Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most children can recall the names of the seven dwarfs in Walt Disney’s 1938, cartoon classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Dopey, Doc, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, Grumpy and Sleepy. A goodly number of adults can recall the names of Santa’s eight reindeer in Clemet Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”: On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer, on Vixen, on Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen. But if you were to name Jesus’ twelve disciple, most good, church going folks would offer you a blank stare. They might name the four evangelists, or saint Paul. We read in St. Luke’s gospel, “On one of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Truthfully, we don’t know much about the twelve disciples from scripture. We do know that first four were fishermen. Andrew, Peter James and John. Thomas, Nathaniel and Philip may have also worked as fishermen, for they were all together and fishing when Jesus appeared to them in Galilee after his resurrection. Thomas was said to be a twin, but we never read whether it was a brother or sister. Matthew worked as a tax collector for the Roman government. For that reason, he may have been the most educated of the disciples providing him considerable wealth. He was so well off that he invited Jesus to his home and threw a reception for his colleagues. Who knows, Matthew’s wealth may have helped fund Jesus’ ministry. On the other end of the political spectrum was Simon the Zealot. He was actively opposed to everything that Matthew and his service to the Roman government represented. And then there was Judas, who served as the treasurer for Jesus’ band of Twelve, the one who betrayed Jesus. He was known as a thief.
The Twelve had very little in common, especially in relationship to a carpenter from the hill country of Nazareth, but for some odd, divine reason, Jesus called them together to be his merry, little band. They were certainly not of one mind. Sometimes they were mercilessly intolerant of each other’s views and opinions. Yet, surprisingly, and indeed miraculously Jesus drew them together as one to become a movement that would turn the world upside down.
My friends, that is what he desires of you and me as well. Jesus is not inviting you simply to follow him, but he is inviting you to become more like his disciples, and in turn more like him. For the Twelve it all began when Jesus challenged them to wrestle with his words of blessings and woes.
No doubt, the Twelve were eyeing each other as Jesus spoke to them, just as we do eying our neighbors when a candid word is spoken. We look to see whether they feel awkward or uncomfortable. Yes, each of the newly appointed disciples was assuming that Jesus was affirming him personally, and critiquing those with whom they disagreed. “Blessed are those who are poor, blessed are those who are hungry now, blessed are those who weep now, and blessed are you when people hate you. Rejoice in the day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven. But woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now, woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
The reality was that some of Jesus’ Twelve disciples accepted the notion that it is always better to be poor, hungry and disenfranchised, than to be rich, well fed and happy. While others completely disagreed. It is a question today as well. Do we really accept the notion that God only loves us when we are miserable? By no means. Jesus came that we should have life and live it abundantly. Jesus’ words that day were intended to be a promise to those who were suffering in this world. It is just as true today. God still see, loves you, and is intent on making those struggling people to thrive. But Jesus ’ words are also a warning to his hearers that they too are called to live with attention and generosity toward their neighbors, even as God is attentive and generous.
It would be easy to take and defend any one side of Jesus’ blessings and woes, but if that happens we will never become the disciples God wants us to be. We won’t be able to work together if we live with a perception of ourselves as either victims or victors. The blind and death author Helen Keller had every right to be bitter and disenfranchised, but instead she wrote, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” As men and women becoming God’s disciples, we must focus on the good in the world, and not the evil.
Regretfully, many Christians choose to focus on the differences with their neighbors rather than on their similarities. There is the story of two men who met on the Golden Gate Bridge. One was walking while along while the other standing on the edge, preparing to jump. The man walking ran over to the other man about to leap, and said, ”Stop. Don’t do it.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” the other asked. “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Like what?” he cried.
“Are you religious?” the one asked.
“Yes.” He said. “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
“Christian.” “Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Protestant.” “Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” “Baptist.”
“Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”
The man on the edge answered, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”
The man on the ground then push the other over the edge of the bridge and shouted, “Drown, you heretic.”
My friends, Jesus does not want us to focus on our differences. It is why he himself dared to call a group of Twelve disparate Disciples who he would work with to become one. Jesus desires to build a Kingdom for all God’s children to enjoy, in spite of their differences, and he is inviting all of his followers and not simply his Twelve disciples to play their part in that Kingdom.
Finally, Jesus taught his disciples that where there is disparity and injustice, they should work for equality and justice. Jesus’ strong words are not to be glossed over. There are blessings and there are woes in this world and in the world to come. That is both our warning and our hope, and like those first Twelve Disciples, he desires that you and I work for his Kingdom so that no one is left hungry or mourning or poor or disregarded at the very same time that others are those in this world who are abundantly well-fed, rich, laughing, and respected. We are to be a part of the great movement.
The late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu beautifully captured this sentiment in his Children’s Bible. Interpreting the 6th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, he chose not to use the word woe, but instead focused on what happens when God’s faithful truly put aside their differences and work for a better world for all. He wrote’
One day, Jesus told his followers about God’s dream of a world where all the children of God are loved and cared for, and no is left out.
Blessed are you who feed the poor, for you are the hands of God.
Blessed are you who comfort the sad, for you are the arms of God.
Blessed are you who work for peace, for you are the voice of God.
Blessed are you who are loving and kind, for you are the heart of God.
My friends, we may not recall the names of those first Twelve Disciples, and a look of terror may cross your face when the pastor asks you to name three of the disciples, but we do know the impact that these 12 men made upon the world. They turned the world upside hope. I hope the same will be said of our own present generation. Let us dare to be more than Jesus’ followers. Let us dare work together to be God’s hands and arms and voice and heart in this world. Amen.
May the peace God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen