I Will Be With You Always

I Will Be With You Always

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

For those of you still in school, whether that be pre-school, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, or even graduate school, it may seem as though your education will never be complete. “When,” you might ask, “will I get to go out and start applying all this stuff that I’m learning?”

I know that I often asked myself that question. I wasn’t exactly the classic “dumb jock” when I was in college, but because of my time commitments to my sport and my team, it took me a couple extra years to finish my engineering degree—six years altogether.

Then, after working full time for a couple years, I decided that I wanted to get an MBA. I enrolled in a program that met at night and on weekends, but since I was getting transferred a lot, it took me nearly eight years to finish all the requirements. Then, a decade later, God decided I needed a bit more education, and it was off to the seminary. To keep our family life a little saner, my studies were spread over almost five years instead of the usual four. That adds up to a lot of years in school, even though it wasn’t all full-time study.

What about you? After your time in school, you have completed your assignments, written the papers, passed the exams, and are ready to receive your diploma. Graduation day comes, you walk across the stage, get handed that certificate, and have a party, or two, or twelve, with family and friends to celebrate your accomplishment.

Now what? Maybe you’d been in school for as long as you remember. Going to class was the only routine you knew. But life moves ahead. Your situation changes. Now you need to find a job and put your education to work in the real world!

As we observe the Feast of St. Matthias today and hear the account from chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles, we discover that Jesus’ followers are facing their own “Now what?” moment. After three years of study in a traveling seminary with one divine instructor, the apostles had been taught everything Jesus was going to teach them in person. His work of salvation was completed. They had seen and heard the risen Lord for 40 days following His resurrection. Again, now what? Life went on, but their routine changed. They had a new assignment. It was time to put their education to work and carry out the mission of the church.

Our second lesson today records a gathering of the infant Christian church that took place in the ten day period between Ascension and Pentecost. The apostles had seen Jesus rise into the heavens. Now what? Were they now completely on their own? Was the Christian Church to stand or fall based on the effectiveness of their strategic planning? Did it depend on their business model, their capital structure, or their distribution channels?

It might look like they were left to their own, but Jesus had promised them before the Ascension, “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” And He continues to be. Although Jesus was not with His church visibly, He was still with them because He provided the message they were to proclaim. He would also provide them with ministers to proclaim that message.

The reading begins with a dilemma. St. Luke writes, “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, ‘Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus—he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.’”

Judas, one of the original twelve apostles, was no longer in their number. On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas betrayed Jesus, leading His enemies to arrest Him in the dark of night. Not long after this, Judas realized what he had done and hung himself in despair. The bottom line is the apostles were now one short.

One could argue that it wasn’t strictly necessary to replace Judas. If God hadn’t spoken about the issue, that would be a fair observation. But God not only knew what Judas would do before it happened; He also wanted there to be a replacement. The proof comes in verse 20, where Peter quotes two different verses from the Psalms. The first verse came from Psalm 69: “May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it.” The Holy Spirit directed Peter to see that this verse, which spoke about the Savior’s enemies in the plural, could also be applied to one specific enemy who had betrayed Jesus. The other quote came from Psalm 109, and spoke about the need to replace Judas: “May another take his place of leadership.”

In light of this, Peter came forward with the following proposal. “Therefore 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.” The man to replace Judas needed to be someone who had been with Jesus from His baptism three years earlier to His Ascension just a few days before. And Peter reveals that the key task that will fall to this new apostle is this: “One of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.”

Of all the qualifications that this replacement apostle needed to have, the first was that he was an eyewitness who could testify to the resurrection of Jesus—the very miraculous yet historical event on which the entire Christian faith hinges!

What criteria would you have chosen? If you were Peter making your speech to this first-century voters’ meeting, what would you have directed the assembly to look for before rendering their choice? “One of these men must possess a dynamic personality with us as we preach to all creation.”? “One of these men must become a great philanthropist with us known for godly acts of love throughout the region.”? “One of these men must have a keen awareness of human psychology with us so that together we can better penetrate the human soul.”?

Do not misunderstand. It is a good thing for ministers to be somewhat likeable, to love people, and to understand what makes them tick. But none of those things made the top of Peter’s list of apostolic requirements. And we dare not sit here and think that we can forget the importance of the Gospel for accomplishing the church’s mission! Our sinful flesh is quite good at convincing us that something other than the message of Christ’s death and resurrection is the way to get the job done.

And so we pass by opportunities to proclaim Jesus to our friends and relatives because, well, they’re just not the religious type. We rationalize that our neighbor just won’t accept the crucifixion and resurrection because they’re so unbelievable. Building bridges and establishing friendships is not our problem. Our challenge is in actually crossing those bridges and being willing to risk our earthly human relationships as we present the resurrection gospel—that’s when we start to doubt the effectiveness of Jesus’ message.

But the death and resurrection of Jesus is the message that He has given us to proclaim. And the beauty of that Gospel is that it is a real historical fact that carries so much meaning and significance and comfort along with it. The resurrection of Jesus means that God the Father has fully accepted Jesus’ death to wipe away your sin. Even your sins of doubt, and your failures to trust in the power of His resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus says to all who believe that heaven is opened, and a place is waiting for you, forever. The resurrection says to every repentant soul who has been filled with faith in Christ that your hearts can be stilled. Your conscience may rest easy, for death has been swallowed up by death and now the living Lord gives you eternal life.

Let’s go back to our first first-century voters’ meeting. Peter has stated the qualifications. Then came the nominations. “They proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.” We don’t really know much about the two candidates. The church father and historian Eusebius, who lived in the late 300s and early 400s, wrote that both of these men were members of the seventy that Jesus had once sent out to evangelize. Eusebius is closer to the events than we are, so he may be right. Without archaeological proof or biblical witness, we can’t be sure.

What we can say confidently is what happened next: “Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.’ Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.”

With two equally valid choices before them, the apostles prayed to the Lord, asking that He guide the process. Then they followed the Old Testament custom of casting lots. We should note that this describes what happened; it does not compel us to make our decisions in the same way. But with the candidates down to just those two, the Church left the final decision to the Lord. Perhaps they were thinking of Proverbs 16:33, which reads: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”

Our Christian ancestors recognized this process for what it is: Not mere chance; not a popularity vote like when you call in for your favorite on “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars;” but rather a divine call from God Himself.

Although we are looking at chapter one of Acts this morning, if we paged ahead to chapter 20, we’d see just how the early church understood the true source of calling apostles. There St. Paul was saying farewell to the leaders of the congregation in Ephesus that he had founded. Even though there had been a human process that appointed these leaders to serve, Paul said to them in his farewell speech, “Keep watch over yourselves, and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” People may have appointed them, but Paul recognized that the Holy Spirit had called them to serve. Jesus had kept His promise to be with His church by providing proclaimers of His resurrection.

That is ultimately the job of pastors—to take people back to Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we stand before you and say, “I forgive you all your sins,” we are announcing to you the fruits of Christ’s cross and the benefits of Jesus’ resurrection. When we stand at the font and say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we are—by the power of the Spirit and the Word—connecting souls to the resurrection of Jesus. When you kneel at this altar and hear, “Take and eat, take and drink; this is the true body and blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the crucified and risen Lord is truly among us and is truly feeding you. His body and blood previews the resurrection feast we will enjoy in heaven, forever.

When Satan or a guilty conscience tries to accuse you, what comfort to hear that God forgives you for Jesus sake! When the harshness of life brings you down, what joy it is to be uplifted by the message of the risen Jesus, whose resurrection provides hope that cannot be shaken! When the reality of death haunts you, what peace it is to be pointed to the empty tomb of Jesus, knowing that the rising of His crucified body declares our forgiveness and our own future resurrection from the dead.

After His resurrection, Jesus promised His disciples, “I will be with you always to the very end of the age.” That promise was not fulfilled by a commemorative plaque or by fond recollections. Jesus keeps that promise through a message—through THE message—proclaimed by Matthias and by all those chosen by God to declare to us the joy, comfort, and peace of our souls.

Jesus’ message is not just life-changing—it is eternity-changing! Jesus has ensured that His church will continue to have apostles in the heritage of Matthias to proclaim it. You know the message. It is simple but profound. It may sound very strange to hear it during Lent, and try hard to suppress the Alleluia, but here it is: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.