“Replacing Judas”

Easter 7

May 17, 2015


Text: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26


          In the days following Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and before the Holy Spirit came upon his disciples at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus, who at this point numbered about 120 people, made an important decision. Peter told them they needed to choose a new apostle to replace Judas, who had betrayed Jesus and died a gruesome death. So two of their number were nominated: Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Justus; and Matthias. They prayed for guidance, cast lots (sort of the ancient equivalent of drawing a name out of a hat, trusting that God would guide the choice), and Matthias was chosen as the new 12th apostle.

          Now we know very little about Matthias. In fact, the ancient nonbiblical sources about him don’t even agree on his name or identity. One historian consistently referred to him as Tolmai. Another thought he was actually Zacchaeus, the short tax collector Jesus ate with and led to repentance at Jericho. Still another thought he was Barnabas, who was a companion to the Apostle Paul during part of his ministry. And yet another identifies him with Nathanael, a disciple mentioned only in the Gospel of John who was brought to Jesus by Philip.

          The ancient traditions also do not agree on where Matthias did his ministry.

  • The Greek tradition was that he preached Christ in what is now central Turkey, and later along the coast of the Caspian Sea.  
  • Another historian says Matthias began preaching in Judea, then preached in the region east of the Black Sea in what is now the nation of Georgia, where there was an Egyptian military colony. That historian says he was stoned to death.
  • Other traditions put him in that same area, preaching to barbarians and cannibals.
  • Still another tradition states that Matthias was stoned to death in Jerusalem by Jews, and then beheaded.
  • And yet another ancient historian says Matthias died in Jerusalem of old age.

The final resting place of Matthias’ earthly remains is also disputed. One ancient historian said he was buried at Sebastopolis, which in this case refers to the city now known as Sukhumi, capital of the disputed territory of Abkhazia, which considers itself an independent nation but is only recognized by a few other nations and is still claimed by the Republic of Georgia. Meanwhile, there is a marker in the ruins of a Roman fortress at Gonio, a city along the Black Sea in the Republic of Georgia, that claims to mark the burial site of Matthias. And then, the Abbey of St. Matthias in Trier, Germany also claims they have his bones in a sarcophagus in the crypt of their monastery church, and that his bones were moved to Trier in the early 4th century AD at the behest of Helena, mother of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire.

So Matthias, in spite of his being named one of the twelve Apostles, remains an obscure figure. His name is barely remembered, and even Christian writers who lived within a century or two of his lifetime do not agree on what he actually did. Of course, this could be said about most of the original twelve apostles. God does not always choose the most visible, the most well-known, or the most popular people to do his work. Often God chooses obscure, unknown folks for that purpose.

What I take away from all this is the truth that each of us is a replacement, and each of us will ultimately be replaced. In life and in ministry, we rarely step into a vacuum when we take on a new role. In most cases, we are stepping into a role that previously was held by someone else. Likewise, there comes a time for each of us when we have to step out of the roles we have, whether we choose to do so, someone else makes that choice for us, our health no longer permits us to do it, or we die. When that happens, either somebody replaces us or the role is abolished.

Judas was replaced both because he had left the group and because he had died. Matthias was the one the community discerned God had chosen to replace him. Now most of us probably find the community’s discernment method odd. They placed two names in nomination, prayed that God would show them which one to choose, and then cast lots, which might be described as the ancient equivalent of drawing someone’s name out of a hat, to decide. Today we would vote on a decision like this. However, I don’t think a vote produces a better result in discerning God’s will. After all, when we vote, we usually go by our own opinion of who is the better choice. Our opinion is not necessarily God’s opinion.

One of the founding fathers of the United Methodist Church was elevated to church leadership by lot. I am referring to Martin Boehm, co-founder of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, one of our predecessor denominations. Boehm was a Mennonite farmer with little formal education. The practice among the Mennonites in those days was to choose their pastor from among the men of their congregation by lot. One year Martin Boehm’s name was drawn. Boehm felt he was ill suited for the job, and during his first months as a pastor struggled terribly as a preacher. In the course of his struggles, he came to the conviction that he was “lost”.

One day as Boehm was out plowing a field, he was struggling with the state of his soul. In those days (this was back in the 1700’s), of course, he would have been using a walking plow, pulled by a horse or an ox. As he plowed, he stopped at the end of each row, knelt, and prayed. The intense sense of being “lost” continued to grow in him until at last he stopped in the middle of the field, dropped to his knees, and cried out, “Help me, Lord, for I am lost!” At once the words of Jesus from Scripture came to him: “I have come to save that which is lost.” At once peace filled Boehm’s soul, and for the first time he felt the assurance that in Christ he was truly saved from his sin. He began to preach this, which upset other Mennonite leaders, causing them to expel him. He eventually joined forces with Philip William Otterbein, a German Reformed pastor who had a similar experience of Christ, to form the United Brethren in Christ. To think this all started because God used someone whose name was drawn out of a hat.

I wonder how Matthias felt about being chosen to replace Judas as an apostle. Honored? Scared? Humbled? Reluctant? Uncertain? We don’t know. But I do know I may feel any or all of these things, and probably some others, when I am chosen to replace someone in a responsibility.

And what about Joseph Barsabbas, AKA Justus, the guy who wasn’t chosen? How did he feel? Disappointed? Jealous? Relieved? Honored that he had been nominated? Satisfied that God’s will had been done? We don’t know that, either. Maybe the fact that the choice of Matthias was by lot rather than by election made it easier—after all, the lot eliminates politics and popularity from the process. It would not have occurred to the early Christians to have an election—that was not how the political process worked in those days. Indeed, the Bible never portrays any situation when people took a vote on anything.

Now when we replace things in our lives, we usually do not replace it with the exact same thing. When we replace a car, a TV, a sofa, a computer, we almost never replace it with one just like the old one. We replace it with one that has more current features and a different appearance.

The same principle applies when it comes to persons being replaced. Matthias was different than Judas—and since Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus, surely God did not want someone just like Judas to replace him. You and I are not just exactly like the people we replace. The people who replace us someday will not be like us. And that is a good thing. After all, God has given people a variety of gifts to serve God and our neighbor in the world.

Each of us, in our current roles, replaced someone else. Each of us will eventually be replaced. Let us be faithful to God in our current roles, and trust God to guide us when those roles change.


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