Listen to article
Voiced by Amazon Polly
MAY 2012: INSIDE OUT

by Jennifer L. Holberg

I recently joined the blogging group “The Twelve: Reformed. Done Daily.” It’s a group that has been going for a while (and with great stuff—I encourage you to check it out at the12.squarespace.com). And now that one of the original twelve has dropped out, I guess that makes me the blog’s Matthias.

You’ll remember the story of Matthias from Acts 1. After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and discussed a replacement for their number. Peter set out the criteria:

“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles (vv. 21-23).

Matthias seems to come out of nowhere and disappear almost as quickly back into the text. He had been around Jesus’ ministry from the very beginning, and yet this is the first—and last—we hear of him. No mentions in the gospels, no stories in Acts, no shout-outs in the New Testament letters.

Who was this guy? Tradition, though it says more about him than scripture, doesn’t do much to answer that question. Interestingly, there are even disagreements about his name: unlike the triple-named specificity of “Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus),” Matthias might really have been called Tolmai. Was he actually Zaccheaus or Barnabas, as some claim? His story is equally at variance: ancient sources tell of him serving in Judea, the upper Nile (sometimes among cannibals!), the modern day Republic of Georgia, or Ethiopia. And depending on whom you read, he died:

by crucifixion and was buried in the Roman fortress of Gonio
by stoning in Jerusalem, where he was afterwards beheaded
of old age in either Sebastopolis or Jerusalem

Whatever his story, you have to love a man whose saint day is considered the luckiest day of the year, particularly when you learn he is also the patron saint of perhaps the most random (and seemingly unfortuitous) collection ever: alcoholics and those that live in Gary, Indiana, and Great Falls-Billings, Montana; tailors and carpenters; and smallpox.

In some ways, then, he’s a sort of an “everyman” apostle. He could be anyone, he could have ministered anywhere.

That’s probably the point. Maybe his patronage isn’t so random, after all. Maybe it gives us a window into the essence of who he is: your “average Joe” from sturdy, but unglamorous, places. A man committed to restoration, associated as he is with craftspeople who knit things together, whether in cloth or wood. A man, who having watched the Healer himself throughout his earthly ministry, understands the disfiguring consequences of addiction and disease. No wonder the other disciples nominated him.

And perhaps the rest of his story doesn’t matter anyway. After all, we know the only thing that truly matters about him: he was a witness, ready to serve at the Spirit’s call. May the same be said of us.

Jennifer L. Holberg teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a contributing editor of Perspectives. This column originally appeared on April 24, 2012, in Perspectives’ blog, “The Twelve: Reformed. Done Daily”.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.