Topic: Biblical Verse: Acts 1:12–1:26
Seventh Sunday of Easter
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
In his play The Tempest, William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” If you head into downtown D.C. and go to the National Archives, you’ll see that phrase inscribed on the base of a statue outside the northeast corner of the building. The name of that statue is “The Future.” “What’s past is prologue” is Shakespeare’s way of saying that everything that has come before, everything that has led up to the present moment, has laid the groundwork for what’s to come. The past doesn’t control the future, but it can point to where the time ahead might go.
What’s next for you? Are you expecting some kind of big change in the near future? You might already be in the middle of that type of transition right now. What’s it look like from your perspective? How it is going to affect your life or the lives of the people around you? Change can be uncertain. “Will I like the new sandwich on this restaurant’s menu if I don’t get my usual thing?” “What’s this new job going to be like?” Bigger changes usually bring more uncertainty along with them. “How am I going to pay for my child’s education?” “How will I go on without my spouse by my side?” The future is uncertain. We don’t know what’s ahead.
This past Thursday marked forty days after Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning. On that Thursday with his disciples about two thousand years ago, he was lifted up into the heavens and entered into the glory of God that was his from before the beginning of time. Ascension Day points us to Jesus identity as the Person of God the Son, now enthroned above all power and dominion. It’s a pretty epic day, especially for those who look to Jesus for their hope. Now, imagine being there among the disciples who’ve seen Jesus’ ascension. That epic day has brought them into an epic time of transition.
Jesus has given his followers the great commission, sending them out to make more disciples, to share the good news of God’s love through him with the world – so what’s next? In our text from Acts 1 today, we hear what happens next after they returned to Jerusalem with great rejoicing (Luke 24:53): the disciples gathered together for prayer. They seek out their Lord’s will in following through with the mission that he’s given them. The past has been hard on them: and for some, more than others.
Speaking before the company of believers, Peter points them to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his subsequent downfall as the fulfillment of Scripture. Judas had been one of Jesus’ closest disciples for three years. They had traveled together, worked together, and shared meals together. Satan worked in and through Judas to see Jesus delivered into the hands of those who would have him killed. That’s pretty much all we know about why Judas betrayed his teacher and fellow disciples. In the aftermath of those actions, Judas was so overwhelmed by guilt the he returned the blood money he’d been given and hanged himself in a field. The past proved too much for him to bear.
The Twelve had become the Eleven. To move ahead in the work that wait for them, they needed a replacement for Judas to take the share of the ministry he’d been given: not because he had died, but because he had betrayed the Lord and abandoned hope of restoration. Any replacement would need to be a qualified witness. They would have to have been with Jesus from the very beginning of his public ministry, including his baptism by John. They would have to spent time learning at his feet and traveling alongside him with the other disciples. They would have to have been witnesses to his death and his resurrection, even his ascension into heaven that just took place. Two men among them shared that past: Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas.
As far as Scripture goes, this account is both the first and the last we hear of this Matthias and Joseph. Luke doesn’t say anything else about their past. Could they have ever anticipated what was happening now as one of them was about to be called to serve as one of the Twelve? So much had happened to bring them to this point in time. God knows what’s going to happen next!
And so He does. You see, the new twelfth apostle was going to be called by the same person who called each of the others: Jesus. The disciples don’t look to make this decision themselves; rather, they entrust it to the ascended Lord through prayer. Jesus is the one who prepared the apostles for the mission on which he was sending them. He promised to be with them to the end of the age, and so he is. When the lot falls on Matthias, it’s not a matter of chance. Jesus picks Matthias, answering the prayer of his people and restoring the apostles’ number to twelve. Reflecting the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles now serve as leaders for the new Israel, God’s people in Christ Jesus. From their past, the Lord gives a future.
What does your past have to say about you? Have you been with Jesus since before you can remember, learning at his feet and going where he’s sent you? None of us are Matthias. We’re not even Joseph Barsabbas. If someone were to look at your past or my past, we’re going to look most like Judas. It’ll show that we’ve betrayed our Lord, that we’ve failed to follow God’s instruction, and that we’ve pursued our own plans even when doing so hurt or harmed others. What expectations can we have for what comes next when what’s gone before looks so damning? If “what’s past is prologue,” how can you or I or anyone else have hope for the future?
Look to Jesus’ past. Imagine you’re back there with the Eleven and Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas and all the other disciples. Less than two months ago, Jesus was betrayed, brutally beaten, killed by crucifixion, and buried. And then he rose. Jesus, resurrected and alive, has spent time over the past many weeks with his disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God, even sharing meals with them. And only days ago, he was taken up into heaven in the sight of his disciples, vindicated in his identity as the victorious Christ. And the angels who appeared immediately after his ascension said that he will come again, even as departed. What’s past is prologue – and thanks be to God for that!
In Jesus, we do know what’s ahead. Jesus went to the cross because of our betrayal – Judas’, yours, and mine – and he took that betrayal with him into death. Your past was not too much for Jesus to bear. In God’s eyes, your imperfect, faulty, failing past died with Christ on the cross. And in his rising, Jesus showed that he has defeated the power that would keep you in the grave for eternity. He ascended to God the Father’s right hand as the Lord and King of all. He will return, so that you can be with him in the joy of God’s undimmed presence. You and I can look ahead in certain hope to what comes next, because Jesus has connected our past and our future in his resurrection and ascension.
“What is God doing in your life?” That’s one of the questions that came up during St. John’s Epiphany season study of Joining Jesus On His Mission. As you and I look ahead to what comes next, consider what God has been doing in your life, both past and present. The great commission that Jesus gave those disciples who witnessed his resurrection and ascension is still in effect. Even though you and I aren’t Matthias, Jesus has still called us to be his ambassadors. As Jesus’ disciples in the present day, we have the unique opportunity to speak the good news of the risen and ascended Lord who can redeem and does redeem the past of his people – even the faulty and the failing – to serve in love as he has served us. How has your past uniquely qualified you to serve the people God is putting in your life this week, in this month, and in this year ahead? Jesus gave himself to give them a future, too.
Everything that has come before in your life has formed and shaped you as the person you are today. That person is precious in the Lord’s sight. He has taken you – whatever your past – like a tree from an arid land and transplanted you to a life that knows the nourishing water of his word (Psalm 1). That word is here for you guide and strengthen you amidst all the times of transition that will come. God has picked you to be His own child, and He wants you to get to know Him better, taking in confidence in Him despite the uncertainty of the world.
What’s past is prologue. For you who have your past in Christ have a future in Christ as well.