How will We go On?

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “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– for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry. So one of the men who have accompanied us during all 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– one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

A graphic designer squints at her tablet. A few lines are off, the colors aren’t quite right, and she still hasn’t figured out how to use that awful font the customer demanded in any kind of tasteful way. She pinches her screen and zooms in 400% to touch up the line, making it perfectly symmetrical. On a 2in logo, no one will ever know if the lines are symmetrical, but they will feel like something is “off” if she doesn’t make it perfect — at least that’s what she tells herself. “Will I ever be as good as the Old Masters?” She wonders as she zooms out, fiddling with the color values for the third time.

A painter in Flanders rubs more oil on his canvas. No, no, no, that won’t do, the perspective off. The background was too large, encroaching on the foreground and making the subject’s proportions too small for the established angle. The highlights were also implying light coming from the wrong direction. It simply would not do. He recalls the pristine and mathematically perfect statues he saw in Rome, “Will I ever be as good as the Old Masters?” he wonders as he mixes pigments to try again.

It was a great hunt that day. Driving a few of the herd off that cliff will feed them for months. It is a day of celebration, an achievement that deserves to be marked and remembered. He grinds the red clay and mixes it with the oil. In red clay he smears the image of the great beasts on the stone wall. In soot he marks figures of himself and his party, even taking some of the soot to outline the beast so it stands out more. So that all may know his glory, he chews on the clay and oil. He holds his hand to the wall and spews the clay out of his mouth onto his hand. He removes his hand from the wall, and left in relief is the image of his hand. He grins, teeth red with clay, “I’m the best” he thinks to himself.

“How will we go on without them?”, this painful question is something we ask ourselves all too often in this transitory life. Those great pillars of our community, who had the vision, skills, and integrity to hold everything together. Those with seemingly limitless energy, or at least seemingly limitless devotion to the cause, the mentors, teachers, matriarchs, patriarchs, the ones you knew you could always rely on if your own skill, energy, or will began to waver. Those who were able to bind together people from all walks of life into a community working for the common good. How will we go on without them when they are gone?

It is this very question that the disciples are confronted with today. Now that their grief has been soothed and their faith restored having seen the Risen Lord, they are now left with that terrible question that we all face, “How will we go on without Him?” Even though Jesus is still with them, He is with them not as their rabbi and fellow Galilean, but as the Risen Lord. He has ascended into the heavens and left them with the tremendous responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth. They are still missing another. Though they surely have mixed feelings about him at this point, he was with them from the beginning. Despite some of the Gospels’ attempts to villainize him, and despite his tragic betrayal and death, he was one of the original twelve chosen by Jesus. How will they go on without Judas?

They do what we all do when confronting great change or loss. They carry on. Everyone is irreplaceable but no one is indispensable, the Gospel must be proclaimed, and they must be made whole again. So they choose. After determining some basic criteria and casting lots, the disciples choose Matthias. Now restored to twelve, no longer disciples but apostles, they go on to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But what happened to Matthias? In the New Testament this is his only appearance. He has no speaking lines, no stories other than his calling, and we have no idea what his career as an apostle was like. Even the traditions of the Church are inconsistent and scarce as to what he accomplished as an apostle. He may have gone on to Egypt and the east coast of Africa, all the way to Ethiopia, or he may have been stoned to death in Jerusalem fairly early in his career after a few brief trips in northern Israel.

Despite not knowing really anything about Matthias, his accomplishments or perhaps lack thereof, he does serve as an important example to us. His story has much to teach us. Though we may not know anything about him, we do know how he felt when he was chosen to be an apostle. Exactly how any one of us would feel if we were in his place. Proud, humbled, honored, excited, a sense of guilt and sorrow for replacing Judas, but amongst the swirling whirlpool of feelings, questions rise above it all, “Can I really do this?”, “Were they right in choosing me?”, “Will I ever be good enough?”

In our present age we have an obsession with “the best”. We only want “the best”. That’s what we are told all the time. “Ah yes, savvy consumer, you only want the best, you deserve the best and I am the only one who can give it to you”. We only want “the best” job candidate so we have algorithms to weed out everyone who doesn’t match our exact keywords of what we think is “the best” employee. It’s why we have yearly iterations of the same products, and increasingly bizarre added “features” to surprisingly mundane items. It has actually come to such a ludicrous point that it gives us anxiety about very simple choices.

Say you need a new toothbrush. You of course want only “the best” toothbrush, but no, you won’t fall for that marketing jargon, you are smart enough to know that there is no such thing as “the best” for everyone. You just need “the best” for your particular needs. So you go to the store and see your choices, and lo, before you spans a multitude uncountable in number. But which do you pick? Which is “the best”, at least for you? Do you need firmer bristles or soft bristles? Timers with alarms perhaps (because we all know you can’t be trusted to go two minutes straight on your own)? What about electric? Which one has the best battery life? What about bamboo, so it’s the best for the environment? And before you know it, you’ve realized that choosing a toothbrush is yet another example of the anxiety that comes from the burden of freedom, that the very idea of “the best” is nothing more than a lie. You wonder how you’ve made it this far in life without knowing your own needs in dental hygiene tools, does everyone else have it figured out or is it just you? Is there any order, any justice you can count on in society, or is everyone else just floating around equally not knowing what to do and Oh God we trust people with running our society? And just before you are fully crushed by the terror and dread of all the unknown, though you want to do the only philosophically reasonable thing given the circumstances and flee screaming, you pick the green one because it’s pretty and it’s mid-priced so at the very least it can’t be bad. Next is toothpaste.

This is how we conquer fear, this is how we carry on when those who we thought we could not do without inevitably go on before us. We do not have to worry about choosing “the best”, or being the best if we are the one chosen, if we could ever fill the shoes of greats before us, if we will ever be as good as the old masters. Matthias may have been the greatest apostle that ever was and we just don’t know it, or he may have had only a modest career, we don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Whether great or wonderfully average, he was an apostle. No matter his skills, intelligence, strength, or charisma he proclaimed the Gospel. He was chosen, he took up the mission, that’s all we know, that’s all that matters, and we are called to do the same. We can put aside our anxieties and obsession with being or having “the best”, because there is no “best”, only us. God chose us, to become human and live among us, not because we are the best, but because we are beloved. Jesus chose the disciples not because they were the best, as they were foolish, cowardly, and selfish, but because He knew them and loved them.

How will we go on? Like we always do, we shall rise to the occasion, we will be better than we thought we ever could be. It was the mission that made the apostles great, not their skills. The truth is we could never replace those pillars, those mentors, matriarchs, visionaries. We will never replace the Old Masters but we should never want to. We have our own calling to be apostles, to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. We carry on what those mentors, visionaries, and masters started and take it to new heights in our own way, becoming those mentors, visionaries, and masters that inspire others to take up their cross and become apostles. We are called not to have the greatest skill, cleverest mind, strongest body, or most charming words, but to have faith in God, hope for the world, and love for all people. Amen.

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