This sermon was prepared by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark., on October 4, 2009.
Acts 1: 12-26.
When we read Acts, the fifth book in the New Testament, we learn about many firsts experienced by the followers of Jesus Christ. Today, we will look at the summary of the first church meeting. The eleven disciples who remained after Judas Iscariot died were joined by more than one hundred others. They met somewhere in Jerusalem and committed themselves to prayer. According to Luke, “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” were in the group. Peter emerges as leader, or at least the person whose words are recorded most. The group decided to select someone to replace Judas, and eventually settled on Matthias. The brief summary provides several insights about the first followers that are relevant for Christian fellowships in every age.
Christians have always faced personnel challenges. Multitudes followed Jesus during the three years of his public ministry. On two occasions, the gospel writers record that he fed thousands. People thronged around Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem the week before the Passover on what we now observe as Palm Sunday. But when the first church gathered, Luke records that the fellowship numbered about 120 souls. What Jesus said about the harvest being greater than the size of the work force to gather it is as true in the 21st Century as it was during the early days of the Christian movement.
This constant should inform every Christian fellowship, no matter its numerical size or strength. There will always be more to be done for God than there are people willing to do it. We will not suffer from too many followers of Jesus.
However, this should not discourage us. Remember that numerical size is not a reliable indicator of spiritual vitality or strength. Gideon, one of the early Hebrew judges, learned this lesson. Of the 32,000 men who responded to his call for military service, only 300 were finally determined to be up to the task (see Judges 7:1-8). So do not be surprised when our challenges appear greater than our number. Remember the first lesson of the Bible—that God created everything we know from nothing.
Christians have always wrestled with cultural and traditional habits in selecting leaders. The record of the first church meeting in Acts shows that the group decided to replace Judas in order to keep the number of apostles intact. After a period of prayer and discussion, two finalists were considered—Joseph (also called Barsabbas and known as Justus) and Matthias. The group prayed and selected Matthias.
The selection of Matthias reveals something telling and troubling about how Christian people select leaders. There is nothing especially distinctive revealed about Matthias or Joseph/Barsabbas/Justus in Acts 1. We read nothing more of Matthias in Acts or elsewhere in the Bible. Peter’s statement about the qualification factors for the person to replace Judas does reveal that a male bias was at work in the selection process. Notice Peter’s words at Acts 1:21-22.
“One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us … must become a witness with us to his resurrection.
I wonder what the women who accompanied Jesus and supported his ministry with their work and money thought and felt when Peter spoke those words. Some of these women were with Jesus at Calvary. Many of the men about which Peter spoke were not. There is no record that Matthias or Joseph was with Jesus in the Upper Room the night before his crucifixion. There is certainly no record that either of them was with the women who found the tomb empty, who first saw the resurrected Jesus, and who were told by Jesus to tell the men of his resurrection.
It is not unfair to suggest that the group from which Matthias and Joseph were selected as finalists and Matthias was ultimately selected to replace Judas included men scolded by Jesus because they refused to believe the women who first proclaimed his resurrection. Those women, who followed Jesus and supported his ministry with their faithful and loving efforts, deserved to be considered as much as Matthias, Joseph, or any of the other men.
The women who refused to leave Jesus as he suffered and died on Calvary were denied the chance to be numbered among the apostles of resurrection. Even the mother of Jesus was not included in the class of potential candidates based on the criteria that Peter declared. It is not unfair to say that the women who first saw the resurrected Jesus, who were the first preachers about the resurrection, and whose testimony was vindicated by the risen Christ, deserved as much of a chance to be considered as the men Jesus scolded because of their unbelief in the resurrection gospel those women proclaimed.
The Christian movement, like every other human undertaking, operates in a culturally-influenced environment. We may like ignoring the chauvinism, paternalism, and sexism of the first church meeting, but it is there. The first Christians ignored the most obvious candidates to replace Judas—the women who first witnessed the resurrection—in favor of people whose only distinctive qualification was their maleness.
This has been a trend throughout the life of the Church. We see it later in Acts, particularly in the Jerusalem community of believers, concerning attitudes towards Gentiles. Eventually, the Holy Spirit challenged Peter concerning his bigotry toward Gentiles, and Paul later confronted him about it.
Jesus did not discriminate. He did not exclude women from his fellowship. He affirmed women and taught them alongside men. Women followed him, learned from him, and were faithfully present even when he was dying. If we have no gospel to preach apart from the gospel of his resurrection, then we must thank God that the women were obedient to proclaim that gospel to stubborn men. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that the women should have been considered more qualified than the men were to proclaim the resurrection gospel. However, it is certainly unfair to think that they were less qualified or unqualified to do so.
The gospel of Jesus Christ flows from the love of God. That love extends to every soul and affirms every soul as worthy of service. We do the transcendent and transforming love, peace, truth, justice, joy, and hope of God a terrible disservice whenever we allow cultural and other traditions to block people from Christian service. And we do the same disservice to the Church by such bigotry. Even today, when most Christian congregations are dependent on the service and support of women for their very survival, far too many congregations treat women as second-class citizens of the kingdom of heaven. In the name of Christ, congregations refuse to ordain women for ministry who are models of prayer, devotion, commitment to Christian education, and zealous in service to the disinherited in every community.
Let us not follow this sad example of the first Christians by linking the liberating and affirming gospel of Jesus Christ to provincialism, chauvinism, racism, sexism, or bigotry against anyone, no matter what the wider cultural tradition may do. As citizens of the kingdom of God, let us recognize that each soul is equally worthwhile to God, equally useful to God, and equally eligible for service in God’s name.
The Christian gospel is resurrection-centered. The first church meeting recorded in Acts shows that the first followers of Christ were focused on telling people about his resurrection. They did not gather merely to socialize and dine. They were not merely a historical society. Those men and women gathered and prayed because they were witnesses that Jesus Christ had risen from death. They were witnesses to the most powerful truth in the human experience—God is able to redeem and restore fallen humanity from anything we experience, including death. This has been our testimony in every era and place since the first followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem.
The resurrection gospel of Jesus Christ declares to despairing people that God is able, no matter what our situations may be.
· God is able to love you.
· God is able to find you.
· God is able to forgive you.
· God is able to restore you.
· God is able to deliver you.
· God is able to sustain you.
We are called to proclaim this gospel in the power of resurrection. Because Jesus is risen, we can tell fallen people that God can and will raise them. We can tell people suffering with addiction, dealing with incarceration, and struggling with despair that God is able to restore them. We can love in the strength of the resurrection. We can face opposition and overcome setbacks in the power of the resurrection. We can look beyond death, grief, and loneliness in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is our trump card to every bad hand that life may deal us.
Because we have witnessed the power of resurrection in our lives, let us encourage others by our witness. As we love one another and demonstrate God’s love, let us also encourage one another in resurrection faith, hope, and joy. Let the resurrection witness loose, my sisters and brothers. Let it loose and do not be dismayed or discouraged by small numbers. Let it loose, and do not tie it racism, sexism, or any other cultural and traditional limitations. Let it loose, and so that people will know that God will raise them, redeem them, deliver them, and renew them. Let the resurrection witness loose!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.