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Seventh Sunday of Easter — May 12, 2024

What would life look like if we sought out those we don't know, asks Teri McDowell Ott?

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Year B

Justus would be a great baby name, occurred to me on my first read of this Sunday’s lectionary passage from Acts. Then I considered the poor kid’s lineage: being traced to the one nominated, but not chosen. Forever the groomsman, never the groom. Who wants that for their kid?

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 settles in the pocket of time between Jesus’ ascension and the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost, an interesting and anxious space to dwell. What will God’s people do without direct divine guidance? Who will they choose to replace Judas? How will they choose?

When the 120 believers were considering candidates, the driving question seemed to be, “Who do we know?” Justus and Matthias were nominated because they’d been with Jesus from the day of his baptism. The text says nothing of their leadership qualities, their public speaking or people skills, nothing even about them looking like leaders — tall, good posture, thick head of hair, and a well-kept beard, I imagine, because this is the ancient Middle East. All we know is that they were nominated because they were known.

Oftentimes, this is the driving question of all our nominating processes. Who do we know? we ask, quickly shrinking the pool of candidates to our personal circles.

One of my goals as the editor of the Outlook is to diversify our contributors and recruit new writers. To achieve this, I need to look beyond my personal circle of writers, pastors, biblical and theological scholars. Instead of asking, “Who do I know?” I try asking, “Who don’t I know?” Who is out there with gifts of which I am unaware? Who would contribute something worthwhile, who has yet to be asked? Whose talents has the Outlook left untapped?

My “Who don’t I know?” mantra has not always led to good results. I’ve recruited writers who have ghosted me right when the article is due, or turned in an article so poorly written it added hours of editing to our staff’s heavy workload. On the other hand, I’ve discovered many new, exceptionally talented thinkers and writers — so many that, despite the risk, I continue the practice. This “Who don’t I know?” practice feels faithful because it keeps me open to the ways in which the Spirit is guiding me to new people, new ideas, new directions. It also benefits the Outlook by introducing new and diverse people to our ministry.

As I read Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, I wondered who would have been chosen if the 120 had asked “Who don’t we know?” A deliberate posture of openness and inclusion might have resulted in some different, counter-cultural nominees. Instead of Justus and Matthias, maybe they would have thought of Joan or Maria. A nomination process open to the unknown is certainly risky, but it can also be seen as inherently faithful.

After Justus and Matthias are nominated, we read about the disciples casting lots to make the final selection. This ancient election process grounded their decision in faith. Before the lots were cast, the people prayed for the discernment of God’s will. Today, we would think it unreasonable to elect our leaders by what can be likened to a roll of the dice. But casting lots reminded God’s people that they did not know everyone or everything, that the risk of faith is worth it, as is the risk of discovering someone new, some hidden talent, some person called by God who just happens to exist outside our personal circle.

Questions for reflection

  1. How does your church choose its leaders? What questions are asked in the process?
  2. Have you ever been nominated like Justus, but not chosen? How did that feel? Were your gifts recognized in another way?
  3. Within your community (or outside of it) whose gifts for leadership or service have gone unrecognized? Why do you think these people haven’t been considered?

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