This reading, Acts 1:15-26 (usually read without vv. 18-20), doesn’t turn up all that often. It’s suggested by the RCL on Easter 7B, which falls between Ascension (always a Thursday) and Pentecost. But many of us use the Ascension readings on that Sunday, which means we tend to skip the apostolic die-roll. Or just preach on Jesus’ beautifully convoluted prayer in John 17. I’m taking it on this year, as part of our slow march to Pentecost (which is next!).

Where are we?

Jesus has just ascended into heaven, leaving the disciples to continue his ministry. The eleven who were at the ascension have gone back into Jerusalem to join the others in prayer. The author, Luke, has noted that these prayer gatherings were a common occurrence for the early church.

Luke is writing about 40 years after the events depicted, so the audience is a later generation that would not have had first-hand knowledge of the earliest events in the church’s life.

What’s going on here?

Peter is responding to the problem of Judas, who was one of the 12 apostles but came to betray Jesus. The claim that “the scripture had to come true” is a common interpretive device throughout Luke’s gospel and now in Acts.

In the canonical gospels, only Matthew (and Luke, writing now in Acts) talks about what happened to Judas. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself after returning the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests; they, not he, use the money to buy the “Field of Blood.” Matthew makes this an explicit reference to Zechariah 11:12-13.

Peter cites two verses from the Psalms, one as a prediction of Judas’ death, and the other as a form of guidance for the community in responding to it. The verses are not connected except in their imprecatory mood.

The impulse to return to 12 apostles relates to Luke’s portrayal of the church as a transnational restoration of the people of Israel. Just as there were 12 tribes of Israel, there were 12 apostles. (As John Shearman notes, there’s no single consistent list of apostles in the gospels.) This was probably the theme Jesus was getting at in his actual designation of apostles. On the other hand, notice that Jesus had 40 days to replace Judas himself and chose not to.

The new apostle should be an old-timer, someone who has been with the group since John’s baptism. John is arrested in Luke’s gospel about a chapter and a half before Peter shows up, so there’s a touch of exaggeration here.

Drawing lots was a standard way to discern the will of the gods in the ancient world (and, as Paul Nuechterlein notes, to determine sacrificial victims). For instance, in Jonah, the sailors cast lots (throw dice) to determine who on the boat has caused the great storm. In the crucifixion narrative, the soldiers cast lots to determine who will get Jesus’ undergarment, which refers to a verse from the Psalms. The word appears a handful more times in the New Testament, but it always means “inheritance” or “portion;” this is the only time the church does something by random choice. Bruce Epperley offers the alternative suggestion that the apparent randomness of the choice, suffused with prayerful discernment, can be a way for God to act.

This story is the only time Matthias shows up. Later in Acts, Jesus himself (in a vision) will appoint a new apostle: Paul, who had been a persecutor of the church.

So what?

I’ll note again: This story constitutes the entire biblical account of Matthias and his ministry. Sure, that’s a lot compared to some folks, like the 8th great-grandparent in a genealogy somewhere, but still, he’s an apostle. Who does nothing.

When there’s an unexpected vacancy on a church board, or when it just doesn’t seem like there are enough willing candidates, I’m a fan of leaving that seat empty. It’s better for us, most of the time, to live in the discomfort of not having all the roles filled rather than rushing into restoring our preconceived numerical order. I would much rather have 11 motivated people than 12 who feel like they have to be there because nobody else will.

This story isn’t really about Matthias. It could be about Judas, since he’s the one who gets the most explanation. Or it could be about Peter, who is one of the main protagonists of Acts. I suspect it’s about the Holy Spirit, although in the sense that it’s about how hard it is to make decisions without the direct help of the Holy Spirit. This sure doesn’t feel like Peter’s finest hour.

When we read this story on Mother’s Day, I hear something about God’s parenthood here. It’s as if the disciples are echoing that thing you should never say to a woman who has lost a child: “You’re young, you’ll have more children.” Of course there’s no such thing as a replacement child, and most of us these days have figured that out. Peter doesn’t seem to have figured that out, he seems like he wants to find Jesus a replacement apostle. Let’s acknowledge the pain and the loss of Judas’ tragedy, not try to make it right by coming up with someone else to be Judas.

Jacob Myers suggests that this was a faith crisis for the early church, because they had been waiting for days with nothing to show for it. How long are we willing and able to wait for God’s will to become clear to us? How often do we find ourselves having acted first, before God showed us what the plan was?

Jeanyne Slettom argues from Peter’s criterion – that the new apostle must have been with Jesus from the beginning – that there are no appropriate barriers to ordination for anyone except the demonstration of faith.