In the Name...
Has anyone ever been to the town of Norton, Kansas? No. Well, in the town of Norton, Kansas, there is a very curious museum which Sue and I have visited. It's called the Gallery of the Also-Ran's and it's dedicated to all the men and women who have ever run for the office of President of the United States - and lost. It really exists. And the first person memorialized as a Presidential also-ran is Thomas Jefferson who lost to John Adams in 1796.
Now, we would hardly describe Jefferson as an also-ran, a loser, but, if all you knew about him was that he was in that museum you might equate him with Pat Paulsen, the comedian who ran for President six times as a joke/protest candidate. Being known as an also-ran, however, has, unfortunately, been the fate of a faithful disciple named Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Justus.
In the scene presented in today's reading from Acts, the Ascension is history. Jesus has returned to the Father and left instructions for the disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But, Jesus didn't say how long they were going to be waiting. It turned out to be nine days, but, for all they knew, it could have been nine hundred or nine thousand or ninety-nine thousand. So Peter, as leader of the community, decides, while they're waiting, that they might as well tidy up some unfinished business, particularly, the issue of Judas.
Now that's a name we've not heard for a while. I thought we left him back in Holy Week. How is he an "issue" this late in the game? Well, Peter knew that Jesus had a reason for choosing twelve of his disciples to serve as a sort of executive committee. The symbolism of the Twelve Tribes was an important part of the Old Covenant, so it seemed logical that the leadership of the New Covenant would incorporate that same symbolism. With Judas gone, that left a vacancy which probably should be filled.
So Peter sets up a criterion - the replacement needs to be someone who had also known Jesus personally - and he establishes a procedure, the casting of lots, which was commonly used to make decisions in the Old Testament.
Two candidates are put forward, Justus and Matthias, and Matthias wins. Neither of them is ever mentioned again in the New Testament, but, today, we have thirty-three Episcopal Churches dedicated to St. Matthias and not one named St. Justus.
There's no fame or fortune in being the also-ran, but, we probably already know that. Who came second in yesterday’s Preakness? Third? Exactly. And we may have been in that position at one point or another in our own lives. "You win some, you lose some." as the saying goes, and when those losing situations happen, we learn that we don't always have to be Number One.
That may have been the same for Justus. Although there's nothing else in the New Testament about him, there are traditions that say he went on preaching in many different places, enjoyed a full and active ministry, and lived happily ever after. Well, you know what I mean.
Coming second in the first election for bishop did not destroy him. Maybe because he was smart enough, or faithful enough, to know that being counted among the Twelve wasn't the most important thing in life. What was important was that he had experienced the risen Christ and he was open to God's call to ministry whatever that might be.
The Bible is full of dramatic stories about people who receive calls from God. Moses at the burning bush; Elijah's earth, wind, and fire; Mary confronted by Gabriel; Paul on the Damascus Road. These are the stuff of which movies are made. Supersized, ILM effects, with Dolby surround sound. But, burning bushes and angelic visitations are not what Justus, or even Matthias, got.
Instead, God called both of them through the ordinary actions of a bunch of ordinary humans. No fires or earthquakes. No flights of angels. Just a group of earth-bound people, doing the work of Heaven.
And this tells us something about how Peter viewed the task of waiting for the Holy Spirit. We often think of waiting as idle time, boring, a waste, but, Peter had a different idea. His definition of "waiting" included the word "doing." Peter expected that the church would be growing during the waiting time and would need more leaders because people were going to be talking about it.
Imagine how easy it would have been for the disciples to have just stayed in their upper room, feeling good about having known Jesus. Instead, they made it a base of operations to make Jesus known by others.
Thirty years ago, my secretary in Dunkirk, NY, was a dear, faithful, churchwoman who never understood why I put so much effort into advertising our church. Her comment was, "Everybody I know already goes to church and we've reached all the Episcopalians in town."
And, she was right. All her friends, mostly people in their seventies and eighties, who had lived in that town most of their lives had well-established church relationships. But, she couldn't quite grasp that there were hundreds of children and grandchildren of her friends and many other people new to the town who had no meaningful relations with either a church or with Jesus.
I suspect this room might be a bit emptier if membership was restricted to second or third-generation Episcopalians. But, I hope that everyone here, wherever we started, has a first generation relationship with Jesus because having that, and sharing that, is what we're here for.
We have something in common with Peter and Justus and that first group of believers waiting in the Upper Room. We're waiting, too. We're not waiting for the Holy Spirit, though; we're waiting for the Second Coming, for Jesus to return. We have the Spirit. We also have a call from God to minister using that Spirit, and while we'll probably never have churches named after us, nobody who bears witness to Christ will ever be described as an also-ran. We can only win, every time.
In the Name...