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 First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

May 17, 2015

 Words That Give Life

Acts 1:15-26; John 17:6-19

              Garrison Keillor tells a story of walking down the street as a college student, in his home town of St. Paul, Minnesota, and he saw coming toward him what he describes as the prettiest girl he had ever seen in his life.  He decided he wanted to make an impression upon her, and he thought quickly about how he might do that.  He saw a large, shiny new Cadillac parked by the curb, and seeking to impress this young woman, Garrison walked up to the Cadillac that was parked at one of the meters, took a dime out of his pocket, and put it in the meter.  Then he put his hand on the Cadillac, smiled at the girl, and said, “How are you today?”  She was very friendly in response.  “Fine,” she said, “thank you.”  Then she took out her keys, opened the door to the Cadillac, and drove off. 

             The church is not my Cadillac, and it is not your Cadillac, either!  The church belongs to Jesus, who is Lord of all and Head of the church, which is “the body of Christ, where the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you.”  And yet as soon as I say that, I have to acknowledge that even though Jesus is Head of the church, Jesus, in many ways turns the church over to us.   Jesus entrusts to us the message and the witness to this Gospel story that is the best part of the church’s life and ministry. 

             We have the most curious passage today.  It is the election of the twelfth apostle to replace Judas, who, of course, betrayed Jesus and could not believe, tragically, that Jesus’ mercy was big enough for him, and took his own life.  Before this event, you will recall, comes the Ascension of Jesus.  Jesus said to His disciples before He left, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”  Then Jesus, according to Luke, is taken up into the clouds, into heaven.  The disciples wait as Jesus has told them to wait, in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which shall come down from heaven upon them with great power and provide a means to connect with the power of God in the absence of Jesus.  Between the Ascension and Pentecost comes this curious moment in Acts. 

             Numbers matter to Luke, who is the author, not just of the Gospel of Luke, but of the Acts of the Apostles as well.  Luke tells us there are “about one hundred twenty” of the closest followers of Jesus gathered in the upper room.  That number includes the eleven whom Jesus chose, and restoring that number eleven to twelve matters to Luke, because Luke is the only one who tells us what they did with the number eleven.  Numbers will continue to matter to Luke.  On Pentecost, after the sermon is preached by Peter, three thousand people were baptized that day by water and by the Holy Spirit.  In the very next chapter, Peter preaches again, and with great power the Spirit is poured out, and five thousand people believe in Jesus.  But here, for Luke, the number twelve is crucial.  Jesus spoke of it twice in the Gospels, that these twelve would in some way reign as the twelve tribes of Israel.  The number twelve here, I think, has to do with making the church complete, with making the church whole. 

             And so, they draw lots.  I always think that is kind of funny.  When I was a minister in South Carolina, I fought the lottery because I thought it takes advantage of the poor who are desperate and it does what maybe taxpayers more responsibly could do for a society.  So when I came to Tennessee I did not fight it this time, I just quietly opposed it as we embraced a state lottery as well.  Luke did not ask me either, if this was a good idea for the disciples to draw lots!  There were only two people who met Peter’s criteria.  They had to be followers who were with Jesus from the time of His baptism until they had seen Him risen.  Two people met those qualifications: Joseph, also called Barsabbas or Justus, and Matthias.  They prayed as a group and drew lots, and they selected Matthias to be the twelfth of the apostles.  It is the last time we ever hear of Matthias in the Bible, as he never appears again. 

             But the number twelve matters because, to Luke, numbers matter because, of course, to Luke, numbers are not numbers.  Numbers are people and people matter supremely, not just to Luke, but to Jesus as well.  The church is always in the business of proclaiming the Good News of God’s love for all people in Jesus Christ.  This is the heart of the message that we proclaim and the message by which we live.  In Baptism we baptize children and adults, men and women, boys and girls, and infants, by name recognizing that people matter supremely to this infinitely personal God.  This God values humanity so very much that through Jesus this God became one of us in order that by grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit we might become more and more like Him.  This is the ministry and the mission of the church.  It is why we celebrate today that God is adding to our number in this place sixty new disciples, people who have been on a journey since their parents, by God’s grace, brought them into the world.  These are young people who hold in their hearts and their lives potential to be and to become God only knows who and what.  This friends, is the ministry and the mission of the church.  It is why I love the church, even though I know how disappointing every real church finally is. 

             I have never forgotten the seminary professor of mine who said, “If it’s true, as the New Testament says it is, that Jesus took the church to be His bride, it’s equally true that Jesus married far beneath Himself.”  No church is ever everything God calls it to be, and yet the church, made up of real men and women, boys and girls, people of all ages, at all stages, the church is that group of which the letter to Ephesians said, “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for the church.”  If that is how Jesus felt about the church, maybe it ought to say something to us, about our own relationship with the church.  I do not mean some ethereal, perfect, spiritualized idea of the church, but the real church, the church where you find yourself this very day.

             As we welcome another Confirmation class, I know as a parent, I know as an individual, how incredibly important a relationship with the church can be to our children and to our children’s children.  It makes the difference between life and death, and I want our kids in this place to experience the fullness of what the church is called to be.

             There is a Presbyterian who is kind of a renegade, who has a wonderful way with words.  Her name is Anne Lamott.  In one of her books, Anne Lamott tells about a little girl who has gotten lost.  She walked from one neighborhood into another, and before she knew it, she no longer knew where she was.  Whichever way she went, she was lost and could not find her way home, and she was gripped with fear.  She began to do, on a street corner near San Francisco, what any little boy or girl in a similar situation would do: she started to weep, she broke down.  A police car came by and drove around once more, saw the little girl and asked her if he could help her.  She got into the car with the police officer and he tried to talk her down from her panic.  He tried to help her reorient herself and find her way home, only she was so much on the edge of hysteria, that he couldn’t get to her, he couldn’t settle her down enough to find out the information he needed to get this little girl back home where she would be safe and secure.  He had almost given up on the task and was ready to drive her to the police station and wait for her panicked parents to call, when the little girl then said, “Oh, look, there’s my church.  I can find my way home from there.”

             That, dear friends, is my hope and prayer for you as well: that from this church, you will be able to find your way home.

                                                                                     Amen.

 

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