15 May 2013

Apostolic succession and a second-choice apostle

Saint Matthias – a stained glass window (1567) in Milan Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

Isaiah 22: 15-25; Psalm 15; Acts 1: 15-26; John 15: 9-17.

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.

None of us would like to be counted as the successor of Judas. But at the early morning Eucharist this morning [15 May] we are recalling the successor to Judas as one of the Twelve, the Apostle Matthias, whose feast day fell yesterday [14 May]. The two-day integrative seminar concluded with a celebration of the Eucharist last night, and so we have transferred our commemoration of Saint Matthias to this morning.

The Revd Edna Wakely is preaching at this morning’s Eucharist. But I have been reflecting overnight that perhaps Saint Matthias would see the humour in being second choice. After all, he was the second choice – not the first choice, but the second choice – to succeed Judas among the Twelve.

Imagine how Saint Matthias might have felt: the first time round, he was not good enough to be among the Twelve, but Judas was. The second time round, his name is not 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. I hear very few children in school playgrounds or on football pitches being called Barsabbas, as in: “Hey Barsabbas, pass the ball over here.”

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 has been left with being the patron saint of alcoholism and smallpox, and a few small towns. We are not even sure where or how he died or where he is buried.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning tells us that Matthias was the Apostle chosen by the remaining eleven of the twelve to take the place of Judas Iscariot following his betrayal of Christ and his subsequent death by suicide (Acts 1:15-26).

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

Saint Matthias is unnamed before this account, and after that there is no further mention of him in the New Testament. He is the forgotten apostle. Having made an unexpected entrance on the stage, Saint Matthias walks off the scene once again. And we hear nothing more about him. We have no further information about him.

Saint Matthias in a roof boss in Saint Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, Norwich

Clement of Alexandria says 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 others Peter denied Christ at the Crucifixion and Thomas at first denied the Resurrection.

The apostles were chosen by Christ for his own reasons, but 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.

Matthias was elected not because he was worthy but because he would become worthy. Christ chooses each one of us in the same way.

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.

It does not matter whether others think you have been too early or too late in responding to the call to ordained ministry. It does not matter whether we are worthy in the eyes of others for any office or position we hold. What matters more throughout anyone’s ministry is going to be: What does Christ want of you?

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.

I heard recently of a rector who used to declare, “I never forget that I am here only because the person who was here before me failed.” He recalled that Joshua led Israel because Moses failed in the wilderness; David became King because Saul had failed; Matthias became an apostle because Judas had failed. It is a sad truth that many rectors came to their parishes because of the failings or even the abandonment of previous rectors.

Saint Matthias is a living reminder of God’s grace to and for us. He was “grafted in” to the company of the Apostles, not through his own merits, but by God’s grace. We have been grafted into the company of the Children of God, not through our own merits, but by God’s grace.

Saint Matthias is also a warning to us. He silently warns, “I am here because someone else failed. The same thing could happen to me if I stop taking my nourishment from the True Vine and stop bearing good fruit.”

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who in the place of the traitor Judas
chose your faithful servant Matthias
to be of the number of the Twelve:
Preserve your Church from false apostles
and, by the ministry of faithful pastors and teachers,
keep us steadfast in your truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God, the source of truth and love,
Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.


Anonymous said...

Patrick, no email for you. Just a simple simple thankyou for your words, their generosity, their clarity, their music.

John F

Cindy Thomson said...

Wonderful reminder. Thank you.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you John, thank you Cindy. Patrick