Life is all about making decisions. You’ve already made a few of them so far this morning. Decision number one was whether or not to get out of bed. (That’s assuming, of course, you didn’t stay up all night!) Following that were other decisions, involving stuff like getting dressed, eating breakfast, going to church, maybe even praying!
A lot of our decisions we make without really thinking about them. Others require great effort and attention. Some we eagerly embrace; others we avoid like the plague. Still, as the rock group Rush once said in their song, “Freewill,” “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!”
Our scripture reading in Acts describes a decision made by the eleven remaining apostles—remaining, that is, after Judas’ death following his betrayal of Jesus. Peter is the one who raises the issue, feeling that the original number of twelve needs to be restored. So they decide to select a replacement.
(By the way, our scripture reading in the lectionary omits verses 18 to 20: all that juicy stuff about how Judas dies! Once again, the folks who compiled the lectionary wanted to protect us and our delicate sensibilities from all those grim and garish details.)
I have a question to ask: how do you feel about this whole undertaking of replacing Judas?
This decision has received mixed reviews over the years. On the one hand, it’s been seen as an act of faithfulness. The young church sees itself as the new Israel, with twelve apostles corresponding to the twelve tribes.
On the other hand, it’s not that Peter and the other apostles are doing a bad thing. They clearly have good motives. They establish what appear to be sound criteria. They make sure that the new apostle is someone who’s “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (v. 21). It must be one who’s been there through thick and thin—from the time of Jesus’ baptism until the present day—someone who can provide witness to the Lord’s resurrection.
Two candidates are proposed. The first is “Joseph called Barsabbas,” alias “Justus,” and the second is Matthias. They pray that the one God has chosen will be revealed, and they cast lots—in effect, they roll the dice—to get the result. And the winner is: Matthias!
I said this business has gotten mixed reviews. Some feel Peter’s use of Psalms 69 and 109, claiming they predict Judas’ deception and their response to it, is a bit loose. Still, it’s also true that upon reflection, the church saw how the Holy Spirit spoke through certain scriptures looking ahead to the Messiah. (Having said that, I had teachers who lamented how some people see in the Old Testament every piece of wood and random comment pointing to Jesus!)
But that’s not the main reason the apostles’ decision has been critiqued. To put it simply, it looks like they go ahead without hearing from God on the matter. Our gospel reading in Luke 24 shows Jesus, just before his ascension, telling them to wait until the Spirit is poured out upon them.
Lacking any definitive guidance, they plunge ahead and use a method that’s been around for ages—casting lots. It does seem to be relevant that, after Pentecost, lots aren’t mentioned anymore. The Holy Spirit directs the young church.
Still, it’s hard to be too critical of them. I can see why they might feel like they needed to take some kind of action. Some of them may have been getting a little antsy. Peter himself was known to be rather headstrong at times.
So I ask again: how do you feel about all of this? Faced with a decision like this, I wonder how we would fare.
In a way, it’s not fair to ask what you think of the apostles’ decision. There’s the saying about not knowing what’s happening with someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. We’ve all been criticized for decisions we’ve made by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about!
Let me tell you a little story about someone who faced a major decision in his life. As a result of his struggle, the world is better off for it.
I’ve mentioned him before, the 16th century Spanish officer, Ignatius of Loyola. If you recall, he was a wild young man; he loved chasing the ladies. While fighting the French, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin. (I also said something about that projectile. If it were one foot higher, well, he wouldn’t have been worried about the ladies!)
While bedridden doing physical rehab, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry. None of those were on hand, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints. He experienced his conversion while reading those books. In time, he became the founder of an order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
What’s relevant right now is that in his book, The Spiritual Exercises, he includes a section entitled, “Discerning the Spirits.” His use of the word “spirits” reflects a medieval concept; today, we might call these interior movements of the soul a combination of inclinations, attractions, imaginings, thoughts and feelings.
One guide to understanding Ignatius is Stefan Kiechle, a German Jesuit who wrote a book called The Art of Discernment: Making Good Decisions in Your World of Choices. It’s a very readable book, and it helps you to see what a wise person Ignatius was.
Ignatius stresses the need, when approaching a decision, to become “indifferent.” That’s not “indifferent” as we tend to think of it. It’s not an attitude that says, “I couldn’t care less what happens!”
For Ignatius, indifference is “a state where people no longer desire health more than sickness, wealth more than poverty, a long life more than a short life, honor more than dishonor, but instead they desire what brings them closer to the ‘end for which [they] are created.’ Therefore, one ought to be prepared to accept personal setbacks if they benefit a higher goal.”
He sounds a lot like St. Paul, who in Philippians 4 says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (vv. 11-13).
Ignatian indifference is inner freedom. Only those who have faced up to their own disordered desires—Paul might say “works of the flesh”—can be truly free. The greater freedom we have, the better our decision making will be. Still, we rarely achieve perfect clarity in our decisions.
“Apparently sound decisions are impossible unless one can reflect with a minimum of interruption… The moment we enter silence, our inner self comes to life… People who are constantly talking and keeping busy never pause to listen.” (That too often sounds like me. When I mean to have a time of silence, I focus on the random thoughts that float through my head. The trick is noticing them, and then just letting them go!)
So far, the advice from Ignatius might sound pretty stern. In that respect, he’s keeping true to his roots as a soldier! But he’s quick to emphasize the need for love. When approaching a decision, even one (or maybe I should say, especially one) causing fear or anxiety, I should “ask myself if I’m making my choice lovingly.” I need to make my choice lovingly. A loving spirit helps dissipate the cloud of negative forces that confuse and confound us.
We all have weaknesses; we should acknowledge them. For example, do I tend to jump right in, or do I put it off as long as I can? Do I have an exaggerated sense of self-worth; do I strut around? Do I think I’m totally worthless; do I shrink and try to hide? Do I tend to ignore reality in favor of some dream world, whipping out the rose-colored glasses? Do I insist on looking at the dark side of everything, always finding something to gripe about? We all have our favorite traps.
“Yet the fact remains that only those who make mistakes will learn something; only those who dare will mature as a result of the experiment—an important word in Ignatius.” It’s easy to sit back and criticize. God wants us to lovingly stand up and get involved.
We are created in the image of God. That means plenty of things, but one of my favorite examples of God’s image in us is a sense of humor.
(Humor seems to belong to humans alone. Still there are some animals, like chimpanzees, who seem to find some stuff funny. But not my dog. He never laughs at my jokes. Although, there might be several reasons for that!)
Ignatius also stresses the need for humor. When we develop our sense of humor, it enables us to entertain other ideas. We’re not so rigidly dead set on one course of action. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we become rigid and intolerant. Still, when it comes to laughing at oneself, some of us have more material than others!
So there, we need a good sense of humor. Oddly enough though, a full and healthy sense of humor carries with it the ability to mourn. And somehow, the ability to mourn is also a part of wise decision making. Our Jesuit friend Kiechle tells us: “People who have to choose between two good alternatives are frequently attracted to both of them. Once an alternative has been selected, the other alternative that has been rejected will have to be mourned. People frequently overlook this need for mourning. In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long to the [rejected] alternative… One who keeps reproaching oneself for having made the wrong decision after all, feels dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.” We must be able to say goodbye.
What kind of decisions are we facing? Let me suggest one possibility.
Certainly, we’re not in the same situation as those early disciples, but they have suffered a loss. I don’t know that anyone here has betrayed the Lord—at least, not in the outward death-dealing way Judas did. (We all have our own ways of betraying the Lord!) Still, I don’t think it’s a controversial point to say we wonder about expanding our own number.
If I can push the comparison a little further, drawing on the idea of casting lots, are we prone to relying on our own methods, and being a little less charitable, relying on gimmicks?! (I didn’t come up with that on my own. In one of the previous churches we served, a session member, thinking of increasing the membership, said that very thing: “We need a gimmick.” And that was suggested more than once!)
So there’s that. I know this happens next Sunday, but after the day of Pentecost, the disciples learn what it means to be led by the Spirit. And we live after the day of Pentecost. Understand, that doesn’t mean we drift around, waiting for the Spirit to move us. If you recall what I said about Ignatius, he provides one example of what it means to test the Spirit, to test the spirits.
As we saw earlier, the Spirit is the promise of Jesus after his ascension. The Spirit guides us in our decisions. Part of that means failing, but then still trusting.
When we make decisions and say, in an unnecessarily hurried way, “Let’s just get it done, already,” it limits the power of community. When one of us takes it upon ourselves to speak for the entire community, it chokes the Spirit. That is why it is so important as a community to test the spirits, both individually and within community. And that begins right here in worship. God speaks in ways we have not even begun to fathom.
Trusting in that is a pretty good decision.
 Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005).
 Kiechle, 32-33.
 Kiechle, 69.
 Kiechle, 79.
 Kiechle, 91-92.
 Kiechle, 76-77.