13 May 2009

Saint Matthias, the forgotten second-choice

Patrick Comerford

13 May 2009, 5 p.m.: The Eucharist: Isaiah 22: 15-25; Psalm 15; Acts 1: 15-26; John 15: 9-17.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The story is told of a bishop and a cathedral dean who had a lengthy and acrimonious disagreement. Eventually, in a discussion about apostolic succession, the Dean was heard to say that he believed in apostolic succession and had living proof of it – his bishop was in direct apostolic succession to one of the Twelve … Judas.

I don’t know if any of us would like to be counted as the successor of Judas. But this evening we are recalling the Apostle Matthias, whose feast day falls tomorrow, 14 May, and who was the second choice – not the first choice, but the second choice – to succeed Judas among the Twelve.

Imagine how Matthias might have felt: the first time round, he wasn’t good enough to be among the Twelve, but Judas was. The second time round, his name isn’t mentioned first; instead, the first name to come forward was that of Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus but who nobody has remembered ever since, and whose saintly life quickly passed into oblivion.

And then, to compound matters, nobody has the foggiest idea who Matthias was, before or after his election: his name, his identity, his life story, have been forgotten, he’s been left with being the patron saint of alcoholism and smallpox, and a few small towns, and we’re not even sure where or how he died or where he’s buried.

As we heard in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this evening, Matthias was the Apostle chosen by the remaining eleven of the twelve to take the place of Judas Iscariot following the betrayal of Christ by Judas, and his subsequent death by suicide (Acts 1:15-26).

Matthias is often a forgotten Apostle. He makes no appearance in and there is no mention of him among the disciples in the three synoptic Gospels.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, in the days following the Ascension of Christ, Peter proposed to the assembled disciples, who numbered about 120, that they choose one to fill the place of Judas among the Twelve.

And so the assembled believers came forward with two nominations: their first choice was Joseph Barsabbas, or Joseph Justus. It may only have been as an afterthought that someone suggested the name of Matthias.

And then, they couldn’t make up their minds. Instead, they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias. I doubt any of us would be happy to hear the selectors tossed a coin, drew straws or rolled a dice as they prayed about whether we were suitable to recommend for training and ordination.

Matthias is unnamed before this account, and after that, there is no further mention of him in the New Testament. Sometimes, even his name and his identity are confused.

Sometimes, he is confused with Matthew. But he is also confused with Bartholomew, one of the original Twelve, because in the Syriac version of Eusebius, he is named throughout the text not as Matthias but as “Tolmai,” and the name Bartholomew means Son of Tolmai) who was one of the original Twelve.

Clement of Alexandria recalls some people identified Matthias with Zacchaeus. And then again, others identify him with Paul’s companion Barnabas or with the Disciple Nathanael in the Gospel according to Saint John.

According to traditions handed down by the Early Church, Matthias first preached the Gospel in Judaea, and then in Colchis, which is found in present-day Georgia, and where he was crucified as a martyr. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, he is buried in the castle at Gonio -Apsaros in Adjara in modern Georgian.

Other traditions say Matthias preached the Gospel to barbarians and meat-eaters in the interior of Ethiopia, and that he died in Sebastopolis and was buried there, near the Temple of the Sun. Yet other traditions say that Matthias was first stoned in Jerusalem and was then beheaded or that he died of old age in Jerusalem.

Clement of Alexandria pointed out that the apostles were not chosen for some outstanding character, and certainly not on their own merits. After all, Judas was chosen as one of the Twelve, and even among the other eleven, Peter denied Christ at the Crucifixion and Thomas at first denied the Resurrection.

No. They were chosen by Christ for his own reasons, and not for their merits.

If Matthias had not been worthy of being called, how then could he have joined the Twelve?

Ordained ministry is never about my worthiness, my merits. I have earned no right to be called to ordained ministry, to share in the priesthood of the Church.

It is Christ alone who calls us.

I am not worthy to be even a poor substitute, even a second best substitute for Judas, who had his own unique place in God’s salvific plan as it unfolded.

And it matters little whether I am someone’s first choice or second choice in the ministry and mission I am called to, whether I am praised or thanked for my work, whether anyone will remember my achievements, whether anyone remembers me after I die, can spell my name, or find my grave. All that matters is God’s plan, and whether I follow his call faithfully.

May you be ever faithful to the call to follow Christ, and to labour in his vineyard.

And now, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Community Eucharist in the chapel on 13 May 2009.

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