Here we are under Les Colombes, Michael Pendry’s swooping, swirling cloud of doves, some from Jerusalem, Munich, London, and hundreds of them made here. What will they show us over these next ten weeks or so?
Let’s look at the Acts of the Apostles. There we meet Joseph, called Barsabbas but also known as Justus. Well, Joseph, it doesn’t matter how many names you have, no-one is going to remember you. Matthias does a bit better - it’s his feast day tomorrow - but he’s hardly in the Peter-James-and-John league.
Joseph and Matthias are on the apostolic subs’ bench. As a substitute you may be brought on - or not. You may play a crucial part in the match, make a name for yourself; or you may remain that unglamorous thing, a squad player, the answer to an obscure question in pub quiz but no more famous than that. The important thing is the team, having a full complement on the field of play: 7, 11, 13, 15, according to your sport.
With Jesus’ disciples, a full team numbers twelve, one for each of the tribes of Israel. When we meet them in the gospel reading, they are a man down. Judas has gone out into the night, and Jesus has been talking to the rest before he ‘goes away’ from them to his death.
What’s the final thing you should do to prepare your team for their biggest test? In the 2009 film The Damned United, there is a scene [link here; one instance of strong language and one of discriminatory language] in the dressing room of the young Derby County team with their manager Brian Clough (played uncannily by Michael Sheen) just before he sends them on to the field against those fearsome top-flight giants Leeds United (this is nearly fifty years ago). He speaks quietly to a couple of players, nods to his captain, and then just stands there, saying nothing, surveying the room. The silence is electric. Then he claps his hands, shouts ‘Come, on!’ and they burst out of the dressing room.
Jesus is sending his disciples into the hostile environment of the world, and the final thing he does is to pray for them. He prays for his heavenly Father to protect them, to ‘sanctify them in the truth’ and bring them joy.
That is a distinctive thing about church. You can make friends here, do enjoyable stuff (like making doves), but there’s no shortage of other places offering that on a Sunday morning. But where else will you find people to pray for you if you are facing some big test? Who knows what challenges wait for some of us this week? We need each other’s prayers; as do others who are not here.
Today is day four in Thy Kingdom Come, the season of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost in which we are invited to pray for people we care about who do not yet share this faith, that they may know in their lives the one who brings these ‘transports of joy’, as our last piece of music is called (Transports de joie, Messiaen). Does that sound presumptuous, even manipulative? The least manipulative thing you can do is pray for someone. If I speak to you, or do something for you, my motives might be very mixed; but if I pray for you, you can trust God sift the wheat from the chaff in the prayers I pray.
So Jesus prays for his friends. Then he does go away from them, to his death. And then come those wonderful, scary encounters with the risen Jesus, when they discover that he has been given back to them. When we meet them again, in the Acts reading, Jesus has in a sense gone away from them again (that’s the story of the Ascension of Jesus, which we celebrated on Thursday), and they are still a man down - Judas has died - and they have another big test ahead of them, to bear witness to this new start for the world that God has made possible by raising Jesus from the dead. So they need a full apostolic team.
All the believers are together: Mary the mother of Jesus, women followers, men followers. Peter reads the two-point person spec for the new twelfth apostle:
- it must be a man (Jesus chose twelve men, in those days the heads of families and, usually, leaders in society; led by the Holy Spirit, we do things differently now, as my predecessor Sarah Mullally showed yesterday, installed as the 133rd Bishop of London)
- it has to be someone who has been part of things from the start of Jesus’ ministry
Two people fit the bill, he of the triple-barrelled name, and Matthias, who gets the nod. Two things to note about him.
First, we don’t hear anything about him having a personal sense of call. I find this interesting. We are right, if someone offers themselves for public ministry, to probe what the official language calls their ‘internal sense of call’. But here, no voice says, ‘Matthias, I choose you’. A job needs doing, he has what’s needed, his name comes out of the hat and that’s good enough.
If you wait for a Damascus vision about what you should do with your life, let alone your spare evening this Wednesday, you could have a long wait: God gives us the pointers we need, not the ones we want. Sometimes a thing needs doing, you are in a position to do it, so…? ‘Come on!’ says God, ‘what else do you need?’ That inner sense may come later; but for now, God may be saying, people want you for this, it needs doing, do so Just Do It. Theologians call this the Nike Doctrine.
Secondly, as we have noted,
They hailed Matthias’ apostolic reign,
Then no-one ever heard of him again. Eric Mascall
Matthias the Obscure. But no matter, he did an important thing. He needed to be there. Without him something would have been missing, like a voice in the choir: apart from solos, you don’t exactly notice her or him, but without them something will be lacking. And consider the doves. There are three of mine up there - some of you have made many more - but we don’t know which is whose, and it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to play a part in some greater thing of power and beauty.
Sometimes the call of God is to do or be something that everyone will notice; no embarrassment in that. But it may be that God is calling you to do or be something that will be important but hidden (like the people who put together the service sheet you have in your hand). And that’s fine too, it really is.
Robert Bolt’s play, and the Oscar-winning film, A Man for All Seasons, is about Thomas More, Henry VIII’s right-hand man. More has a servant called Richard Rich. Rich wants a big, prestigious job like his boss; More thinks he should be a teacher.
‘You’d be a fine teacher,’ says More, ‘perhaps, a great one.’
‘And if I was,’ says Rich, ‘who would know it?’
‘You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.’
Rich isn’t persuaded, alas for both of them.
What has God put me in this world for? That’s the question, and saying Yes to God is all that matters. And if saying Yes means doing something that no-one really notices except God, God who brought about this world we share, God whose eyes we shall look into at the end of time, if no-one notices but God…that’s not a bad audience to have.