Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return today to the New Testament book of Acts and its stories of the earliest followers of Jesus after his resurrection and ascension. Having jumped ahead to chapter 6 and the first ordained deacons a few weeks ago in order to give a shout out to our own church deacons, today we circle back to see what was happening in chapter 1.
I mentioned right after Easter I wanted to focus on lesser-known characters this time through the book of Acts - the ensemble, if you will, that served alongside the more famous heroes of the early church like Peter and Paul. And in today’s reading we’ve met two such men: Justus and Matthias.
If you’re wondering why their names don’t sound very familiar, it’s because they only appear here in this one short scene. There’s no record of them elsewhere in the New Testament. No sermons or letters from them, no word of their setting up churches in particular places. But here in Acts 1 Matthias became one of the twelve, an official apostle, so we know he shared in the responsibility for proclaiming the good news. He may have been an understudy in a sense, but a huge mantle of responsibility landed on his shoulders.
We know a few other things about Matthias too (as well as his fellow apostle-candidate Justus who didn’t end up being included in the group of twelve). Acts 1:21 has Peter saying – look, to replace Judas we need to choose a new apostle from the group of those who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus was with us, beginning from the baptism of John until his ascension. Wait. What? I thought there were just twelve disciples. What’s this about others accompanying Jesus throughout his ministry? Well, apparently that was the case. It wasn’t just large crowds who came and went as they travelled around; there was a bigger inner circle, too, who stuck with them the whole time. That some in that extended circle were considered worthy to be fellow apostles tells me they must have been good-hearted souls and devoted disciples of Jesus. Perhaps even with noticeable leadership potential. And – to borrow a line from the Old Testament book of Esther – “for such a time as this” one of them was needed, now, to be a fellow witness to Jesus’ resurrection “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Incidentally, the group of those closest to Jesus also included women. They’re mentioned a handful of times in the gospels and also in the verses just prior to the ones we read today from Acts. After Jesus’ ascension, when the disciples returned to Jerusalem, we’re told they were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) Wouldn’t it be great if we knew more about those women? More about Jesus’ mother and brothers? Again, we only get passing references like these. But we know they must have been important members of that early Christian community even to get this kind of honorable mention.
We won’t always know their names or their stories, but we know that for every great hero of the Church there have always been others who’ve kept things going behind the scenes, pouring heart and soul into caring for their respective congregations.
Which leads me to today’s shout-out, this time for our elders. In our tradition, those who are elected to serve on our church governing board, or Session, are ordained as elders, and this year’s Session members – as you might expect – have had to take on responsibilities they couldn’t possibly have imagined when they agreed to serve. But it’s clear to me God brought this particular group of individuals together “for such a time as this.”
In a normal year, Session responsibilities already include important things like overseeing church finances and staff, property and programs. And then this year, over a period of just a couple weeks, we had to move quickly through a brand-new set of critical questions. “Can we safely serve everyone communion in a world in which the coronavirus is spreading?” “Should we move our services online, and if so how?” “Should we shut down our building entirely?” Questions none of us could have imagined ourselves ever asking - until suddenly we had no choice. And now our new Session project: thinking carefully about how and when to return to our building, to minimize the risk to all in our community.
I’m both deeply grateful and extremely proud of our Session for the thoughtful way they have approached each difficult decision they’ve faced over the last couple months, even as their own personal lives have taken a hit too. Managing a steady flow of emailed questions from their pastor and adding in extra Zoom meetings while some are also Zoom-ing all day for work and some are, on top of that, juggling extra parenting responsibilities with schools closed. They are an impressive team – with tech skills far surpassing my own, thanks be to God! – and we are blessed to have them at the helm of our church this year. Church history may not keep a record of all they’ve done for us behind the scenes - their wise decisions, their creative solutions, their faithful prayer for this congregation - but I won’t soon forget it. And I thought it was worth saying so today. Thank you all.
Of course, they’re not the only Session members ever to make their way through a difficult season. Like every church family, Magnolia Presbyterian has had its share of challenges over the years, and we have been blessed to have the right people on the job to tackle each one as it arose. In fact, let’s take a minute to acknowledge all of you who have served as elders and Session members in this or another congregation – raise your hand or wave, and if you like you can flip through the different screens full of faces so you can appreciate how many wise leaders have served in that capacity. Thank you all too!
Ultimately, no matter our particular roles, ordained or otherwise…no matter the season in which we find ourselves or the surprises it brings, we all share a common identity and a common mission. We are, all of us, people of resurrection hope, doing our best to follow Jesus and share God’s love. And as the book of Acts will often remind us, the power of God’s Holy Spirit has been poured out on the Church to energize and inspire us for the work at hand.
If we can remember that, even a global pandemic can’t defeat us.