“These are the names of the twelve apostles. Peter… and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Batholomew: Thomas and Matthew the tax collector: James and Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanean, and Judas, the one who betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent out..’
There’s a great song in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar…
“Always hoped that I’d be an apostle.
Knew that I would make it if I tried.
Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels,
So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”
Is that what an apostle is? ….someone who writes a Gospel in retirement?
Well the church has always said, of course, that it means more than that – not just something for ‘the Twelve’, but something – it turns out – that any and every Christian might be…
We say, sometimes, that the Church is ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ – that we are people in continuity with the apostles… But we do keep saying, especially when we’re being our most serious about who we are, that we’re apostolic. The URC is signed up to that.
So what does it really mean to be ‘apostolic’. It sounds a bit like something you should take a good linctus for – it has an unfortunate way, I’ve always thought, of rhyming with colic.
But of course it means, if it means anything, that we believe that our faith, our way of being Christian has some sort of continuity with the first apostles. We know that we are really only Christians ourselves because of the witness they gave us. If it weren’t for them we’d be doing something else right now – watching another box set on Netflix, or out in the garden or still abed… It’s because of their witness that we are part of the church at all.
In the Gospels the word ‘apostle’ simply means ‘one who is sent’ – someone with a mission. It’s not actually a word used very much in the Gospels. It’s only used once in Matthew – in the passage we’ve heard today. It came later to be used about more people than the Twelve. St Paul thought he ought to have the title. And there’s that wonderful tradition that Mary Magdalene was the ‘apostle to the apostles’ because she was sent to the men with the message of the resurrection. Luke has 72 who are ‘sent’, a considerable increase on 12. But most people, from the makers of all those spoons onwards, think of the apostles as being the Twelve. So being ‘apostolic’ means being somehow in continuity with the Twelve. And we have a roughly consistent list of who they were.
They are not necessarily, these Twelve, the most saintly of men… They have been described as the original ‘dirty dozen’. There’s Peter – an impulsive fisherman who was always putting his foot in it – James and John, thundering and pompous and thinking about their status in heaven – Thomas – an inveterate skeptic, Matthew – a tax collector and collaborator, Simon from the rough side of the tracks, and Judas the hot-head who eventually betrayed him, and a couple more.
I’ve found one commentator who suggests that those whom Jesus sent – in the widest sense the apostles – were simply those whom he had healed. They were the sick who had needed a physician, the sinners who had needed a friend, the outcasts who had found at last a profound acceptance. They were not spiritual heavy weights or exemplars of moral virtue – they were simply the healed ones.
If anyone wanted to join Jesus’ movement because he had healed and helped them, he sent them out to do likewise for others. Having continuity with people like that seems to make a sort of sense for us. If we have found healing in the church – then we open the doors so that others might too… The appointment of the apostles for this mission comes just after the saying about the harvest being ready, but the workers few. It seems to be saying that Jesus was desperate for workers. He sent those he had – the limping, the unreliable, the uncertain …. But he sent them nevertheless.
This is what it means to be an ‘apostolic church’ – in continuity with the twelve. Being apostolic doesn’t mean we have to recite the Apostles’ creed (which is later anyway) or that we have to believe the Gospel because the founding patriarchs of the Church have told us too.
I just means that we have received what the apostles received. And of course we received it only because they were sent. Jesus sent them to live life vulnerably, to offer healing, forgiveness and inclusion wherever they could. And this was enough in itself to bear witness to the Kingdom of God.
So St Paul was not being a bit boastful in trying to claim the title apostle for himself – the title Apostle is not really like that. I think we could say that we are all apostles – every one of us. We have all known the healing and transforming grace of Jesus, and if that’s true then we’re all sent to make that real in the lives of others too. And if we’re all apostles – then of course…we’ll need far more than twelve spoons! But that’s someone else’s problem!
But there is one way in which we are not in continuity with those first apostles – at least in this part of their story. In thisbit of the Gospel – Jesus sends the apostles only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and he tells them that they are not to go to any Gentiles or any Samaritans, but only to Israel. But you might remember the reading we heard last week – which was actually the very last verses of Matthew’s Gospel. Those verses come after the resurrection and at that point in the story, Jesus tells them to go and make disciples of all nations – ta ethne – all ethnicities… Now the apostles are sent to all the world. And of course – if they hadn’t been – we wouldn’t the Church. And if we wouldn’t also have been ‘sent’. The Church is a gloriously multi-national, multi-ethnic company of God’s rainbow people… We have not always lived up to that – but it is our calling – and we are sent – as the apostles were finally sent – to witness to God’s love among all the nations, all the peoples. And you can meet them on the streets of Taunton…
I iamgine that not many of us will write a Gospel when we retire… but we are apostles nonetheless – with a story to tell of God’s love. Let’s go and tell it! Amen.