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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Leonard Bernstein, the late conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, was once asked to name the most difficult instrument to play. Without hesitation, he replied: “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm – that’s a problem; and if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”
No one ever wants to be the second best and play the second part. Vince Lombardi once said, “There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game and that is first place.” The poet and editor of the New York Evening Post, William C. Bryant quipped, “Winning isn’t everything, but it beats anything in second place.” So can you imagine, being St. Matthias, the write-in candidate for 12th place apostle- the replacement for Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus? Probably not. But it is his story, the story of the Apostle Matthias, that we celebrate this day- and the life of every disciple who is willing to play second fiddle.
Soon after Jesus’ ascension in heaven, the disciples discovered their need for a replacement for Judas. Jesus had entrusted his 11 remaining disciples with the words of the Great Commission, to go to the ends of the earth “making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything” that he had commanded them. He had also told them to wait in Jerusalem to be “clothed from on high” whatever that meant. And so, with all the unanswered questions, doubts, and dangers facing them, they chose to focus their attention on choosing a twelfth disciple. Why did they feel that was so necessary? Twelve was a very important number to ancient Judaism. It was a number of completeness and maturity. Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel, and the sons of the Patriarch Jacob. The disciples believed that if the new covenant was to come from Jesus’ disciples, a twelfth was needed. But since Jesus himself had chosen the original twelve, how could they know whom to choose?
In scripture, it is written that there were one hundred and twenty people gathered in the upper room, when Peter stood up to propose the way to make the choice. “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” This was Peter’s only criterion, that, like Andrew, James, John, and himself, the new apostle must be someone who had been a follower from the very beginning. His requirement was simple. Any new disciple who would replace Judas, would face a heavy challenge. Since he would be a witness to Jesus’ resurrection, he must have followed the master before anyone knew him, stayed with him when he made enemies, and believed in him when he spoke of the cross, death and resurrection.
Only two men among the 120 fit this description — Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas. Both these men had been with them and with Jesus through his whole ministry. But which one had the heart to become a witness to his resurrection. The apostles trusted that only Jesus truly knew the heart of each of them.
Having prayed for guidance, the 11 voted and Matthias was elected. We are not absolutely certain how this drawing of lots was carried out. One method which was common at the time of Jesus was to write names on pebbles or pieces of broken pottery. The names were then placed in a container and shaken until one name flew out. The expression “the lot fell” would seem to suggest this method. However, the expression “he was added” could also be translated “he was chosen by vote.” Whatever the method, the disciples was confident that God would make his will known, and so Matthias was chosen to replace Judas in the Twelve, and the group was whole again as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Oddly, this is the first time we hear of the name Matthias mentioned in Scripture and the last. According to tradition, however, Matthias was born at Bethlehem of the Tribe of Judah. From his early childhood he studied the Scripture under the guidance of Saint Simeon, the old prophet who saw Jesus in the Temple. After the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, Matthias preached in Jerusalem and in Judea together with the other Apostles. From Jerusalem he travelled with the Apostles Peter and Andrew to Antioch and Cappadocia, and later Ethiopia where he was imprisoned. He was frequently subjected to deadly peril, but the Lord preserved him. .
There are two legends regarding his death. When the Apostle James the Brother of Jesus was flung down from the pinnacle of the Temple, Matthias was also arrested and brought for judgment before the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem. Using the prophecies of the Old Testament, the Apostle Matthias demonstrated that Jesus Christ was the True God, and the promised Messiah. This incensed the Sanhedrin, and so he was sentenced to death by stoning. In another tradition, Matthias was crucified and beheaded.
So what was it like for Matthias to play second fiddle to the 11 original disciples? What was it like to replace the traitor? Did others think he would betray Jesus as Judas has betrayed him or that he was not worthy of the office he had been given? Was Matthias the right person for this important task?
The selection of Saint Matthias teaches us two things – first, no matter our place in life, or when we are called, we are to preach the Word of God. Granted, we know very little about Matthias, but he, like many of the other apostles died a martyr’s death for Jesus Christ. Second, the story teaches us that there will always be traitors that we must endure and so we must protect ourselves- even within the Church. These are the people who seem to be in agreement with us, but in reality, like Judas would sell us for 30 pieces of silver without blinking an eye. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote of St. Matthias. “We draw from this a final lesson: while there is no lack of unworthy and traitorous Christians in the Church, it is up to each of us to counterbalance the evil done by them with our clear witness to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.”
So where do we begin? Perhaps, we should recall Leonard Bernstein’s words, “If we have no second fiddles, we have no harmony.” It’s an old joke: “What do you call the person who graduates last in medical school?” The answer- a “doctor.” The same was true with the disciple Matthias who was selected last. He would be called an “apostle.”
You see, as a follower of Jesus you have been given a high and worthy title. You are his friend, and he is your guide. He is playing the melody, and you are to play the harmony, and harmony is important to the music of faith. As one musicologist noted, “Harmony is the basic building blocks of all music. It’s impossible not to have harmony because harmony exists naturally. But why is it important? It establishes the mood and context of a piece and stops it from sounding ‘flat’. That’s a pretty important role for the personal playing second fiddle.
Unfortunately, we live in a competitive world where being second best is always viewed as losing. Perhaps you are frustrated today because you feel passed up and passed over in life. Perhaps you are jealous of a sibling, a teammate, a co-worker, or a friend. Perhaps you are wondering when it will be your turn for a day in the sun. Let that need go and enjoy the harmony. Learn from St. Matthias how to be content, grateful, and faithful in playing second fiddle. Determine to do your best, not to be the best.
Garrison Keillor once wrote, “Lutherans, (like St. Matthias I would add,) are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other. I do believe this: These Lutherans are the sort of people you could call up when you’re in deep distress. If you’re dying, they’ll comfort you. If you’re lonely, they’ll talk to you. And if you’re hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad!”
In the King James Version of the Bible, the word ‘leader’ is mentioned only six times. The word ‘servant,’ however, is mentioned more than 900 times. I haven’t counted to see whether that’s true, but either way, it reminds me that playing second fiddle seems to be more God pleasing and regarded more highly by Jesus than leading and singing a sole. My friends, St. Matthias was willing to accept the call of the 12th apostle and to play second fiddle to Jesus. All because he knew that harmony in the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes all the difference. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.