Where Are They Now?

Matthew 9:35-10:8; 10:38-39

 

Recap & Introduction

Sometimes a sermon series is obvious: like the Easter season as we read through 1Peter, or like the Children’s Story series beginning in July.

But at other times, sermons that at first seem disconnected build on each other in important ways.

During the planning and initial preparation for these June sermons, it was easy to recognize common themes between the weeks—after all, virtually every sermon I preach has the common themes of God’s love and redemptive power—(or so I hope).

But as I began the actual writing for last week’s sermon, the Spirit gave me a vision of how the three (largely unconnected) texts I had chosen fit together in a specific and tight-knit way. And more importantly, I saw an overarching movement that illuminates who God is calling us to be right now.

That means I need to remind you of where we’ve been so we can see together where we are going.

Last week’s sermon was titled “The Importance of Being Human.”

With Psalm 8, we marveled at God’s care and concern for us, wrestling with why God cares for us so deeply.

As we sought an answer to that question, we went all the way back to Genesis chapter 1 as God created us—male and female—in God’s image and likeness. Here too we wondered: how are we created in God’s image?

Ultimately though, I suggested that the testimony of the bible is that it matters less how we are created in God’s image than how we are to treat each other because each person is created in God’s image.

As we remembered together the value that God places on each human life—that God loves each one (even our enemies, those who threaten violence, and those who will never accept God’s love) God loves each of them so much that Jesus died for them.

The whole of God’s redemptive work in the world—from Old Testament to New and beyond—stems from this value inherent in each person. It is why when Jesus departed from this earth—to return again one day—he charged his followers with a Great Commission—the mission of disciple-making, which itself is rooted in the awareness that there are people in this world God wants to liberate from the destructive forces that enslave them.

That means (of course) that there’s a lot of urgent work to be done in order to demonstrate God’s love and liberating power. The disciples understood this deeply, and the early church did too. Their insight into the comprehensive desire of God to save every human being drove them to journey to far-flung corners of their world, to willingly suffer all sorts of oppression and hardship just as did their Savior, and even to give their life in the cause of Christ.

Today, I want us to consider their depth of commitment to God’s saving work—to the divine priority of loving even our enemies because they too bear God’s image and they too are loved by Jesus even to death (literally).

Ministry/fate of the disciples

Our scripture lesson today provides us ample fodder to continue this conversation, as it both names the disciples and contains instructions by Jesus on what discipleship looks like—what living out God’s values looks like.

1. Simon, (who is called Peter)

The text begins with “Simon, who is called Peter”—and for no small reason. Peter is part of Jesus’ inner circle—a disciple of such importance to the early church that his conversion story is told in all four gospels. He is the disciple of whom Jesus says, “on this Rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), and the disciple Jesus forgives and instructs to “feed my sheep” (John 21).

In Acts, it is Peter who preaches at Pentecost, Peter who is awakened to universal grace by a vision and encounter with Cornelius, and Peter who functions as the cornerstone of the Jerusalem church. Having famously denied Jesus three times, Peter ends up living into his promise at the Last Supper: “Even if all fall away on account of you…even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”” (Matthew 26:33, 35 NIV11). Peter remains so committed to the mission of God through the redeeming love of Jesus Christ, he is crucified (upside down) in Rome.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

2. His brother Andrew

After Peter, the gospel writer lists “his brother Andrew” (10:2). Andrew is one of the first to become a disciple, and he plays a significant role in several remarkable works of Jesus. Later church traditions record or imagine Andrew as one of the most active missionaries of Christianity: bringing the Gospel of Jesus to the Balkans, Romania, Ukraine, Russia; working among cannibals, performing incredible miracles, and ultimately being crucified on an X-shaped cross in what is now Greece.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

3. James son of Zebedee

Next is James the son of Zebedee. Together with Peter and John (his brother), these three were the ones invited into the most intimate of Jesus’ moments. But the fact that James is such a common name in the bible and early church makes it difficult to sort out for sure which James did what.

One thing we do know is that this James is the one disciple of Jesus whose death is recorded in the New Testament. Acts 12:2 tells us that Herod Agrippa “ordered James (brother of John) to be executed by the sword” (VOICE).

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

4. His brother John

After James, our scripture lesson lists “his brother John.” John rounds out Jesus’ inner circle and is believed to have written or inspired the writing of several NT works. As with James, the commonality of the name “John” in the early church makes it difficult to sort out which John did what. Yet within the NT, this John is listed as a prominent leader in the early church (Galatians 2:9) and someone who accompanied Peter on important missions (Acts).

As such, it is clear that he incurred the same kinds of hardship as Peter, the apostle Paul, and other early evangelists. But due to the difficulty in figuring out which John is which, we are unsure of his ultimate fate. Scholars are divided as to whether he is the only disciple to die of natural causes (old age), or whether he was martyred early like his brother Andrew.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

5. Philip

At this point, I’m going to pick up the pace a bit. Philip was the first disciple directly invited by Jesus. And while he too is often confused in the early traditions with another Philip, the records seem to indicate that Philip travelled far from Jerusalem in his evangelistic endeavors, eventually being crucified upside-down (like Peter) or beheaded in Hierapolis, in Asia Minor—preaching the good news of Jesus’ love right up to the moment of his death.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

6. Bartholomew

Six. Bartholomew is believed to be the same person as Nathaniel, as their names don’t appear together in the same places or at the same events. His commitment to loving the divine image in each person took him to what is now India, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, the Arabian Peninsula, and perhaps into Africa as well. It was in Armenia that Bartholomew died by being flayed alive and then beheaded.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

7. Thomas

Thomas appears next in the list—the seventh of Twelve. He is most known as “doubting Thomas” due to his absence when the risen Jesus first appeared to the disciples. But the overall picture of Thomas is of an inquisitive disciple who is more deeply committed to the cause of Christ than most of the others (cf. John 11:16, 14). There are extensive traditions about his missionary work, particularly in Edessa of Syria, in Persia, and in India. It was near Madras in India where Thomas was martyred, being run through by four spears simultaneously.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

8. Matthew the Tax Collector

Matthew is one of the few disciples testified to by all four gospels. He is assumed to be the same person as Levi, perhaps renamed by Jesus as was Peter. He is, of course, thought to be the author of the gospel that bears his name. According to tradition, Matthew preached as far as Ethiopia, Persia, and Macedonia; and was ultimately stabbed in the back when the message of Jesus’ liberation threatened a local king’s authority.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

9. James son of Alphaeus

James the son of Alphaeus. This James is not the same person as James the brother of Andrew, as James the brother of Jesus, or as James the brother of Joseph—you see the problem? It appears this James ministered in Syria, before being stoned and then clubbed to death—albeit at the admittedly late age of 94.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

10. Thaddaeus

Thaddaeus is hardly more than a name in the NT, listed in Mt & Mk only; In Luke, he is referred to as “Judas son of James.” He may have preached in what is now Iraq and Iran before being crucified.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

11. Simon the Zealot

In eleventh place, we find another Simon. And while this Simon does not play a very significant role in the gospel accounts, there are tremendously varying stories about his ministry and death.

“The most widespread tradition is that after evangelizing in Egypt, Simon joined Jude in Persia and…Lebanon, where both were martyred” by crucifixion (Wikipedia). Another tradition has him crucified in Ethiopia. And yet another has him sawn in half in Persia. None of these options are pleasant.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

12. Judas Iscariot

Lastly, of course, is “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” While much maligned, Judas played an active part in the healing and miracle-working ministry of Jesus. He apparently served well (as Acts 1:25 suggests his “apostolic ministry” is something that cannot be left uncompleted), and he was obviously trusted by Jesus with a position of some importance (treasurer).

Yet unlike the others, Judas did not have the opportunity to participate in the ongoing mission of God’s love in Christ. He died before he could (like Peter) be reconciled to Jesus. The nature of his death is not certain—despite agreement on where it took place. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told Judas hung himself in remorse for his actions (Matthew 27:5). Yet in Acts 1:18, the death of Judas is told as a tragic accident: he falls and his abdomen is ruptured.

Jesus says: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

Wrap Up

I realize this is an odd kind of sermon. It’s been long, historic, folkloric, and at times repetitive. In addition, I’ll be the first to admit that the historical certainty of some of these traditions is questionable at best.

But the point I’m trying to make isn’t history, but understanding. It’s not certainty, but faith. It doesn’t matter whether these traditions are true as much as it matters that they communicate how the church thought we should live.

The original disciples of Jesus—the Twelve who made up the core of his “crew”—these folks understood what was on the line. They knew that Jesus loved each one in the world enough to die for each one. And that meant they needed to as well.

Their own desires were secondary to the desires of God.

Their own wellbeing and “rights” ranked far below how they valued people very different than themselves.

Their own lives were worth less than the lives of those God loves and wants to save.

They truly considered others more significant than themselves (Philippians 2:3).

They truly understood that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 ESV)

They truly believed that the resurrection to come means it matters little what happens to their bodies in the present (Romans 8:39)

And they truly took up their cross and followed Jesus to the ends of the earth as they knew it. And they learned: “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39 NIV11).

Invitation

As we move toward the invitation time, consider Jesus’ words one more time:

“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39 NIV11).

These are not just ancient words for ancient peoples. These are the living words of our living Lord. If we have any desire to follow his example—the example of Jesus Christ—then valuing the divine image in each human being will drive us in our mission, in our commitments, and perhaps even in our death. It’s a lot easier to follow the gods of this world: money, power, nation, and tribe. But their fate is already certain: they are destined for destruction.

The question is: Is your fate certain? The amazing thing about our God is that it’s never too late. There’s no brokenness God cannot heal; no division that cannot be reconciled; no sin that cannot be forgiven; no wrong that cannot be righted; no life that cannot be redeemed.

The bible tells us that God is love (1John 4); and that God is patient and wishes harm to no one, but wants to see everyone discover the fullness of who God created them to be (2Peter 3:9).

But God cannot save you against your will. God cannot force you to love in return. The divine image in us is so valuable to God that God completely refuses to use any means except love to draw us to God. Free will will not be violated. Vindictive or punitive measures will not be taken. Threats will not be issued. There is life and there is death, but God through Jesus resolutely refuses to threaten death in order to coerce us to life.

We have to choose—freely and voluntarily. We have to invite God to change us, transform us, and renew God’s image in us. We have to be resurrected each day so we can grow in discipleship into God-likeness. Because there—then—in that way—we discover ourselves and we discover a love more full and complete than anything we have ever known.

And that—indeed—is good news worth sharing.

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The Importance of Being Human

 

Psalm 8

The Importance of Being Human

We are living at a strange time in history. While the founding fathers of our nation sought to ensure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all citizens, there seem many around us today who wish to hinder wellness, to restrict liberty, and to obstruct the pursuit of happiness. There are many in our nation whose experience suggests they are not afforded the same rights as others—their experience as Americans is that of second-class citizens……and perhaps even a lesser class of humans.

But please don’t turn off yet—this is not a political message: I am a Baptist, after all, and Baptists defend to the death the separation of church and state or they are Baptists in name only.

This is most certainly a religious message……a Christian message.

Jesus—and in fact the whole testimony of the Bible about God—testifies to the value of each individual human life. At a time when many feel their lives are second class—at a time when the experiences of marginalized minorities are so readily dismissed by others—at this time, God’s message of the value of each human life is absolutely transforming.

When you feel invisible, nothing feels better than being seen.

When your experience is dismissed, nothing communicates love like being heard.

When those around you refuse you your rights, nothing is as powerful as presence.

Part 1: Psalm 8

These realities and experiences are part of what drives the psalmist’s wonder in our scripture lesson. As another translation renders v.4: “I can’t help but wonder why You care about mortals” (VOICE).

While some of us ask that question when we witness the depths of human depravity, the psalmist is driven there by considering (as well) what we might call “science.” The psalmist is looking at the observable universe and reflecting on the place of humanity among the rest of creation. And he recognizes—as faithful people have throughout the centuries—that what we now call science has a way of pointing to God.

Science, of course, can never answer the question of God’s existence. It can never speak to the “who” or “why” of the world around us. But the more we discover the intricacies of the “how” and “what” of the universe, the more we see that all of creation directs us to God.

But in the scope of such a vast creation—sitting as we do in our microscopic corner of the “pale blue dot” of our world—it is hard to imagine why God gives us such attention, honor, and love.

With so much in creation that requires God’s attention, why do we get special notice?

With such variety and such delicate balances at stake, why does God give us the auspicious responsibility for caring for this amazing creation?

While the psalmist raises these questions, he does not answer them; he only repeats an affirmation and praise to our creator: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!” (Ps 8:1a, 9 CEB).

Part 2: Genesis 1

As we seek to answer this question of what is so important about being human, we are invariably driven back to our initial stories of foundation and creation in the opening chapters of Genesis.

As the story of Genesis 1 unfolds, God—like a potter—molds and shapes the spaces of creation into being: light and dark, waters above and below with air between, and wet and dry.

And then God works to fill theses spaces: sun, moon and stars in the light and dark; birds, fish, and sea creatures in the air and waters; and all sorts of land-animals for the dry ground.

But then—having already expended such creative energy—God decides to make one more kind of thing—a special thing which would be endowed with the creative abilities and mission to care for God’s creation. So God does just that, as we read in Genesis 1:27:

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them (CEB).

The previous verse (v.26) tells us that God intended to make humanity—male and female (v.27)—in God’s image and according to God’s likeness. And bible readers for millennia have searched to define precisely what that means.

Among the worst answers that have been offered up are those which claim God is shaped like us: one head, two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes; a heart, spleen, brain, and even reproductive parts—for what purpose I dare not ask.

Among the better answers are those that point out free will and how our creative God invites us to be co-creators with God: naming the creations, caring for the wellbeing of the land, and even overseeing the various creatures (something also revealed in Psalm 8).

But no answer is definitive. And I think that is important, too. Over and over throughout the Bible we are encouraged to honor, respect, and care for other people because they bear God’s image and likeness. Even foreigners, social outcasts, and terrible sinners are included in the list of people the bible instructs us to treat with dignity and respect. The most angry God seems to get happens when people do harm to each other—especially in the guise of religion.

So I’m not sure it’s as important to understand the precise way we are created to be like God as it is to understand that each human being deserves honor because they were created in God’s image.

Every day we make choices (as individuals and as a nation) that deny God’s image in each other.

Every day we take actions (as individuals and as a nation) that demean people who bear God’s likeness.

Every day we speak (as individuals and as a nation) in ways that are destructive to people God loves and wants to help.

Many Christians have heard preachers say things like: God loves you—just you—so much that Jesus would have went to the cross just for you. I believe that too. But I think we need to turn it around: that person we don’t like, or that we blame, or that is different than us, or that we don’t understand—God loves them so much that Jesus would have went to the cross just for them.

Part 3: Great Commission

And this is where the rubber hits the road. If each person who bears God’s image is so deeply and desperately loved by God that Jesus would have died to save just them, what the hell are we doing to each other in this world?

And more to the point: What should we be doing?

I believe that the entire arc of God’s saving work in the world stems from the reality that we bear God’s image. Over and over God reaches out to us to redeem and guide us, adapting to our choices, rerouting dead ends, breathing new life where we have destroyed, and seeking over and over to reconcile us to each other, to God, and to the rest of creation.

As Jesus was preparing to leave this earth on the day of the Ascension, he gave some instructions to his followers—instructions that continue to direct us and inspire us to value each other as God values each one. He said:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. (Matt 28:19-20 CEB)

The evangelistic mission that we have—the missionary task of spreading the good news of God’s love and deliverance—it is driven by a recognition that every human being bears God’s image. Every human being is loved by God. Every human being is someone God wants to lift up and lead into abundant life.

If you’re not doing that—if we’re not doing that—then whatever we’re doing isn’t Christian after all. It’s social, or it’s charity, or it’s educational, or it’s just run-of-the-mill consumption—but it’s not Christian unless it protects each one who bears God’s image.

The Importance of Being Earnest

There’s a play by Oscar Wilde called “The Importance of Being Earnest.” It’s a hilariously complicated affair of a man who pretends to be someone else named Earnest and falls in love. But as the play concludes with revealing information about his birth (spoiler alert!), it turns out his actual life was the life he pretended to have, and he was even really named Earnest.

In the play, it turns out that pretense was reality all along. While the characters thought they were pretending, it turns out they were living into a reality of which they were unaware.

There’s something about this that gels with the message today. God treats us in a way we do not deserve because all along we did deserve it on account of our very creation—we bear God’s image. Orthodox Christians talk about how we are made in God’s image, but we grow in God’s likeness. By treating us as bearers of God’s image, we grow into God’s likeness.

Similarly, we are called to treat others in a way that sometimes seems at odds with our “rights,” because that is how reality is transformed. When we honor others as carrying God’s image within them—even and especially when they do not “deserve” it in our eyes—their experience of the world and of God is transformed.

As it turns out—not unsurprisingly—love and hospitality are the best means of advancing the cause of Christ.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live in a Kingdom that is both described as “not yet” and “within you.” Somehow, when we live as though the Kingdom of God were already fully implemented, it becomes more present and more real in the world. Pretense becomes reality.

May God give us the humility to acknowledge the divine in every person of our world. May God grant us the faith to live by the rules of God’s now-but-not-yet Kingdom. May God teach us the importance of being human.