Text: Acts 1:12-17, 21-26
The moments in life when we are chosen or not chosen change us and shape us. Both are powerful experiences that bring either joy or pain. In the time it has taken me to speak those two sentences, I imagine some of you have already replayed in your mind either a time when you were chosen or one when you were not chosen. And probably more of you thought of an experience when you were not chosen: the school yard playground when you were the last child standing alone while the others divided into kickball teams, the time when you allowed yourself to get excited about a potential promotion at work only to find that someone else was selected, or that moment when you laid your heart open to another only to learn the affection was not mutual. The human condition is like that; we remember more intensely the reality of those times when we are not chosen. But I also imagine that if we sat here long enough, and if you were honest with yourself, you would be able to recall times when you were chosen—when your love was shared and valued above all others, when you felt affirmed and needed for your gifts, when you have felt belonging because someone special wanted you on their team. Being chosen or not chosen changes and shapes us significantly.
I thought of these two delicate places in life—of being chosen and not chosen—when I read the story in Acts of the disciples choosing who would replace Judas, the faithful disciple who had turned traitor. The stage had been set. Judas had betrayed Jesus. Jesus had been crucified, risen, and ascended into heaven. And now those who were among the “believers” (some 120 people the scripture tells us) were gathered in a room contemplating who would take Judas’ place as one of the twelve disciples. I don’t know, but I imagine the feeling in the room was intense. Those “believers” who had gathered had been through a lot. They had watched as their leader had been put on trial, executed for his beliefs, and then mysteriously been raised from the dead. They had seen him in several appearances since his mystifying resurrection but were not allowed to touch him. Now, something had guided them, if nothing more than the need to regain some familiar structure and reestablish order, to this upper room where they felt it necessary to choose someone, one person, to take Judas’ place. It is not fully clear how the process worked—if there was lobbying for the position, if a job description had been posted, if back room conversations had taken place, or if a nominating committee had been established—but out of the 120 people gathered, two names surfaced: Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.
Little is known about Barsabbas (bar-SAH-bus), but Christian tradition has it that he went on to become the Bishop of a small village (Eleutheropolis) in the city of Palestine, where he died a martyr and is venerated as Saint Justus. He is best known as the follower of Jesus who was not chosen to replace Judas. Matthias is also a vague character in Christian tradition. Although he was the chosen one to replace Judas, there is no mention of him among the lists of disciples or followers of Jesus in any of the synoptic gospels; and his calling as an apostle is unique in that his appointment was not made personally by Jesus. According to old tradition though, St. Matthias’ Day, February 24, is said to be the luckiest day of the year. This is because he was the saint who was chosen by lot to replace Judas. It is therefore tradition that St. Matthias’ Day is a good day on which to buy lottery tickets or to participate in other such activities.
Setting aside this brief history lesson on Barsabbas and Matthias, I wonder if this story is an example of what happens when people get blinded by a system that values and chooses a few over the many. I wonder if it has anything to say to societies and institutions and communities that create systems where there are winners and losers, where some are chosen and others not chosen, where there are those on the inside and those on the outside, those who have and those who don’t, those who are included and those who are not. I wonder if it occurred to any one of those 120 people gathered in that room to stand up and ask, “Why only twelve? Why not thirteen or fourteen or fifteen or twenty or fifty or more? I wonder, was there anyone in that room who thought maybe they should choose one of the women? After all, they were the first to the tomb to witness the resurrection and, as the scripture states, the purpose of the gathering was to find one who could give witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Think about how Christian tradition, and the church as an institution, would be different today if, in that one moment of deciding who would be chosen, a brave soul would have stood up and said, “How about Mary Magdalene as the twelfth disciple?”
Of course, we can’t know if a woman was suggested. We can’t know much of anything about the details of this decision except for the casting of lots between Barsabbas and Matthias, and that the lot fell to Matthias. But we do know that for some reason it seemed critical to the remaining disciples and to the larger group of followers that some one be chosen. Maybe, in their grief, the collective followers of Jesus were desperate to retain the exact structure he had created. Maybe, as Jews, they felt bound to the number twelve, to reflect the tribes of Israel. Maybe, as people recently exposed to a glimpse of the kingdom, they fell prey to that old adage of “two steps forward and one step back.” It could have been that all of Jesus’ liberation thinking, beatitude being, and anti-power actions got the best of his believers, and they needed to return to something that would comfort them—a familiar act of politics—even if that act in and of itself seems to us almost as though the disciples were suddenly “playing disciple” instead of living into their new reality as the bearers of the kingdom message that all are chosen.
The great irony in this story is that Barsabbas is the loser in that he is not chosen to be the disciple, to carry the official banner of witness to the resurrection, to be within the albeit newly established power structure, but established nonetheless. And in the exact moment he is “unchosen,” Barsabbas becomes the truer heir to the kingdom of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus was clear that one of the most dangerous places on earth is inside the power structure. It is from within the column of power that people’s hearts are most quickly perverted—by self-segregation, by self-preservation, by power, and by the desperation to protect power. And it isn’t just about named power over nation states and newly formed religions. It is the power each of us feels the moment we are chosen. You see, to be chosen necessarily means that someone else has been unchosen. And the reaction we have in the face of being chosen has to do not only with the real joy of attaining something we wanted, it also includes the thrill of being more special than someone else, and some measure of relief at not being drawn outside the circle.
Yes, when we are chosen, we feel, if only momentarily, the power of being included at the exclusion of others. And it is natural that we rejoice at being chosen. The Bible is full of assurances that God chooses us. It is embedded deep within the human heart to crave belonging and favor. But when being chosen necessitates exclusion, it is, indeed, a dangerous place. Because in the words of Jesus, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are they that mourn. Blessed are the hungry and thirsty. Jesus spoke specific blessings to those NOT chosen. Barsabbas was in good company.
At this point, I fear I have talked my way into one of the great contradictions of the Gospel. I do not want to take away from you your joy at being chosen. It is good to be chosen by those we love, to be chosen for our gifts, and to be chosen by our God. The message today is not anti-“the chosen!” No, the message today is that our work as Christians is to recognize that God chooses us all—every one of us on the planet. Confusing as it may be, we are both special, and yet not special above others. We are both chosen by God, and unchosen in the current values of our society if we choose to follow the life and teachings of Jesus. We are both/and. This story of Barsabbas and Matthias is a reminder that the work of being chosen is care for the unchosen. The work of being beloved is to love. The work of grace is to forgive. And the work of justice is mercy and compassion.
The Beatitudes are some of the most profound words Jesus ever spoke. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the strong in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Maybe it not too far reaching to add one more Beatitude: Blessed are those who are unchosen in this world, for in God’s realm they are the chosen.