09 May 2016

Sermon – “A Vacancy Filled” (Acts 1:15-26)

A couple of weeks ago I was in conversation with a friend who is a former Commander in the Canadian Navy. At some point we got onto the topic of leadership in the church and he made the comment, “Leadership is critical.” My immediate reply to him was, “No, leadership is everything.” Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t advocating elitism or clericalism in the church. They are both poisonous. What I was seeking to say is that almost always it is the leader who is most influential in setting the tone and direction of the whole organization.
In his book Good to Great, management expert Jim Collins’ research into successful major U.S. corporations led him to the conclusion that the principal factor in their advancement was humble, focused leadership from the top. Ironically, it seems to me that Collins might have come to the same conclusion if he had studied the Bible and not the growth charts of successful American businesses. (However, I admit that his book probably would not have been the best seller that it was if he had!) Think of Moses, for example, the towering leader of the Old Testament, whose imprint remains on the Jewish people (and ourselves) to this day. How does the Bible describe him? “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
It should come as no surprise, then, that a number of passages in the New Testament are devoted to the subject of leadership in the church. Allow me to share a few of them with you:
•   Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful in marriage, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach… (1 Timothy 3:1-2)
•   Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
•   [An overseer] must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. (Titus 1:8-9)
•   To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)
•   Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
In this morning’s reading from Acts we are with Jesus’ followers just days after his ascension. And what do we find them doing? Looking for a new leader to replace Judas Iscariot. I believe it is significant that they saw as their very first priority the necessity of filling this gap in their leadership—and they didn’t waste any time in doing it. I also believe that there are some important principles we can draw from their experience about leadership in the church.

Leaders are not above criticism

The first lesson I glean from this passage seems fairly obvious. It is that leaders in the church are not above criticism. Peter speaks fairly, even fondly perhaps, of Judas Iscariot as “one of our number”, one who “shared in our ministry”. Yet he does not make any attempt to cover up Judas’ act of deceit and betrayal, turning Jesus over into the hands of his persecutors. Nor do the gospel writers make any effort to gloss over Peter’s own cowardly denial of Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion or James’ and John’s unseemly wrangling over who should sit at Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom. No, the New Testament is very clear that these men whom the church honours as apostles are human beings, sinners like the rest of us. And we find the same is true in the Old Testament a well. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the patriarchs of the Israelite nation, Moses its mighty liberator and giver of the Law, David and Solomon its greatest kings, are all depicted not only with their tremendous strengths but also with their weaknesses and shortcomings, some of them truly grievous—“warts and all” as the expression goes.
One of the clearest examples is the apostle Paul, who at a relatively early point in his ministry calls himself “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”. At a later point he confesses to being “less than the least of all God’s people”. Then finally, as his ministry and his life are nearing a close, he describes himself (in the colourful words of The Message) as “Public Sinner Number One” (1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15).
We do the church and we do the church’s mission a terrible disservice when we place our leaders on a pedestal beyond reproach. Now I am not encouraging the petty passive-aggressive, destructive criticism that can be poisonous in any community. That is another issue entirely. What I am talking about is genuinely caring enough for our leaders to be honest with them.
Bill Hybels is the founding pastor of Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago. It is one of the United States’ largest megachurches, with a weekly attendance of more than 20,000. He tells the story of how, one evening after putting his children to bed, he zipped down to the church for just a few moments and parked his car between the auditorium and the parking lot. In his mailbox the next morning he found a note from one of his staff, which read, “Bill, a small thing, but Tuesday night … you parked at the side of the lobby, in the no-parking area… We try hard not to allow people, even workers, to park anywhere other than the parking lots. I would appreciate your cooperation too.” Hybels’ reflection on the incident was this: “His stock went up in my book, because he had the courage to write me about what could be a little slippage in my character. Because you know what I thought as I drove up here? I thought, I shouldn't park illegally there, but I mean, I am the pastor. Which translates: ‘I’m an exception.’ ” He went on to comment, “If you people allow me to take three steps down the road of saying that I’m an exception to the rules, I am in big trouble. I am not the exception.”[1]
Leaders are not above criticism. They need correction as much as anyone else, but make sure it is done in a spirit of gentleness and humility, as the Bible instructs (Galatians 6:1), and in love. How grateful I am to those along my way who have cared enough for me and for the church to take me aside and steer me (sometimes painfully) back onto the track!

Leaders must know Christ

The second principle about leadership in the church that I glean from this passage—and this may seem like a no-brainer—is that those who are chosen to exercise it should have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For the apostles it was essential that the candidate to make up their number be one who had accompanied them “the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among [them], beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up”. Obviously that qualification ended with the first generation of the church. But I believe that by extension our leaders in the church need to be men and women who are engaged in an ongoing walk with Christ, who are being transformed by the love of Christ. Not that they are perfect. As we have seen, even the apostles weren’t perfect. But that they are living in a relationship with Jesus and actively yielding themselves to him as their Lord and Master.
It is very easy to be swayed by eloquent speech, dashing good looks, a brilliant academic record, success in the business world or some other external attraction. But we must remember that God looks on the heart. Think of David and his seven strapping brothers. From all outward appearances he seemed the least likely candidate to lead God’s people. Yet it was he who proved to be the man after God’s own heart.
In my own experience I think of a man who was initially refused for ordination in my denomination because of a severe physical disability. Yet I know that in the course of his ministry God used him to touch deeply the lives of many. I remember going far out to the edge of the city to hear him one Sunday morning in one of the little churches where he served. It was nearly fifty years ago and I can still vividly remember the sermon—one of the most powerful and moving expositions of justification by faith I have ever heard. His physical disability may have made him an unlikely candidate for leadership in the church. Yet his experience of Jesus Christ made him eminently qualified.
Now I am not saying that that is the only requirement for leadership in the church. Read Acts 6 or 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 or 1 Peter 5 and you will see that there are many more. But beneath them all there needs to be that foundation of an active, living, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Leaders are called by God

Following along the same line from that is that leaders in the church need to be called by God. Not every Christian is a leader for a whole variety of reasons. The New Testament lists all kinds of ways in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be used to build the church and to carry forward the mission of Christ—prophecy, teaching, healing, helping, guidance, tongues, serving, encouraging, giving, caring, administration, to name a few. Not all of them involve leadership. But each of them plays an irreplaceable part in making the church the living, healing body of Christ in the world.
So how did those first followers of Jesus make sure that the one they were identifying to fill Judas’ place was genuinely God’s choice? Well, to begin with they did the obvious thing: they prayed. They asked God for guidance to select the right person for the job. Then they did something that many people would say was foolhardy. They cast lots. Now I haven’t been around All Nations to know how you choose your leaders. But I’m fairly certain it isn’t by casting lots. And I’m not about to suggest that you initiate the practice.[2] (Although I do think that in the case of our neighbours to the south it might be a far less painful procedure than what they are going through now to find a president!)
But let me ask, why cast lots? Why not vote? In response, think of it this way: Both candidates were equally qualified for the ministry. They both met all the criteria, and I can only imagine that both were excellent men. Casting lots in their case was not an act of naivety or desperation. Rather, it was a way of giving the final say to God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord,” says the book of Proverbs (16:33). And the apostles were determined to give their decision-making over to the Lord, to make sure that the person filling this key position in the church really was God’s choice and not just theirs. It was a way of giving God the final say. And it’s not that Justus didn’t go on to serve the Lord. Tradition has it that he became the first bishop in what is now the Arab Palestinian village of Bayt Jibrin, and later became one of the church’s early martyrs.
Looking at this church for just a moment, I am so grateful, as I’m sure you are, for the leaders that God has given us here—women and men in whose lives the presence of Jesus is clearly evident. And I pray that we will all do our part to stand alongside them and to continue that tradition of leadership, that together we may be faithful and effective in carrying forward Christ’s mission in the world.

[1]        Bill Hybels, “The Pastor Is Not an Exception”, Preaching Today, October 1997 http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1997/october/4793.html
[2]        After the service I was informed that this is how a decision is made at this church if there are two qualified candidates for an office!

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