And the lot fell upon Matthias – a sermon

This sermon was preached in St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow on 12 May 2024

You don’t get many stained glass windows depicting Joseph Barsabbas – also known as Justus, do you?

You get plenty of windows depicting Matthias. We’ve got one here in St Mary’s – over by the tea and coffee table. There he is with the fateful words – “And the lot fell upon Matthias”.

But if you want to exercise a devotion to Justus, you’re out of luck.

Or maybe he was out of luck in not being chosen.

Or maybe he was the lucky one in not being chosen.

But there’s no stained glass windows of him anywhere I know. There’s no statues of him. No icons of him. No holy pictures of him either.

And yet he was just as worthy as Matthias. He’d been a witness to the things that Jesus had done. They both had.

But the lot fell upon Matthias.

Isn’t it an extraordinary thought that the casting of lots two thousand years or so ago led directly to which of two men from the Holy Land would be depicted in stained glass here in Glasgow.

But the lot fell upon Matthias. Not on Justus.  And so Matthias is who we have.

The problem for the disciples was that there seemed to be some significance for them in being 12 in number. (This significance is lost to us, by the way). However, they felt the need to find someone to fill the gap that was left by Judas, who had betrayed the Lord and then taken his own life.

The solution that they came up with was to find a couple of people who were worthy enough to step into the sandals of an apostle and then they prayed and then they cast lots to decide who should get the job.

One of the most fascinating things about this is how seldom Christians have wanted to replicate what they did in order to choose a new apostle.

It isn’t completely unknown for people to be chosen for posts in the church by lot but it is unusual. The Coptic Church in Egypt selects a few likely candidates when they are choosing a pope and then a choirboy is chosen at random to pick a name out of a mitre.

And those with long memories going back about 20 years might remember that the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church chose our Primus by casting lots, when the votes kept being tied in every vote for weeks.

But it isn’t often done.

But pretty much the first time the early Christians needed to choose a new leader that’s what they did. They picked two worthy candidates and drew lots – allowing fate, or God, or chance or – well we’ll come back to that in a minute, to choose.

And the lot fell upon Matthias.

But I have to admit. I have a sneaky devotion to Justus, the one on whom the lot didn’t fall.

Maybe the next time I find someone who paints icons, I’ll get them to paint me an icon of Justus.

You see, life hasn’t always turned out as I expected it to do. Or even as I might have hoped it would do.

Justus represents the road the church didn’t travel. The apostle never picked. The disciple unpreferred.

I find him really rather fascinating.

I’ve stood in quite a few elections for things – for parliament, for the diocese, for a council seat, for being the rector of a university and one or two things whilst I was at university. And I have more often had the experience of Justus than of Matthias.

Losing elections is one of my best skills.

It is one of those hobbies you get better and better at the more you do it. And I find the one unchosen rather fascinating.

But less about me, what is it that the early Christians are up to and is there anything to learn from it.

I think there’s a few things I think I have to say about this little incident.

  • Firstly they didn’t trust God with the choice completely. And that’s really important and we should learn from it.
  • And secondly, vocation is something for everyone and is about letting the gifts and skills that God has given us respond fully to the place in which we find ourselves.
  • And thirdly, providence, if it works at all, works better when you look backwards rather than forwards and maybe for this last week of Eastertide, we should try doing that.

Let us just run through those. Firstly, it is clear that the disciples thought that God needed some help in making this decision. They only allowed two names to go forward and it is clear that both of them were regarded as eminently suitable candidates. I take from this that common sense is God’s greatest gift in trying to practice discernment. Far more important than spooky revelations or even tossing a coin. Common sense did most of the work here and common sense should be seen as God’s greatest spiritual gift. Holy Wisdom you can call it if you like. But it mattered to the disciples and it should matter to us, whatever decisions we are trying to make.

Secondly, I do think that vocation is about thinking about the gifts and skills that we have and then allowing them to be used as fully as possible in the situation that we find ourselves in. The community seemed to have discerned that both Matthias and Justus were wise enough and sensible enough. They had been present enough. And they were trusted enough.

That’s the stuff of vocation. Often much more so than mystical callings in the night.

These were people with great gifts and they were in the business of trying to recognise them as gifted people.

This congregation is a gifted group of people. I often think about that. And it is God’s business not only to have gathered us here to encourage one another and egg one another on but also it is God’s business to have placed us each in a world which needs the love of God preaching from Monday to Sunday.


As I think about my own gifts and skills and the extraordinary ways my life has turned unexpectedly, I am pretty sure that I don’t believe that there is just one path that God has laid out for me to follow and somehow have to try to get right all the time.

I can only really make sense of the providence of God when I look back at my life and think about where my gifts and skills have been used and where they have been recognised. I can see places where I may have been nudged and cajoled by God and by God’s people that have ended up with me being here, fully present in the now.

We’ve just got one more glorious week of Eastertide left. And in it, I invite you to look backwards at the providence of God. Maybe think about what you’ve seen of new life since we heard the news on Easter day. (Or maybe even since you heard the news of new life for the first time). In what ways has that new life been glimpsed?

For it is all still true you know? For if Christ had not been risen from the dead, the disciples would not have been gathered there. And if Christ is not risen from the dead, we would not be gathered here now. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


How Awesome is this Place – sermon preached for Dedication Sunday 2019

How awesome is this place!

In the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

How awesome is this place – it is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.

Now Jacob was on the move. He wasn’t at home when he had that dream about Jacob’s ladder.

The truth is, his father Isaac seems to have become fed up of him moping around on his own in the Promised Land and had decided that the only thing that could be done with him was to tell him to pack his bags and head off out of the Promised Land and go back to where the family had come from.

In the verses just before the story of the dream about the ladder things are very clear.

Isaac basically tells him to go off on a quest and not come back until he’s got a wife to come back with.

Isaac had met his wife as she drew water from a well and he more or less orders Jacob to go off and do likewise. Go back to the homeland. Hang around the wateringholes and don’t come back until you’ve found a wife just like your mother.

I don’t know whether anyone here has ever been put in a similar situation. I do know that such an order would have been unlikely to work on me, for a number of reasons, but Jacob wasn’t me.

Yes father he says. And off he trots to the old country.

We know what his dream was at night, but what were his daydreams as he travelled.

Did he dream of finding the perfect spouse?

Or did he just dream of shutting up his old man?

Did he dream, as young men sometimes do, of riches and wealth and possessing many camels?

Or was his the journey of someone satisfied by the simple life?

Did he dream of winning the equivalent of the lottery of his day by coming home in possession of a wife or two, who would bring land and livestock into the family business?

Or did he never intend to go back at all?

Did he dream of becoming a patriarch himself? Or did he dream of smashing the patriarchy and establishing equity and peace once and for all and an end to fathers projecting their own impossible dreams onto the lives of their sons.

We don’t know. But we do know that somewhere, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, he had to rest and fell asleep and had a dream that has captured the imagination of countless people through the ages. A ladder. With angels. And the angels moved up and down. And heaven and earth were connected. And God was there.

I don’t know what your dreams are as you make your way through life. I might guess I suppose – there will be people here who do dream of the lottery win and riches and wealth being theirs. There will be others who dream of academic success. Or to climb another step up their workplace ladder. Or for a child. Or for a spouse with lovely eyes.

When two or three are gathered together there are many dreams amongst them.

And some may have loftier dreams that are not just about themselves. A dream of a calmer and more rational politics to re-emerge from our current chaos. A dream of safety for those who are beloved but in danger, far, far away. A dream of a world that can recover from our climate vandalism and be a nourishing and safe place for all of God’s children.

Such is the stuff that dreams are made on.

But not Jacob.

His dream is one of those that seems to come from outside himself.

In the turmoil of his journey to satisfy his father’s desire for grandweans, he stops and rests and to his considerable surprise, God is there.

I don’t know exactly what the dreams of those who laid the foundation stone of this place were.

They were surely seeking a place to worship safely. They were surely seeking a place to worship magnificently. They were surely seeking a place to know God and from which they could make God known.

Their exact dreams I cannot quite know. But I know that God was already there.

As it happens, I also do not know exactly where the foundation stone is that was laid to mark the beginnings of this place.

We know it was laid with some ceremony but try as we might, we can’t find it.

(One theory is that this pulpit may have been built in front of it and if so I may be standing more or less on top of it).

But surely those who laid it brought all their dreams and turned them into prayers that day.

I don’t know what they dreamed of. But I know that God was with them.

I don’t know what those who come after us will dream. But I know that God will be with them.

And I don’t know all of your dreams and hopes and desires. But I know that God is with you today.

Today on this dedication Sunday, we celebrate this place, giving thanks for all who built it for those who have kept it and for those who have loved it through time.

This is a place that has been the place of so many thousands of people coming and going through life. Some for a fleeting moment. Some for a lifetime.

But finding in this place that Jacob’s dream is kept alive and is shared by a living, loving, open, inclusive and welcoming community at this point in time who believe that God is here, right here and ready to share love and blessing with those who scarcely dare suspect that might ever be true.

Jacob’s dream of the ladder is sometimes criticised these days. It seems to suggest a universe in which heaven is up there and the earth down here and a separation of all that is earthly from all that is holy.

And that notion of having to climb up the ladder to heaven rung by rung – that seems to suggest superhuman effort needed to find God.

But no. Read it again.

The point of the dream is that one little line that gets so overlooked. In the middle of the dream Jacob sees a ladder stretching from earth to heaven but finds that God is standing beside him.

It isn’t that we have to push the angels out of the way and haul ourselves up to heaven.

It is that God has come down that ladder. God is already here. And we are already loved.

How awesome is this place said Jacob.

How awesome is this place, say I, as I look around me today.

This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.