Sunday, May 24, 2015

cairns on the corner of 121st and Riverside

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 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. 
--Acts 1: 23-26


The Acts of the Apostles was never a particularly compelling book for me. It all seemed sort of vague, and very Roman in flavor. And Christ, with His witty, sardonic snippets of Divine Wisdom and surprising antics wasn't a starring player, and I hadn't learned to love Saul/Paul (who seemed to turn very dull the moment after he got knocked off that horse). So I found the whole book to be a bit dreary, honestly. It was something necessary you had to read if you wanted to get to the really juicy bits in Revelation.

I was not converted into a lover of Acts until recently, as we've been fed a steady diet of Acts of the Apostles during the Liturgy. In particular, my attention was caught by the above Gospel passage. It's a very strange story, in fact. There is no reason why the Apostles should have appointed a successor to Judas, or at least no obvious, apparent reason. It is not a natural order of things: it does not follow, as spring follows winter or night follows sunset or water flows downhill. When we read this passage of Acts in the liturgy over the past weeks, it struck me that the Apostles were just like me and my friends: they had no idea what they were doing.

When Christ rose from the dead, He did not bring with Him blueprints or roadmaps for the Apostles. (Imagine: a Rand McNally atlas for Salvation.) They had a command to Go Forth. And it was very much up to them to figure out the details.

The first chapter of Acts details the discernment process that led up to the choosing of a successor for Judas. It is actually quite fascinating, because I forget that the Apostles, like all of us, had to discern God's will. It is beautifully painful and strangely comforting, to watch them wrestle with discernment. These men who were, for so long, accustomed to having direct access to the word of God; who were able to converse with the Eternal Logos now are, in a way, deprived of that direct access. I can only imagine the pain and frustration.

Imagine those first few days of reading the Scriptures in prayer, hoping to find some sort of guidance there. Imagine wishing, bootlessly, that He would appear at your shoulder and point to the text that you needed to see; open up your eyes to viewing it in a new way. Imagine crying out in frustration: why aren't you here when I need you? Tell me what to do! For three years, there had always been a human voice, responding, comforting, answering your voice. Now: nothing. Just the vast sky, and the vast universe surrounding you.

It is obvious that the Apostles do not know which way to go. In my youth, I had assumed that the Apostles had immediately known which way to go. They were adults, so naturally they would know what to do, right?
As they stared at Christ ascending (whatever that must have looked like. How could human eyes bear such a sight?), I had always assumed the Apostles then turned, with great joy, and began their work.
Oh, great. Now I guess we will go found that Church, of course that's what we'll do. We'll make this Church and do this thing and go tell everybody all about it. Oh of course. Let's go do it. 
Peter. Peter. Hey, Peter, you know how to do those Church things, right? You know: the founding and the making and the being
a Church. Right? 
Good. 
Okay. 
Oh wait.
And we obviously need a twelfth of us. 
We need a twelfth.
Because Apostles. There must be twelve of Apostles.
Not eleven.
Obviously.

Not so much.
Although they had received a command to go "be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth," they didn't go do that. At least not right away.
They "went back to the room in which they were staying." And they stayed there for a while. For a good, long while.
A long enough time that one hundred and twenty people flocked to them.
And Peter, after long thought and prayer, found the next step. It is written down so simply, so effortlessly, as though the answer just popped into Peter's head, and out his mouth.
But, it seems that Peter's course was not so easy.
Imagine the long nights of doubt. Lord, can I do this?
Imagine the searching for the answer. Lord, where shall we go?
Imagine the fear, the image of the Cross scorched into your mind. Lord, where are you going?
As they took this first step into this ministry, they knew that they were taking their first step to their own Golgothas.
And yet, if they did not begin this ministry, if they did not carry His words to Jersulaem, Judea, and to the ends of the earth, then His death and rising would have been in vain.
It was crucial that they begin.
And yet what a cost: the cost of bringing the Good News to the world was death.

So why would they? Why would they enter into this mission that would end in the cross?

As Benedict XVI writes: "Indeed apostolic preaching with all its boldness, and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside, with something entirely new and unforeseen." (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg. 275)

Because they had witnessed Resurrection. Because they now had a hope of something that would endure beyond the grave.
Because, although Christ was not with them in flesh and blood; they knew He was there in the breaking of the bread. They knew that He was present to them in a new way, a way He had never been before.

They did not know which way to go. They, like we, had no idea what the next hour would bring, much less the next day.
And thus Pentecost becomes a day remarkable for its boldness, that celebrates great bravery and love.  They, as we do, struggled to see the path laid out before them. They did not know what adventures, pains, and sorrows the road would bring. All they could do was take one step. Then another. Then another. In blind Faith. These men, who were so used to seeing, were now walking, as we do, as blind men, depending on wisdom, discernment, and courage to forge our way ahead. Pentecost is a day that celebrates when these simple men and women--not so different from ourselves, and impelled by a love deeper than the heavens and larger than the vast universe--took their first step forward, and began a great mission which continues to this day.

 But they went forth and preached everywhere, 
while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word 
through accompanying signs. 
--Mark 16:20


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