they must do so “right now”.
Here’s what Peter probably thought: There were 12 named disciples in Jesus’ innermost circle of followers & friends. There were 12 patriarchs in the book of Genesis… 12 tribes in Israel. So, Peter decides that there must be 12 Apostles to lead the church!
They would oversee a new beginning… a new Genesis, a new Israel! Peter decides that the Church needed 12 Apostles… and since there were still eleven remaining from before, they only had to select “one more fella...” Peter intends to replace Judas with a new apostle… and I say, “O, Peter, if only you had waited…”
Peter wanted to put someone new on the roster to “fill that slot” -- perhaps to heal the memory of Judas’ betrayal -- or so that their movement could get a sense of “closure”. As a pastoral counselor, I would not advise that such action be taken within the first month of a traumatic loss like theirs! O, Peter, if only you had waited!
Furthermore, what’s wrong with allowing the whole 120 folks who gather “as a congregation” to make their own decisions about the future of their ministry? (That’s how we Congregationalists do it!) Why does Peter insist on creating a structure of 12 leaders, who will decide matters for the others? Was it to imitate the structure of Israel?
O, Peter, if only you had waited for the Holy Spirit to guide you…
For whatever reason Peter comes up with his plan, at least he has them “doing something!” Let’s have an election, and choose a successor to Judas! (!) Nobody seems to have said, “No, Peter, let’s not! Let’s wait a bit longer.”
The bold fisherman takes charge and comes up with a criterion for this “vacant position” in their leadership circle. “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)
That’s the criteria Peter proposes for anyone who would aspire to candidate for the position of 12th Apostle. But who does that leave out? First of all, the women! Mary Magdalene has been there from the very first day, and she was the first eye-witness of the Easter event. Why should they cut her out? Is it Peter’s sexism/patriarchy?
Mary, the Mother of Jesus is there in the room, for goodness sake! Why not bestow upon her the honor as “lifetime achievement” for having known Jesus for 30 years prior to the baptism by John!?
Peter’s arbitrary decision to exclude the women, as well as his defining of the time-frame, works to his advantage (as the so-called first disciple), but it excluded many faithful men and women among the 120 believers whose faith credentials were even better than Peter’s… who, after all, three times denied being Jesus’ follower!
And what about James, the brother of Jesus? He’s a male… so the misogynist patriarchal streak in the early Church should approve. But he was not a follower of his brother in the early years. He seems to have come around only in the last weeks, when Jesus became a lightning-rod of controversy in Jerusalem, and people had to decide for themselves whether they were with him or against him. James decided to stand up and count himself among the believers, even though it put his life at risk… But he didn’t fit within the criteria that Peter has set.
The names of two men who do fit the criteria were Barsabbas Justus & Matthias. What do we know about these two candidates?
Well, they must have been among the crowds who followed Jesus from the time of his baptism right up to his death on the cross and beyond! Those are the credentials Peter insisted upon.
Second, they must have had some faith and quite a bit of courage since they are among the 120 continuing-believers gathered in the Upper Room over a month after Jesus’ execution! But the fact is, we know nothing further about these men. (!) Nothing. They are just names in the Bible. Two “unknowns.” (!) We hear nothing further of Barsabbas Justus, nor of Matthias. Winning the election and gaining the title of Apostle does not necessarily assure anyone of fame & glory, unless we accompany that claim with action.
O, Peter, if only you had waited (like Jesus had asked you to) another few days before imposing a “religious structure” on that congregation of believers… If you had waited, you (and they) would have had the promised “power” -- the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide you -- and three thousand new converts on Pentecost Sunday!
That kind of growth would necessitate some organization, and genuine new leadership would have emerged…. Not to mention thousands of new believers, able and willing to take up their share of the cost and the joy of discipleship. (!) If Peter (and the rest of the church) had just waited, other “unknown” converts would have been recognized as authentic apostles… yes, even as “witnesses to the resurrection.”
Stephen, for example (whom we will meet in a sermon next month), who became the first Christian “Martyr”… He saw Jesus (as the Risen Christ) in heaven, standing at the throne of God, in the moments before he was stoned to death.
Oh, I wish Peter had not filled that twelfth slot prematurely (and then closed off the category as complete) because then the church could have called Stephen an “Apostle”. As it was, under the structure that Peter instituted and the credentials he outlined, Stephen could only be a “deacon”, not an ordained elder – much like the way Presbyterians keep gays out of leadership positions in their churches by citing the rules that they have instituted… and Catholics keep women out of the priesthood by citing the rules they have instituted…
It’s obvious that a “glass ceiling” was put into place in the infant church in that week before Pentecost, and even the in-rushing dynamic new Spirit that exploded Christianity out into the world… did not remove that glass ceiling. O, Peter, if only you had waited for the promised power before founding your church your way, maybe we all could have been free from those old patterns of self-limiting our freedom to find new leaders, just because we want to maintain our control, our way. I say: there is no place in Jesus’ church for glass ceilings! Whoever you are, you can lead us!
We are told: They prayed, and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two Thou hast chosen.” (Acts 1:24) What if a voice had spoken, right then, saying: “Wait! I’ve got 3,000 new recruits lined up for church membership next week. Hold your horses! I’ve got a Pharisee named “Saul” to whom I will reveal myself and we’ll turn him around. He can be “Paul the Apostle” if you just wait, Peter. A new Spirit is coming -- my Spirit (the Holy Spirit) is coming back to be with you! Trust me! Don’t do it!”
No… Peter and the others didn’t really expect a voice to answer their prayer… So, they cast lots… (which means they “drew straws” or they “flipped a coin” – that way they could say it wasn’t them, it was God! who chose the replacement. O pious Peter!) The lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven Apostles. (Acts 1:26)
So, it’s not just the bad habit of “proof-texting” that Peter initiated on that day. And it’s not just the continuing patriarchal assumption that women would be excluded from leadership in the church. It’s the whole pattern of setting up a hierarchy structure of leadership with credentials – maybe it’s based on length of years in the church, or on social status, on gender, sexual preference, age… -- that makes me say: “O Peter, if only you had waited for God’s Spirit to come.”
The story we have considered during this “in between” week, reminds us that our Church is not founded on the Rock which is Peter, but on the Solid Rock of Jesus Christ. It was begun, not by Peter’s premature actions to get control of the process, but by the breath of God (the wind of the Holy Spirit) which will be the subject of next Sunday’s service.
As our state economy considers “opening up”, this story serves as a warning not to rush the process. Even when we think we know better than the experts, it doesn’t hurt to wait, and take our time, and let the process work itself out in God’s good time. When we just can’t wait, we sometimes “jump the gun” and mess things up for the future.
As a church, let’s not assume (as Peter does) that we know better than God how to “do” church… or how to be “Christian.”
Because we trust God, and we believe the promises of God, we can relax our need to be “in control” of our lives in every detail. There’s nothing wrong with “waiting” before we take action.
Let’s not let old habits, old patterns, old prejudices – even if it’s the way we’ve “always done it” – get in the way of resurrection life. Let’s trust the new Spirit that is coming, Okay?