Even Jesus had a Judas. And even Jesus, the perfect Son of God, could choose twelve followers to walk with him and talk with him, to learn from him, for over three years in order to make them leaders of the church. And even if one of these men chosen and taught by Christ could exercise his free will in a bad way and could fall away, to turn his back on Christ, to betray the Holy Son of God, then even commit suicide at the end, then we know that the same thing could still happen even today.
No matter how well we teach, no matter how well we train, no matter how faithful a person seems to walk with God for a certain amount of time, God does not force anyone to remain faithful. Whether you sit today in a pew, whether you serve near the altar, whether you are bishop, or a priest, or a patriarch, it doesn’t make any difference. God is not going to force you to be faithful. He invites you to be faithful. He gives you all the tools that you need. But you’re not going to automatically going to persevere all the way to the end just because you are “in” now.
You can be baptized, you can be Chrismated, you can take the Eucharist, you can walk with Christ, but it is still up to you whether you will remain faithful to Christ. There is nobody on this planet that is infallible. There is nobody in the church who is unable to fall away, to teach heresy, or to betray Christ. When you are ordained as a deacon, or a priest, or even a bishop, that does not make it impossible for you to turn your back on God.
So what are we to do? What kind of faith can we have in a church that has no infallible people? How are we to trust a church if we are shown in scripture itself that even some of the highest leaders in that church can fall away from God, can betray Christ, can deny Christ, and even teach heresy and lead people away from Christ? The answer is given to us in this person of Saint Matthias—Saint Matthias the Apostle.
He was among, not the Twelve Apostles, but he was among the Seventy Apostles, the Seventy that during Jesus’ earthly ministry were sent out. Another one of those Seventy was Lucius, the same name as a dear friend of ours that passed away not so long ago. And Matthias, and Lucius, and sixty-eight other men went out two-by-two, to all these different cities of Israel, preaching the coming of the kingdom of God. And then after Jesus died and rose again and then ascended into heaven, the Apostles were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come down from on high and to fill the church on the day of Pentecost.
The apostles recognized that something was missing, not someone, because Mathias had already been among them. Mathias had been baptized by John the Baptist. And then he followed Christ, and then he was among the Seventy.
So he already had a living experience with Christ. He already had a personal relationship with Christ. He had already shown himself faithful to Christ. And if all that was needed was just a person to have these qualities, well, Matthias already had them, and so did a bunch of other people among their group. It wasn’t enough just to have these qualities inside, to have this holiness, to have this commitment to Christ, to have this personal history with Christ. There was something more that was needed. And that was a filling of this office.
It says according to today’s Epistle reading in the book of Acts—it quotes from the Psalms—in Acts chapter one, it says, “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘let his habitation be desolate and let no man dwell therein, and his bishopric let another take.’” (Acts 1:20)
“His bishopric.” See, this is a term we find in the book of Acts in the New Testament. But it doesn’t show up for the first time there; it is actually quoting it from the Psalms, which was written over three thousand years ago. It was already prophesied in the time of King David and the time of the writing of the Psalms—it was already prophesied—that one of Christ’s apostles would be a betrayer, that he would fall away, that his house would become desolate. But that the story would not end there, for as the prophesy in the book of Psalms said, “his bishopric let another take.” Now this is very interesting because who had fallen? An Apostle, one of the Twelve! Not one of the Seventy, not a deacon, but one of the Twelve. Jesus is the cornerstone of the foundation of the church according to scripture. And the remainder of that foundation is what? The apostles and the prophets.
There were Twelve Apostles that Jesus hand-picked, and when one of the Apostles falls, scripture says “his bishopric let another take.” So when an Apostle dies, when an Apostle passes on, who is the successor to his office? Bishop. Here is Biblical, scriptural evidence that the bishops of the Church are the successors to the Apostles.
When an Apostle dies, when an Apostle falls away, scripture says “his bishopric let another take.” The word “bishop” comes from a Greek word which means “ruler or overseer.” The Apostles were set up as overseers, as rulers within the Church, as the office which they hold, and when they die, when they pass out of this world, the office of ruling, the office of overseeing still remains. And it is that bishopric that others pick up. And when that bishop dies, then another one takes his place. And when that bishop dies, another takes his place, all the way until today.
The Apostles themselves, Peter and Paul, walked in Antioch and preached in Antioch and taught and baptized and gave communion in Antioch. And after they left there, they did not leave it without a bishop. The bishop was put in their place as Peter and Paul, still alive, went elsewhere, ending up in Rome. And when that bishop died, another bishop was put in his place. And then the third bishop put in his place was a man by the name of Saint Ignatius. We are still in the first century, the Apostles are still alive, and already we have this third bishop of Antioch, Saint Ignatius, who in the year 107 was martyred in the faith, and has left behind writing which we have even to this day.
He knew the apostles personally. And once the apostles left Antioch, they left behind bishops taking their office in that part of the world. And after Ignatius was martyred, another bishop took his place and another took his place, all the way until recently, when we ourselves here in Omaha were brought into the Orthodox Church. Our bishop, our Patriarch over Antioch, was Ignatius IV (the fourth). From one to two hundred bishops later, we are at Ignatius the fourth, and then he, earlier this year, passed away. And guess what happened? His bishopric another took. And now we have Patriarch John X (the tenth). So all the way from the apostles through Ignatius through the centuries of bishops all the way through Ignatius the fourth, and now John the tenth, we have the bishops, the patriarchs, as the successors to the Apostles. We have the same thing in Alexandria; we have the same thing in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, James, the same one that wrote the book of James in the New Testament. James was the first bishop of Jerusalem. And there have been bishops of Jerusalem all the way until the present.
There was this man who was a great leader in the Church, one of the Twelve Apostles, who betrays Christ, commits suicide and falls away. But in his apostasy he is not able to poison the Church. He is not able to defeat the faith. He is not able to drag the whole Church down with him. He drags himself down. For all that I know, it is possible that some of the followers of Christ particularly liked Judas and maybe they fell away too, at the same time. But the Church continued.
Jesus promised that the gates of hell could not and would not prevail against the Church. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He gave a promise saying, “I will be with you always. Even until the end of the ages.” So there is no point, no matter what Patriarch sins, no matter what bishop falls away, no matter what priest, or deacon, or layman starts a heretical anti-Christian sect, no matter what heresies, or false teachings, or false Christs, or false prophets may come. Regardless of any of that, the Church cannot fall.
Any individual member of the Church may choose to fall. But he cannot take the Church with him. There will never come a point at which the whole Church falls away from Christ, and some other people have to start from scratch and rebuild the foundation all over again. No, the foundation is Christ and the Apostles and their successors. And there is no rebuilding of that foundation. The Church always needs repentance, but the Church never needs a reformation. Throughout the years this happened many times. We have Judas. Among the seven deacons, the seven first deacons; one of those seven fell away.
You read in the books of Acts about the first seven deacons and one of them was named Nicholas—he falls away from the faith, and starts his own heretical sect. Of the seventy apostles, the Seventy that Jesus sent out during his earthly ministry, which included Lucias and Matthias. Of those seventy, four fell away from the faith. And yet when we look at the deacons; have all the deacons in the world fallen away from Christ? Or has the deaconate continued to this day? Even though some deacons fall away, God raises up others in their place. Even though some Apostles and bishops fall away, God raises up others in their place.
Did you know that Arius—the one that led the world to believe that Jesus was not God— Arius himself was an Orthodox priest? Let that sink in for a minute. This is not some guy from a foreign country who was a pagan worshiper of idols; this is a man who has been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a man who has been Chrismated; this is a man who has taken communion in the Church, who has learned the prayers, who has been ordained as a priest in the church! Just think, there was a day you could have walked into an Orthodox church, come and taken the Eucharist, and you would have said, “Father Arius.” That is the one who fell away. An Orthodox priest, Father Arius, he is the one who turned his back on Christ. He is the one who fell away; he is the one who led countless, millions of people away from Christ. And yet did the priesthood die out and disappear? No, the church condemned him for his heresy. It condemned him for turning his back on Christ, and for denying that Jesus is God. And other Orthodox priests have been raised up in his place who are faithful.
What about the bishop Nestorius, who became the Patriarch of Constantinople? There have been many Patriarchs who have been faithful in Constantinople, but this particular bishop fell away from the faith and started teaching heresy. And the Church has condemned him for turning his back on Christ, for being a false teacher. But when he fell, did he take the whole Church with him? Did all bishops fall away with him? Did the whole Church become corrupted, so that some people needed to go and start a new church? No, the Church condemned him for his false teachings. And new faithful bishops have been raised up in his place.
Jesus promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church. Nobody in the Church is forced to be faithful. But if you are unfaithful, it is you who will fall away. You will not be able to take the Church with you. And so it is today. We look at other Orthodox Christians, we look at Orthodox deacons and priests, and even bishops and Patriarchs, and sometimes we get worried, we get nervous, we get concerned because even though most of the Orthodox people we meet are okay, we see that not all is perfect within the Church. We find out that there are Orthodox priests out there that don’t teach what they should. There are Orthodox bishops who don’t lead as they should. Most of the Orthodox Christians that we meet are wonderful people, but we do meet some that we just have to scratch our heads and say, “Is that person really following Christ? I don’t know.” And when these things happen, we need to remember the biblical story of Judas and Matthias, because it doesn’t just apply to Apostles, and bishops and deacons—it applies to all of us.
You see, we all are called to worship Christ; we all are called to be faithful to Christ, and to the scriptures and to the Church. And it is not just ordained people that God has called to serve him, but He has called each and every one of us to serve him. God has given each one of us in this room and in this town and in this world a job to do while we are here on earth. He has given us meaning, He has given us purpose, He has given us things that we need to do for Him. But he will not force us to be faithful. You don’t have to be ordained; you can be three years old and God has given you something to do to be faithful to Him. You can be a Mom with one child or a dozen children; you can be President of the United States or you can work at Pizza Hut. Regardless of your station in life, regardless of your gender, regardless of your age, regardless of your mental capacity, God has called you to serve Him in a particular way. But he will not force it. If you are faithful He will give you the opportunity to serve Him and to bear fruit for the kingdom. But if you are unfaithful you will not destroy the church. You will not drag the church down with you.
Like Judas, you may turn your back, you may fall, you may go away, but if you do that, the things that God wanted you to do for Him—He will not leave them undone. He will raise somebody else up in your place to do the job that you left undone. And so the Church continues throughout the ages. The plan of God marches inexorably on, and will be fulfilled in great glory and in great beauty. You have no power to stop it. You have no power to destroy it. You have no power to frustrate God’s plans. What you have power over is whether you yourself will be a positive contributor, whether you will be a participant, faithful; or whether you, like Judas, will fall away and allow Matthias to take your place.
This should teach us a couple of things. Number one, the Church can be trusted. Even though it is full of fallible, sinful people, we can trust that God knows what He is doing and that when any leader in the Church sins or even falls away from Christ, God know how to handle the situation. Judas fell and God replaced him with a faithful Christian named Matthias. And Matthias picked up where Judas left off. So we do not need to worry about anything happening to the Church. God is protecting His Church. And, as Jesus said, He will be with His Church until the end of the ages.
The second thing this should teach us is to be watchful over our own souls. There are people who say, “Well, I pray to Christ every day, I read my Bible every day, I try to be as nice to people as possible.” Don’t think that even if you do that for twenty or forty years that you have lost the ability to be unfaithful. Maybe you have been baptized, you have been brought into the Church, you have been Chrismated, you have taken communion, and you faithfully attend every Sunday. You work hard to live your life day-to-day being faithful to Christ. Don’t think that it is impossible for you to fall. You might even become ordained as a deacon, or a priest or a bishop in the Church and serve God faithfully for fifty years. Even then, do not think that it is impossible for you to fall.
But every day, with humility, let us remember that even one of the Apostles, hand-picked by Christ, he didn’t just pray to Christ, he saw Jesus face to face every day for over three years, he heard Jesus’ voice and still fell away. So every day, with humility and sobriety, let us not live like the world, thinking that we can just go about our lives and do whatever we want, and have God as an afterthought, so that we pray once in awhile, maybe attend church once in awhile… but Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and on and on and on, let us live twenty-four hours a day, every waking moment, being watchful over our hearts, watchful over our souls, doing all that we can to work for the Kingdom of Heaven—not to earn it, but simply to protect our souls from turning our backs on Christ, simply working to lead others to Christ so that they are not found to be unfaithful, working to lead our parents and our brothers and sisters and our children and our cousins, and our neighbors and our friends into the Church, so that on the day that we have been found faithful and go to be in His presence forever, that our family and our friends are not left behind.
We wear red today at the altar. We do not wear red because Matthias was an Apostle. We do not wear red because scripture says “his bishopric let another take”, because he took the bishopric, the apostolic office, of Judas. We don’t wear red for his office of Apostle. We do not wear red because the bishops are the successors to the Apostles. We wear red because Matthias was faithful to the end. He was a martyr. Red is the color of the blood of the martyrs. And on this day, February the twenty fourth, we commemorate the martyrdom of Matthias.
Judas was unfaithful. His life ended in blood, not because of persecution, but because of cowardice: suicide. He left behind this office of bishop, this office of Apostle, which Matthias filled. And then Matthias lived for the next several decades preaching the gospel, serving Christ, following Christ, and when it finally came to the end and he had to chose whether he was going to continue following Christ or whether he was going to turn his back on Christ to save his own life, he was faithful even unto death.
And they literally killed him; they shed his blood because he would not turn his back on Jesus. So it is not for his being a bishop, not for his being an Apostle that we wear red, but we wear the color of blood because of his martyrdom.
And so that is the third thing that we need to learn from Saint Matthias. Because what if just those first two things were all we learned, that the Church cannot be destroyed, it will continue faithful until the end of the age. That is a good thing to learn. But it won’t help you unless you remain part of it. You have to be baptized and Chrismated into the Church, you have to take the Eucharist; you have to persevere to the end. You might know that the Church will last until the end of the age. You might believe that the bishops are the successors to the Apostles and that Matthias took the bishopric of Judas and that Matthias became one of the twelve. You might believe all those things, but if you don’t recognize the blood of his martyrdom, you might forget that you yourself need to be faithful even to the end.
The day may come even in this country that you are going to have to choose between life and death. “Will I confess Christ and come down to the grave today in blood, as a martyr myself? Or, will I try and save my own neck so that I can live a few more days on this planet? Will I turn my back on Jesus in order to do so?”
Or, it may not be so dramatic; it may be simply a matter of me living the next fifty years faithfully as an Orthodox Christian, and not knowing the day that God is going to call you to account. See, you could die of old age at the age of eighty-seven, in your sleep, or you could be like my dear niece, Ashley, who a couple of years ago, at the age of seventeen, was driving between Norris City and Omaha, and the road was just a little slick. She wasn’t a bad driver, but the road was just a little slick. And even that wouldn’t have been that big a deal, she could have swerved back to her side of the road, but there just happened to be a semi truck coming, and her life on this earth ended that day, at the age of seventeen.
Every day in this world, children die at the age of five, at the age of thirteen, at the age of seventeen. Adults die in their twenties, and thirties, and forties, and fifties. And you never know when your day is going to come, when your blood will be shed. And on that day, it will be just as important as it was for Matthias. On that day, are you confessing Christ, or are you turning your back on Him? You don’t have to be a martyr; you don’t have to have to have the question posed to your face, “Are you going to reject Christ and live or are you going to confess Christ and die?” Now, you may die in a car accident today when you walk out of this church. You may catch a disease and die six months from now. Somebody may break into your house and kill you. Those things happen in this country to people just like us. And on that day, that unexpected day, were you being an Orthodox Christian? Were you following Christ to the best of your ability? Were you being faithful? Had you recently taken the Eucharist? How recently had you prayed? How recently had you consciously submitted your life to Christ?
So there are at least three things for us to remember on this feast day, the martyrdom of Saint Matthias the Apostle. Number one, the Church cannot be destroyed. Jesus promised to protect it. And so even when a great leader in the Orthodox Church turns his back on Christ and falls away, he will fall away, but God will raise up somebody else in his place. And the Church itself will continue faithfully. Number two, we just read in scripture that the bishops are the successors to the Apostles. Judas was an apostle, he fell away, and as it was prophesied in the Psalms, “his bishopric let another take.” So even today in the Orthodox Church, the bishops are the successors of the Apostles. And we owe them our respect and our obedience. And number three: Saint Matthias went to the grave in blood because he was a faithful Orthodox Christian. And if we want to find ourselves faithful when we come to the grave, then we need to be faithful to Christ every single day, because none of us knows what day that will be. Your day may be fifty years from now, or your day to die may be today, or any day in between, which means that we need to be ready every day.
So we ask Saint Matthias to pray for us to be faithful, for us to put our trust in the Church that Christ has founded, and for us to faithfully persevere, submitting to Christ, and serving Him even until the end of our lives.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is one.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, February 24, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.