Homily for St. Matthias,  Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House Theological Seminary, February 24, 2022

Scripture – Psalm 15; Acts 1:15-26; Philippians 3:12-21; John 15:1-8

By Matthew S. C. Olver 

Matthias is mentioned just one place in Scripture, Acts chapter 1, which is somewhat surprising. The account of his incorporation into the apostolic center is not terribly complicated. The criteria are concise: he must be one of those who had been part of group of disciples as far back John’s baptism of Jesus up through the Ascension (remember that in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls half of the apostles, including Peter, directly after his baptism; John 1:35-51). The second criterion is to have been an eyewitness to our Lord’s resurrection.

The fuller account of criteria for bishops in 1 Timothy 3 outlines the moral and character requirements, and both emphasize that one must not be new to discipleship. Eusebius notes that Matthias was one of the seventy disciples commissioned by Jesus in Luke 10, the ones sent out in pairs to preach, to heal, and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God (I am indebted throughout to F. F. Bruce’s commentary on Acts).

The method of this selection is worthy of some meditation. The play on the words klēron and topos in the description of Matthias taking the place of Judas unfortunately gets lost in English, but is clearly more than just a rhetorical flourish: Judas forfeited his “lot” (klēron) in the apostolic band and goes to his own “place” (topos), while the “lot” (klēron) falls to Matthias, who takes the betrayer’s “place” (topos). Objective criteria for a replacement are laid down first, followed by something … well, less objective.


A similar practice is recorded in ancient Athens, where the casting of lots for choosing civil magistrates followed a winnowing down of candidates based on more rational criteria. The use of lots is not presented is Scripture as chance — like with the dividing of Jesus’ clothing before his crucifixion (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24) — but rather as the active action of God — like how the priest Zechariah was chosen to enter the Holy Place to burn incense (Luke 1:9). “The lot is cast into the lap,” we read in Proverbs 16, “but the decision is wholly from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). Before they cast lots, Luke tells us not simply that they prayed, but he quotes part of the prayer itself, which makes use of quite dignified language that has liturgical echoes both in Acts and elsewhere, even down to our own Collect for Purity (cf. Acts 15:8).

Ephraim Radner once suggested that one of the wisest amendments to our practice of episcopal elections might go something like this: the five most senior clerics of a diocese below a certain age; a votive mass of the Holy Spirit, the Veni Creator Spiritus, and then draw lots. His question is this: are all these democratic features like candidates and elections for something as serious as the episcopate — are these really all they are cracked up to be? Do they help us to really be open to the will of God?

But as we step back, it is clear how remarkable a window is Acts 1 into just how promptly the Church was structurally ordered in the wake of our Lord’s ascension. One way that Christians have come to speak about central matters of the Christian faith is to speak of “faith and order,” which is to say, “doctrine and ecclesiology” (not that ecclesiology isn’t doctrinal; the distinction concerns the visible arrangement or ordering of that reality we call the Church, which is a figure of doctrinal truth, as Ignatius makes clear in his letters). Notice that immediately after the final event of our Lord’s earthly ministry, namely, the Ascension, the focus goes straight to questions of order. This theme is highlighted in our collect for Matthias, which identifies his elevation to apostleship as God’s providential deliverance of the Church from a false apostle and (note the technical term) his ordering and guidance of the Church by a faithful and true pastor in Matthias.

The Church’s first engagement with both primacy and conciliarity was instigated by the first-among-equals. Jaroslav Pelikan ruefully points out that “the primacy of Peter in these early chapters [of Acts] is evident (5:29a), raising more questions than it answers about the primitive structure of ‘faith and order’ in the church (6:24).” (see his commentary on Acts in the Brazos series, on which I also rely). In short, a nascent hierarchical structure clearly can be discerned in Acts. Another ecclesiological development in Acts 6 is also quite revealing: Luke explains that “the twelve summoned the body of the disciples” to address the problem that then results in the appointment of the first seven deacons, one of which is St. Stephen.

Luke, we can see, is quite consistent in his usage of ecclesiological terms and seems to have in mind what we might now call “ecclesiastical order” as he composed his two important works: disciples is a broader term, within which we can identify a smaller group, the Twelve, who are also called apostles. We see this all the way back in Luke 6, when, after a night on the mountain spent in prayer, Jesus “called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles” (Luke 6:13). Disciple is the more general term that includes both long-time followers of Jesus as well as neophytes, men as well as women. Matthias was clearly a part of this group, which was part of what made him eligible to be an apostle.

The necessity of “the Twelve” as a number is because the apostles constitute in themselves a figure of the whole of the twelve tribes of Israel, a connection Jesus makes in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels when he speaks about their role in the eschaton, where they will sit on thrones, “judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30; cf. Matt 19:28). Israel is thus recapitulated in a new, figural way around her Messiah, twelve Jewish men whose actual tribal affiliation remain unknown to us (the only Jew whose tribe is identified in the gospels is Anna, the prophetess, who is of the tribe of Asher; Luke 2:36). There is no sense that a Council of Twelve was to be an ongoing reality, as there is no hint that there was any attempt to find a successor to James the son of Zebedee after his martyrdom just a few years later. Thus, the Twelve are depicted as a singular figural and eschatological sign in their unique orientation to Jesus in his incarnate ministry that ends with all but one literally identifying with him in a martyr’s death.

Within the apostles, Peter exercises a kind of primacy that is expressed both in gathering the apostles and also serving as their mouthpiece (which, we should note, is basically the two obvious features of bishops who exercise primacy). When the disciples are brought before the council in chapter 5, Luke makes it clear that the apostles sometimes speak by way of Peter: “Peter and the apostles answered” the charges (Acts 5:29). The reason for his primacy? It is simply an act of God. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). In fact, Luke depicts this whole ecclesiastical order as the result of divine revelation.

And just to be clear, this is not an argument for the papacy as we think of it now. Rather, the point is that Scripture is deeply concerned with the order of the Church, that it describes practices that reflect a hierarchical view of that order (coupled with the corresponding reality of synod or council), and presents this in such a way that we are to conclude that this hierarchy and conciliarity is God’s will for the Church. This claim has come to be a defining feature of Anglicanism: to place the episcopacy as one of four essential features of the Church Catholic in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is to make just such a claim. As we have said in our dialogue with Catholics: “Anglicanism has never rejected the principle and practice of primacy,”[1] as the historic role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of All England, demonstrates. Similar authority is exercised by particular bishops in other provinces, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role within the Anglican Communion, while not legally circumscribed, is nonetheless an exercise of primacy to which the other primates and bishops respond.

Peter, in his primatial role, literally gathers and orders the whole group that Luke calls “the brethren” (which the text says was about 120 people, literally an exponential expansion of the Twelve). I think we might better speak of the second half of Acts one as the first synod or council, rather than the so-called Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Peter’s primatial action in Acts 1 is the first depiction of his active participation in the penance that Jesus gives to him at the end of John’s Gospel. Remember that it is Jesus, in his ultimate primacy as Lord and Messiah, who acts as host for his first post-resurrection meal of fish and bread. After the meal, Jesus discloses what the confessional really looks like: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). In response to Peter’s repeated professions of love, Jesus gives him his penance (a means that expresses his acceptance of the gift God has given him): feed my sheep. Of all the apostolic Twelve, this “feeding” is what Peter is depicted as doing over and over in Acts: he’s feeding and he’s gathering. The prophetic word from Jesus to Peter, that “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go,” which John clarifies was a reference “to show by what death he was to glorify God” (John 20:18-19) — that is not his penance. It is the picture of what true love from a Christian minister looks like. The first thing we are given in this opening verse of our Acts lesson is, we should conclude, a depiction of a faithful execution of primatial ministry: marked by that “most excellent gift of charity” (as our collect says this week) that is expressed in faithful preaching, tending to the flock of Christ, and taking order for the well-being of the Church of God.

The second characteristic of our Acts lesson is how this church order development is understood both to be in continuity with the Old Testament and also directly disclosed in the Old Testament. Peter sets up their task in this way: “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled.” The temple’s role to order the worship life of early followers of Jesus is just one aspect of this. Here, as Peter introduces the process to reconstitute the Twelve, he echoes Jesus’ words at the end of Luke’s Gospel, just before the Ascension: “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44).

It seems clear that there was something like a nucleus of interpretations of the Old Testament from the mouth of Jesus that circulated among early Christians.[2] This would help to make sense of the remarkably complex and wide-ranging interpretation of the Old Testament in early writings such as 1 and 2 Clement, as well Justin Martyr and Irenaeus: they reflect the actual exegetical work of Jesus in teaching the disciples, of whom Matthias was a part. One of the implications of this profound rootedness in the Old Testament is that what the apostles are doing in Acts is being faithfully and truly scriptural, which is to say, faithfully and truly Jewish.

Part of the particular expression of Peter’s primacy in Acts 1 concerns the right interpretation of Scripture, both about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas (citing Psalm 69:25) and the necessity of replacing Judas so that the Twelve are properly constituted as a body (Psalm 109:8). Jesus has already stated that the betrayal was foretold in the Scripture, when he addresses Judas at the Last Supper in John 13 (and again in John 17), quoting still another psalm (41:9).[3] The readings appointed in the Daily Office lectionary follow this same form of interpretation, most of which are figural depictions of Judas: 1 Samuel 16 is about the apostasy of Saul; 1 Samuel 12 is about the uprightness of the prophet Samuel who has never taken a bribe (in contrast to Judas); the reading from 1 John 2 is about the rise of Antichrist that includes a direct allusion to Judas;[4] Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 warms them about the “fierce wolves [who] will come in among you,” and even about those “among your own selves will arise, men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29b-30).

For us, many of whom are already or ordained or believe we are so called, there is a particular word of caution to us in this day. The fact is that Peter’s vocation and primacy is not special to him; this is true of all ministry. A vocation is a divine act. And with it, as with all good things, comes the possibility of certain kinds of distortions and even temptations. The siren songs sung by achievement and success are just as easy to hear in the world of the Church as in the world outside. It is really, really difficult to try and discern what to make of our desires when it comes to where we wish to serve. But we should assume that virtuous reasons will masquerade as the real motivations for this or that parish, when more money, prestige, visibility, whatever … may actually be in the driver’s seat. The obligations to provide for spouses and children are real moral imperatives. But they also have the possibility of building a little alcove within which we can hide our love of mammon or our desire to get a better and better gig each time until we land the cardinal parish or an episcopal chair. This discernment is very difficult. Timothy does not say that the desire for the episcopacy is noble, but that the episcopacy itself is noble. We should remember that bishops often leave office with people comparing them to Judas, not Matthias. And also how remarkable it is that Justus, who was not chosen, doesn’t show up making a fool of himself later in Acts. (Let the reader understand.)

The prayer of abandonment of Blessed Charles of Foucault expresses the necessary posture of every Christian ministry, which is to say, it is a prayer that when you pray it, makes it clear that it will be a long time before this is actually true (at least for me):

I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
St Matthias, patron of faithful ministers, pray for us.

[1] ARCIC I, “Elucidation on Authority,” 8.6.

[2] F.F. Bruce, Acts, 48.

[3] “I know whom I have chosen; it is that the scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’” (John 13:18). Jesus also says in John 17 that none of those given to him by the Father would perish, save for the son of perdition, “that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12). There is a complication in this account, as it seems to differ from the account in Matthew, where Judas returns the money, and the priests buy, and the name of the field is the result of how it was later used, namely, as the burial place for strangers (cf. Matt. 27:3-10). Matthew’s account also stresses the import that this also fulfills Scripture, namely, Zech. 11:12-13 and Jer. 32:8-9.

[4] “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the 2022–2023 Alan Richardson Fellow at Durham University, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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