O God the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Risen, ascended Lord, as we rejoice at your triumph, fill your Church on earth with power and compassion, that all who are estranged by sin may find forgiveness and know your peace, to the glory of God the Father.
Eternal God, giver of love and power, your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world to preach the gospel of his kingdom: confirm us in this mission, and help us to live the good news we proclaim; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus – for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’
So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
1 Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.
2 Their delight is in the law of the Lord
and they meditate on his law day and night.
3 Like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither,
whatever they do, it shall prosper.
4 As for the wicked, it is not so with them;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked shall not be able to stand in the judgement,
nor the sinner in the congregation of the righteous.
6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall perish.
If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
1 John 5.9–13
‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
Sermon on Sunday, Easter 7
Casting lots … We all know what casting lots means, don’t we? It often means just making a decision arbitrarily. However, there is also another, more sinister meaning which is part of this notion. When the die is cast, everything is taken out of our hands and the decision follows a trajectory all of its own along a path which cannot be altered. I think we all understand this – the notion of fate taking charge of one’s very own life. When the die is cast, we have to accept it. We can do nothing else except to live with it.
But is this really what we believe about life? As christians, don’t we have something to say about our fate? Surely the early church believed (and still does believe) very differently from the society around it. There is even a famous Briton theologian in the early Church who believed adamantly in the free will of human being – he went so far as to say that one can even will one’s own salvation. Unfortunately, he was declared a heretic and thrown out of the church.
This notion of free will is totally the opposite of what many in the Roman Empire understood about destiny. People believed they were locked into the skein of time woven by the fates, a bondage so complete that they could do nothing about their lives.
The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church stood between these polar opposites. The Church said humanity did have free will which it must exercise with a good heart, and yet that heart would have to turn to God and through faith attain salvation.
There are many shades to this argument, but let’s consider the black and the white of it. Either there is determinism or there is free will. These two extremes of human agency are still available today, don’t you think? I would suggest that lock-down has given us a flavour of both ends of the continuum. The protests throughout the world against lock-down and the fact that so many remain isolated at home unwilling to associate in any way with others, I believe, are the evidence. So we can understand how in the ancient world these two ways of thinking about one’s own self in the world come about, because we are feeling the same today.
Our short passage from Acts today points to the very precarious place the early Church found itself. We have the eleven deciding on the basis of prayer and casting lots to see how their number can be perfected again, to return to twelve. They had found two men, but how to decide between them? That was the question.
Well society, that faceless crowd, gave them the answer – “Cast lots!” it said, “we all know that way, don’t we?” Well, that course was partly taken, for the eleven believed that God’s will would be revealed somehow through the lots. But it was not the lots alone which determined the twelfth man. The two men were of quality. God’s will must have something to do with their hearts and here we come to see how the ancient world was changing. When I was at school, the notion of the “paradigm shift” gained popularity and my teacher used it to portray this change of attitude.
Do we have our own will to do what is right? Can we choose the good as the philosopher suggests we should do? Or is everything locked in and we can make no decisions at all, that everything just happens on its own – or if we make any decisions they are arbitrary and there is no responsibility attached to them. Here we are today. We don’t really believe that, do we? No, the notion of free will and responsible action belong to us and we act as such, don’t we? Well, I certainly hope I do, but in lock-down I began to doubt my own agency, my own capacity for decision and action.
In our reading we have the old order of the fates paraded before us in the form of casting lots and predictive prophecy. Somehow in the early christian community, the notion of this arbitrary control is at work and I believe we can see this sort of thinking in our own lives.
That notion of a controlling fate has not gone away, has it? Today we know that feeling – we have experienced it, more or less, in the current lock-down conditions. All the rhetoric surrounding lock-down sounds like the sort of railing against destiny which has come down through history. The bitter complaints against the rules and regulations which impinge on our freedom are not unlike the resentment people have always felt against fate.
What we should examine is the shift from the fates to faith in our story from Acts. I think the paradigm shift is to be seen here. In our story we have the casting of lots, and that reveals this ancient thread of fortune and destiny – the route on which a person journeys without any chance of change. When the dice are thrown it only reveals what is “written in the stars”.
But our reading injects a second thread into this notion of destiny, destroying its hold over humanity. We are to pray to God, to open ourselves to the one who knows our very hearts. Now that our hearts are our own – we do not belong to the fates – our fates belong to each one of us. There is no external control over the heart except as it beats in us. We are, after all, our hearts and they connect us with God, our God of the miraculous.
I would like to make a rather outlandish suggestion as to the meaning of the lots cast here. I don’t think the eleven could make up their minds as to which of the two men they wanted to take that twelfth place. No one wanted to be responsible for such a grave decision, so they fell back onto that ancient and arbitrary method. The eleven placed the decision out there in the midst of the world, not in their own hands. They played on the cultural acceptance of the auspices and the reader of signs. They revealed the will of God not because they could read the hearts of men, but through the arbitrary method of casting lots. This episode shows how the early church was tied into its culture, a culture in which a certain type of superstition abounded. We could find examples of this belief in our own times without a doubt. However, I want to make the point that this story shows how the minds of people were being changed. Although they used the cultural artefact of lots, it did not control the event. Rather, they had discerned two worthy candidates and the decision had to be made – somehow.
Living free is the gift of christianity to the world, the freedom of the Spirit, the freedom of a life ascending to God. We have the example of Jesus Christ to light the way and we have the Feast of the Ascension to remind us that we can overcome the world to live at the right hand of God.