Watch the whole worship service here.
Read Acts 1:12-17, 20-26
Proverbs 16:33 says, “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall.”
Can you predict the outcome of rolled dice? What do you think I’ll get? (I rolled a dice and got the number one.)
Is the outcome truly random? Mathematicians and scientists have been studying that question for centuries. Now that we have more sophisticated ways to measure the effects of friction, air flow, and other variables, a scientist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland says that it is slightly more likely that the dice will land with whatever side was up when they were thrown. But it’s so hard to assess all the variables that it seems random.
In our reading from Acts 1 today, the disciples cast lots, similar to rolling the dice, but they expect God to influence the outcome. We might think that sounds a little dicey . . . but what Luke, the writer of Acts, is showing us is a group that’s doing much more than just rolling the dice to make a decision. They’re seeking God together and trusting God to guide them. They’re living out the expectation that we can all have because of the resurrection: the expectation that Jesus is alive and working in our lives through the Holy Spirit.
A similar process to the one in Acts is being used in the present day by the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt whenever they are selecting a new pope. They vote on candidates to narrow down the choices to three (instead of two), and then the whole church fasts and prays for three days, asking God to guide the outcome, maybe using the same words Peter prayed in Acts 1:24, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these [three] you have chosen…” Then:
“The acting Pope will write the names of the three finalists in front of the congregation on three papers. The three papers will be folded, tied with red ribbon, marked with the acting Pope’s stamp as well as [the previous pope’s] stamp and then placed inside a transparent box on the altar to be sealed with red wax.
At this point, the priests will perform the Divine Liturgy. [A worship service with the Lord’s Supper.]
The final step comes when a blindfolded child, an altar boy [who was] chosen [the day before], will pick a paper from the box and give it to the acting pope, who will read the name of the [new] Coptic Pope.”
As you might imagine, everyone wants their child to be the one who picks the pope. Only children between 5 and 8 are eligible, they have to have been ordained as an altar [boy?], and their families have to submit their names along with their birth certificates.
They don’t roll the dice, they do something like a lottery. They roll the dice figuratively. But the idea is the same – trusting God to control the outcome.
There are lots of steps in the process of choosing someone so important to the church as the pope, but we should note that the Egyptian Coptic church, as well as the disciples in our reading from Acts, do much more than follow a process. They adopt a posture of humility and trust in God. Acts 1:14 says the disciples and all those with them were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Similarly, the Coptic Christians spent three days in prayer and fasting.
They are committed to the communal practice of prayer because they are leaning into their trust in God’s goodness.
When we pray together during our worship services, we are not just going through the motions of prayer because we’re supposed to, but because prayer is central to our lives and faith. Prayer is our core practice of seeking and trusting God. It is the one thing above all else that we must absolutely do.
What types of prayer do we pray in our worship service?
Our Book of Order says that “prayer is at the heart of worship,” In worship we pray in a variety of ways:
- We speak prayers of praise and adoration.
- We pray confessions. (Lord, forgive us…)
- We pray in silence.
- Our songs are prayers.
- Our listening is prayer.
- Our experience of God, in whatever way it happens for us, is a part of our praying and seeking God.
But it’s not just about praying during this one hour a week. We need God’s guidance throughout the week. Paul tells us in almost all of his letters to be praying continually, and his first letter to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). It’s why we try to begin and end all our gatherings and meetings with prayer, not just because we’re supposed to, but because we need to acknowledge our limited understanding of all the implications of our actions. Through prayer, we acknowledge our need for God’s help and guidance.
There are times in our session meetings when we have been unable to see clearly how to move forward with a decision, and so we have stopped and prayed and asked God for help. We’ve done this at our presbytery leadership meetings as well.
Actually, I think we don’t pray enough individually or corporately. I don’t do this enough. I’ll confess that I sometimes forget to pray with people, and I’m thankful when they remind me. We’re all human and we all forget.
We are committed to the practice of praying together because we are leaning into our trust in God’s goodness.
We keep seeking God together to help us to remember what we are about. Peter, in his criteria for a new apostle, specifies in verse 22 that this person be a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Someone who has seen the resurrected Jesus. We too are called to be witnesses. To be witnesses, we have to keep our eyes open so that we see God at work in us and in our world. Prayer helps us to see that better.
Lord, help us to see you and give us the wisdom and courage to celebrate and share what we have seen, so that others might know your goodness and grace. Thanks, God.
But wait, there’s more! We also keep seeking God to help us to remember why we are here.
Why are you here? There are a lot of ways to answer that.
A couple weeks ago, when I was meeting with Kay Axtell’s daughters, who grew up in this church and are now serving in churches in the various towns in which they live, they talked about the importance of their faith, and they wondered how people without faith get through something so difficult as the death of their parents. Their faith is a vital part of their lives. Their faith gives them that peace that comes even in the midst of difficult circumstances because of the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
One of the other scriptures appointed for today in the lectionary is from the gospel of John, chapter 17. We didn’t read it today, so let me tell you that it is Jesus’ prayer from the night he was arrested. He prays for the disciples, and he prays also for us, for all future believers, to be one as he and the father are one (V11,21-22).
It’s a prayer for unity, but it’s also a prayer for peace.
The Greek word for peace is eiréné (i-ray’-nay). It’s fuller meaning is wholeness and well-being. It can also be translated as the word “one.” When Jesus is praying for us to be one, he’s praying for us to have peace. We need that peace, and the world needs that peace – that oneness and wholeness.
Lord, make us one with each other and with you, and grant us the wholeness of your peace.
But one more! We also keep seeking God to help us to know how we are to be the body of Christ.
The disciples pray in verse 24 asking God to, “. . . show us.” In today’s reading, they see God’s action by casting lots, but that’s not the only way God is revealed in Acts. In the very next chapter, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples with the loud sound of rushing wind and something that looks like tongues of fire descending.
It is certainly no accident that this happens while the disciples are all gathered together in prayer. Prayer is the refrain of the first few chapters of Acts. They are continually gathered together in prayer as they are figuring out how to be the witnesses that Jesus has told them to be when he said just before he ascended to heaven:
“ . . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
It is both wonderful and frustrating that we have this model from the Bible of making decisions and planning the work of the church together in committees or ministry teams. It means we have to work together. But it also means we have to seek God together. We do the work of discerning God’s will for us together. We have to be praying together to do that.
Friends, I know it is challenging. But it is also beautiful when we pray together and discuss what we’re hearing from God and find that we are in harmony with each other. This happened when our session made the decision to become a Matthew 25 church. To be honest, I had received the information from the mission and ministry department of our denomination long before I brought it to session. I hesitated because I was afraid. We had never talked about racism before. I didn’t really know what it would mean to work on addressing systemic racism and poverty or congregational vitality. When I did finally bring this to session, I was surprised at their openness to it. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. God was guiding us in this direction, and God will help us to accomplish the purposes that God has set before us.
But God has not yet fully revealed to us what being a Matthew 25 church means to us as United Presbyterian Church of Sterling. We know how to be what we have been before. We know how to give to the food bank and to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and to the other ministries we help support. We know how to feed a family who has just experienced the death of a loved one, or who are struggling with health issues. We know how to pray for and help support our foster and adoptive families, who, by the way, met in our sanctuary just yesterday.
But God is calling us to something more.
When we said yes to being a Matthew 25 church, we said yes to God’s call. We said yes to learning more and growing into a bigger vision, and that vision is only gradually being revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.
Next Sunday is Pentecost, the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s a big day. Some say that it’s the birthday of the church. Some churches even have birthday cake on that day.
The disciples spent the time leading up to Pentecost in prayer.
So let’s do that too. Let’s spend this coming week in prayer.
Specifically, let’s be asking God to pour out the Holy Spirit upon us and upon our church, and upon all our churches, and let’s be asking God to show us the way forward as a Matthew 25 church.
- Let’s pray expecting God to answer us.
- Let’s listen for God to answer.
- Let’s watch for God to show us our next steps.
And next week I’ll be asking you to share what God showed you.
There are many ways we live out our call individually to be witnesses to the resurrection, to be witnesses to the life of the Holy Spirit in us. We do this as we go about our daily lives.
But we can do more when we work together, using our varied gifts and abilities and experiences together.
I think I’ve said this a dozen times…This past year has been difficult. I’m sure we would all agree about that.
But it’s also a unique opportunity. We’re on a threshold to have a fresh start.
Sometimes what God is calling us to is right in front of us and we just aren’t seeing it or understanding. That’s why we keep on asking God to show us and help us understand.
And we keep on trusting that God in His goodness will do just that, at just the right time.
Thanks be to God. And now let’s pray again…
Teach us patience in prayer, Lord.
Open our ears to listen.
Help us to wait with expectation
until such time as you make yourself known
in and among us
by the power of the Holy Spirit.
 Book of Order, The Constitution of the PC(USA) 2019-2021 edition, W-2.0202.