You’ve had those spaces of life, haven’t you, where everything has fallen to pieces? A horrible divorce in your family. A terrible sickness that takes someone’s life. A time of intense work that tires you out and makes you tense at the same time. Pending changes that just make you nervous about how things will turn out. Those rocky fields are sometimes, forgive me now, a bloody mess, aren’t they? In the carnage of whatever difficulty, you are asking what God is doing, what purpose you serve, and whether you’re serving it.
Our problems probably don’t scale up to quite the same historic level as the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot. Nor even the fallout of his suicide that spilled over into the disciples’ lives. But we know what it is to feel like everything has fallen to pieces or that there are gaps to fill to get back to good. And more than just in our personal lives, we are people of God. So what we experience and how things fall apart is often directly connected to how our personal and corporate ministries as God’s servants go. Be encouraged this morning by God’s early-early church, growing in the gospel in Acts ch.1. Here we find a ministry model for us that helps us to keep on track in the midst of trial and trouble.
Review things for a moment. In Acts 1, it’s that gap-time between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus had commanded the disciples return to Jerusalem and wait. They prayed together and waited and had lots to think about. Imagine how they would have rethought their purpose as disciples, the direction things had taken and where they’d go, and that small issue of Judas…and his absence among them. Surely they struggled with anger about what Judas had done. Surely they thought back and felt fools about conversations they’d had with him or moments they could remember when they should have seen this or that that could have saved their teacher, Jesus. Those would have been self-centered sorts of things, wouldn’t they? Instead, listen again to how Peter reminds himself and them and us that in this ministry as God’s people we are sent out by God.
In v.17, Judas had been one of them and had shared in this ministry they had. And now, someone else was necessary to take his place. Look at vv.23-26. There are two good candidates to replace him – men who had been with the disciples from the beginning. And they picked up the Old Testament practice of “casting lots”, like drawing straws or rolling dice, to choose between them. It’s not because they don’t care. Not because they can’t make decisions. The men are qualified – they fit the bill. They’re both pleasing candidates. So they ask God to choose another apostle just as Jesus first chose the 12. Listen to how Peter frames it, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry…”
Here’s a simple reminder for us. This account doesn’t give a prescription for choosing pastors or teachers or decision-making in church or life. It’s no command from God that we ought to be rolling dice about what cars to buy or what spouse to choose. It’s not like that. In fact, if anything, it’s a reminder for us that things are very definite even when they seem most in question to us: because the plans are in God’s hands. To be specific, the ministry that we as a church do – and the sharing of the gospel that you do – God sends us out to do it. It’s his work, his oversight, his ministry, his plan. Perhaps we fear that ministry plans will fall apart if things as we know them right now change. We can become afraid of making decisions period because so much could go so wrong. As Jesus reminded in the gospel, we don’t go out under our own names and in our own abilities but under the power of Jesus’ name, watched over by our heavenly Father, encouraged by his mighty Word. Peter reminds us simply – we’re sent out by God.
In this ministry model for us then, God enables and empowers us – and we go out to carry the message that everything he has said was fulfilled. We tell that everything happened just as promised. Peter said, “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…” We don’t tell the story of Judas though, do we? Judas’ story – gross and sickening as it is – is a warning of what happens when we become so self-focused that we don’t serve others in Jesus’ love, but instead only love ourselves. Judas got a field of blood and the reward of death – the wages of his sin. And everyone knew it. It wasn’t a good witness of the wonder that is salvation. It was a testament to selfishness and its reward. And it’s a warning to us who are also tempted. Our betrayals would be different than his but essentially the same – temptations to serving ourselves. In our fears and our desires, we might call all of this mine – the things I need, or the things we want as a church, the things that will keep our reputations kosher with the world, the plans that will make us look good to other people, or the ones that will keep us safe. But God calls us to ministry or service one another and those around us. When we observe Judas’ end, we’re reminded and warned that God’s plan is that we serve people with salvation – ministering to others with that message just as we have been ministered to.
Let’s say there’s even just a bit of Judas in us – we know our sins. What moves us in sorrow and repentance to serve with confidence? The greatest piece of this ministry plan for us comes when Peter reviews in vv.21-22 the kind of guys they were looking for in their new apostle role. They wanted people who knew the story of Jesus – in their time, they wanted people who had been with them the entire time – with the group of the disciples. Guys who could tell about Jesus’ teaching, his baptism and God’s approval of his Son, his crucifixion and his love for sinners, how he ascended all glorious to heaven. Two things come to mind for our own ministry then:
- It’s interesting how Peter characterizes this kind of person – one who’s seen all these things – not witness of Jesus’ crucifixion, not witnesses of his ascension, but witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Consider:
- St. Paul says in Romans 4:25 that “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” He was delivered into death to conquer the guilt of our sins, and was raised to life to confirm our justification – to make it happen that we be declared not guilty of sins. And to the Corinthians in chapter 15 he says something similar, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” But Christ has been raised!
- So, God sends you out, witnesses not of a Savior who just taught or horribly died. Yes, payment for sins and punishment of death at the cross was necessary, but you aren’t witnesses of a dead Lord. You are witnesses of a Lord who lives so much that all your sins, repeated, struggling, selfish sins – they are dead. And you and me, by faith, we’re so alive that our sins cannot touch us – we serve God as his perfect people – and life will not be damaged by the threat of death. We will live with God forever.
- And that is crazy-huge, isn’t it? So, I also find it interesting that Joseph & Matthias aren’t anywhere noted in the gospels? They’re nowhere to be found listed as “with [the disciples] the whole time”. I don’t mean that Peter’s lying. I mean that there were obviously believers in Jesus silently serving right alongside those first 12 apostles, listening to Jesus’ word, encouraging others, telling of him. It wasn’t only the rockstar apostles who witnessed – it was lots of other, normal people you never saw.
- You want joy for a plan for ministry – just personal ministry? How about this whole setup – that God almighty, the Lord, sends us out; and his love encourages us such that we don’t worry about ourselves but can serve up his salvation to anyone; and the significance of our work isn’t our own talents – in fact, we might be the nameless face in the background, silently serving, having passing conversations, being a good friend, super-smart or reserved, great speaker or daily doer – but we’re witnesses of the great power of God that Jesus rose from the dead, conqueror over every sin and eternal death.
No matter the field of life you’re in, no matter the gap that needs to be filled, no matter the trouble you’ve encountered, put your trust in God’s might and power in the risen Christ in this ministry plan he’s prepared for us. And pray that God blesses us to do it.
Please rise, and we’ll ask him in prayer…
“Lord, you know everyone’s heart. You’ve shown us your heart in Christ. Now show us each day different ways in which we may serve others by bringing your salvation, the joy of Jesus’ resurrection out in our lives. Amen.”