The work of discernment – a sermon

Easter Seven is a weird, in-between, sort of time.  Long gone are the stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.  We’ve run through a few Sunday’s worth of Jesus teaching his disciples while seemingly trying to use the word “abide” as many times as possible.  In our Gospel lesson, every Easter Seven, we hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples during the Last Supper.  Somehow, we’ve circled all the way back around to that upper room on Maundy Thursday.  I guess it makes sense.  This is day three of the awkward in-between time.  On Thursday, forty days after he was resurrected from the dead, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, just outside the city walls, commanded them to not leave Jerusalem until the Spirit came, and then ascended into heaven before their eyes.  As they stood there, staring into the sky, two men, dressed in white, appeared and sent the disciples back to the upper room to pray and wait.

Our Acts lesson tells the story of that prayerful waiting.  For ten days, 120 of Jesus’ closest disciples, both male and female, spent their time intentionally praying for the Spirit and the future of the Way.  In the course of that time of prayer, Peter realized that the number eleven just wouldn’t do.  There were many disciples, but Jesus had set aside twelve as apostles, those who were explicitly sent to go and preach and teach and heal.  One of the twelve had failed to live into that calling.  We all know the story of Judas.  He betrayed Jesus and succumb to his own guilt.  His choices left a void in the group.  Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel.  For a group of Jewish disciples seeking to restore the wholeness of God’s mercy in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth, twelve was a nice, clean number.  Eleven wasn’t so nice a number, and so they put their heads together, still in prayer, and discerned two qualified candidates to replace Judas.  Two men who had been with Jesus since his baptism by John in the Jordan, a higher standard than most of the others could muster.  Two men who could share the responsibility of being “witnesses to the resurrection.”

In the end, the decision came down to the three-named Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus and Matthias.  They cast lots, an ancient custom for discerning the will of God, and it fell, conveniently, on the guy with one only name.  Matthias would be number twelve.  He would take his place among the inner circle.  He would be looked at as a leader in the community.  And, with that, just like his co-candidate, Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus, we never hear Matthias’ name again.  In fact, the only thing that the church seems to have held onto from this story is a New Testament scriptural warrant for casting lots.


I know that the drawing names versus election conversation has a long history here at Christ Church.  I am aware that there were serious pastoral considerations at the time the move away from elections was made, and that there is still some anxiety about the move back to elections.  I’m certain that the age-old adage, “if you reach for the canons to win a debate, you’ve already lost” is absolutely true.  I’m also very familiar with how hard it can be to put yourself out there for an election.  Yet even with all of this, I’m apt to agree with my friend Evan Garner who suggested earlier this week that, ultimately, what method we use to choose leaders in the church doesn’t matter, so long as we’ve done our prayer homework, and that maybe faithful elections are just another way of casting lots, if we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit as our advocate and guide.[1]

Despite the scriptural tradition of Acts 1, it didn’t take the early church long to determine that the ancient practice of casting lots wasn’t the only way to make decisions.  History shows that by the third century, election was the preferred method for choosing bishops in the church.  Saint Cyprian, who died in 258, believed that it was through the election process that the Holy Spirit worked to keep unworthy candidates from rising to episcopal office.  In the Church of England, from the very beginning of the modern Vestry in 1598, those have been elected positions.[2]  In the United States, the Episcopal Church, whose governance structure was built by some of the same people who were building the civil government, democratic elections at every level of the church have been the norm since the Revolution.

We have elections to thank for our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry and for our Bishop, Terry White.  Even my coming to Christ Church wasn’t the result of casting lots or drawing names, but the intentional process of discernment that ultimately led to a vote.  Not that any of these wonderful things might not have happened if names were drawn from a hat, but I’m not sure that the final way we choose a name is what matters, instead it is about the process of prayer that leads up to it.

The first time I stood for election was for my high school Senior Class President.  I ran an elaborately childish campaign based on popular culture.  At the time, Saturday Night Live had a recurring bit called “deep thoughts by Jack Handy,” and so I created posters based on some of those pithy quotes.  The one I can remember most clearly read, “Sometimes I wish Steve Pankey was dead.  Oh wait, not dead, Senior Class President.”  They were kind of funny, and they got me a lot of attention, but I still lost the election.  It hurt to lose, but I learned a lot about myself in the process.  And twenty years later, I’m sure glad I don’t have to plan a reunion from seven hundred miles away.

A high school class election might not be the best example, but I can look back on the lessons I learned in every election and be grateful.  Thankfully, over the years, I’ve won more elections than I’ve lost, and each time, I know that I’ve grown a bit.  This is especially true in the elections I’ve been a part of in the church.  As I’ve considered whether to allow my name to be entered into nomination, I’ve had to do some intentional discernment work.  Am I gifted in the areas that are required?  Do I have the time and energy to commit to this work?  Is God calling me to give up something else in order to fill this role?  Are there people with whom I need to work to make this election, win or lose, something that can be upbuilding for the church?

In that upper room, during the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there was a lot of active discernment happening.  The disciples were praying for wisdom while listening for God’s plan for the future of the fledgling church.  They were, no doubt, asking questions about who would lead them, who would be called to serve, and how the physical needs of the community might be met.  As they prayed and listened, some clarity came.  Before anything else, they needed a twelfth person to be called Apostle.  With that, their prayer become focused around who might be called, and they discerned that it was Matthias.  Truth be told, the church probably would have been just fine had Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus’ lot been the winner because, in the end, it isn’t about who or how the person is ultimately selected, but about the work of prayer and discernment that goes into it.

We’re a long way out from electing another set of vestry members, but I think a lesson we can take away from the Acts reading is that we shouldn’t wait until the week before the annual meeting to begin the process of discernment.  Instead, we are called to constantly be in discernment for ourselves and our church, listening for God’s call to serve in all kinds of ways, from Sunday School teacher or Wednesday lunch volunteer to welcoming guests on Sunday morning or serving on the Vestry.  Pray for discernment.  Pray for your vestry and our ministry leaders.  Pray for the Church.  In doing this work of discernment, we can be certain that, by the time the next annual meeting comes around, every candidate is qualified, and that win, lose, or draw, the leadership of Christ Church Bowling Green rests securely in hands of God.  Amen.


[2] Prichard, Robert, History of the Episcopal Church, 9.

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