A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Sunday after the Ascension, 17 May 2015, at the National Cathedral, Washington DC:
I am delighted to be with you this morning, and I thank Dean Gary for his kind invitation to come and visit with you, and preach here this morning. Although I have come a long way today, I am not a complete stranger to your neighbourhood: some eighteen years ago, I had the privilege of living in Cathedral Heights. Then, I was a seminarian from the Church of England working at an inner-city parish in your diocese, and I daily undertook the audacious (some might say foolhardy) commute by bike from my temporary home near your beautiful Cathedral down to the centre of town via Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Oaks. The way to work was exhilarating and fast; the way home was quite literally an uphill struggle.
Since my time in this city, discerning God’s call for my life and preparing for ordained ministry, I have served churches in the West of London and the heart of Cambridge in England as a parish priest, and worked as the Senior Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College in the University of Melbourne. And so it is that a former neighbour from Cathedral Heights today brings you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, which I am privileged to lead as Dean. St Paul’s is the Seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia, and I bring you warm greetings from our Primate, Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, and our four Sunday congregations.
St Paul’s stands at the heart of Australia’s second largest city. Built in warm sandstone, with soaring gothic spires—the second tallest in Anglicanism—it is an icon of God’s call to all people to encounter and know him. Our Cathedral is a church that not only the parishes, agencies, schools and colleges of our province call their home, but that is the regular place of worship for people from more than 25 nations; people whose backgrounds and stories, languages and cultures, could not be more diverse.
At St Paul’s we delight in the Good News that God calls people into his friendship and service regardless of their background or past. And we are profoundly aware that as Cathedrals, you and we are uniquely placed to invite others to come to know and serve God through our own witness and ministry.
God’s call to all people to testify to his love stands at the heart of this morning’s readings. Our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows probably one of the more unexpected ways in which God can call people to serve him (Acts 1.15-26). The story of the call of Matthias to be added to the number of the twelve is extraordinary: a lottery to decide who should take the place of Judas ‘who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus’ (1.16). For me, though, Luke’s story as told in Acts is not only an account of the surprising way in which God has called into his service an apostle of old. I believe that our first lesson says just as much about discerning and responding to God’s call to follow him in our own lives today.
We heard in our first lesson how the apostles and the 120 believers met in Jerusalem to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot. The Apostle Peter instructed the early Christian community of how this important choice would be made: the person to be chosen was someone who had ‘accompanied us … beginning from the Baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken up from us’ (Acts 1.21-22). The person would be someone who had known Jesus at first hand, someone who might even have been baptised like Jesus with the baptism of John, who heard Jesus’ call, who saw the works of power he undertook, who saw him arrested and raised from the dead, was to take the place of Judas to become ‘a witness with the other apostles to his resurrection’ (Acts 1.22). The pool of potential candidates cannot have been unlimited, and so it should not surprise that the apostles proposed only two names to be a potential fellow-witness to the resurrection: Joseph the Son of Saba—Barsabbas—and Matthias.
The narrow field of candidates reflected the importance of their task. The apostle-elect was to share with the other apostles in the ministry of oversight, which in the first part of the Acts of the Apostles meant first of all the building up of the people of God by ‘daily adding to their number’ (Acts 2.47). Such a ministry not only required a personal experience of the transformational power of resurrection, a personal knowledge that ‘God gave us eternal life, and [that] this life is in his Son’, as our epistle puts it (1 John 5.11). It also required having walked with Jesus and the other disciples, having ‘accompanied us’—the word literally means ‘having broken bread with us’—‘throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us’ (Acts 1.21).
Not only a personal knowledge of Jesus, but knowledge of the other followers of Jesus, the people with whom the Lord himself had broken bread. The person allotted the ministry of apostle was to be a fellow overseer with Peter and the other ten. Both Joseph and Matthias were already well equipped for their task: they knew Jesus, they had heard the ‘words that you gave to me … and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you’, as our Gospel reading tells (John 17.8). They also knew well the eleven apostles, and the 120 new Jerusalem Christians, and they were respected among them.
The call of the new apostle was not that of the early church, but Jesus’ call. Those who serve Jesus were called to be Jesus’ own, are called to be set apart: ‘sanctified in the truth’ and ‘protected in the Father’s name’, as we heard in our Gospel reading (John 17.17). Therefore, the apostles left the choice of their new fellow overseer to the One who had also called them, as Peter’s prayer in our first lesson makes clear: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these you have chosen’ (Acts 1.25). Peter’s prayer is addressed to the ascended Jesus; in Luke’s Gospel, the word Lord, kyrie, is almost always a reference to Jesus. Peter and the ten regard the calling of the twelfth apostle entirely in terms of their own calling: Jesus himself would call Joseph or Matthias to the office and work of an apostle. The eleven would merely identify and confirm that call. And so it was that lots were drawn, and Matthias was called into his allotted place as an apostle, a fellow overseer, a fellow episkopos or bishop, of the growing group of early Christians.
Today’s first lesson (Acts 11.15-26) tells us as much about discerning and following God’s call in the early church as it tells us about responding to God’s call to ministry in our own lives. As we think of the calling of Matthias to be an apostle, I would like to offer you four areas for your own further reflection on how God may call people to his service, and on how you and I may be equipped to serve God in our own communities:
- First of all, I think it is important to realise, as Peter knew so very clearly, that the One who calls is not the Church, nor the council of overseers or bishops, nor the congregation of the faithful, but Jesus Christ. Peter is confident that it is Jesus who calls people into his service, and that the Church, and the overseers or bishops, merely identify and confirm that calling. The call is Christ’s, but the people who identify this call are members of the community of believers and those who are given gifts of leadership and authority in that community.
- Secondly, it is important to remember that those who are being put forward as candidates for apostolic ministry are often people who have already acted upon a sense of calling in their lives. Joseph and Matthias had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry: like Peter and the other apostles, they knew him to be not only their own Lord, but the Lord over life and death, whom they saw ascend to heaven to reign at God’s right hand. They already had much personal experience of what it meant to know and follow Jesus. This does not only mean that they knew Jesus to be Lord and God. It means that they knew his teachings and were able to share them with others with confidence: they were already people ‘who believe in the Son of God and have his testimony in their hearts’, as our epistle reminds us (1 John 5.10).
- Thirdly, the two candidates, like the other eleven apostles, were people of prayer. Their process of discernment about what it might be that God calls them to do in their lives began and ended with prayer—in fact ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, we read in the first chapter of the Book of Acts (Acts 1.14). Not only the process of discernment, but their entire lives were shaped by this habit of prayer. The prayer in which the eleven apostles shared, and of which the calling of Matthias in today’s first lesson is an example, was corporate prayer: the apostles prayed together with the family of Jesus, shared in prayer with ‘Mary, the mother of Jesus and his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). Together they forged a community, a family, of believers who centred their lives around learning to pray together.
- Finally, the candidates were fully equipped and ready to take up their allotted task. Joseph and Matthias did not know where they would be sent—the Greek word apostolos means someone who is being sent—nor did the know with whom they would minister in future. Yet they chose to accept the call to the apostolate as if Christ himself had spoken to them through the casting of lots. Matthias to join the eleven and to take the place of Judas as an overseer, Joseph to continue his ministry as a respected member of the Jerusalem community of believers who knew and was able to testify personally to the power of resurrection.
I said at the beginning that I believe that as Cathedral churches at the heart of our nations, our Cathedrals are uniquely placed to make known God’s call to fellowship and ministry to others. We are places where our bishops gather with their people to pray and confirm, through the laying on of hands, the calling of the Christ and his Church. We are natural places of invitation, where people from all kinds of backgrounds—tourists who visit our wonderful buildings, committed members and those who perhaps do not yet fully know what it is that they are searching for—can come together to worship, and thus learn more about God’s call to us and all people. We are places of prayer, whose common life is shaped by the rhythm of our daily life of communal prayer. And we are places from which those chosen for ministry are sent or are enabled to enter into their own apostolic ministry in the places in which they are to serve. As Cathedral churches we are placed like few others to equip and confirm others for ministry.
I give thanks for the gift of God’s call in the life of our church, and the role we can play, as Cathedrals, in bringing others to God so that they may receive his gifts of fellowship. As the season of Easter comes to a close, and we look forward to the season of Pentecost, with its promise of the gifts of the Spirit to equip and build the body of Christ for its ministry, I should like to encourage you to ponder what it is that God is calling you to do in your lives of worship and witness—both in your own lives, in the life of this Cathedral, and in the lives of the communities of which you are a part.
Again, our first reading provides us with a number of important pointers:
- Remember that the call to serve God is Christ’s. The ministry of Joseph Bar Sabbas would have been as important as that of the apostle Matthias. Not all people are called to an ordained office, yet all are called to exercise the ministry of making known the message of Jesus Christ. Rejoice in that calling.
- Remember that it is important to know Jesus and know about Jesus. Joseph and Matthias knew Jesus first hand. We, too, can know Jesus through the words that are recorded about him in the Scriptures, as well as through our personal prayers. Use the opportunities given to you at the National Cathedral, your local church, or the community from which you are visiting today, to further your own understanding of Jesus; to learn more about his words and works recorded in Scripture, and about the ways in which we can deepen our understanding of Jesus in worship and spirituality.
- Remember that it is important to pray as a community. The decision to appoint Matthias was clearly underpinned by communal prayer. It is important to pray as a community—and the first Chapter of Acts makes clear how a community can be shaped by regular common worship and the breaking of bread, and so be equipped to grow. Come and join the daily prayers at the National Cathedral, or share in weekday prayer at your home churches as often as you are able to do so. It is in this way that we belong to, and are shaped into, communities of prayer.
- Finally, remember that there is grace in accepting your allotted place. Matthias readily stepped into the role allotted to him, yet he did not know where his response of faith might lead him. It is often easier to assert with the benefit of hindsight that the allotted place was indeed the right place, and I would encourage you to take courage from the example of Matthias whenever you may be presented with your own ‘allotted places’ of ministry; your own allotted calling.
‘The apostles prayed and said: Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one you have chosen. … And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.24-26). As we give thanks that God continues to call women and men into his friendship and service, I pray that the examples of Joseph and Matthias sustain us in our own journeys of faith, and ask that God would bless you and me, as we continue to discern and seek to follow his call.
‘Now to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, ministers serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (Revelation 1.6).
© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: carmengroup.com