Sermon for Sunday, June 18, 2017 || Proper 6A || Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
Today I’d like to talk about Jesus’ twelve disciples. Matthew catalogs their names in the Gospel lesson I just read; it is a list of some famous names and some obscure names and one notorious name. The caveat here is that we know many other people followed Jesus besides these twelve men, including an undefined but certainly large group of women, some of whom financed Jesus’ operation. A few of their names are recorded in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; indeed, they remained stalwart in the face of danger when most of the twelve fled. Would that we had more of their stories recorded for posterity.
What the Gospel writer Matthew chooses to record is the names of twelve men, who formed something on an inner circle. Reflecting on their roles in the Jesus Movement as recorded in the Gospel gives us models for our own roles in that same movement. Matthew lists the disciples as “Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”
Now, I’m a Bible scholar and I’ve read the Gospel many times over, and I guarantee you I could not rattle off that list from memory. I could give you the names of the bridge crew of the starship Enterprise much more easily than a list of Jesus’ disciples. So please don’t worry if some of those names were unknown to you. There’s a reason some are unknown. The only time they appear in the Gospel is in this list: Bartholomew, the other James and the other Simon, and special mention to Thaddaeus, whom Luke’s Gospel doesn’t even list among the twelve, preferring instead another Judas. The other James has sometimes been linked to a James in the Acts of Apostles, but such a linkage is thin. Luke notes that the other Simon is a Zealot, that is, someone spoiling for a fight with the Romans, but other than that we have no solid information. These four disciples are followers of Jesus, and that’s really all we know about them.
The Gospel tells us a little more about Philip, Andrew, and Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector whom Jesus called to follow him; the Gospel of Matthew bears his name and authority. It is a text written to bring others to knowledge of and relationship with Jesus. Andrew is Simon Peter’s brother, and the Gospel of John tells us that it was Andrew who first met Jesus and who went home to fetch Peter, saying, “We have found the Messiah!” Like Andrew, Philip was something of an early evangelist himself, going out to tell his friend Nathaniel all about Jesus. “Come and see” what I have found, he says. “Come and see.” Philip and Andrew and Matthew are inviters for Jesus, ushering others into new connections with him.
Then there’s Thomas, whom many label the “doubter,” but who is actually nicknamed “the Twin.” Whereas the three synoptic Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) feature Thomas only in the record of disciples, Thomas plays a major supporting role in the Gospel of John. Thomas predicts the end of the road when Jesus decides to head back to help his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. “Let us also go, that we may die with [Jesus],” he says. Later, Thomas’s inquisitiveness prompts one of Jesus’ most famous statements: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And Thomas drops to his knees upon seeing the Risen Christ, his initial skepticism washed away in a surge of revelation. “My Lord and my God,” he cries. Thomas is the deep thinker of the group, the one who asks the tough questions and needs to be convinced.
That’s eight of the twelve. So who is left? We have the Big Three and Judas. Let’s talk about Judas first. Judas kept the common purse; he was the disciples’ treasurer, and he tried to make sure they used their funds appropriately. John’s Gospel maligns Judas extra hard by saying he used to steal from the purse, but I think that’s just mudslinging. If he really were a thief, would he have brought back the 30 pieces of silver – payment for his betrayal – after his change of heart?
No. My reading of Judas is that he really thought what he was doing was right; he thought Jesus was upsetting the status quo too much, which would lead to a bloody intervention by the Roman legions. In the end, he repents of his role in Jesus’ death, but he can’t live with his actions. He kills himself on the same day Jesus dies. And I’ve always wondered what would have happened if he had stayed his own hand. The only outcome that makes sense to me is that the Risen Christ would have forgiven him, as he forgives Peter’s denial. Judas is the most complex character in the Gospel; he is the lone wolf of the group, the one who takes matters into his own hands when his concerns get the better of him.
That leaves us with the Big Three, Jesus’ inner circle: Peter, James, and John. They witness his Transfiguration on the mountaintop. They are privy to some of his private healings. They accompany him to the garden where he prays before his death. They have more access to their Lord than anyone else. And yet, James and John prove they don’t understand when they ask for places of privilege in Jesus’ kingdom. Peter, whom Jesus gives the metaphorical keys to that kingdom, doesn’t understand his own pronouncement of Jesus’ Messiah-ship. Peter balks at Jesus washing his feet. Peter denies knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows. These three are closest to Jesus, but in some ways seem the furthest from him. They are the leaders of the twelve, but they do an awful lot of stumbling around in the dark.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that reflecting on the disciples’ roles in the Jesus Movement gives us models for our own roles in that same movement. Some of the disciples were simply followers: faithful folk that did not make waves, but persevered in their walk, which is just as extraordinary as any other role. Others were inviters: exuberant folk who brought others along through their welcome and witness. Another was a deep thinker: the one who asked the tough questions. Another was a lone wolf: a little apart from the group, wondering if they were doing the right thing. Still others were the leaders: and they learned again and again that leadership begins in servanthood.
My question for you today is this: as a current member of the Jesus Movement, into which role do you fall? Or is there another you would identify for yourself that is unlike one of the the Twelve? No matter what role you assume in this wonderful movement of love and reconciliation, know this: Jesus sent out every one of the Twelve, no matter their roles, and empowered each of them – even Judas – to heal and to proclaim the good news. And Jesus sends us out with the same power and the same mission.