God’s gift handed to us through Discipleship
Sermon preached at St. Peter and St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, May 16, 2021
The Seventh Sunday in Easter (year B): Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19
Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 (NRSV): If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus– for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.
So 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 must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
How did you come to know God and to love and to follow Jesus? Who in your life helped you to grow closer to God? Who are you helping to grow closer to God?
These are questions that relate to this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. I usually like to preach close to the Biblical text, but today I will start with the reading from Acts and then focus on a topic raised by this reading, in particular: handing on the legacy of discipleship.
This past Thursday was the feast of the Ascension. This feast day celebrates how Jesus, 40 days after his resurrection, gathered with his disciples, commissioned them for ministry, and then ascended to the Father in heaven. The eternal Word of God that came from heaven to live with us as a human being returned to God the Father. So the disciples were left without Jesus’ presence with them. They awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit given to them at Pentecost, when God’s presence would be close with each of them as they spread throughout the world with the Good News.
After Jesus’ ascension, and before Pentecost, the disciples address the absence of one of the twelve apostles. Judas had betrayed Jesus and ended his life in despair. So Peter addresses them about this, and quoting psalms, he calls them to select another to take Judas’ place as overseer. The word “overseer” in Greek is “episcopos.” It is the word for “bishop” and the root of the word “Episcopal.” The Apostles were the first bishops, the first overseers of the church.
I wonder: why did they feel the need to select a successor to Judas? They had eleven other apostles, and around 120 total disciples gathered together. They could have handled the job without taking this step. They seem to focus on the importance of finding someone to take Judas’ place, to stand as a witness to the resurrection with the others. There is something in this process of succession, this handing on of the faith and the role of shared witness and the role of shared leadership that seems foundational to the disciples.
We get some clues about the importance of this succession in their criteria for a successor. They look for someone who had been there from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and who was a with them for Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension—someone who was an eyewitness and companion of Jesus and the apostles. They identify two men: Joseph and Matthias. Then, offering these two men to God, they ask for God’s choice, and they cast lots—kind of like throwing dice—and select Matthias, trusting in this choice to be God’s choice.
This is one of the examples of succession in the life of the church. Bishops and Deacons and Priests are made by Bishops. We read in Acts how the apostles laid hands on seven men to make them the first deacons. In fact, this “laying on of hands” is a common sign of blessing. They lay hands on people for healing, for commissioning, for prayer, and for the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the sign of ordination in the church throughout the centuries, where bishops lay hands on others to ordain them. And the succession of this laying on of hands links us back to Jesus himself.
We read in several places in scripture about this “handing on.” Luke begins his Gospel account by describing his work as what was “handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word.” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians how he received from the Lord what he handed on to them and to us (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3). Jude encourages us “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” This knowledge and love of the Lord is passed on from Jesus himself to his disciples, and from them to other disciples, all the way down to us. This process of succession in leadership and succession in faith and life is part of the process we call discipleship.
Let me illustrate this from other parts of life. When my father turned 18, he joined the Navy to serve in World War II. He was the youngest child and younger son of my Grandfather. My grandfather gave to my father a ring. It was a simple ring with a rectangular black stone. But my father kept it and wore it and remembered his father through it. When I was 18, my dad gave the ring to his youngest son. And I gave it to my youngest son when he was 18. It is not a very precious piece of jewelry, but it represents a whole heritage of family and relationships. As Mother Elisa described in a similar illustration recently, it is that heritage of relationships where the true value is to be found.
For many centuries in Western Culture, carrying the label “Christian” was a kind of static statement—an accident of birth or a status given by our parents when we were baptized. But Baptism intends to be more than a static label. Baptism is a sign of an active and dynamic and growing relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is a living, breathing relationship, dynamic and changing as life changes. And like a life, it can struggle without breath and nourishment and attention.
The Christian faith is less like my Father’s ring, and more like learning a skilled trade. If you want to be a true carpenter, you must do more than simply buy a hammer and saw. You must be an apprentice to an experienced carpenter. It is not enough to learn how to drive a nail or saw a board. You learn how to frame a wall, how to plumb a door, how to build a roof. As an apprentice, you learn that there are always new problems to solve on the job, and that your mentors and colleagues can help you learn and grow. And as you learn, you help other apprentices to learn and grow. You hand on what was handed on to you—not objects and labels, but wisdom and relationships.
Apprenticeship is key to many parts of life. Even AA has apprenticeship as one lives out the twelve steps one day at a time—working with a sponsor and becoming a sponsor. Mentoring apprentices is the natural way we learn and grow in life. As Master Yoda says “always two there are: a master and an apprentice.” And this process is especially true in the Christian faith and life, where we call this process “Discipleship.”
If the Christian life is to be more than a label, then we must share life together, in worship and prayer and study and service. We learn as Christian apprentices, learning intellectually about theology and living. We learn as apprentices as we wrestle with the challenges and joys of life, seeking God’s wisdom in prayer and study together. We grow as disciples of Jesus, and we grow others as disciples of Jesus. This will not happen by accident: we must be purposeful and intentional in this process of discipleship.
This is where each piece of church life finds its place in the mission of the church. Worship grounds us in our reverence for God, in scripture and in prayer and sacraments. Study of scripture together guides us with God’s wisdom. In small groups and in ministries, we build each other up as the Holy Spirit empowers us. And we strengthen others with God’s grace in service, pastoral care and leadership.
Are you growing in your faith? Then connect with others where you can grow as a disciple and help others grow. Are you already connected and grounded in the faith? Find a way to give to others and help them grow as a disciple of Jesus. This can be in a ministry or in a small group, or by helping children and youth learn and grow in relationship with God.
Let me go back to my first questions: How did you come to know God and to love and to follow Jesus? Who in your life helped you to grow closer to God? How can you continue to grow? How can you hand on to others what was handed on to you?
The true blessing of discipleship is not that it forms an effective organization (which it does, certainly). The true blessing is that a living God invites us closer through this process. God seeks us and empowers us to grow in our faith and to help others grow. Even those new to Christ can help others grow through their questions.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus prays for his disciples as he hands on his ministry to them. He thanks God the Father for equipping his disciples with all they need: to abide in relationship with God, to thrive in relationship with each other in Christ, and to share the Good News and grow new disciples for Jesus. God strengthens us in Christian Community to be witnesses of the resurrection together. The true master of all disciples is Jesus. Jesus calls us closer to him together, and empowers us to grow as his disciples and to grow others as his disciples.
Next week is Pentecost, when all the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent into the world on this same mission that we have: growing disciples of Jesus Christ.