Apostles : More Than Twelve and Not All Guys


(Dear Friends, On the vigil of Palm Sunday, I am sending this reflection on the Apostles of Jesus. I will then be offline for two or three weeks. My first reflection, when I return, will be on Pentecost. After that I will focus more on theological reflections on current events. My very best wishes for the Easter season…..and now to the apostles!)

The Christian Scriptures provide four lists of twelve men whom Jesus chose during his ministry: Mark 3:16-19; Matthew 10:2-4; Luke 6:14-16; and Acts 1:13 (without Judas Iscariot). The Gospel According to John gives no list, but does mention “the Twelve” (6:67 and 20:24). Certainly there were three very prominent apostles, who belonged to “the Twelve”: Simon re-named Peter, and James and John the sons of Zebedee. We saw them at the Transfiguration.

The word “apostle” goes back to a Greek word meaning “one who is sent, a messenger.” Today we would probably best translate it in English as “missionary.”

When thinking about the early “apostolic” Christian community, however, I think it is important to understand that “apostle” in the early Jesus movement was a much broader term and included more people than just “the Twelve.” In the Christian Scriptures we see other people clearly designated as apostles, although they were not listed as members of “the Twelve.”

To begin with, we have James “the brother of The Lord.” (That designation opens another question which we cannot get into here.) Then we have Paul, Barnabas, Andronicus, and Junias (a woman). In the Gospel According to Luke (10:1-24) we have a post-resurrection narrative in which Jesus commissions seventy apostles. Jesus appointed them and sent them out in pairs on a specific mission which is detailed in the text. In Western Christianity, they are usually referred to as disciples. In Eastern Christianity they are usually called apostles. Clearly they were sent out on an apostolic mission. Thus really apostles.

In the early church, “the Twelve” had an historic meaning; but perhaps even a more important symbolic meaning: Jesus was seen as the founder of the New Israel, a term many in the early church began to apply to the Jesus Movement. The Old Israel had twelve tribes, by tradition formed by the twelve sons of Jacob. There was a strong sense, among early followers of Jesus, that the New Israel must also have twelve patriarchs who were the disciples of their founder, Jesus. “The Twelve” therefore became an important Christian term, even when some people were not always so certain about their names.

The Apostles were more than Leonardo ever imagined.

I suspect many contemporary people envision the apostles as Leonardo da Vinci painted them in his late fifteenth century mural in a convent dining room in Milan: mostly bearded older men sitting at a big table with Jesus. In fact, as scholars of ancient Jewish life and customs tell us, Jesus’ disciples at the “Last Supper” were probably eighteen years old or younger. At least one, Peter, was married. Perhaps others as well. And they didn’t sit at a big table. As was customary, Jesus and his friends reclined on the floor or on mats and pillows, leaning on their left elbow, eating with their right hand, and with their legs stretched out behind them. Well so much for the meal etiquette….One final point: if I were painting the Last Supper, I would add a few young women and a sprinkling of small children.

Ordination? Apostolic succession? Among biblical scholars and theologians there is a general consensus that Jesus knew nothing about ordination and certainly did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper. (Very disappointing to some bishops who imagine the apostles leaving the Last Supper with ancient crosiers in their left hands.) Ordination was created by the later Christian community about a hundred years after Jesus. It was a form of quality control: only well informed and trustworthy and officially approved men and women could lead Christian communities.

I understand that most bishops trace their leadership identity and role back to the apostles by way of “apostolic succession.” I have absolutely no problem with that, as long as they understand that “apostolic succession” is succession in the faith, witness, and ministry of the apostles. It has very little to do with an unbroken line of ordinations going back to the historic Jesus, because that frankly is a pious non-historical fantasy.

Jesus’ disciples were young, zealous, and energetic men and women. They were the foundation for apostolic leadership in the early church. And women were actively present and involved. No female tokenism for Jesus.
What a pity – what historical ignorance and/or nearsightedness – when contemporary church leaders fail to recognize that women played a major role in the early church.

Women appear prominently in accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion; in reporting that Jesus had been raised from the dead; and of course at Pentecost. Mary of Magdala was clearly a significant leader in the Jesus movement and doubtlessly the leader among women disciples. Texts in Mark (15:41), Matthew (27:55) and Luke (23:49) all attest that Jesus’ women disciples followed him all the way from Galilee.

So if we want to picture the members of the early Jesus Movement (the church), we would have to see a group of eighteen years old, or younger, women and men….and no doubt a few children as well. Men and women touched by God and full of youthful life and hope. A very exciting image.

What does this mean today? How do we recapture and pass on the energy and enthusiasm of those early church men and women? (Certainly not by pretending that marriage is not for priests and that women cannot be ordained.)

I am not anti-Catholic and have spent just about all of my professional life working for and with the church. But really……we really need to enliven our old church. It’s the eleventh hour and the Catholic eclipse is well underway (even with the Pope Francis positive PR). Let’s open the doors to a broad range of fresh thinking, community action, and creative forms of ministry for men AND women. Let’s do what Jesus did.

May Easter 2014 bring encouragement, joy, and hope to all in the community of faith!

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