Gambling and Math: Methodology of the Holy Spirit
Well, folks, we’ve got some real crazy going on in our lesson from Acts today.
Ascension Day was on Thursday, and Jesus has left.
Now what are we supposed to do?
And Pentecost is some days off both for us and the original disciples. The Holy Spirit, called the Comforter, has not arrived yet and we find ourselves rather at a loss as to what to do next.
Luckily, Peter has an idea.
Peter always has an idea, and he always wants to share it. Whether it is building booths on the mountainside for Jesus, Elijah and Moses or jumping out of a boat in a storm to walk on water to test if Jesus is a ghost, Peter is nothing if not a man of action.
So Peter says that the next step for us to take is to find a replacement for Judas.
Jesus wanted twelve apostles, and so, by God, we’re going to have twelve apostles.
Who has been with us since day one? Who has been here since we first saw John the Baptist baptizing in the River Jordan?
Everyone looks around the room and two names come up: Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias.
I see two very different men when I picture these two in my head.
Joseph had three names: his first name, Joseph, Barsabbas, a patronymic showing that everyone knew his father, and a nickname, Justus, meaning he was known to be a just person.
I picture him being kind of a politician, someone who was climbing the ranks of the disciples and thought it only appropriate that he be considered for the open position in the twelve.
Matthias, however, just has one name, and not even a full name at that. Matthias is the Greek short form for the Hebrew Matthew, which means “gift from God.”
In English, he would have been called “Matt,” as in, “Yeah, I think that guy Matt has been with us since the Jordan.”
I picture Matthias as a quiet man whose heart is full of excitement and devotion that few know about. He has faithfully followed Jesus for so long because not only has he seen the healing Jesus brings to others, he has felt it within his own heart.
I wonder what he felt when his name was brought forward as a candidate for the 12th apostle.
Did he panic? “I cannot possibly be a part of this group of leaders,” he might have thought.
I bet he was afraid.
But I bet he also thought, “I’ve trusted Jesus through his death and resurrection and going away to the Father. I will trust him now to be with me and show me the way.”
Thus much for my imagining of the two candidates.
But that’s when we get to the crazy part.
“Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”
They cast lots.
The disciples have every discernment tool and decision making process in the world open to them to find the new twelfth apostle, from democracy to mystical visions to dictatorial fiat to arm wrestling and they choose: gambling and math.
Gambling and math, the bedrock principles of the early Church, apparently. This entertains me to no end and has all week.
First: gambling. Casting lots is a game of chance.
The most immediately previous example of it happening in the Bible is the Roman soldiers casting lots at the foot of the Cross for Jesus’ clothing. What a delightful precedent.
And then, math. Casting lots is a decision making process that relies on the mathematical principles of probability and random chance.
This is like when we flip a coin to make a decision. We know that we cannot influence the outcome because there is a mathematical certainty that it will land heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time in a random order.
It’s supposed to create fairness by removing human input.
Well, the disciples have successfully removed human input.
The fascinating part is that they believe and trust that they now will be able to access divine input, that God will act through this mathematical gambling methodology called casting lots.
It demonstrates a trust in the not-yet-arrived Holy Spirit that is at once radical and practical.
It is radical because they all believe that the will of God will manifest through the casting of lots, but it is practical because they provide a mechanical means of receiving that will in the casting of the lots.
They don’t just wait for skywriting or fireworks or a voice from heaven.
And they all agree to abide by whatever the outcome is, and according to the text, don’t seem to argue about it afterward. That is remarkable in and of itself.
Particularly when you think about how difficult a moment this is for the disciples.
Jesus is gone and the Holy Spirit has not yet arrived.
I think Jesus did this on purpose.
I think this was his way of pushing them, and us, out of the nest.
For the work of the kingdom to go on, the front ranks of the twelve apostles must be filled. Someone has to step up to the plate to take on the leadership and responsibility of being an apostle.
It is a dangerous job to take on, for if the Romans decide to take a dim view of the burgeoning movement, the twelve apostles will be seen as the ringleaders and treated accordingly.
Prison, torture and execution are very real risks for anyone taking on this mantle.
Even Joseph the Just must have felt some apprehension as the dice were ready to be cast.
Imagine the hush in the room as the fate of two men and perhaps the future of the apostles’ ministry is about to be decided by a roll of the dice.
Peter prays, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen.”
And the lot falls on Matthias, who is named “gift from God.”
And indeed this moment is a gift from God.
It showed the disciples that Jesus kept his promise to be with them in spirit even though he was absent in body.
It showed them that by continuing on in faith with building their ministry, God would guide them.
And it showed them that the only test of worthiness anyone need pass to become an apostle is the willingness to step forward and take the risk.
I think this short episode in Acts about the choosing of a man who is never again mentioned in the Bible has a lot to teach us.
We all have times in our lives when we feel like Jesus is gone and the Spirit is nowhere to be found.
When there are major decisions to be made, when money is tight, when grief or pain are heavy and confidence and hope are scarce, we feel stuck somewhere between Ascension and Pentecost.
We all have times when it seems as though the forces of the universe are as indifferent and uncaring as the principles of mathematics, and we might as well roll the dice to try and figure out what to do next.
But instead of a time of loneliness and despair, the landscape of this season between Jesus leaving us and the Spirit coming to us is a broad horizon of opportunity.
This is our chance to put into practice everything Jesus taught us.
He taught us to dwell in community, to pray for God’s guidance in all things, and to bravely step up and take risks for the sake of building the kingdom.
That is what the apostles do in this story, and that is what we are called to do today.
Nobody floats away on a cloud and there are no tongues of fire descending on our heads, but that quiet, strong voice in our hearts is saying, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
I think that’s worth taking a gamble on.
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