16th May 2021
Anglican Episcopal Church
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
16 May 2021
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
“Together the crowd numbered about one-hundred-twenty persons…”
So reports the author of the Acts of the Apostles in today’s first reading, going out of his way to give us the attendance figures at the Apostle Peter’s first recorded sermon to the gathered believers of the early Church, a sermon recorded not live on ZOOM but rather in the words of Scripture. The author of Acts does not give us any comparative figures to go on, so we do not know if he thinks one-hundred-and-twenty is really good attendance or just so-so. Nor can we suppose from the context that the number is any reflection on the popularity of Peter’s preaching. Peter was not a televangelist after all. He was a fisherman. Wonder enough, I suppose, that anyone showed up at all.
The Evangelist Luke, the actual author of Acts of course, does not tell us why he mentions the attendance figures in the first place. It seems an odd thing in fact to bring up, for it has seemingly nothing to do with the content of Peter’s weighty address, which tackles the difficult issue of Judas’ suicide and his replacement by soon-to-be-apostle Matthias. Some scholars note however that one-hundred-and-twenty – the figure mentioned by Luke -- was considered in ancient times the minimum size for a legitimate or genuine Israelite community or synagogue gathering. Go below one-hundred-and-twenty and the community apparently did not have the same standing in Jewish law as did a larger one. So perhaps Luke is seeking to prove by the numbers the legitimacy of the early Church community and its claims about the Christ.
This would seem to make sense. Those who study and track such things will tell you that even today a parish community with average Sunday attendance between, say, one-hundred and a hundred-and-fifty is just about right. It is considered large enough to be stable over time; also large enough to help support a priest and his or her family; and yet small enough for community to develop and flourish. This is not rocket science of course nor is it exactly theology; but it is a frequently heard observation in church and clergy circles. So, perhaps Luke was on to something even two-thousand years ago in quoting attendance at what I suppose we might call the very first Christian gathering or prayer service ever; one which is curiously devoted to finding new Church leadership; a periodic issue faced by just about every Christian community even today.
Our average Sunday attendance at Saint Margaret’s, by the way, has been about forty participants on ZOOM; somewhat less when we meet in-person; so attendance has actually risen during this past year of pandemic. Almost miraculously, I suppose. Still, we have a long ways to go to get to the magic number One-Hundred-Twenty. No telling what Luke and the early disciples would make of us and our Electoral Roll count of forty-five. The Apostle Peter in any case had no online services at all to contend with, or fall back on, as he preached the Gospel across the ancient world. “Ahh… Excuse me, Peter, you need to unmute.”
Each of us counts – or matters – in the eyes of the Lord and in the mind of the Church. Whether in Budapest, ancient Jerusalem, Sydney, or points in-between. Whether we are online or in-person; whether we are two or three gathered together in the Lord’s name; or whether we are “about one-hundred-and-twenty” as here reported. Our Lord prays to the Father in today’s account from the Gospel of John, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine,” reminding us of this important reality, reminding us that we do belong. We do count – in more ways than numbers can tell. No one ever gets lost in the numbers or miscounted when the Lord takes attendance. Not in the Acts of the Apostles, not at Saint Margaret’s.
Now, Peter speaks to the gathered One-Hundred-Twenty -- it is actually more a speech than a sermon as such -- to explain that the Twelve have now become the Eleven -- more numbers -- as a result of Judas’ treachery and suicide. The original text actually provides the gory details of Judas’ demise, by the way, although the compilers of the Lectionary have chosen -- wisely or not -- to spare our modern sensibilities by leaving them out in our sanitised Sunday-morning version. You can look them up for yourselves this afternoon, if you have the stomach for it. In any event, Judas’ lack of faith and death must have made quite an impression upon the early Church. As does, come to think of it, scandal in Church leadership today.
And if the One-Hundred-Twenty are important, so too are the Apostles, those who were there, “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” as Peter explains. Judas’ death has left a kind of gap or lacuna among the Apostles themselves, who numbered Twelve by the Lord’s own calling, a number representative in a way of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It is this tragic circumstance, Judas’ death, which must now be rectified; a circumstance which must have served to everyone as a sobering reminder of the frailty of human nature and of discipleship itself. After prayer and supplication, Mattias is chosen by lot, a method of choosing chaplains and church leaders which has since fallen into disuse but which perhaps merits a second look.
Mattias becomes then himself an Apostle and witness to the Resurrection. Alas, this is his one and only appearance in Scripture. He is never heard from again except in medieval legends which take him to the Caspian Sea, to what is today Central Turkey, and back again. His purported relics are kept to this day in a church named for him in Trier, Germany. He became a popular saintly figure in centuries past, which helps explain why at least two kings of Hungary were named after him; and the famous church of Buda was in turn named after one of the kings.
Some scholars find the story of Mattias selection as Apostle an odd and unwelcome break in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles, a disruption of the storyline which would otherwise take us directly and seamlessly from the Ascension of our Lord, which was celebrated of course just this past Thursday, to Pentecost and the coming down upon the disciples of the Holy Spirit, all of which we celebrate next Sunday. Why interrupt this central spiritual chronicle of ascension and descent, these experts ask, with this messy interlude or story of what is -- let’s face it -- a massive failure in early church leadership, and the very human need to somehow see things made right again.
I suppose the scholars’ question cannot be entirely answered. Luke, if asked, might simply reply: Because that is the way it happened. But the passage is also perhaps a kind of cautionary tale. The world remains as messy as it ever was in the time of the Apostles and throughout Christian history. Sin and evil are with us still in our world today, and alas in our Church today. We are, it sometimes seems, forever suspended between earth and heaven; good and evil. Yet the story also assures us of the working of the Spirit midst the most tragic of circumstances: unfaithfulness and death itself.
Life must go on, as folk wisdom has it. There is work to be done whether we count ourselves among the One-Hundred-Twenty, the Eleven, the Twelve, or simply among the millions who have called themselves followers of Christ throughout the ages. We must, like the Eleven, and like Mattias, continue to go in and out with our Lord as he now journeys with us along life’s paths. And, we like the Apostles themselves, must remain forever witnesses to Christ’s Resurrection in all that we do.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs