How, then, shall we go on?

rubens_apostel_mattiasThat is the central question which confronted the disciples in the dark days following the crucifixion of Christ, and it is their answer we honor today as we commemorate the Feast of St. Matthias. The election of Matthias as a kind of substitute apostle to take the place forfeited by Judas is remarkable, not for its occurrence, but for its context. The world of the of disciples had been shattered. For three years, they had lived in community and in hope, they had learned and grown and prayed; all that had been ripped away in the brutal slaughter of the man they had hoped would save them. They had come to the time of need; they had failed to protect the one they loved; they had learned that were not the men they had hoped to be.

The task that was before them forms the central work of Lent: to find a way to emerge from our self-made tombs and live. Over the last few days, I have heard a number of preachers talk about the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. Each of these is a form of what the church calls mortification — not a word that sounds like we should seek it out! We hear an echo of it when we say to a friend, in great embarrassment, “I just about died,” but in the context of our life of faith, it means putting to death the things that are killing us.

St. Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor 6:12) He is speaking of the distinction between the freedom we have been given in Christ— which is absolute, and the uses to which we direct it. In Christ, we possess absolute freedom of self-determination, but paradoxically, exercising that freedom requires us to choose a self-imposed restraint, deliberately fostering in ourselves those qualities which will build up our souls in love, and denying the clamoring impulses of our false self —- the one which cries an incessant chorus of “Me! Me! Me!” The one which might lead us to put our own desires before the needs of others, denying them what they need to thrive — or even what they need to live. And we have seen, as did the disciples, that sin is not a joke, that it’s not sneaking the last brownie from the fridge. It’s a cancer that will metastasize and destroy what we want to love as long as we tolerate its presence in our midst.

And so the disciples gather. They huddle in an upstairs room and try to chart a course forward. And they choose to act in hope. They reclaim the original vision as their own; they assess the damage that has been done (the loss of one of the Twelve); and they decide to pick up the work with their own hands. Then they establish some criteria (it must be someone who is deeply steeped in Christ) and place the ultimate decision into the hands of God.

It is significant that, in Luke-Acts, the disciples undertook all this before the coming of the Holy Spirit. They committed themselves and their lives to God in sheer faith, and only afterwards received the power to change their world — and ours. They did not know whether it would work. They did not know whether God would still be there for them. But from the bitter self-knowledge revealed in their failure and their shame, they claimed and chose the kind of people they were determined to become.

That is the path of repentance, the royal way of Christ, and it is the only road that leads into new and holy life. And if the first few steps seem forbidding, and if your strength seems weaker than your will, do not fear: Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” if only we press ever on into his infinite and unbreakable love. (Phil 3:21)