A Sermon for St Matthias Day
A Sermon for St Matthias Day by Kenneth Padley 14th May 2023
Football fans have been heaping praise in recent days on Norwegian striker Erling Haaland. In his first season for Manchester City, Haaland has become the most prolific goal-scorer during a single season in the history of the Premier League, and he has just won the Footballer of the Year award by a record margin. Now, I have a strong suspicion that Mr Haaland was among those pupils who got picked first when teams were divvied up in the school playground. By contrast, St Matthias, whom we celebrate tonight, is remembered by virtue of the fact that he was chosen last. His was the final name to be added to the list of the twelve apostles. If like me, your experience of PE at school was a nervous wait among a dwindling pool on the touch line, longing for a begrudging summons into one team or other, then Matthias is the saint for you. Moreover, whatever your competence at ball games, I hope we’ll all find in Matthias something which sheds fresh light on our callings to be disciples within the team of Christ’s Church.
Matthias appears in only a few short verses at the opening of the fifth book of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles. Immediately after Jesus’ Ascension, we read in Acts chapter 1 that Peter summoned the followers of Jesus (who then numbered about 120) and said that one of those who had been with Jesus since the time of his Baptism should take the place vacated by Judas Iscariot. Two names were proposed and, after prayer, Matthias was elected. This is the sum total of our knowledge about Matthias. He emerges in the wake of Jesus’ departure from earth, a timing which explains why his festival falls in mid-May, never more than a week or two from Ascension Day.
My first observation from Acts 1 is that the election of Matthias is intimately bound up with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and Judas’ subsequent death. I don’t propose we indulge ourselves by revisiting the speculative analysis to which the motivations of Judas have been subjected down the centuries. Where I do want our attention to dwell is on the fatal retirement of Judas from the field of play. It reminds us that Christian discipleship sometimes fails. We are all flawed. And occasionally there are utter incompatibilities between a person’s character and their calling. When this happens in the Church or wider society, our role is not to stand in judgement. But we might be called to listen, maybe even to love. As the saying goes, what was Jesus doing in hell on Holy Saturday if not looking for his friend Judas? Conversely, there may be times when we find ourselves in the place of Judas, having betrayed our Lord and Master, and needing to be open to the possibility of redemption, however hard it might feel to ask for forgiveness – or to receive it.
Secondly, I would note that by asking Matthias to take the place of Judas, Peter and the other apostles were committed to playing as a team of twelve. Jesus had summoned a dozen and the disciples were initially determined to stick to that number. Twelve was significant for Jews. It represented the tribes of Israel, tribes which traced their lineage to the twelve sons of Jacob. Together the twelve tribes represented the fullness of God’s people. In choosing twelve disciples, Jesus was saying that his followers were to be a new Israel, a new constitution of God’s love in community. The team was of symbolic significance and so could not be more or less than a dozen.
But then the rules of the game changed. The election of Matthias in Acts chapter 1 is, significantly, the only event in Church history to take place in the ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost. The fresh wave of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost brought with it a particular gift of language and this had the dramatic effect of catapulting the message about Jesus beyond Roman Palestine. Inevitably, this evangelistic explosion introduced the gospel to non-Jewish people, amongst whom the significance of a leadership team centred on one place and numbering a round dozen was no longer relevant. After Pentecost, fresh apostles would be added – but without restriction on number – in the form of bishops based in the cities where the faith took off. They assumed the mantle of Christian leadership that was gradually relinquished by the roving evangelists who had first carried the gospel across the Mediterranean and into Mesopotamia.
This shift from an apostolate of twelve to an indeterminate number of bishops reminds us that adaptation to circumstance is of the essence of the Church. One might be forgiven for forgetting this in a building which is eight hundred years old and within a liturgy that is heading towards its half millennium. However, the Spirit of Pentecost shaped (and continues to shape) the Church according to context. Given this, we see in the ministry of Matthias a balance between change and continuity which must characterise the ministry of us all.
On the one hand, certain things were fixed: Peter required the replacement for Judas to have a robust knowledge of the life and teaching of Jesus (Acts 1.21). All Christians are called to know Jesus more fully. And Peter insisted that the task of Matthias was to join with the other apostles as a witness to the resurrection (Acts 1.22). All Christians are called to speak about Jesus in what we say and do – among friends, colleagues, classmates, neighbours.
On the other hand, the way in which Matthias exercised his ministry would be very different from the ministry of Judas. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and energised by the resurrection, it would reach further and engage more people. Christian ministry is successive: it builds on what has gone before, but it can never be identical with that which was exercised by our forebears.
Finally, it is worth noting that Matthias was chosen by competitive election. In selecting Matthias, the Church passed over another candidate by the name of Justus. The only thing we know about Justus is that he was not called off the subs bench in lieu of Judas. I wonder what ministry he did go on to exercise… There are times when we may offer for a ministry or be proposed for a ministry and – for whatever reason – that possibility is unrealised. Non-acceptance can be draining and painful. However, the example of Justus shows that, if it is of God, it is not a rejection but a redirection. It asks us to revisit what God might want next in our life.
Judas, Justus, and Matthias, three men whose interlocking stories are probed by this feast day. Judas, Justus, and Matthias, three men whose ongoing relevance each offers a prism on our own calling.