Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. As important as the disciples were, there are few churchgoers today who know their names much less know their stories. Scripture itself can be confusing. Several of the apostles share the same name, while others are giving different names all together. One name, however, has become synonymous with betrayal. It is a name forever etched into religious and cultural infamy as a person treacherous enough to betray a friend, Judas. After his death, the remaining 11 disciples agreed among themselves, that a twelfth disciples must be chosen to take Judas’ place. That is the story of today’s apostle- St. Matthias.
Surprisingly, the early church wasn’t always in complete agreement about celebrating Judas’ replacement. After all, how do you treat an apostle who had not been called directly by Jesus? In St. John the Lateran Archbasilica in Rome, the Mother Church of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no statue dedicated to Matthias. Instead, his image has been substituted by a statue of St. Paul. Matthias’ statue does stand atop St. Peter’s Basilica with 10 of the other apostles, yet his relics were not buried there like those of Simon and Jude. His own commemoration date as an apostle was not set until the 11th century. Still, Matthias does have something to teach us today.
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. It was also a demand of scripture. “Let another take his position of overseer.” The disciples believed that if the new covenant was to come from Jesus’ disciples, a twelfth was needed. But since Jesus himself had personally 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 his solution. “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 requirement, that like himself, Andrew, James and John, that the new apostle must be someone who had been a follower from the very beginning. Among the 120 gathered there in the Upper Room, there were candidates with mission experience.
In St. Luke’s gospel, we read that earlier in his ministry, there was another great commissioning. “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Now, however, St. Luke writes that only two men among the 120 were worthy and fit Peter’s requirement – Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas. Both men had been with them and with Jesus through the whole of his ministry. But which one had the heart to become a witness to his resurrection. The 11 apostles trusted that only Jesus truly knew the heart of each of them.
Having prayed for guidance, they placed their trust in God and cast lots. The 11 voted and the lots fell upon Matthias. 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. 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.
Th most dramatic of these legends is captured in an apocryphal writing called the Acts of Andrew and Matthias. According to this account, immediately after the selection of Matthias, the apostles cast lots to determine which of them would take responsibility for which part of the world, and the unlucky Matthias was dispatched to a city of cannibals who imprisoned strangers, blinding and drugging them to take away their senses, and then finally eating them on the thirtieth day of their imprisonment. Matthias was quickly arrested, imprisoned and blinded, but he retained his senses and prayed for help. On the twenty-seventh day Jesus appeared to Andrew, sending him to the rescue. Andrew and his disciples embarked on a boat piloted, unknown to them, by Jesus, at whose bidding Andrew recounted Jesus’ mighty works. On arrival Andrew rescued Matthias, who with the disciples was carried off by a cloud. Although an unabashedly fictionalized account, it is nevertheless an inspiring tale that shows us that Matthias having been dealt the worst possible lot, could nevertheless respond to his call with competence and grace.
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. The double headed ax serves as a symbol for his martyrdom.
According to tradition, Matthias’ remains were brought to Italy from Judea by Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Part of these relics were interred in Padua and the remaining were sent to the Abbey of St. Matthias, in Trier, Germany. These would be the first relics of an apostle buried north of the Alps.
So what does the story of Matthias teach us? There are actually several lessons that are intended to challenge, comfort and console us. First of all, the apostle teaches us that latecomers often have to work harder to be accepted. As the patron saint for alcoholics, Matthias has a poignant message of hope and discipline. He preached that the Holy Spirit would empower people to exercise self-control over their unhealthy physical desires so that they could experience success and good health in their body and soul. God offers new possibilities for life everyday, and often, like Matthias, you and I must make changes as well and work harder. That is challenging indeed, and may seem unfair, but it is why God offers you the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Second, the apostle teaches us that one can emerge from the shadow of dark things and hold their head high. Even though Matthias had done nothing wrong, he battled daily with the shadow of replacing Judas. Some thought that he too would betray Jesus as Judas had betrayed him or that he was not truly worthy of the office he had been given? No doubt, there were those who would always question whether he was the right person for this important task. Still he lived a life of faithful witness. Perhaps, there is a shadow hanging over you. Take comfort in Matthias’ example. He reminds us that there will be a day when you too will be able to walk proudly.
Third, Matthias’ story warns us that there will always be traitors who will act as friends. They will challenge your goals and trajectory by stealth. You too must learn to endure and persevere. From Jesus, Matthias heard the words of counsel, “Go on your way; I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” You are to be daring and brave in Jesus’ service, and to protect yourself as well. These are the people who will act as if they agree with you, but in reality, like Judas will sell you 30 pieces of silver without blinking an eye.
The late 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.” My friends, that is ultimately our calling in the world. Our works may be overlooked and dismissed, but we are invited like Matthias to counterbalance the evil done in this world with good. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.