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.


Five Thoughts On Losing Elections (and a referendum)

Everyone has their own speciality. Mine is losing elections.

It seems to have become a primary passtime. More than a hobby, less than a national identity but part of who I am.

I’ve lost elections in school, university, the church and civic society. I’ve not become president of my College student association, nor a Member of Parliament, nor a Councillor, nor a Rector of the Univerity of Glasgow and I’ve recently not become a bishop.

I am proficient at it. It is my own special skill. I’ve done it so often that I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of my most triumphant defeats.

I can’t say that losing elections is easy. Each comes with its own particular disappointment; its own lasting murmer of what might have been if only things had been a bit different.

But it is from this perspective that I want to say something about how to lose an election and in particular how to react to having lost one particular referendum.

For a significant moment occurs today. At 11 pm this evening Britain will leave the European Union – and become the only nation in world history ever to have declared economic sanctions against itself.

I was in favour of remaining for all the same reasons that I was in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. I’m predisposed to think that we should be in anything.

I remain of the view that the poor in the UK will pay the highest price for coming out of the EU.

So I was on the losing side of this one. I mourn our departure from the EU.

As an experienced expert on losing elections then, I tentatively offer the following reflections on how to lose.

  1. When you are beaten, it may be because the other side was better at it than you were.
    Oh, I know that this is difficult to accept. I’ve felt the pain of feeling robbed time and again. But one of the things I’ve learned from those who I’ve fought alongside in the liberal/left/pro-European corner of the political vineyard is that many of those I’ve been very close to just can’t accept the basic reality that those who have different ideas just might be better at getting them across. People who think differently might be clever. Might indeed be cleverer than thou. Accepting this hideous reality is the first step in coping with losing. It is far easier to claim that the other side cheated than that they were better. It is relatively rare that they did.
  2. Change happens.
    New opportunites present themselves. As soon as the dust clears from one battle, the pathway to the next becomes clear. There’s no going back. The world only spins one way. But one of the features of the way the world spins is that change is still always going to be part of the journey.
    In 2005 I took no small pleasure in nearly doubling the Liberal Democrat vote in Stirling and knocking the SNP into fourth place. The fact is that the seat has been held by Labour, Conservative and now SNP members since then. And I took tiny scintilla of pleasure in seeing how it changed hands at the last election, even though it wasn’t a party I’ll ever vote for who won. Change has always happened and always will happen. Recognising this is the first step towards getting back on board and standing publicly for something again.
    I hope that the UK forges a path as close as possible to the EU and ultimately rejoins. I’m in the minority here but that’s what I hope for. And learning what one hopes for is a large part of poltical participation.
  3. You don’t have to win an election to have an effect.
    Getting a higher turnout in an election is a good thing. Getting more votes for what you are standing for than people expected is a joy. Losing elections can be part of turning the tide in a wider movement for change. I cannot count the number of votes that those of us campaigning for equal marriage in the Scottish Epsicopal Church lost but each was a step along a journey that eventually led to change that has brought joy into the lives of people who didn’t know how much their hearts could sing. You are part of something. Try to see the bigger picture.
  4. You don’t have to win an election for it to have an effect on you.
    I’ve been changed by all the elections that I’ve fought and mostly for the better. I’ve probably been changed for the better more by those I’ve lost than the few that I’ve won. Participation in an electoral system is an invitation to learn from others. I’ve learned skills of persuasion and learned that people are interested in original ideas no matter how off the wall they first seem to be. I’ve learned that being able to see over the horizon is no guarentee of electoral success but I’ve learned to see a little bit further over the horizon all the same. There’s much  to be gained by standing. That isn’t invalidated by losing.
  5. It is about winning, all the same.
    There’s a time and a place for bitter regret. And that place is never in public. The tough reality is that sometimes one simply has to suck it up and accept that one lost. Whether one wanted a particular democratic event or not, sometimes the fact remains staring us in the face that this time it was a loss.
    It is particularly difficult seeing people and organisations who claim to be hugely committed to democracy finding it so difficult to accept that the Brexit referendum didn’t go the way they expected it to. Yes, some of the reasons some people voted were about xenophobia. Yes, some of the reasons were to do with reasserting a sense of Englishness which has gone sour in recent years. Yes, some of the reasons for voting in the recent election were, however misplaced, about a sense of self-interest. But they were real feelings. Change won’t begin to happen until ideas emerge from the losing side that capture or recapture the hearts of those who voted differently.
    All elections are won on hope. Even hope that you despise.

If rightwing populists can win the hopes of people across the world then anyone can win the hopes of an electorate. But that won’t happen automatically. It needs imagination, inspiration and those prepared to take risks, dream dreams and stand up for what they themselves hope for in public.

And it needs people prepared to lose elections.

Until one day they win.