February 24th is Saint Matthias Day in the traditional liturgical calendar. Some churches and provinces have moved him over to May 14, closer to Ascension Day and Pentecost, where his story in Acts 1 fits right in from a biblical-narrative perspective. But we’ve still got him in late February, usually in Lent. It’s always nice to have a feast day in Lent – we get a little break from the penitential tone! – but there’s also something appropriate about observing this Saint during Lent: Matthias is only one of the twelve Apostles because he was selected to replace Judas, the traitor.
There are two lessons that I’d like to draw from this liturgical observance (and from Acts 1:12-26).
- Apostolic authority is a critical point for the unity of the Church.
- Every Christian must faithfully stay the course of the faith.
On the point of apostolic authority, this is something I like to try to mention during Ascensiontide but often don’t have time – (there is a lot of fantastic theology and lessons about Jesus and his ministry to us to tease out in that brief mini-season, and I seldom have opportunity to write or preach about ecclesiology then) – the eleven considered it vitally important that they replace Judas and restore their number to twelve apostles. Jesus had just told them that while it was not for them to know “the times or seasons” concerning the Kingdom of God, but that they would “receive power” when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. And this wasn’t entirely in the future; Jesus had already “breathed on them the Holy Spirit” giving them authority to forgive and retain sins. In that authority they’d already been entrusted with, they took it upon them to select and ordain a new twelfth man – Matthias. St. Peter even quotes Psalm 109 to acknowledge the necessity of this act: “Let another take his office.” And in the Greek, the word translated “office” is the source for the word “episcopate” – the office of an overseer, or bishop.
They knew that when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the whole church (on the day of Pentecost) the leadership had to be ready. Ancient Israel was founded with Twelve Tribes, and the New Israel was to be re-founded with Twelve Apostles – this was a very self-conscious and -aware decision, they knew the significance of what they were doing.
And, although the nature of the authority of those first Apostles is different from the authority that has been passed down among the Bishops ever since, the apostolic role of the bishops assembled is still critical for the church today. On their own, bishops might be little more than super-priests, pastors of megachurches, or of multi-site churches. That’s where cynicism from tired or burned church-goers (or skepticism from presbyterians and congregationalists) thrives. The real power, or authority, of the bishop is not so much in the individual as in the episcopacy as an institution and a group. One bishop can go astray about as easily as one priest or pastor, honestly. But a group, or college, of bishops, is another matter. Yes, a group can be corrupted too – we consider the entire Roman Church to be in error for example. But a church is at its best when its bishops speak together with one voice, in accord with the Church global and temporal.
An example of this was just demonstrated last month when the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America concluded a year of deliberations concerning the issues of ministering to people with same-sex attraction. It’s one of the greatest ministry challenges of our time, and must be met with careful biblical attention and loving attention to the situation of people today. Their excellent statement can be read online here.
But of course, there are always people who want to add their own nuances, pick at words, and even twist or re-cast what has been said. No small online furor has followed, muddying the waters and making some people wonder what the exodus from the Episcopal Church was all about if we’re just going to re-tread the same ground all over again. One of the angles of corrective response is an article in which a respected Anglican examines for us the nature of the teaching authority of bishops as a unified body. I commend that reading to you also!
But this also leads us to the second point about the election of Matthias to be the new 12th Apostle – he was “one of the men who have accompanied us during all 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“. And, critically unlike Judas Iscariot, Matthias faithfully stayed the course. He did not falter from the way of Christ; he remained constant like the other eleven.
Other Scriptures read on this day attest to this also: Psalm 15 asks the hard-yet-important question of who can dwell on God’s holy hill; Philippians 3 gives us the example of “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“. Simply put, there is a way that leads to life, and a way that leads to death. Judas chose the latter for himself; we must choose the former. Yes, salvation is not simply about what you choose – the real work of salvation is Jesus’ death on the Cross for the sins of the world, but if you reject his sacrifice on your behalf then you’ll have to find another way to pay for your sins… and there isn’t one.
The story of St. Matthias taking Judas’ office, or episcopacy, is a sobering reminder. Please, faithfully stay the course of the faith. In Christ alone is salvation wrought, and only his Body (the Church) offers him to us.