The Text: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
In order to run a successful business or organization you need to have a well-thought out succession plan. People are not going to remain in their positions forever. In past generations it was more common to have the same career throughout your life. But these days it is estimated that the average person makes a career change approximately 5-7 times during their working life. There are also changes in jobs that happen within a particular career. So the statistics suggest that a third of the workforce changes jobs every 12 months.
Because of this rate of turnover the task facing any business or organisation is to identify and develop people from within who have the potential to fill key leadership positions. They need to be suitably prepared beforehand so they can step in and fill any gaps when they occur. This kind of succession planning can reduce the disruption caused when people happen to leave key positions.
Last Thursday was the festival of the Ascension, where we celebrate the crowning glory of Jesus who ascended to the right-hand side of the Father to take his rightful place in the heavenly realms. This occurred 40 days after the resurrection and 10 days before the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church.
This Sunday in the church year recognises a strange, in-between time for the disciples. They found themselves hanging around in Jerusalem after Jesus had ascended into heaven waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. But they weren’t just twiddling their thumbs during this time. They met for prayer and worship and they also had some house-keeping matters to attend to. In the Acts reading we heard that:
“In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, ‘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 the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection’” (v15, 21-22).
The Apostles encountered an unexpected vacancy in their number with the Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his subsequent death. They now numbered eleven rather than twelve. Judas needed to be replaced. The disciples ended up nominating two contenders for the position: “Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias” (Acts 1:23).
They then prayed to God to help them make their decision before they cast lots. This wasn’t like the proverbial ‘flipping a coin’. It was basically them casting their vote. We do the same thing in the church when we select people for certain positions when there is more than one candidate to choose from. In this case the lot fell to Matthias and he was added to the eleven apostles to complete their number.
God’s succession planning also includes each one of us. We are selected by name to join the community of faith, and this was done in baptism. When we were baptised into God’s family we received the call to follow Jesus. If that happened as an infant, then that is a calling we have from the cradle to the grave. If it happened later in life, then it is a calling from that moment on to the day we die. We don’t retire from being disciples, though we may be called to perform all sorts of different roles throughout our lives as disciples.
Some aspects of this discipleship calling are ones we all have in common. There are things we should all be enacting in our lives, regardless of our individual gifting. This includes the call to love one another and to forgive each other. These things are not optional extras for disciples but come with the job description.
Then there are other callings to serve in the body of Christ that revolve around particular gifts and offices. In our Acts reading it dealt specifically with the office of Apostle. That was a unique role in the early church placed upon those who had witnessed the life and ministry and resurrection of Jesus. The Apostles were responsible for helping to establish the church through their witness and teaching.
These days it could be the office of pastor or evangelist or teacher or some other leadership role. What succession plan do we have for these positions?
Is it simply a matter of us identifying those individuals in our community who have the potential to take on extra leadership responsibilities? Is it then a case of mentoring them and giving them the opportunity to grow in their role?
Sure we can do this and should do this. But there is a fundamental step that needs to be in place before any of this can happen. Look at the criteria that were used in order to narrow down the list of potential apostles to Joseph and Matthias.
They needed to have been with the group of disciples for the whole time Jesus had come in and gone out among them; from the time of his baptism in the Jordan River until the time of his ascension into heaven. No mention is made about any leadership qualities or abilities the men themselves had displayed.
The only thing that qualified Joseph and Matthias to succeed in the prospective position of apostle was their experience of Jesus and his ministry among them.
That is the fundamental thing we need to remember when it comes to planning in the church. If we simply want to run a congregation as a business or organization then we will be content to settle for identifying those with leadership skills and abilities. We will prepare people and give them opportunities to take on certain roles in the church, whether it is in finance or management or some other task.
But if we want to be a community that lives out the ministry and mission that our Lord is calling us to, then we are going to approach things differently.
It is not only a select few of us who are being called to serve in God’s kingdom. That calling is upon all of us as God’s Church. We’re being equipped for whatever roles we have to play as Jesus ministers to us in our midst.
It is in our relationship to Jesus that we are being prepared for his ministry and mission in our lives and in the life of his church. As we hear and read and reflect on his word, as we live in the grace of our baptism, as we receive his life-giving body and blood in the Lord’s Supper and as we gather as his people in worship for prayer and praise, he continues to be at work, coming and going among us.
As the ascended Lord, Jesus remains the head of his church. The apostles did not succeed him and none of us have succeeded him. The living Lord Jesus remains at the heart of the succession plan of his church as he comes in and out among those who gather in his name. It is Jesus who continues to inspire us and call us and equip us to serve in his church. If we continue in our relationship with him then we will be guided by him as to how we are to exercise our gifts and abilities.
In the body of Christ we should keep an eye out for those with certain gifts and abilities to serve in different capacities in the church. But we should be far more interested in seeing that we belong to a community where we are all seeking to grow as disciples of Jesus. If that is happening, then the ministry and mission our Lord wants us to engage in is already happening. As the head of his church the Lord Jesus will provide. So may we gather around him, grow in him and go with him wherever he is calling us to serve. Amen.