Texts: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Never trust a strawberry. At least, never leave it unsupervised. A friend moved to an old farmhouse in the Skagit Valley. The house, a rental for many years now, has seen better days and has suffered somewhat from a lack of commitment to its overall health and welfare.
Among the handful of issues, is the condition of the driveway. Originally bordered by strawberry beds, the plants staged a hostile takeover. They rooted down in the poor soil, producing little in the way of berries. Something had to be done.
So my friend consulted an elder wise in the ways of gardening and learned how to tame the strawberries. A mission unfolded from there. The tangled vines were uprooted and a few were replanted in a new bed. All was good. But the next spring brought a resurgence of the strawberries in the driveway. Again they failed to yield much fruit. The vines were removed a second time, with greater diligence.
But, in the garden border nearby it was another story. The transplanted vines rose from the earth with great beauty and energy. They flourished, blossoming and promising a welcome harvest. My friend continues to care for the strawberries, knowing that their fruitfulness is a matter of constant companionship with vigilant labor, but the reward is very sweet.
This story of change, challenge, renewal and fruitfulness when things are handed over to others mirrors the story of the church. In particular the message of Jesus must be handed over, tended carefully, and even uprooted for healthy renewal, if it is to be faithful to God’s invitation to fruitfulness.
From Acts 1 we see that an early challenge to the church was to deal with the loss of Judas. It’s not just that they were reduced from the sacred number of twelve reflecting the leadership of the twelve tribes of Israel to the imperfect number eleven. There was also the problem of dealing with their friend’s betrayal of their community and their mission.
The verses missing from the appointed reading today tell more graphically how Judas met his fate in an untimely death. Luke wrote the book of Acts to round out his gospel story of the mission of Jesus following his ascension. How did the church understand Judas?
Luke seems to conclude that what Judas did was a matter of fulfilling prophecy. But whether Luke meant some prophecy about a betrayer of God’s beloved servant or one about the necessity of God’s servant dying on a tree to accomplish God’s purposes cannot be known for sure. Instead of continuing the demonization of Judas, this process gave them a means of grieving and letting go of their friend.
So the election of Matthias was more than administrative. It was healing. And it was a spiritual necessity for the community to be reconstructed with new leadership to continue with their mission of proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ to all the world.
Matthias is not mentioned again in the scriptures. His importance is in being among the next generation to lead the church. It’s a reminder that Jesus was right about God’s faithful people. Supported by the Holy Spirit, the community will go on for always and always amen.
But not because of a formula. Though, lots of people have and still do interpret 1 John that way. As if the church is made up of people who know the secret code. You just have to believe in the name of the Son of God, and you will have eternal life.
But is the church really supposed to be entirely made up of people who know the code and dispense it to other worthy people? That would surely limit the Holy Spirit who seems to operate in a lot of different ways, and even through some pretty dicey characters. Jesus befriended a number of them.
Actually, John even says that the testimony or witness of God is greater than any human testimony or witness. All that is required to be the body of Christ is to believe in your heart that God speaks life-giving care and love to the world through Jesus. God does all the rest.
Perhaps the reason why being God’s community is so tied up in specific forms is that we tend to create more and more boundaries when we are anxious and struggling. So, God originally gave ten commandments about loving God and each other. But those commandments evolved into numerous statutes, laws, and regulations meant to keep God’s people pure. And how’s that working for us as our spiritual practice? As humans in community with one another?
On his last night, sitting with his disciples close around him, Jesus prayed. First for himself that he would stay true to his word, in obedience to the will of God his beloved Abba. Today’s verses are his prayer for his beloved friends, the disciples. And he prays hard and long for them. He knows they will falter and nearly forget his prayer and love in the hours and days ahead.
The essence of what Jesus prayed is this: the disciples were always God’s dear ones. Their decision to take the risk of following and belonging to the Way of Jesus was not a diversion from their devotion to the One, True, Holy God and Abba of all. It was instead a journey ever deeper into the love of God. A journey into life unending by way of challenge, discovery, and delight.
The journey made them different from the world. “World” here in these verses from John is kosmou/kosmon or, as we would say it, cosmos. The proper meaning of this word is “an ordered system”. So Jesus was telling them that by following him, they would leave the ordered system that prevailed, and enter another system – God’s Way – which is lived entirely in terms of sacrificial friendship, and beloved community.
God’s Way is more than risky in the estimation of the world. The world hates it, in fact. That’s why Jesus prayed for God to protect the disciples from powerful religious and political opponents as he had. And to give them joy as they dared to tell the story of God differently, with gentle love as the center, rather than power. This is the whole and holy truth.
Lastly Jesus prayed for his disciples to be trustworthy and united, not growing wildly in separate directions. Their mission was love for one another and for all, bearing good fruit every day.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.