Apostles -or- The Ones Who Are Sent

So, it is back to the Bible today.

Some time ago, I noticed there was a difference between all of the different ways one follows Jesus. There are the crowds, who press in on Jesus, follow him everywhere, do not give him a moment’s peace. They are the people who Jesus has truly come for — they are the people Jesus heals and casts demons out of.

It is from the crowds that some of Jesus’ more “aggressive” followers — the lame, the lepers, the crippled, the blind who cry out, the demon possessed, the centurion of Matthew 8, the rich young man of Luke 18 — come to him and ask to be made whole, to be healed, and to find out what must be done to inherit eternal life. But they come from the crowds, from those who see Jesus, see and know that he is the Son of God incarnate, that he does the work of God, and they respond.

This is faithfulness. And if this is what brings people to Jesus, then all the good. Because these crowds who cannot give Jesus a moment’s peace, who proclaim him “Son of David” one moment and a blasphemer deserving of death not long after, these crowds are the people Jesus came to find. So, when someone is drawn to Jesus, and chooses to follow Jesus, this is good.

But there are those Jesus also calls to follow. People who are minding their own business, bothering no one when Jesus steps into their lives and commandeers them. “Follow me,” he says to Matthew/Levi in each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32; John 1:35-51 bears some similarities), and Matthew/Levi follows:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. (Luke 5:27-28 ESV)

His calling of disciples (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11; again, John 1:35-51 tells a similar but somewhat different story) is not a matter of people choosing to follow Jesus. His disciples are not the crowds. Jesus finds them — almost exclusively at work — and calls them.

“Follow me,” he says.

And they drop everything. And follow.

This too is great faithfulness. But it is a different kind of faithfulness. In the synoptic gospels, the crowds see Jesus and know, “God is at work!” But for the disciples, they don’t see Jesus at work that way. They don’t hunger for the justice and mercy and redeeming work of God in the same way that the crowds do.

Instead, God sees them at work, minding their own business, and meets them. And calls them. Because they are not the people to be healed. Or made whole. Or even have their demons cast out (assuming they have any, which is unlikely, but you never know). Because they are called to help Jesus do that work.

In the feeding miracles, the disciples are anxious, because feeding the crowds in the wilderness is a logistical nightmare, one they have not prepared for. In commanding them, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13), and then blessing and breaking the bread (foreshadowing the final supper that will come), Jesus is giving them all the instruction and preparation they will need to feed the crowds — their meager supplies and the blessing and presence of Christ.

It is a lesson that the disciples have to learn over and over again: what they have at hand, and the blessing of Jesus, is all they need to care for and feed the crowds who hunger for the redeeming presence and boundless mercy of God.

But there is one more distinction. Because not all disciples are apostles. Matthew puts it this way:

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:1-4 ESV)

Mark describes it like this:

13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:13-19 ESV)

And Luke relates the account this way:

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16 ESV)

It’s funny, but Mark’s account of this is actually the longest, and it actually has a detail that neither Matthew nor Luke have — it refers to the twelve apostles as “those whom he desired.”

The Matthew account is followed immediately by Jesus sending the twelve out specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. (It’s the beginning of a very long speech of Jesus’, so we don’t really know how this mission goes, though we can guess from what comes next — disciples of John the Baptist coming to Jesus and asking him, “are you the one who is to come?” So, we can guess the disciples were successful in carrying out their charge.)

Jesus calls disciples in Mark and then goes straight home. Where he’s mobbed by crowds while his family in Nazareth are convinced that Jesus is completely out of his mind. Being the Son of God will do that with the family, I suppose.

The Luke account is followed by Jesus ministering to crowds throughout Judea, Samaria, and what is now southern Lebanon. And then he gives Luke’s version of “the sermon on the mount” (called “the sermon on the plain” from 6:17, “And he came down with them [the apostles] and stood on a level place.” So, the calling of the apostles in Luke is followed by the Beatitudes.

Luke has Jesus dispatch the apostles in Chapter 9, giving them the “power and authority to over all demons and to cure diseases” and to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. Instead of John the Baptist, though, in Luke, it’s Herod who hears of this (because John is dead), and who wants to see Jesus. (But he doesn’t, apparently.) And this is followed by an apostolic report, and the feeding of the five thousand.

I’m not entirely clear if apostle and disciple are interchangeable here. I suspect if they were, then we wouldn’t have two distinct terms — disciple (one who learns) and apostle (one who is sent). Clearly, one can be a disciple without being an apostle. Can one be an apostle without being a disciple? (Probably not.) Can one be an apostle without being called by Jesus in the flesh? St. Paul clearly sees himself as an apostle — one who is sent — but whether that means the same thing as it does when Matthew, Mark, and Luke use it, I do not know.

(I think it would be tremendously presumptuous to claim, in this day and age, to be an apostle. I am not claiming that title.)

In the great commission, as related at the end of Matthew, Jesus speaks of disciples, and not apostles. So, it may be without a physical Jesus calling “those whom he desired” that apostleship is impossible.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

There is, however, still a distinction between the crowds — those who follow Jesus of their own will — and disciples — who are called by Jesus to follow. It’s an important distinction, one that gets lost in arguments over just how much human will is involved when we discern God present as Christ somehow in our midst. I generally think that argument is a pointless one, because it tries to exclude at least one of these ways of encountering God. If we do all the choosing, then what of Jesus’s call to Matthew/Levi, “follow me”? And if we do none of the choosing, what then of the crowds, and those who emerge from the crowds, who have a vastly different experience of Jesus, as someone they come to?

And what does it mean for the church if this is an important distinction that was supposed to persist? What if there is, always has been, and always will be, a distinction between the crowds who follow and the disciples who are called to follow?

I, of course, default to the irresistible call of Jesus, Follow me. But then, I would. I have learned to respect, however, the notion that some — many, perhaps — choose to follow Jesus of their own accord. Indeed, discipleship clearly seems to be a minority option, something only a few would experience. It speaks to the abiding “unfairness” of God. Not everybody gets treated the same. Not everyone gets called the same. Not everyone even gets loved the same. To be called like this isn’t necessarily a good thing, either — for many of the first disciples, it eventually led to suffering and death.

There are followers of Jesus, and there those called to follow. And they aren’t necessarily the same people.

But all are beloved of God.

The Lectionary This Week: I Will Not Leave You

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Transfiguration Sunday, 15 February 2015 (Year B)

  • 2 Kings 2:1-12
  • Psalm 50:1-6
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
  • Mark 9:2-9

It’s transfiguration Sunday in the churches using the Revised Common Lectionary, the day we see Jesus in all his divine glory, standing on the mountain with Elijah and Moses.

And we are terrified. And we should be. Because that’s what the presence of God really does. Continue reading

The Lectionary This Week (Part 1): Why Not Zebedee?

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 3, 25 January 2014 (Year B)

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

Today’s gospel passage is a fairly typical synoptic “call story” — Jesus calls someone to follow, and immediately (καὶ εὐθὺς) they drop everything and follow. Jesus is baptized, and now he begins his proclamation of “good news” (τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ) to the world:

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 16 Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20 ESV)

Jesus is calling a bunch of rough, hardscrabble fishermen (ἁλιεῖς) to become “fishers of men” (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων). Fishermen he meets along the way. There’s a couple of ways we can tell this story, bare of detail as it is in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has been busy proclaiming the fulfillment of time, the on-handedness of the Kingdom of God (yeah, it’s awkward), and calling on those who hear to repent and believe in this good news. He’s been doing this long enough that everyone, or nearly everyone, has seen him doing this strange thing. They’ve heard him. So, when he gets past the preliminaries, and starts calling folks to follow him, this isn’t so strange. They know who he is, they’ve heard him preach, they are primed and ready for that command: “Follow me.” Maybe they’ve even been subconsciously waiting for it. Or … They don’t really know who Jesus is or what he’s said. And he just walked into their lives, unannounced, with the command to follow. The response is still the same — Jesus calls, and we follow. Throughout the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — when Jesus calls, we follow. And Jesus does just walk into our lives. He chooses us. We do not choose him. And this is true regardless of which reading we follow. Even if they’d watched and listened to Jesus, and talked about him (“No good can come of him,” I suspect was one reaction, and may have even been Simon’s), and considered him from afar, they were still not ready for that moment when he walked up to them and said: “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. That’s how you respond to the call of Jesus. Except, well, not everyone does. Jesus sees John and James, the two sons of Zebedee, and he calls them, and they leave their father and the hired men in the boats and followed. Zebedee and the hired men are left behind. Are they not called? Do they not respond to Jesus? And why not? Why not Zebedee? The name Zebedee makes four appearances in Mark’s gospel, two of them in this chapter. Aside from these two references, where he stands silently in the family boat and watched while his sons leave the family business for the utterly unrewarding career of preaching the Good News (think about it — it ends badly for just about everybody), the name Zebedee never appears except to note that John and James are brothers. It’s used to mark the identities of James and John, and really, nothing more. But why not Zebedee? Why is he left standing there holding a fishing net? Why doesn’t leave the boat as well? Why don’t the hired men follow? Partly, this is an acknowledgement of the very subjective nature of the experience of God, even when we meet Jesus. (Perhaps especially when we meet Jesus.) Not everyone hears the call the same way, and as stunning as it sounds, not everyone hears the call at all, and not everyone drops everything to follow. This isn’t some deep theological point (such theological conversations make my head hurt), but an appreciation of reality — God calls some and not others. We can speculate all we want about the nature of the call of God, about why God called me, and not you, or them, and not those others, or why we seemed to respond in this way to the call, but you did not, but all of that is attempting to reason our way out of something overwhelmingly subjective. God called us, and we followed. What others do, or do not, is not in our control and, in the end, not really our concern. We were called to follow. And so, we left everything. And followed. (One of the things I’m looking forward to as my book makes its way out into the world is — did anyone else at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, meet Jesus there?) So, in the end, we cannot know why Zebedee watched his sons abandon the family business. We could say, well, Jesus knew someone needed to stay and take care of the family business, but what about Andrew and Simon a couple of verses earlier? Did they have family dependent on their efforts? Was anyone left on their boats? So, we cannot really justify or even explain what happened here that way. We have no explanation. Just the encounter with the incarnate divine. Just a call, a command to follow. And the realization that we who are called cannot say “no.”

The Lectionary This Week (Part 1): Come And See!

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 2, 18 January 2014 (Year B)

  • 1 Samuel 3:1-20
  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
  • John 1:43-51

I’m going to do something a little different this week, something I don’t usually do. First, I’m going to split this post up, that is, this blog commentary will actually be two separate commentaries. And second, I’m going to focus on the gospel reading. 🙂

So, let’s get started.

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (ESV)

The first chapter of the Gospel According to John is a fascinating series of stories. It is about seeing and bearing witness, specifically to Jesus. It’s fascinating what happens — and doesn’t happen — here.

Let’s back up a little from this story. There is the beginning of John’s Gospel, which is both creation story echoing the first creation account in Genesis 1 and the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. In this, Jesus is the eternal Word, through which the world is breathed into existence. “Let there be light,” and yet Jesus is also that very same light which “shines in the darkness” and which is not overcome by that darkness.

After we get through the poetry about light and the Word becoming flesh (which is also the light, which is why we can speak of the light being created, as opposed to the Word, which was not created), we meet John, who is credited with testifying to the very truth written in the first 18 verses of this chapter. “Who are you?” the religious authorities ask John — suggesting that they are trying to make sense of who he is given what he says. It is also suggests they are looking for the Christ (ὁ χριστός), the Messiah (המשיח), the anointed one. And not just looking, but actively seeking, eagerly expecting his appearance.

As an aside, it’s interesting that they have no idea what to make of John and what he does — baptizing with water. He clearly says he’s not the Christ, and he’s not Elijah, and not the prophet (whatever that lats bit means). “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John stands outside of polite society, and what he does — testify to the light coming into the world and baptizing with water — makes no sense to the religious authorities.

They don’t know how to peg him. (Hmm, I wonder what that feels like?)

John precedes Jesus in each of the synoptic gospels as well, and in Matthew he’s very harsh on the sadducees and pharisees, calling them “a brood of vipers,” and doing so without any prompting from them. (John was like that, and it was a small wonder he lived in the wilderness wearing crude clothes and eating bugs.) But here in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is asked by priests and Levites dispatched by others to find out who he was. This is a dialogue between agents, with an emphasis on dialogue.

Next, John sees Jesus, and says those remarkable words — “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” There’s an echo here in John’s words of things said and done in other gospels — John testifies to the spirit descending upon Jesus — but what’s missing here the actual baptism of Jesus (it happens in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It is suggested by what John says, maybe, but it doesn’t actually happen here.

What John does, however, is bear witness (‪καὶ ἐμαρτύρησεν Ἰωάννης): This is the Son of God.

What follows, then, is Jesus calling disciples. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus says “follow me” and those he calls drop everything and follow. But not in John. The response to Jesus — and note well that Jesus is simply “walking by” when John bears witness to who and what he is — is to begin a dialogue with Jesus.

37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. (ESV)

This is not a “follow me” story like we have in the other gospels. If anything, this reminds me of the call of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21. Jesus did not call these first disciples. Rather, they saw him and followed him, and then engaged him in conversation. And they don’t say, when asked, what they are looking for — they’ve met it, it’s right there in front of them. They want to spend time with what they’re looking for. And so they stay with him.

And then something else happens that doesn’t happen often in the synoptic gospels. They go and tell others about Jesus. In this case, it’s Andrew, who goes and bears witness to his brother Simon who has found: “We have found the Messiah.” He brings Simon to Jesus, who gives Simon a new name — Peter.

So, we get to this week’s gospel reading.

Jesus is on the move. With or without Andrew and Peter, the text doesn’t say. Here we have a much more typical call story. Jesus sees Philip and bids him, “follow me.” (Ἀκολούθει μοι.) But instead of leaving everything and following (as Matthew/Levi does), Philip goes and finds Nathaniel (a friend? relation?) and bears witness to who he has found, to who and what Jesus is. Nathaniel doubts this — “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” — but he is challenged by Philip. “Come and see.”

And in this, Jesus bears witness to who Nathaniel is. And how he knows.

What strikes me is the two have a conversation of sorts. In the other gospels, the disciples seem a little frightened of, or overawed (or even overwhelmed) by Jesus. They follow him, and sometimes speak to him, but they rarely seem to engage him in conversation or dialogue.

But not here in John. Jesus is constantly talking with the people he meets. Not just to them.

And what is also interesting is that the people who meet Jesus know who he is from the moment they meet him and they confess that reality — they bear witness — almost immediately. Matthew/Levi simply leaves his place of work and wanders off with Jesus (and if Luke is to be believed, makes him dinner that evening). In the synoptics, being called to follow Jesus means leaving everything and joining Jesus in his wanderings.

But not in John. Meeting Jesus means telling others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves. Because seeing Jesus, meeting Jesus, is believing — no, it is knowing — who and what Jesus is. It’s a different kind of experience of Christ, one that knows who and what he is this side of the cross. Frequently, in the synoptics, Jesus is telling people he meets who acknowledge him as Son of God not to tell anyone, that we cannot really know what it means that he is Son of God this is side of Golgotha and this side of the empty tomb.

But for John, meeting the walking, breathing Jesus (on either side of the cross and the resurrection) is to know who he is — Lamb of God, Son of God, King of Israel — and to know who he is means inviting others into that meeting. “Come and see” becomes the “follow me” of the synoptics. It is to enter into a dialogue with the divine presence, a dialogue that is part of the encounter, a dialogue that ends with a confession, with bearing witness.

In turn, Jesus bears witness to us. It is something of a dialectic faith, except this isn’t thesis-antithesis-synthesis (so dialectic isn’t applicable here, I know) so much as it is Jesus constantly telling us that we who believe upon meeting and seeing will “see greater things than these.” A mutual confession, this. We meet Jesus, we bear witness about Jesus, he meets us, and then bears witness about us.

It all leads up to something, and I’m not sure what Jesus is actually describing here when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” John has already confessed to something like this, and perhaps Jesus is referring to his passion, to his crucifixion and resurrection, or something else entirely. I do not know.

What I do know is this — we who have met Jesus are called to bear witness to who he is as Lamb of God, Son of God, and King of Israel. And we have been called to do that from the moment he set foot on this good and dusty Earth.