What About Barsabbas? -- competition, the Olympics and faith

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church July 22, 2012 Parables and Pop Culture: The Olympics Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

What About Barsabbas?

It's the beginning of the book of Acts and the beginning of a new chapter of ministry for the disciples. And with Judas out of the picture, there is a slot open among the twelve:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus -- for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry." So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

After some prayer and the casting of lots, which was an ancient way of discerning the will of God, Matthias is chosen. Thus Matthias goes down in biblical history as one of the inner circle, one of the twelve disciples. By contrast, Barsabbas is so utterly forgotten that when I mentioned the title of the sermon to someone this week he said, “Don’t you mean Barabbas?” (the criminal that Pilate released in place of Jesus).

Poor Barsabbas. He is the first runner-up to the most elite circle of apostles of the church, and yet he’s less well known than a common criminal—a murderer, even.

Matthias is chosen… and Barsabbas is not.

I wonder what made things go Matthias’s way.

Admittedly, I have Olympic fever right now, but I wonder... did Matthias just... train harder? Did he want it more?

Was it a close call between the two men? A photo finish? Like the photo on the cover of the bulletin (above), were Matthias and Barsabbas so similar in gifts for ministry that the others couldn’t choose, so they decided to cast lots? (Casting lots is not unlike flipping a coin—which incidentally was what the US Olympic officials considered doing in the case of the tie on the front cover.)

Whatever the circumstances, Matthias is in and Barsabbas is out. And we don't know how Barsabbas responded, but let's hope he accepted the news graciously. Maybe he scheduled a press conference following the disciples' time trials and said, “I’ll try again in four years for a chance to serve on this incredible team. In the meantime I’m going to keep training and running the race God has set out for me.”

The Olympic Games are coming, a spectacle that’s one of the most compelling displays of competition we have. But that sense of competition is pervasive in our world, not just in the Olympics. We live in a competitive, achievement-oriented culture. I imagine some of us here in this sanctuary relish competition and push ourselves hard to do well.

Perhaps there are others of you who don’t have the competitive urge. And yet all of us, I suspect, long to have a sense that we matter—that our gifts are important and valued. It feels good to be acknowledged and affirmed. So I can’t help but wonder whether Barsabbas felt at least a little stung by being passed over. I don’t think we would blame him a bit; it’s a very human response, even if the thought of “competing” with Matthias never once crossed his mind. We've all felt that sting, whether it's being the last one chosen for the pick-up game at recess, or not getting the job we thought we were perfect for.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about competition as it relates to faith. I’m not sure how competition and faith jive theologically, because competition is so often framed around scarcity, about striving for one spot. The Olympics will captivate us for days and days, in no small part because there will be winners and losers, grand victories and bitter defeats. People will run and row and swim and shot-put their hearts out, and in the end only three individuals or teams will stand on those podiums. No matter how fast all of the runners are, only one will win the gold.

And no matter what Barsabbas’s good points, only one person fills the empty slot among the twelve.

There's a scarcity mentality at work. (I know twelve is a holy number, but they couldn't have thirteen disciples?) And scarcity lies beneath our economic system too—businesses compete for a finite set of customers, individuals compete for a finite set of jobs… Yet theologically it’s hard to square this kind of competition with the promise of abundant life in Jesus Christ.

Competition is a tricky concept biblically as well. Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ suggests a partnership—like parts of a human body, we work together for the good of the whole.

“Can the eye say to the hand, ‘I’m better than you’? ”

Or how about the fruit of the spirit?

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,”


“Pain, gain, ruthlessness, relentlessness, scarcity, opposition, obsessiveness, rivalry.”

So where does that leave those of us who thrive on hearty, no-holds-barred competition? Or who love to watch it, as so many billions of people across the world will do over the next few weeks? Is competition even appropriate if we are to follow the One who was humble in his strength, who went willingly to the cross, who had all the power in the world, the power to save himself but did not?

This is personal for me, because I have a competitive streak. Not so much in sports, but in academics… and board games. Just ask Robert about what we’ve come to call The Canasta Incident.

A competitive drive can encourage us to work hard, to pursue goals with determination and vigor, but competition can also become an obsession.

Some years ago I was talking about my competitive tendencies to a friend and mentor, and just wishing that I could stop being that way when my mentor said, “Stop trying not to be competitive. That is part of who you are. Just figure out how to take that competitive nature and use it to God’s glory.”

Her words changed my perspective on this issue. Is it possible for a competitive nature to be a gift to God? Maybe it is, provided we do it in the right way and for the right reasons, and with the proper regard for others.

As I see it, there still aren’t many biblical models for Christian competition, but there is one, in Roman 12: “outdo one another in showing honor.” This passage is often read at weddings, and it serves as a reminder to spur one another on to do better and better. “Outdo one another in showing honor,” not for one’s own glory or to lord it over someone else, but to the glory of God and in thanksgiving for God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ.

In a world in which the events of Aurora, Colorado are possible---what could be more important than striving to outdo one another in showing honor, grace and love?

Maybe Paul's words can be a guide for all of us. Whether your life’s work is being an elder in the church or raising children or working in an office or playing sand volleyball, that’s work that God has given you and it’s worth your very best effort. Eric Liddell famously said in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

That's the famous line. But he also said:

“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul.”

I wonder whether we can watch the upcoming games in London not just as an opportunity to see feats of strength and strategy and speed, but as parables---stories that inspire us to bring our best effort to the work to which God calls us, whatever the result of that effort might be.

In preparation for this sermon I asked you all for your favorite Olympic stories. Some people shared stories of incredible athletic prowess. My favorite example was Bob Beamon, who broke the world record for long jump in 1968 in Mexico City. Records in this sport are broken inches at a time, but Beamon broke the record by almost two feet. The only proper response to an event like that is awe… awe at seeing something truly transcendent.

But most of the Olympic stories that we cherish aren’t about breaking records. They are about triumph over adversity, or succeeding despite the odds… even if success does not mean a gold, silver or bronze.

When I think about “Outdoing one another in showing honor,” I think about Ashley Nee and Caroline Queen, who have trained together for years in the sport of kayaking. They are close friends, and they talk about how their friendship and competition spur one another on to do their best. They are happy for one another’s successes and mourn each other’s losses. They both made the Olympic team this year.

Or remember Dan Jansen, the gifted speed skater. Jansen won a gold medal in 1994 and set a world record. But it was his performance in 1988 that captured our hearts, when he skated in memory of his sister, who had died that very day of leukemia. He skated, and fell… but he won the Olympic Spirit award that year.

May we run the race that is ours to run, to paraphrase Paul... and may we outdo one another in showing honor.

We don’t know what became of old Barsabbas, the first alternate to Jesus’ Olympic Team of Twelve, but I like to believe that he persisted in his ministry. He wasn’t in it for glory and recognition anyway.

And that is good news. Because the truth is, we are all Barsabbas. Whether we’re wired for competition or not, we all fall short. There is always someone smarter, quicker, more successful… or more spiritual, more fluent in the Bible, more dedicated. And yet, we persist in “running the race,” and we strive for excellence in all that we do for God.

Consider the Olympic marathon race in 1968 in Mexico City. [story from the August 2012 Runners World] A runner from Ethiopia won that year, finishing the 26 miles in 2:20. One hour later, after the stadium had mostly emptied and only a few thousand spectators remained, a Tanzanian athlete named John Stephen Akhwari loped into the ring. He had fallen hard at some point in the race and his knee was badly hurt.

Medics were begging him to quit but he would not. He broke into a halting, painful jog, to a smattering of applause. As he continued around the track, injured but undeterred, toward the finish line, that applause grew into a wild crescendo. This was not the Olympic champion, the applause was saying; this is the Olympic spirit incarnate. Akhwari finished in 3 hours 25 minutes, more than 19 minutes after any other runner.

Later Akhwari would be asked why he did not stop, given the seriousness of his injury. He answered, “My country did not send me 11,000 kilometers to start the Olympic Marathon. They sent me here to finish it.”

And so he did.

And so may we.