The way we decide
Things have been a little weird and intense for the disciples since Jesus was murdered by the state and came back from the dead. Judas has died by suicide. The community has been pretty much in hiding. Then the risen Lord started popping up places. He’s kind of the same but different, both unrecognizable and completely familiar, both available and not. For a little over a month, he’s been showing up here and there, walking along with some of them down a road, coming through locked doors and eating fish, hanging out with them day after day and teaching again like before. And now, he has just literally vanished into the sky before their eyes.
This weekend we celebrate the Ascension – the day Jesus disappears into the clouds and leaves the disciples staring up into the sky with their mouths hanging open. They can feel his absence where his presence once was. And yet he promises he will be there with them in a different way, guiding them nonetheless.
So now a new adjustment, a new assignment: Jesus said to Stay Put and Wait for the Holy Spirit, whatever that means. That’s their job. So that’s what they are doing. Constantly devoting themselves to prayer, it says, coming together, helping each other learn to trust that God is here now, and God will lead them into what is next.
And then we are given a bizarre and delightful illustration of this trust in action. They are trying to decide who should replace Judas in their leadership. And they have two good options before them, Justus, and Matthias, both followers of Jesus, who knew Jesus in the flesh, both men of integrity, both willing to serve. Whom should they choose?
Do they make pros and cons list? Debate with Robert’s Rules of Order? Launch campaigns and take a vote, the 120 or so of them?
No! They draw straws! They flip a coin, roll the dice, “cast lots.” They use a game of chance to take things out of human hands.
There is nothing intrinsically spiritual or holy about this. We don’t think flipping a coin at the beginning of a football game is asking God to choose which team should start. We don’t think God is involved when we play paper, rock scissors over who has to put the kids to bed. Casting lots was just used by the soldiers two months before to divide up Jesus’ clothes among themselves while he hung dying on the cross, so it’s not like lot casting is some inherently God-seeking process. But when it comes time for the followers of Jesus to pick a leader in witnessing to Christ’s resurrection, they roll the dice.
They don’t ask themselves WWJD – What would Jesus do if he were here? Because Jesus is here! He’s as real among them, among us, as when he walked the earth in the flesh. They’re learning to trust that this is so. So why not ask Christ to pick and then flip a coin?
The Ascension means that Jesus can’t be captured and boxed up, marketed, claimed, or relegated to the past as a venerated historical figure we make reference to but never address directly. Jesus is risen and ascended. Now the community has to learn how to live in the paradox of our faith: that Christ is not here but is HERE. They have to look for Christ, learn to be present to the presence of Christ, listen for the voice of Christ, in and through, and alongside one another. We can’t see him, we can’t touch him, and yet, when we are present with each other, acting with and for one another, Jesus Christ is right here in that space, energy, connection between us. We are the body of Christ.
How do we hear God? Sometimes it feels like a quiet little nudge that leads us just the little next step, or the wisdom that sinks into our soul when something in us says, “Yes. That is right.” But mostly, we hear God by listening together. By surrendering together. Waiting for the Spirit to direct us. And then acting.
And then surrendering and waiting again.
This way of discernment is brazenly different than the world’s way – which is fast and decisive. Wayne Muller reminds us (in his book Sabbath),
"The theology of progress forces us to act before we are ready. We speak before we know what to say. We respond before we feel the truth of what we know. In the process, we inadvertently create suffering, heaping imprecision upon inaccuracy, until we are all buried under a mountain of misperception. But Sabbath says, Be still. Stop. There is no rush to get to the end, because we are never finished. Take time to rest, and eat, and drink, and be refreshed. And in the gentle rhythm of that refreshment, listen to the sound the heart makes as it speaks the quiet truth of what is needed."
We talked this week in catechesis class about trust – how trust is the core of it all. Our security in life or status with the divine not about cracking a code, earning a prize, or figuring out the rules. To be in relationship with a living God must begin with trust—that God is real, and that God wants to lead us all toward love, toward healing, toward forgiveness, toward righting wrongs, and bringing justice, and birthing hope right in the places of utter despair.
So maybe God makes the coin flip one way and not the other. God is certainly capable of that. May we too have such trust in God.
Or maybe God thinks it is cute that they are so intent on replacing Judas, as though having 12 disciples like Jesus had originally chosen when his ministry began, a reflection of the 12 tribes of Israel, is essential for what is to come. As though their structures and containers are vital. Of course they have no idea that just days from now that wild Holy Spirit is about to bust the gospel out of its confines and jumpstart it’s spread to the ends of the earth through witnesses who have never seen the human Jesus with their own two eyes, nor heard his voice speaking in a language they wouldn't understand anyway, but who will definitely hear the message their hearts recognize beyond all else, and see the risen Lord transform their very souls. And they don't know it yet, but the 12 are actually the 120 of them, and about to become 3,000 in one day, and Matthias is never mentioned again in the bible.
So perhaps when they cast lots God chooses for them. Or maybe it doesn’t matter one way or another to God, but God appreciates their intention just the same. God is with them even now, as they faithfully seek to do God’s will, and that in itself is beautiful and holy. Whether their decision has any effect on things or not, that they would surrender and seek is shaping them all the same.
Their imaginations can’t begin to grasp what is to come, and so they faithfully make their decision, and then suddenly the whole landscape shifts, and then they will seek God’s direction for the next thing. What more faithful way to live is there than that?
We are not building a movement, standing up for values, or shoring up an institution. We are joining in the Kingdom of God. We are witnesses to resurrection, learning to recognize and share in the healing work of the living Christ that is happening right now.
Yesterday the youth cleaned out the sanctuary, or got started, at least. After 14 months of emptiness and clutter, regular dust and construction dust, and spiders gleefully given free reign, it was a big, big job, and the youth made a big dent in it. When they peeled down the images of the bible characters we began journeying with in Advent 2019, and unpinned the Psalm river hanging on the back wall from not last summer but the summer before that, I was struck by the ways we’ve grown in our own faithfulness and discernment. There are things we thought mattered a great deal that turned out not to be important at all. And there are things we had no idea would be significant that have turned out to shape us considerably.
We are not the same congregation we were when we last sang and prayed together in that space. Case in point, when we left the building we had only just discerned, after a year of prayer and listening, that our building was indeed part of our mission, and we would say Yes to the preschool. Now we will return to their presence already among us. And we ourselves are different. We have lost beloved members and gained beloved members. Our ways of feeling connected have changed and, in many ways, even deepened.
When the whole landscape shifted we never, ever could have imagined what was to come, so we had to seek God’s direction, surrender and wait for the Holy Spirit, and then act. And here we are again, on the cusp of another huge shift, a new adjustment. And our imaginations can’t begin to foresee what is coming. But as witnesses to resurrection, who know the power of the risen Lord to bring new life into our lives and our world, we will keep helping each other learn to trust that God is here now, and God will lead us into what is next. And we will keep learning to recognize and share in the work of the living Christ that is happening right now.
And what more faithful way is there to live than that?