Coping with disappointment is never easy. Once we’ve set our heart on something to be dashed at the final moment takes a bit of time to recover from. Anyone who has been for a job interview and not been appointed knows this and the more we invest in thinking ourselves into the post, which at some levels we have to do otherwise we are not taken seriously, the further we have to fall. On Friday I was involved in interviewing for a new Rector for a vacant parish and clearly only one candidate could be appointed. This week we learnt that the Crown Nominations Commission has not been able to agree on a candidate to present as the next Bishop of Oxford. That means that a number of clergy have been interviewed and no one has been invited to take it on. Various politicians are having to come to terms with their name not being the top of the ballot last week. So disappointment is in the air.
Our first reading (Acts 1:15-17, 21-end) gave us the selection of Matthias to replace Judas as an apostle in the church. Judas was one of the disciples closest to Jesus but betrayed him. The apostles, as some of them came to be known after the resurrection, decide they have to fill the vacancy and the lot falls on Matthias. Justus is not selected. We don’t know anything else about Matthias after this. We don’t hear anything of Justus either, he’s not even given a day in the calendar, but he is still interesting, in fact I find him more interesting than Matthias. He’d be a good candidate for patron saint of the disappointed.
Both candidates were well qualified. They had both accompanied the other disciples as Jesus had ‘gone in and out among them, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from them’. One of these is to be a witness with them of the resurrection. So they had a choice and had to come up with an open and transparent appointment process, in this case drawing lots, which it has to be said does save time. We now have job descriptions, person specifications based on the vision and direction the particular vacancy has identified, and candidates are assessed on how they present against this criteria.
What we are aiming at is finding someone who will be the right person for a particular vacancy at this time to lead it in the direction it needs to go in. We don’t know of course whether Justus was disappointed, or actually relieved not to be chosen. After all, the top jobs only look attractive from the outside. From the inside they can look very different. And this is the key to evaluating how we deal with disappointment. Somewhere in all of the processes there is a faith and trust that God’s providence holds us. Sometimes the appointment panel sees things we might not have seen and save us from what would become a very serious mistake for us and everyone else. Sometimes they just get it wrong. We’ve all seen that at times. There is the joke of the bishop who calls on a priest and one of the young children in the house asks the bishop if he can explain something to him. The bishop is keen to encourage the youngster, so agrees. The child asks, my mum can’t understand how a fool like you became a bishop! Of course that would never have been said by my children not least because we had a clear rule, what was said at the kitchen table stayed at the kitchen table! Even when the selection process does not go well, we have to trust that with God all things can work for good and be a moment of grace, of gift, rather than doom and despair.
The first Christian writers, which include the gospel writers, were writing to churches that were facing persecution and significant trials. This is no less the case with John’s gospel. They were under Roman occupation and justice could be summarily executed, so life was precarious. So when our gospel reading refers to the world hating them and asks for protection from evil (John 17:14), it is not merely a figure of speech. Christian hope is not just for when things go well. It is also for when things do not go straight. After a disastrous uprising by Jewish freedom fighters in AD70, and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple when it was brutally and decisively crushed by the Romans, hopes and dreams of liberation lay shattered along with the bodies.
But, God can and does circumvent our mistakes. I find there is a punch line to the appointment of Matthias. He is chosen as an apostle, but we hear nothing of him. He may have done his job, been an effective witness of the resurrection. Meanwhile, though, a young Pharisee called Saul was getting angry at the church’s rise and the spread of the gospel. He was inspired to persecute them but in so doing something of their message worked inside his mind. So on a journey to Damascus to round up more of their number he was struck down by a blinding light and as a result became the champion of the faith. In one of his letters he described himself as an apostle, though he matched none of the criteria set out in the person specification in our first reading. He is second generation, not first generation, because he was not a witness to the actual events. Yet he becomes the champion of the faith and is responsible for its spread along the Mediterranean coast. He may not have been the official choice, but that did not put him beyond the grace, the gift, the choosing of God.
We have to organize our life, we have to plan. As we set up structures to achieve certain ends, we place boundaries around what we expect to see happen. These days between the Ascension on Thursday and Pentecost next Sunday are days we look to the coming Holy Spirit. We look for God’s surprises and punch lines to give the story a twist and send it off in a new direction, where we may not have expected it to go. God has a wonderful sense of humour and we see this not least in whom he calls to be his witnesses and to lead, to inspire and to navigate the new course. Each of us has a role to play because each of us is called to be a witness to this hope, revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in his Ascension, where his contact details are also revealed. Even if not selected, for whatever purpose, each of us is still held in the purpose of God and we can receive this purpose as a sign of grace, a gift too. In that gift we grow, flourish and celebrate the purpose of God’s love which holds and moves us. There are surprises, but God’s providence can be relied on and be trusted. Even when it doesn’t go straight for us God’s loving purpose holds us and the Holy Spirit brings surprises to revitalize and refresh hope.
So today we remember Justus who wasn’t chosen and all who experience disappointment but nonetheless know they are held by the grace, the gift of God’s love and purpose.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church & Marholm Church, Sunday 17th May 2015