Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mission: Imaginable

Mission:  Imaginable
NW MN Synod Assembly
May 17, 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

"How do I figure out God's will for my life?" is one of the questions people ask most often.[1]

“How do I figure out God’s will for my life….for my family….for our church?”

Where is God taking us—and how might we best become aligned with God’s direction?

Questions like these point us to the faith practice of discernment….imagining the contours of God’s promised future and how that future affects the ways God is calling us to step forth right now.

When you think about discerning God’s guiding will—where does that best happen for you and your congregation?

·       Discernment sometimes happens in a retreat setting, with balloons bouncing around, post-it notes plastered over a wall, sheets of butcher paper covered with chicken-scratched notes from brainstorming exercises, as leaders of a church try to puzzle out goals and how to pursue them.

·       Discernment sometimes takes place in contemplation—in silence, in darkness pierced only by candlelight, in centering ourselves, in praying--new insights emerge…

·       Discernment sometimes happens in meetings of chosen church leaders who’ve been reading good books, working with consultants, studying demographic trends, interviewing church members, conversing with neighbors, trying to distill the finest honey from all that rich “pollen.”

·       And then discernment sometimes happens in the midst of chaos.  Discernment can bubble up in clutch moments, when a crisis suddenly emerges and action must be taken.   Even in times of chaos –when everyone’s asking “what do we do now, for heaven’s sake?”….discernment happens, albeit by the seat of our pants!

This peculiar narrative in Acts 1 was a discernment moment—the first time members of what would become the first church engaged in communal discernment together. 

And the eleven apostles seem to have employed various pathways to discernment…in the midst of a crisis, with a wing and a prayer, in the confidence that God can and will work through just about any means.

This story--truly a discernment story!--has a shape that starts to sound familiar as we listen to the story with care:

First, there was an elephant in the room--the “elephant” being the absence of one of the Twelve.   One of them had disappeared, not by accident, but by treachery, betrayal and a gruesome death (described here in Acts 1 with more graphic detail than most of us prefer!)

The reason why Judas’s death posed a problem to the remaining eleven disciples is that Jesus had very intentionally chosen Twelve (not eleven nor thirteen) disciples to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, the whole people of God, whom Jesus was reconstituting through his self-emptying  life, saving death, and surprising resurrection.

The defection of one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, the Betrayer, diminished the potency of that symbol of the Twelve constituting a New Israel, the vanguard of the whole people of God.  So what should be done about that?
Discernment of God’s will for people and faith communities often begins with the reality of “elephants in the room”—uncomfortable truths that aren’t being talked about openly, honestly.

        So I ask you, dear friends:   what “elephants” lurk in the     shadows of your church building?   What uncomfortable        truths do you tend to dance around?   What hard realities         tempt you to look away and whistle in the dark, hoping no       one will notice?  Pause.

Back to our text….

Aware of the “elephant in the room” here in Acts 1, the second thing that happens is that someone breaks the silence.  

A pastor-friend of mine says:  “When you realize there’s an elephant in the room, please introduce it to everyone else!”[2]

In this story it’s Peter who names the elephant in the room.   And that’s noteworthy for two reasons:
1.    It’s the first time after Jesus’ Ascension that one of his followers stands up and starts exercising servant-leadership in the emerging church; and
2.   It’s the first time here in Acts that Jesus’ followers start looking forward, not backward!  

Exercising servant-leadership  isn’t for sissies!   When you’re in a discussion at church, it takes gumption to speak up—and even more guts to join a leadership team, not to mention serve its convener. 

But the church of Jesus Christ needs such brave, willing, imaginative servant-leaders….now more than ever!

Peter stepped out and invited the early church to dance with the Risen Lord in his ongoing mission of reclaiming the whole creation, starting with the Cross and the Empty Tomb, moving not backward but forward, into God’s promised future in Christ.
        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your faith community        form and call forth servant leaders?  How do you support    the leaders you have?  What obstacles are sometimes put in     the way of such leadership?   And which direction is your   church facing—backward, or forward?  Pause

Back to our story in Acts 1…

There’s an elephant in this room filled with about 120 followers of Jesus.   Peter gets up the gumption to name this elephant and propose that they do something.   In so doing Peter points the fledgling church forward, not backward.  

Judas Iscariot’s gory death has diminished the apostolic ranks by one.   Somehow that must be addressed, so that when the Holy Spirit falls upon them they are poised, ready to move out into the world at full strength.

The third thing that happens here is that the disciples generate possibilities for a successor to Judas.  They had no succession plan, no governing documents to rely on, no workshop on leadership replacement they could all go attend, no “apostolic head-hunter” they could hire to conduct a nation-wide search. 

Instead, the eleven relied on their sanctified common sense, focusing on just one criterion for replacing the 12th disciple: “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

Thus was convened the first nominating committee in the history of the church!   The group soon surfaces two candidates for the open seat in the apostolic circle:  Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.”

        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your congregation      invest imagination in generating possibilities for serving       God’s mission in this time, this place?   How do you give       yourselves the gifts of time and prayer and reflection on the   things that matter most?  Pause

Back to our text…

Fourth and finally, the disciples acted.   There’s no record of them conducting a Minnesota Statute 604.2 background check on Joseph or Matthias.  The eleven didn’t declare 40 days of fasting…didn’t spend time second-guessing themselves. 

Instead they decided, by praying and casting lots.  

St Augustine, a fourth century bishop in northern Africa, said:  “Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.”[3]   The eleven disciples seemingly anticipated Augustine’s approach—putting themselves in God’s hands through prayer; then doing the “work” of casting lots.

The result was that Matthias was chosen to assume the position of 12th disciple, restoring the “apostolic strike force” to full strength.

And once Matthias was elected—he was never heard from again, at least in the pages of the holy scriptures!

It’s as if Matthias’s only job was to “be there,” to be chosen, to transform the eleven survivors of Good Friday….into the Twelve missionary-witnesses to the Resurrection.   That was enough!

If that seems a little anticlimactic to you, just remember that the Book of Acts itself concludes its 28 chapters in sort of an inconclusive manner.    As books go, Acts is something of a cliff-hanger…

….and I think that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit intended! Some books aren’t supposed to tie up all the loose ends.

God, you see, is still writing the ending to the Acts of the Apostles through the likes of you and me, latter-day successors to the apostles, whom God is still calling and sending forth as witnesses to the Resurrection, people who point unceasingly toward God’s promised future in Christ.

As God crafts the conclusion to God’s great story, we take our places, play our parts, in ways that may wind up seeming as obscure as the rest of the story of St Matthias, the blessed replacement.

And that’s OK.  It is enough, more than enough, simply to be swept into this Story of how God is making all things new in Jesus Christ.

It is enough that we get to repeat and stake our whole lives on  the greatest “lines” in our episode of God’s Mission Imaginable:   Christ has died.   Christ is risen.   Christ will come again!


[1] Richard Jensen, Working Preacher (2009), accessed April 5, 2015 at
[2] Pastor Paul Rohde, campus pastor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, said this in a sermon I heard several years ago.

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