Sermon notes for St Mark’s, Pentecost II
Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian theologian and master of truth and words. Writing about preachers, he remembered Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Coming home from church one snowy day, Emerson wrote, ‘The snow was real, but the preacher spectral.’ In other words, nothing he heard from the pulpit suggested that the preacher was a human being more or less like everybody else… Undoubtedly he preached on matters like sin and salvation but without ever alluding to the wretched, lost moments or the glad, liberating moments of his own life or anybody else’s.”
Buechner concluded, “There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him.” (Whistling in the Dark, p6).
Ah, the life of a preacher. We work hard, try to listen and learn and then say something useful to you and to God. But if the preacher’s life is not consistent with the words, then the words have little worth. I remember a preacher, later elected bishop in a major diocese, who rarely looked at the people when he preached. He fixed his eyes on a point above their heads, and for twenty minutes spoke to the back wall. One of my beloved mentors was a man honest in spite of himself. Father Knapp was a compassionate priest, a wise elder who was a real person. And the memorable characteristic of his preaching? Fr Knapp sort of giggled when we said something he felt required to say, but which he could not quite believe. And, I remember a high compliment paid to a priest. I recall when his wife said of him, “Vincent is authentic.” Who would know better?
“There is perhaps no better proof for the existence of God than the way year after year he survives the way his professional friends promote him.” May the Lord have mercy upon preachers, and their listeners.
This sermon is not a defense of my authenticity. If you have questions about that, no words will change your mind at this point. It is, though, a means of introduction, a look at the humanity of a particular group of people whose names are familiar to you, but their persons may not be.
Jesus summoned twelve disciples and named them apostles, and Matthew and Luke list them in pairs. Today’s list begins with Peter and ends with Judas Iscariot, the major players among the twelve in Matthew’s story of Jesus. The ten in the middle, however, have at best minor speaking parts in the story. Most church people, if asked to name these ten, might think a moment and then say, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, yes. And doubting Thomas.” Thomas and John are correct, but Luke and Mark were Gospel writers, not Apostles. So we have four – Matthew and John, and Peter and Judas. Paul, maybe? “Yes” to Paul, and “No”. He was not among the Twelve, but proclaimed himself “apostle” after Jesus appeared to him in a vision and sent him to the Gentiles.
So who are the Twelve? Simon, whom Jesus named Peter, was a commercial fisherman in Galilee. He was married, impulsive, the first to name Jesus Messiah; one who denied Jesus three times, and was three times reclaimed as Apostle. After Pentecost, he converted a centurion named Cornelius. Peter was a stickler for the Jewish dietary distinction between clean and unclean animals, until in a vision God taught him all are clean. Peter died a martyr under Nero, was crucified upside down, and is honored as first bishop of Rome, predecessors to the Popes.
Andrew – commercial fisherman, the first person called by Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, who later came to Jesus. He then brought his brother Peter. Andrew introduced the boy with the five loaves and two fish. Also an evangelist round the Black Sea; now the patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. Also felt unworthy to be crucified as Jesus was, so his cross is an “X”, known as St Andrew’s cross today.
James Zebedee– commercial fisherman, elder of two brothers who left dad in the boat (what a note for Father’s Day); was with John and Peter when Peter’s mother-in-law was healed. One of the sons of thunder, Boanerges, because of their impetuous spirit and fiery temper. Tradition is he went to Spain to evangelize, and I have walked the Way of St James – Camino de Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
John Zebedee – commercial fisherman, younger than James. Also disciple of John Baptist, outlived the other apostles and only one to die of natural causes in exile. Nature was calm, but when his patience was pushed he and James became wild – wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town which rejected Jesus. Remained by Jesus at the cross, took Mary into his care, evangelized with Peter. Referred to five times as “beloved disciple”, but only in John’s gospel. Tradition is he is buried at Ephesus.
Philip – a disciple of John Baptist, called by Jesus and he brought Bartholomew (Nathanael); witnessed the wedding of Cana. Seems to be bilingual (Greek and Hebrew) and brought curious Greeks to meet Jesus. Evangelist in Greece and Syria after Pentecost.
Bartholomew – Nathanael also is his name, perhaps a farmer (from his name), always with Philip.
Thomas – Skeptic, but not cynic. Brave. First to say “Let’s go to Judea and die with him”, a twin; candid – we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way. Gospel of Thomas. Some ancient traditions suggest his twin was Jesus, but no evidence. Went to India – Mar Thoma Church there strong.
Matthew – tax collector (aka, Levi, son of Alphaeus). Literate in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, as well as mathematics., but collaborated with Romans, so Jews would have hated him. Hard duty among Twelve.
James Alphaeus – the less, the younger James (or shorter), perhaps brother of Matthew (father has same name). Also suggested as James, the brother of Jesus, but sources conflicted.
Thaddeus (Luke = Judas, aka Jude) – brother of James the Less, little known. Patron of lost causes.
Simon the Cananean – a member of the Zealot party, zeal for the Jewish law, perhaps an early “Tea Party” conservative. Affirmed Jesus’ challenges to religious and political establishment.
Judas Iscariot – the treasurer, betrayer, honored as St Judas Polish National Catholic Church as a necessary player in God’s drama. Be wary of condemnation.
Matthias – the replacement for Iscariot, evangelized in Ethiopia, but no corroborated testimony outside tradition.
So who are these people? Nobodies; converts from one messiah to another; men with tempers; brothers and people with families; impulsive, candid and rash people; earthy people, workers in the field and commercial fishermen; professionals; curious people who took years to believe, but people capable of being amazed, who, once they saw Jesus for who he is, answered with deep devotion. Save one, who may have been the first to repent his great sin, and perhaps might be given a measure of grace. Especially by those of us who also sin.
The reason Jesus’ ministry outlasted that of John Baptist is that though John had disciples, he was a sole proprietor of his ministry. Jesus had disciples, but he commissioned them, gave them his work to do and authority to do it. Jesus franchised, you might say, and so his movement spread after he was gone. And for now? Jesus still has disciples, still franchises his ministry, still looks to you and me to change the world in his name. For as that blessed hymn says, “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” (# 293)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.