Queer Acts 1.15-end: Discernment and Leadership in the Church

Acts 1 begins to explore the recurring theme of how leadership in the Church is meant to look. It challenges us to reassess our own relationship to authority and power and also to discern our own vocation to minister in Christ’s Church ever more carefully and prayerfully.


Acts 1.15-20: The Reality of Leadership

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,“Let his homestead become desolate,

   and let there be no one to live in it”;

and

“Let another take his position of overseer.”

Who is in charge in the Church? It is a difficult question for all Christians: all of us feel strongly about who should or should not be in charge. All of us have a strong sense of when the wrong person is in charge. And we may feel profound discomfort about at the notion that any is in fact in charge at all. For many queer people, in particular, the overtones of dominance and potential for abuse that the notion of leadership can bring makes us more suspicious than most of the idea that anyone should be in leadership at all.

But in even the smallest communities, whether or not it is intended, leaders begin to emerge. Even the most democratic of Churches ends up being dominated by particular people and groups when certain issues are at stake. And that means that Christians have to take the reality of human leadership and power dynamics seriously, however uncomfortable we might feel about it, or however much we might believe that human leadership and dominance would not exist in an ideal society.

The first thing to note about this passage is that Acts 1 does not offer us a leadership model for the modern Church. Peter stands up “among the believers”… but “together the crowd numbers about one hundred and twenty” (v.15). The Church was tiny. When people point out that the earliest Church did not have leadership structures like the modern Church, all the priests, deacons, bishops and administrators and missioners in between, I have to agree. For the Church of the disciples was indeed not like ours. It was far more top heavy! Of one hundred and twenty believers, about 10% were the apostolic disciples. That’s not to mention the many women who were administrators and resource managers for this early group of believers! In the apostolic Church, as it prepared for its most succesful period of mission, 1 in 10 were clergy. That is a salutary reminder for those of us in the Church of England as it prepares to reduce clergy numbers in many of its dioceses.

But, in any case, it is clear that the Church of the apostles was profoundly different to the Church we inhabit today. What is most interesting about this excerpt, however, is Peter’s mindset when it comes to leadership. For Peter, the maintaining of a full apostolic mission to the world is nothing less than a scriptural imperative: “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (v.16). The integrity and importance of the office which Judas served does not seem to have been destroyed by his betrayal of Jesus: “for he was allotted his share in this ministry” (v.17).

This is because, Acts argues, Judas is not in himself the apostolic disciple. Judas has a “share” in an apostolic ministry which is far more fundamental than the individuals carrying it out. For it is not the apostolic ministry which is abolished by Judas’ failure, but Judas himself who, as Luke adds with a dark sense of irony in his editor’s comment, uses the “reward of his wickedness” (v.18) to purchase a field in which he immdiately trips, dying a gruesome death by disembowelment (vv.18-19). Judas’ downfall is not portrayed so much as the failure of an apostolic disciple as of a disinheritance, a demotion and a dismissal from apostolic discipleship. For his death is portrayed as a fulfilment of a psalm about disinheritance: “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” (v.20). On its own, this might be read to suggest the end of his apostolic ministry. But another verse makes it clear that the office continues, even when the incumbent has fallen: “Let another take his position of overseer” (v.20: “καί Τὴν ἐπισκοπὴν αὐτοῦ λαβέτω ἕτερος”, if you are a Greek geek!). This, as v.25 will tell us, is the “ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

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And this is Peter’s theological reasoning, as reported by Luke. Peter seems to take the reality of leadership within the Church as a given, and perhaps even as scripturally mandated. There is no sense in which, once the initial disciples have died off, the whole people of God will become a shapeless identical and democratically self-regulating mass. Protestant traditions emphasise the importance of order whilst Catholic traditions emphasise apostolic inheritance (there is not time here to go into all the ins and outs of that particular ecumenical debate). But what is clear is that leadership is something we have to take seriously. We can’t simply turn our noses up at it and ignore it, however egalitarian we may think our churches are. We have to think carefully about what leaders in the Church are meant to look like, what they are meant to do, and so what qualities they must possess and have nurtured in them by the rest of the Church. If leadership is something that exists in the Church, and has always existed in the Church, let it be good leadership, done well and for the right reasons.


Acts 1.21-26: Prayerful Discernment

[Peter continued], 21’So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning 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.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

So how were they to choose a new apostle?

I am tempted to say that they didn’t have a clue. But I don’t think that would be fair to the text. Acts gives pretty clear criteria for choosing the new apostle, and they are wise.

Firstly, they must not actually be new. They must be “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that 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” (vv.21-22). The apostle must be experienced, must know the story of Jesus, the Gospel, if they are to be able to witness to it. For the apostle is called nothing less that to be “a witness with us to his resurrection” (v.22). Although I have said that this passage is not a model for leadership in the modern Church, I wonder how much dissatisfaction with some leaders in the modern Church has, at its root, the fact that many leaders are inexperienced and lacking in the knowledge they need to be able to do their task really well. I am always encouraged by preachers and pastors who have well thumbed bibles and well stocked bookshelves. I begin to get nervous when people in the Church say, ‘I don’t need to study.’ The basic subject matter of the Gospel is relatively small, but being able to administer and nourish the Church which it has birthed requires training and study if we are to be effective and faithful.

On the basis of this criterion Joseph and Matthias are chosen. But a second criterion is revealed in the disciples’ prayer. They do not simply pray, Lord, “show us which one of these two you have chosen” (v.24). They pray also, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart” (v.24). The deepest integrity and fittingness of a person for a particular office is a difficult thing to discern. The Church of England has an extended process of discernment for those wanting to enter ordained ministry, and discernment pathways also for those wishing to take up many of the many lay (non-ordained) ministries in the Church. But whilst the church of the disciples seems a little simplistic in discerning this by casting lots (v.26), the point Luke makes here strongly is that the discernment of the heart is hard work. It must be done in the Spirit, or it will not be done at all. And so such discernment must be done in prayer.

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I have encountered many people who are exploring ministry within the Church, but whom I can’t quite describe as discerning. They are honest and genuine in their self-examination and submission to Church processes. But they aren’t praying it. Leadership at any level is not something which we are called to campaign for. It is not something we make happen by our own endeavours, either to put ourselves in positions of authority or those we support or particularly like. Leadership and apostolic authority within the Church is to important for that. It must be prayed about. And prayed about earnestly.

Matthias “was added to the eleven apostles” (v.26). Maybe you might be as well, one day, a particular apostolic office within the Church. But you are and will always be fundamentally a believer, whose task is prayerful discernment. And, remember, even if 10% of the Church in Acts 1 were official apostles, 90% of them weren’t. And the 90% are just as much saints of Christ’s Church.

As Acts progresses, the question of the shape of apostolic leadership will be a recurring them (this book, after all, recounts the Acts of the Apostles!). But as it explores that theme, Acts will have salutary reminders for us to evaluate our own interaction with Church authority and power, and to discern ever more carefully our own vocation to our role in the Church (for all of us have one!). But Acts, like the Holy Spirit, teaches us discernment slowly, and in many instances. Stick at it. Discernment, wisdom and a fulfilling ministry within the Church will come.

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Benedictus for the Grave

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace”


Each morning many Anglicans join together to pray the morning office together, continuing the tradition started by the first monks in these lands, praying for themselves, the communities in which they find themselves, the Church and the world. And every morning, we say or sing a canticle, the Benedictus, sung by Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel.

It is an odd canticle, but as I have been training I have fallen more and more deeply in love with it. It is a canticle rich in the praises of God, calling to remembrance God’s good promises to his people from the earliest days, and charting their fulfilment in Jesus.

And it is an odd canticle to have on Holy Saturday. This is the day between the commemoration of Christ’s passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Church is in mourning. Christ lies in the tomb. Still. Silent. The altars are stripped of their ornaments and hangings, as the Church lies waiting.

Or does it? I suggest that the Benedictus at the morning office reminds us that God is far from dormant when Jesus is in the tomb. Already on the cross, Christ has been enthroned. Soon he will rise from the dead and ascend to be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. And now, this Holy Saturday, he is hallowing the grave for us, actively and powerfully, preparing it for us as a place, not of fear, but of joy and hope.

The Benedictus begins with the praises of God, and the remembrance that God has “raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” (2). Jesus has been enthroned in glory, just by his mere presence in the world, his coming into the world. From the moment of Christ’s incarnation in Mary’s womb we can truly say that ‘God is with us’, Immanuel. And on this Holy Saturday, we remember that God is still with us. From the womb of his mother, through his ministry, to the cross, through the grave and into glory… Christ is with us.

And all this is part of God’s eternal plan. For God’s plan is to “come to his people and set them free” (1). Through the prophets (3), the covenant (4), and God’s promises to Abraham (5), God has always and at all times been working to make his people “free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (6).

The cross does not stop God’s work. There is no pause. As Jesus lies in the tomb, God remains what he has always been and shall always be. Active. Continuing to carry out his one great work of creation, redemption and recreation, spanning all time and space. Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is going on.

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So what is going on?

1Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel,
who has come to his people and set them free.

2He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
born of the house of his servant David.

3Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,

4To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.

5This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

6Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

7And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

8To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.

9In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

10To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

In the Benedictus, Zechariah acknowledges that his son John will be a “prophet of the most high” (7), but his role will only be to “go before the Lord to prepare his way” (7), giving “his people knowledge of salvation” (8) not wrought by himself, but by God. John will not himself forgive sins, but will announce what God is about to do (8).

And here, the Benedictus trawls Isaiah for some of the most beautiful and effective imagery. Christ, the light coming into the world (John 1), is here “the dawn from on high” which “shall break upon us” (9). And now, remember Isaiah 9: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has shined.”

Well, according to the Benedictus, God’s work in Christ is “to shine on those who dwell in darkness” (9), but not only that. On Holy Saturday, we do well to remember that God also shines on those who dwell “in the shadow of death” (9). From the tomb, as a corpse, the Christ is still shining. From the tomb, Christ’s light hallows the grave and opens up for us the gate of glory.

As Christians, we confess that the grave is not a thing of shame, or fear, or terror. For it is not the end. We believe that in Christ we will be raised. We believe that at our deaths Christ’s light, far from being extinguished, is visible most clearly. For we die not in despair, but in hope and joy. Our grave is not our end. It is the beginning of a new life in Christ. And after a while, we shall be raised, and see him as he comes again, to establish his kingdom of justice, everywhere and for eternity.

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (10).

Amen.

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