Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today gives us an interesting glimpse into the lives of the earliest Christians. In this story, they were fresh from having witnessed the Ascension of Jesus Christ. His last words to them were: ...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. So they returned to Jerusalem to await the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
It was during this time between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, that Peter felt compelled to fill the void left by the defection of Judas Iscariot, the one who had betrayed the Lord. And, yes, we all know that in another way Peter had also betrayed Jesus. But then, unlike Judas, Peter was willing to seek and accept forgiveness. Jesus had told him ahead of time what to do: "And you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:32) Now we see him doing it.
Twelve is an important number in the Bible, especially because of the twelve tribes of Israel. So it must have seemed important to Peter that there be twelve apostles to carry on the ministry, to be witnesses to Christ "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." There were certain criteria for the one who would fill the empty place. It must be someone who had accompanied them during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among them, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from them. The one to be chosen must have been, from the beginning, a witness to all that Jesus said and did in his earthly ministry. There must have been several among the company of about 120 people who would have qualified, but two persons were proposed: one was Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and the other was Mathias. They prayed that the Lord would show them which of these two should take his place among the twelve; they cast lots, and Mathias was chosen.
What an interesting way to choose. Imagine if we in the church today would employ this method in the election of bishops -- or even in choosing members of the vestry! Would this make it easier or harder for those who were not chosen? Is it worse to come in second when other people are doing the choosing, or when it's God's choice?
We don't hear anything else about Joseph. We can only wonder how he felt about being the also-ran, and what he did with the rest of his life. Of course, he's not the only one, even in the Bible, who had this experience. All of David's brothers, for instance, were passed over when Samuel anointed him king. And why did God prefer Jacob to Esau, even before they were born? Probably all of us have also been in this position. As the saying goes, "You win some, you lose some." Those times when it feels like you have been on the losing end can, of course, be growth experiences for us. Perhaps we have had to learn the hard way that we don't always have to be number one, and, in fact, that it's OK not to be.
That may have been the case for Joseph. Although there is nothing else in the New Testament about him, there are traditions that indicate that he did indeed go on being a witness to the resurrection of Jesus. It is said that he preached in many different places. We are led to believe that this man didn't let a small thing like coming in second in the "Apostle election" get in his way. Perhaps we should make Joseph Barsabbas the "patron saint" of the underdogs, the ones whose slogan might be, "We're number two. We try harder."
Maybe Joseph was smart enough to know that whether he was counted among the twelve wasn't the important thing. What was important was that he, too, was one who had witnessed for the resurrected Christ, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, or wherever it was that he happened to find himself.
Uh-oh! That's what we're supposed to be doing, too. Joseph, called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, isn't listed among the saints in our calendar. Chances are that we won't be either, not even in the "Lesser" Feasts and Fasts. So what? God does not call us to come in at the head of the pack. God does not call us to see our names in lights. Rather, God calls us to bear witness to Jesus Christ wherever we are. You'll find it in the Baptismal Covenant: "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?" There's only one answer to that question: "I will, with God's help." Amen