Sunday, February 26, 2006

Getting Apostolic

Sermon for the Feast of St Matthias

(Acts 1:14-17, 20-26; Ps 84; Phil 3:13-21; Jn 15:9-17)

We have heard today that “the lot fell on Matthias”, but we don’t know much about him after he picked it and himself up. Even by the standards of those entries in Books of Saints which most of us have looked up from time to time when called upon to speak or simply to think about one of the apostolic heroes of the earliest Church, to the effect that “little is known of the later life of Saint so-and-so”, Matthias seems to drop out of sight with particular speed.

He is, admittedly, the joint hero of the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias in the City of the Cannibals, an exciting but not very edifying work which seems to have been some third century Christian author’s attempt to interest his teenage children in Church history or ancient geography by having the apostles go to exotic places and take part in ripping yarns. In fact such apocryphal travelogues are evidence for the confusion and embarrassment of the ancient Christians about the disappearance from the map of figures like Matthias. A glance through the pages of the NT reveals that the twelve have little significance beyond this point of the narrative, even in what we have come to call the Acts of the Apostles. What then does it mean to remember the apostle Matthias, or to profess belief in the apostolicity of the Church, as the creed has us do?

The shadowy figure of the apostle Matthias is illumined somewhat, if in silhouette or negative, by the contrast inevitably drawn with the figure of Judas, his much more colourful predecessor. The comparisons of the first reading are unmistakable, although the lectionary attempted to restrain the text of Acts by leaving out the verses depicting the graphic fate of Judas, complete with the description of him “burst open in the middle and his bowels gushed out.”

What is good about being the apostle Matthias depends somehow on the dangers of being the not-quite apostle Judas. Matthias is chosen because like Judas he was one “who had accompanied [them] during all the time that Jesus went in and out among [them], beginning from the baptism of John”, as Peter had put it when drawing up this job description for the vacancy in the apostolic circle. Even beyond this criterion of continuity, Judas more than Matthias was one of that inner group having the benefit of that intimacy that comes to mind when we hear Jesus talk of “abiding”, of being one of those whom Jesus now calls friends rather than servants because we know our master is doing, part of that community whose founding members they were remembered as.


Yet for all his apparent apostolic advantages, Judas’ choice is separation. For the likes of Dante, speculating about the future of Judas was to describe the nadir of eternal desolation and suffering. This also has a sort of geographical or architectural aspect in Dante, who depicts the Inferno as a vast complex of alienation, a sort of anti-city where there are many people but no community, and with Judas, along with others who have betrayed bonds of love and trust, in its ninth and deepest circle. There are those who from time to time have wondered aloud about whether the grace of God could not extend even to Judas, and imagine his ultimate restoration to the community. But even this serves to underline what the difference is; it is not fame or talent that makes an apostle, or even a personal intimacy with Jesus (which Judas had), but belonging, “abiding”, committing oneself to the faithful community. The deepest and worst of sin is alienation – from God and one another. The height and the best of salvation is love – God’s love for us and ours for each other in God.

If the Gospel has a future it is in “abiding”, in the circle, Church. By “Church” I do not mean the idea of a cluster of Christians earnestly abiding with the like-minded or the close at hand. By Church I mean that whole messy inconsistent community of pilgrims through history, that traces its faith not merely to a good idea once read in a book but to the living stones who were built, course after course, row after row, some famously and some anonymously, into the great, rambling, difficult edifice of the City of God. We cannot start again.

For the truth is that it is quite another city than that of the ‘cannibals’ that grants Matthias his real significance:

It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Rev 21)

We do not yet experience that city in its totality; but as we journey toward it we are, paradoxically, within as its builders, adding rows and courses on what went before. Even though we face enormous challenges in making that city habitable for new generations; even though some of its inhabitants imagine that they have created ‘mission-shaped’ gated communities that will appeal more to today’s spiritual house-hunters; despite all this, we are really just one city, one body, one living tradition inhabited by the Holy Spirit in mysterious and messy ways, founded on the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus the cornerstone.

Any Gospel that pretends to emerge and flourish otherwise is not that apostolic one, however well it reads the market. Any Gospel that offers individuals salvation apart from the challenge and promise of Church is not the apostolic one, however much more attractive it seems for its isolation of faith from history. To study theology is to study the architecture of this living city, past and present; to immerse ourselves lovingly and critically in its living past, and to commit ourselves to its future which is yet to be seen. I celebrate with you, as we begin another academic year, our membership of this school of craft, this guild of builders, this small corner of the one apostolic foundation.

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