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!


He Ascended into Heaven

Jesus’ ascension into heaven is a good case study of how Christian belief evolves over the centuries. Statements of belief are interpretations of our faith. Like all human understanding, they are ongoing and developmental.

Once upon a time, for example, Jewish and Christian believers understood the story of Noah and the ark as an historic event. Today we understand it as biblical mythology. Jesus’ ascension up to heaven may not be a myth but it is highly symbolic.

Two brief accounts of Jesus’ ascension are found in the “longer ending” to the Gospel According to Mark (16:19) and in the Gospel According to Luke. (24:50-53). A more detailed account is found in Acts of the Apostles (1:9-11). Jesus’ ascension into heaven is proclaimed as well in both the Nicene Creed (written during the fourth century C.E.) and the Apostles’ Creed (developed between the second and ninth centuries C.E. as a baptismal creed for new Christians). The Feast of the Ascension, celebrated on a Thursday forty days after Easter has long been a major holy day in the Christian liturgical year. (In most Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States, however, the celebration of Ascension has been transferred to the following Sunday.)

Most basically, the Ascension reaffirms the Resurrection. The post-death glorified Jesus is with God. (Perhaps it makes good sense to celebrate Ascension on the Day of the Resurrection? The Gospel According to Luke has both occur on the same day. The U.S. bishops, however, transferred the feast to Sunday because so few people were showing up on Ascension Thursday.)

The imagery of the Ascension, of course, is based on the ancient Hebrew and early Christian cosmology of the flat earth and triple level universe. (See the illustration.) Today we find this explanation of our earth and the solar system quaint, archaic, and scientifically naïve. For people “back then” it was very real indeed and they constructed their theological understanding around it as well. A highly anthropomorphized God the Father sat high up in the upper heaven on his throne. When early Christians contemplated Jesus-raised-from-the-dead, it made good theological sense to them that the Son of God, in the glory of the Resurrection, should also be up there in the high heaven “seated at the right hand of the Father.”

Early Christians, like the author of Acts of the Apostles, pondered how the (overly physicalized) Resurrected Jesus would get up to the (very physicalized) high heaven. The cloud elevator was the obvious solution. (Actually, much later, there was a similar line of thought, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950 that the Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.)

Neither contemporary science nor contemporary theology understands God to be up there on a heavenly throne. Our faith experience, our understanding of God, is one of nearness: loving and close intimacy. As we understand and rephrase our belief, we are keenly aware that all language about God is analogical: it points to God but does not contain nor confine God. Our words are pointers toward God. God is LIKE ultimate “Father,” or “Mother,” or “most supportive Friend,” or “Ground of Being,” etc., etc.,

And so the Ascension. What does it mean today? The Resurrected Jesus is so intimately linked with God that “he and the Father are one” and he is one with us as well. Closer to us than the air in our lungs…All Christian life is a Divine communion. No small thing indeed.

And the old cosmology drifts off silently into the past. It worked fine for a while….

(Next week some thoughts about being an apostle….)



Our Christian Faith is anchored in the experience we commemorate and celebrate each Easter.

The apostle Paul summarized that experience in his letter to the people in Corinth: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day.” (I Corinthians 15)

In my first three Lenten biblical reflections, I stressed (1) that our Christian Scriptures announce genuine and authentic Christian belief; but that (2) more often than people realize, they are not detailed historical accounts. The biblical authors used a variety of imaginative images designed to convey the meaning and impact of the Jesus event. This week, I stress that same understanding, as we read and reflect about Jesus’ resurrection.

What exactly was the experience that became the first Easter experience?

Reading the Christian Scriptures in the light of contemporary biblical scholarship — and reflecting as well on my own personal faith experiences — it is clear to me that those early Christians’ Easter experience was not in first instance a physical historically verifiable experience. It was however a true and genuine faith experience: an experience in another dimension of our human reality.

Paul, writing between the years 50 CE and 64 CE never described the resurrection of Jesus as a resuscitation of his physical body, after death on the cross. In the Pauline writings, we never see a Jesus who walks out of his grave. Resurrection is not resuscitation.

Paul is very clear and firm, however, in his belief that God raised Jesus out of death and into a new form of life in God. Jesus’ resurrection transformed and raised Jesus into new life.

“Someone will ask,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ How foolish!….When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed….So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, and it is raised imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, and it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, and it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, and it is raised a spiritual body.” Another dimension of life.

Paul died somewhere around the year 64 CE and never read any of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I suspect however that many Christians, coming after Paul, have always read Paul through the lens of the later-written Gospels, with their great and imaginative religious imagery. This is unfortunate, because we miss the concise and clear Pauline testimony about Jesus’ being raised from the dead.

The authors of the Gospels, as they wrote some decades after the death of Jesus, used creative imagery and imagination to convey the experience of early Christian faith encounters with the resurrected Lord. Some experiences — especially faith experiences — are best, though still inadequately, interpreted and expressed through symbols and imaginative imagery. Think for a moment about the symbolic and imaginatively charged (and sometimes erotic) testimonies of the great Christian mystics.

In Mark, the first of the Gospels that we have today, the Risen Christ never appears. Jesus’ deceased body is taken from the cross and placed in the tomb. Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection speaks of grief-stricken women confronting an empty tomb and meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Later another ending was added to Mark’s Gospel; but contemporary biblical scholarship stresses that Mark’s Gospel probably ended without the Resurrected Christ ever being seen by anyone.

The authors of Matthew, writing between 80-85 CE, and Luke, writing between 88-92 CE, changed and greatly expanded Mark. They wanted their audiences to have no doubts about Jesus truly raised from the dead and divinely transformed. Their imagery is more physical yet spiritual.

Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. Mark’s messenger becomes an angel; and Matthew asserts that the women did see Jesus in the garden. They grasp him by his feet and worship him. Here Jesus’ resurrection seems, at first, more like a physical resuscitation of the deceased Jesus. When Matthew narrates the account of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples, however, the resurrected Jesus is on a mountaintop in Galilee, where he comes out of the sky with heavenly power.

Luke echoes Mark’s narration about the women at the tomb, and they do not see Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. Luke, however, transforms Mark’s messenger into two angels. Luke greatly emphasizes as well the physicality of Jesus’ resurrected body. He wants his readers to to see that this is really Jesus. Nevertheless the resurrected Jesus in Luke is not a resuscitated Jesus, because although he walks, talks, eats, and teaches, he also appears and disappears at will. He invites the disciples to touch his flesh, and stresses that he is not a ghost. The post-death Jesus is real. Luke then removes the resurrected Jesus from the earth, by imagining the story of Jesus’ Ascension up to heaven: A cloud comes down and, like a heavenly elevator, whisks him up to heaven. Don’t forget the ancient Jewish and Christian cosmology, with God on God’s throne up in the heavens.

When it comes to the Ascension, Luke however is not consistent: In his Gospel the Ascension occurs on Easter Sunday afternoon; but in Acts, the Ascension occurs 40 days after Easter. Ongoing imaginative development.

In John, written between 95 CE and 100 CE when most eyewitnesses of the Jesus event were already dead, the physicality of the Resurrection is enhanced even more. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden and tells her not to cling to him. John then suggests that Jesus ascended up to heaven immediately; and from there he appears to the disciples. A transformed spiritual being, he enters a room with closed windows and locked doors, yet he is described as quite physical. A week later Jesus appears a second time to the disciples. This time Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ nail wounds and pierced side. Later in the Gospel Jesus appears to the disciples fishing in Galilee and eats with them. John wants to affirm that the resurrected Jesus is really Jesus….

Over the years, we see therefore that accounts of Jesus’ resurrection grew rather dramatically. Something Divine happened after Jesus’ crucifixion that convinced his disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was very much a living presence in their own lives. Human imagination, words, and images cannot adequately describe what happened. They are simply pointers. Pointers to the Divine in Jesus.

And so for us today? it is not enough to just study and ponder texts and events from the past. We live today. In today’s world.

Nevertheless, God’s working through Jesus in the past is God’s working through Jesus today; and just like the early Christians, our lives too are anchored in Jesus’ resurrection experience. Life is changed, not taken away. Through him, with him, and in him we meet the living God. Jesus in fact is the great sacrament of the human encounter with God. And “where two or three are gathered,” Jesus is present as well.

This Easter, and throughout the year, our biggest challenge is big indeed. It is not always delightful nor easy to realize and accept that we see and meet the living God in the man or woman standing next to us: whether handsome or ugly, whether gay or straight, whether “friend” or ” enemy,” they all have dignity and worth; and all can be channels to the Divine.

And like Jesus, when this life is over, we too shall continue on a new journey with God.