Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church at Saint Matthias’ Tide, 2007
“It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time ” Acts 1:21
The American writer Garrison Keillor, created a wonderful fictional society set around the imaginary town of Lake Wobegon in central Minnesota. Lake Wobegon is populated by Catholics of German descent and Lutherans of Norwegian descent. Lake Wobegon’s name is said to come from a native American word meaning “we waited all day for you in the rain”. The town has a population of 942 and its life revolves around the two churches: Lake Wobegon Lutheran, led by Pastor Inquist, and the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, where the Parish Priest was Father Emil.
Father Emil retired some years ago, maybe twenty, the last I read about him he was in a retirement home. When he was retiring from the parish, one of the town’s Lutherans suggested to him that he would make a good Lutheran pastor if he was looking for something to do. I remember Keillor reading the story himself in a deep Midwestern accent. Father Emil commented very gently, “Lutheranism is my idea of a holiday. To take those truths we find difficult, and bend them a little to make life easier. Yes, Luther was a great man all right” .
I always pondered on Father Emil’s words, “Lutheranism is my idea of a holiday”. Is that how Catholic clergy see the Lutheran Church? I wondered if the Church of Ireland is seen in a similar way by Catholic clergy here in Ireland. I wondered if we are accused of taking those truths we find difficult, and bending them a little to make life easier.
The Church of Ireland does not appear to demand much, we don’t have lengthy statements of dogma, we don’t have encyclopaedic volumes of canon law; perhaps Father Emil in Lake Wobegon would think we were a holiday.
We don’t have statements of dogma or canon law because Scripture is meant to be our standard for faith and life. Our brief Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion contains the following under Article 6, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”.
“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation”. If we want to know the sort of faith and the sort of life the Church of Ireland expects, then we look at Scripture. What does the Bible tell us about being followers of Jesus? Today, what does the story of Matthias tell us, members of a church named in his honour, about what it means to be a Christian? Is being a Christian a holiday?
Jesus’ followers are looking for someone to take the place of Judas and Peter says, “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” There are two candidates for the job; Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.
Can you imagine the comments and the criticisms both of them would have got over the previous three years? Peter says that the person to replace Judas must have been with them right from the time Jesus’ was baptised until the time when he ascended into heaven.
What would Matthias’ friends have said to him? What are you mixing with those people for? Sure they don’t even count you as one of their number. Why are you always hanging around on the edge of things? Matthias, why don’t you take some good advice and go back to the day job? Nothing good can come from following that Jesus from Nazareth. Matthias, take it easy, go home, go back to your house and your family and your work; do that religious stuff in your spare time.
Matthias could have taken the easy option, ignored the bits of following Jesus that he found difficult; he could have bent Jesus’ teachings to make life easier. Let’s be realistic Matthias had never been given any hope that he would be anything other than an unknown person on the fringe of things. There must have been moments when he got comments from the Twelve. What are you doing here, Matthias? You’re not part of the group. You weren’t invited. Why do you keep following us? The Twelve included people like James and John, who argued about where they would sit in Heaven. If they had such petty squabbles among themselves, we can be sure that Matthias would also have been subject to comments and criticisms and snide remarks.
Matthias doesn’t take the easy option, he accepts truths as they are, he shows that he is faithful to Jesus; he doesn’t shy away from the things that are difficult. Matthias shows he is worthy of his place amongst the Twelve; a group that progresses from being a group of wandering Jewish men to a worldwide movement.
If Matthias had been the sort of person that Father Emil imagines Lutherans to be, he would have stayed at home and got on with sensible things. He would have worried about getting that job on the house done that he had promised his wife he would do last year; and whether that young man down the street was a suitable match for his daughter; and telling the rabbi that synagogue had got very long on the Sabbath. Those would be less difficult things; those would be things that made life easier.
It’s because he didn’t take the easy option that we remember Matthias, it’s because he and the rest of the Twelve went around telling the astonishing story of Jesus that we have a Church. Had they bent the truths a little, most of them would have spent their advancing years catching fish in Galilee and we would never have heard about Jesus.
The Church of Ireland is known for its reason, its common sense, its moderation, and maybe we are guilty of Father Emil’s accusation, maybe we do take those truths we find difficult, and bend them a little to make life easier. However, if Scripture is our standard of faith we don’t have the option of being like that, of being a la carte Christians, we don’t have the option to pick and choose what suits us.
We are not being offered a holiday. We are being offered the opportunity to accept the Good News of Jesus in our own lives and to pass that Good News to the people we meet. Looking for a man to replace Judas, Peter looked for “one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us”. Following in the tradition of Matthias, we are called to be people who walk with Jesus.