Take a chance on me…

13 03 2010

Any priest who encouraged their congregation to take a punt on the ponies would probably not be surprised to be summoned to see their bishop. Gambling has probably rightly been seen as difficult to reconcile with Christian discipleship. It’s forever associated in the Christian imagination with the game of dice that determined which of the soldiers that had brutally executed Jesus would get to keep the shirt off his back. Gambling is associated too with the frivolous waste of resources – the opposite of good stewardship – and with greed and vice. Games of chance seem at odds with a somewhat more deterministic Christian worldview. Letting things turn on the roll of a dice appears the inverse of seeking to learn the will of God.

And yet at the very beginning of the Church’s life we see a pretty major decision being made on the basis of a game of chance. Choosing the successor of Judas was settled by the casting of lots (aka cleromancy [sorry I love jargon]) according to the book of Acts.

It’s not the only time it features in the Bible when people are trying to hear from God or in the next case, the gods. In the story of Jonah, the stormblown sailors work out who the ‘Jonah’ is by casting lots. According to some writers on t’internet there are 70 references to ‘lots’ in the Hebrew Scriptures and a handful in the New Testament. That may be right or it might not. To be honest I can’t be bothered to trawl through and check it out. Maybe I should cast my urim and thummim to find out…

Thinking about the choosing of Matthias over Justus led me to wonder about the role of chance in the process of discernment.

If you’re a reasonably regular reader of this blog then you’ll probably have been wondering if there was ever going to be anything new on here anytime soon. But leaving that aside you probably also know that I’m in the process of writing my MA disssertation at present. It’s on the subject of discernment in pioneer ministry. This is no pure ‘academic’ exercise for me. There are some really puzzling questions facing my colleague and I and the churches and communities we serve. Finding out what shape is taken here by the ‘thy will’ that we want to ‘be done’ in Somerstown as in heaven is very much on our agenda. I’ll say more in coming posts about what we might mean by God’s will and how we engage with it. For now let it suffice to say that I don’t think it’s as simple as working out what God wants and then just getting on with it.

Thinking about casting lots came about as I puzzled over how to help my little mission community – the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s – into taking part in and responsibility for discerning a way foward for our ‘Sunday Sanctuary’ endeavour as we went away together for the first weekend in March. I was taking a trawl through the book of Acts looking at occasions when the Church in mission engaged in a process of discernment as its members wrestled with questions of direction. And this choice – who should replace Judas as one of ‘the Twelve’ – was the first that we looked at. At our weekend away, I suggested four features of that process that might help us in facing the questions that lay before us. I’ve since thought of a fifth. So starting with that new thought, here are five features of the discernment process that I discern in Acts 1.12-26.

  1. BEING GROWN UP
    This is pretty much the first decision that the band of Jesus’ disciples had to make following the ascension of Jesus. Here for the first time they’re on their own. They’re not simply following where they’re led anymore. The responsibility lies with them. I think that’s significant. It’s not simply a matter of seeing where Jesus is off to next and tagging along. It calls for a degree of maturity, independence even. I don’t mean that they are no longer dependent on Christ. But their relationship has changed. He is simply not physically there any more. The disciples have to come to terms hwith his abscence. His promised presence comes to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the Acts account, the fullness of the Spirit is yet to come at this point. They’re not quite on their own. But they’re not just followers any more either. It’s down to them. They have to grow up.
  2. GROUNDED IN PRAYER
    But as much as they have to grow up from their dependence on Jesus’ constant physical presence and direction, they are absolutely grounded in prayer. They don’t approach this question cold, their response comes out of their prayer. According to the writer of Acts they are ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’. I think this isn’t so much about just becoming empty vessels through which the Holy Spirit can speak. Prayer is the means by which they continue to be formed as disciples; to become themselves; to grow up into the people God is calling them to be.
  3. ROOTED IN THE TRADITION
    Judas was a pretty bad egg. At least that’s what the writer of this text wants us to think. None of this hanging himself after being overcome with remorse as in Matthew. (Take note anyone who wants to deny that the Bible has errors or contradictions.) In contrast to Matthew’s account, the Acts writer depicts a smug Judas getting his come-uppance. God gets ‘medieval on his ass’. Anyway none of that is really the point! The point is that despite having had a really bad experience with one of the Twelve (whom incidentally, Jesus chose), they don’t think: ‘well, eleven apostles is enough’. It doesn’t even occur to them that there should be fewer than twelve. The deep sacramental significance of the number is not a matter of small importance for them. It was what they had received from their Lord and it echoed the symbolic division of tribes in their own sacred history. There was no question for them but that their should be a twelfth apostle.
  4. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
    I suppose this is very much linked to the first point, so maybe that wasn’t such a new point after all. But it comes from a different part of this story of discernment. There are about 120 people together at the point of making this choice. Some of these will have joined the growing (and, on occasion, shrinking) band of disciples at different points in Jesus’ ministry. But the original Twelve were chosen from a bigger band of followers who had been there from the start: Jesus’ baptism. So I think it’s unlikely that the two names were the only two possible names that could have been put forward at this point. This group have taken responsibility and narrowed down the options. From a larger field of candidates they have got it down to two between whom they cannot choose. They’ve got two good options. If there was only one obvious choice, they wouldn’t have needed the next step. It would have been settled by default. But the writer wants us to see that the unsuccesful candidate was a jolly good egg. Joseph Barsabbas (son of Sabbas) has the latin nickname ‘Justus’ – meaning fair-minded.
  5. LEAVING IT TO CHANCE
    This is the bit that is the most difficult for the modern mind to cope with. But when it came down to it, they left it to chance. They drew straws or threw dice or coloured stones. We don’t know exactly how they ‘cast lots’ and it’s a good thing that we don’t. Otherwise we might have ritualised that particular action instead of being able to see the metaphorical possibilities. There is a place for chance, or happenstance if you prefer, in finding a way forward.

At the beginning of our weekend away we drew straws to see who would end up reading which Bible passage of the half a dozen or so we would be hearing over the course of the weekend. I suggested to people that if they got one of the Bible readings they might look for what God wanted to say to them through this particular reading. And to those who didn’t get a reading, I made the invitation that they look for what God was wanting to say to them through not having a specific passage to look at.

Does that mean that I think God chose this particular reading (or lack of a reading) for them? I honestly don’t know.

I suspect not.

I think it’s more about the openness to hear from God that’s important. I believe that God, by God’s Spirit is gently calling, speaking, leading us all the time. That openness, if people achieved it, will have created the space for them to connect with the still small voice and so grow into what God has for them. Do you understand what I mean?

I guess I’d say the same about that group of disciples. Was Matthias the only right choice? Was there some flaw in Justus’ character that meant he would have been a disaster? He surely couldn’t have been worse than Jesus’ personal choice: Judas. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe both men would have been an equally good choice but in the end there could be only one. So let chance happen and see what emerges.

But what both men had, I think, is character. They were formed through their experience of Jesus and their deep and constant engagement with God in prayer. In the end it was about the whole community being shaped by Christ together and then seeing what happened. As I’ve said before I think this is a more authentic way of reading the stories of Jesus himself. I don’t think his ministry is about him following a minutely laid out plan. So that at every point he is hearing form his Father what to do next – turn left up ahead you’ll meet a blind man, heal him; breathe in, Son, now breathe out – no I really think Jesus just wanders about and stuff happens because of who he is. Wherever he goes, there’ll be a blind man or a troubled woman or a demoniac or a dead child. So maybe for us too, discernment is more about the formation of a Christlike character in us as individuals and communities. Making some choices ourselves using the brains what God has given us, then, taking a chance, letting stuff happen.

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3 responses

21 03 2010
gloriousthings

Thank you! I am wondering if this may help my community as they come to terms with the moving on of a well loved leader and the discerning of what to do next.

25 03 2010
gloriousthings

I like Jon Birch cartoon on this topic. Go see. http://asbojesus.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/863/
Perhaps he has been reading your blog

2 01 2011
2010 in review « the Pompey Pioneer

[…] Take a chance on me… March 20102 comments 3
[…]

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