Proper 6, Year A, Church of the Resurrection, Franklin

“These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, 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” (Matt. 10:2-4).

We have several listings of the names of Jesus’ earliest followers, preserved in the New Testament: our Gospel reading today is one of them. We actually know very little about the people on the list: a fact here or there, a story or two from the Gospels, some legendary material of uncertain origin. All in all, not much to go on. We also know the names of a few individuals, especially those of the women who followed Jesus, including his mother. From the Acts of the Apostles and from St. Paul’s letters we know the names of other early Christians, from a slightly later time, but again, not much information. Clearly, Jesus’ early followers needed to hire better publicists. If Ken Burns made a documentary about them he’d have to make stuff up.

There is a purpose to these lists, however. They don’t tell us much about his followers, but they do tell us what Jesus intended to do when he called them. They’re not biographical, but they are significant in some important ways.

First of all, many people followed him, but among those twelve were designated to be “with him” (Mk 3:14), as it says in the Gospel of Mark. Why twelve? It’s an important number in the Old Testament, encompassing the twelve tribes of Israel. This numbering of tribes had been carefully preserved in Israel even after some of the tribes had disappeared and long after it had any real political significance. In numbering the tribes, Israel marked out in its own consciousness that it was a People, a community called by God long ago and blessed and preserved to the present.

When he called the Twelve, Jesus was staking out territory: not political territory, but relational territory. He was calling to him a People, re-founding and reforming the People of God. In other words, he was calling people to follow him in a community, not as individual spiritual followers. They would relate to him, and to each other, as a community, as a fellowship, just as we do today.

It’s popular to say that Jesus never founded an organization: it plays to our ingrained anti-institutionalism and individualism, but that doesn’t make it true. I’ve even heard leaders of the church say this, which is a bit like sawing off the branch that you’re sitting on! I think I know what people mean: Jesus never went down to the lawyer’s office and registered “Holy Catholic Church, Inc.”. True enough, but not completely true. The calling of the Twelve proves that Jesus intended the fellowship he gathered around him to be exactly that: more like the People of Israel than not, a community in relationship with him and with one another. That certainly sounds like the beginning of an outfit to me.

Second aspect of the list: twelve is a small number, but the Gospels are pretty clear about it. The twelve who are with him learn from him, even though they keep messing up. Over and over again Jesus has to keep applying the lessons that they keep missing. There is a consistent Gospel strain that the inadequacies of the leadership prove the power of God. Our list even includes the one who betrayed him. A wise man once said that the last time the church acted decisively and with one accord was when it fled from the cross. Maybe that’s a little harsh, but you get my point. If a world can be changed by a bunch of stooges like these, hard-headed and fearful, then God must be with them.

Even more importantly, great things come from small beginnings. When it comes to changing the world twelve may not seem like a whole lot, but apparently it was enough. Jesus’ teaching did get through to them, stubborn and fearful though they were, because of the strong relationship in community he built with them. It was a small group but was not intended to remain so, as the astonishing growth of the church in the years ahead bore witness.

Finally, as we see in our list, Jesus calls the twelve and immediately sends them out in mission. “Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness… As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt. 10:1, 7). There’s that word “go”. We see here in our Gospel that there is work to do and a word to proclaim. The works that his followers do, and the word that accompanies them, are signs that God is drawing near, that God is a reality here and now. All shy Episcopalians take note that there is a word we are meant to speak. After the Resurrection, the Good News that Jesus and his followers proclaimed became the Good News about Jesus Christ, and what God had done in him by raising him from the dead, and what that means for us.

Here we are, Jesus’ followers today: a community of faith at Church of the Resurrection with a mission given by God. The faith we share is faith in Jesus Christ, the One who has risen from the dead; the mission we share involves work and word that proves that God has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ. Those baptized and confirmed today into the community of faith have been given new life in baptism and called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed. They are inspiring us by stepping into the spotlight, but we’re all involved. The faith they are claiming is the faith we share. We may be a large group or a small group, more or less adequate to the task, but it has ever been so. Remember, the power at work in us is the power of God.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee