It may be strange, but my favorite story in the book of Acts is the latter half of chapter 1, wherein the eleven apostles meet, discern who is to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle, and ordain him. When I hear other people talk about it, they most often seem to point out that this is the last time God’s people “draw lots” to discern God’s will; after this is Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all the truth. But what I see is kingdom-building.
Look back at how Acts begins. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” they ask Jesus. And he says that it is not for them to know times and seasons, but they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come. So he (once again) corrects their misunderstandings about the nature of the Kingdom of God, but affirms that their true power is about to be bestowed. They’re not going to wear literal crowns and sit on literal thrones to rule over an earthly geographic kingdom in vassalage to High King Jesus, but rather they will be clothed in the royal robes of the Holy Spirit. To use later imagery, their crowns would be mitres and their thrones would be episcopal seats – both being symbols of a teaching office.
And so, with that realization in place – that they’re going to be building the kingdom of God now – the Eleven set about to make sure they’ve got a new twelfth man. Why must there be twelve? Look at how Israel was founded in the first place: one line of patriarchs, branching into twelve tribes. The fullness of Israel was always identified as the twelve tribes, even though sometimes the Levites were omitted (in terms of land ownership) or the the tribe of Joseph was often counted as two separate ones (Ephraim and Manasseh). With the Kingdom of God being re-established according to the spiritual charter of Christ instead of the dynastic line of David, and membership being by spiritual birth & baptism instead of physical birth & circumcision, the Apostles understood that it was right and fitting that they begin their work with the full complement of Twelve.
Saint Peter acknowledges that it was within God’s will that Judas should fall away, and he quotes Psalm 109 – “Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and `His office let another take.’” The word for “office” here is ἐπισκοπὴν, episkopen, from which we get the word episcopacy: Judas is no longer a bishop; it’s time for a new one. I’ve seen that verse used on bumper stickers and in memes to pray against President Obama and President Trump; both are pretty crass uses of the psalm, which is a rebuke or imprecation against one who has actively betrayed or persecuted the faithful. Many a Christian has rightful grievances against the previous and current American Presidents, but they’re no Judas Iscariot. Judas is the archetype for whom this psalm is to be directed at; we shouldn’t be flippant about prayer, or in our use of the Scriptures.
In the end, this is a Kingdom-building story, as the disciples prepare for Pentecost. It is my hope, and the hope of my diocesan leadership, that these days of “covidtide” while we’re all quarantined at home and waiting for The Great Reopening, will be a time of preparation and planning. We don’t want to curl up, turn inward, and hibernate during this time. How will we minister to people differently as we come out of social distancing? How will we witness to the love and power of Christ, given the needs around us? Are we ready, from a spiritual standpoint, truly to re-open the churches?
As Ascensiontide’s time of active preparation leads to the powerful activity of Pentecost, so may this time of quarantine pave the way for a fresh movement of spiritual vitality, not just among our own numbers, but in a movement across our community and culture.