Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Church That Christ Chooses

The Church That Christ Chooses
Mark 3:13-17, Exodus 19:1-6
October 7, 2012
A Sermon for the FPCCS Centennial

(Jesus) went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Every once in a while, somebody takes a survey of Bible knowledge. In our increasingly secular age, the pollster wants to know what information is still sticking. Can you name the four Gospels in the New Testament? Can you recite the Ten Commandments? Do you know how many Psalms there are? As of yesterday, I have been an ordained preacher for twenty-seven years, so I can get around the Bible pretty well.

But the one question where I will always stumble is the question that the Gospel of Mark answers for us this morning: What are the names of the twelve apostles?

Simon Peter, James and John. Andrew, Phillip, and Bartholomew. Matthew, Thomas, and the other James. Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanean, and Judas Iscariot. There are twelve of them, just like the twelve tribes of Israel – and I couldn’t name those either, not without some help. We should be gentle on ourselves. Many of us past the age of forty can’t remember the three things that we wanted to pick up in the grocery store.

The Gospel of Mark makes a list of the twelve apostles, those Jesus appointed to stay with him. That’s not to say they all stayed with him. They weren’t perfect. There is Judas, of course. But the other eleven also scattered after Jesus was arrested. Jesus chose them, and they weren’t perfect.

In fact, of all the Gospels, Mark is the one who paints the most negative picture of the twelve. Every time Jesus asked a question, they got it wrong. He taught them every day, and they never understood. One day, he explained that he would be crucified in Jerusalem, and they started bickering among themselves. He said, “What are you arguing about?” And they said, “Lord, which one of us twelve apostles is the most important?” They didn’t understand him.

Simon Peter, James and John. Andrew, Phillip, and Bartholomew. Matthew, Thomas, and the other James. Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanean, and Judas Iscariot. That is the list. There are a few things that I want you to notice.

It’s not a complete list. These are the names of twelve men, and everybody knows there are more women in church than there are men. That is a statistic to be proved by looking around. Elsewhere, the New Testament reminds us that some women followed Jesus and funded the ministry of Jesus out of their own purses.[1] It never says the men coughed up any money. They argued about money but they didn’t seem to contribute any. Mark’s list is not complete. Women belong on the list.

What’s more, this is not an accurate list. Forget what somebody told you about the Bible. The Bible does not exactly agree who is on the list.[2] Matthew copies Mark’s list, but Luke doesn’t mention Thaddaeus. Instead he mentions a second man named Judas, son of James. And when we get over to the Gospel of John, he mentions somebody named Nathanael. We don’t even know who that is. Some of the pious scholars scramble to say things like Thaddaeus, Judas, and Nathanael are all the same person – but the Bible doesn’t worry about straightening that out.

The only time we see anything like all twelve disciples standing still is when Leonardo DaVinci told them to get on the same side of the table so he could paint them into his picture!

This is not a complete list. It is not an accurate list. But let me say it: this is a diverse list. Sure, Mark tells us about twelve men. In our imaginations, we can picture them at thirty years old with curly hair. Yet it’s hard to imagine a group like this ever being convened.

There are two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John. They left behind their fishing boats and their fathers. Jesus came from the hill country, a euphemism for “the sticks.” We don’t know anything about Thomas, Thaddaeus, or James 2.0.

But we know something about Matthew – a tax collector, a despised collaborator who worked for the Empire. He swindled his own neighbors to fund the soldiers who occupied their town. Standing next to him is Simon the Canaanean – a Zealot, a revolutionary with a dagger under his cloak, ready to take out the tax collectors like Matthew. And Jesus called both of them to be part of his team. That would be like inviting Daniel Berrigan and Pat Robertson to the same Passover Seder. Or seating Grover Nordquist and the Rev. Al Sharpton in the same church pew.

Not only that. We are pretty sure that eleven of the disciples came from the northern territory of Galilee. The twelfth may have been the man from Kerioth – “ish-Kerioth” or “Iscariot” – Kerioth was a town way down south in Judah. So there may have been eleven Yankees and Judas the Confederate. Jesus wants them all at his side. Diverse backgrounds, different political views, distinct geographies – none of that matters to him, because he chooses them all.

It’s a photograph of the church. This is what a church is like. Diverse, young, old, male as well as female, whoever, wherever, however. There is no unanimity in the group, except as Christ calls them. And that’s the point of it all. Standing at the center of this new community is Jesus. He is what they hold in common.

OK, we have two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John. But that can be awkward. Ever have two brothers who agree on everything? Every national election, my brother and I cancel each another’s votes.

And who knows how many of them were married? Earlier this Gospel says Simon Peter had a mother-in-law. I guess that means he also had a wife. But we don’t know her name, or how she felt about him quitting the fish business and running after Jesus. Did they have kids? Did she have to watch them while he gallivanted around Galilee? It’s almost as if Mark says that family status is irrelevant when it comes to following Jesus. What matters is that you know that he is calling you – and that he is giving you work to do.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. Jesus calls the twelve and gives them two-fold work: to proclaim his Message and to cast out the demons. The Message proclaimed was clear: that God is coming close, that God shall rule over earth as clearly as God rules heaven, and that we must make the necessary adjustments to welcome God’s ownership of our lives. “Preach the Message,” Jesus says. The time is right here, God rules over us right now, so change your lives to claim God’s love.[3]

To cast out demons is first-century code language for confronting everything that resists God. If illness twists people out of shape, we must confront it. If hatred oppresses a human life, we must cast out the hatred. If evil sneaks in, and entices us to give in to lesser gods, we speak the truth that only the God of heaven is worthy of allegiance. It is hard work casting out the demons, if only because they look so respectable. But Jesus gives his people power. He equips them to work together and make a difference.

This is what matters. Jesus calls together a bunch of diverse people, with different backgrounds and different skills. And he says, “Proclaim the authority of God over all of human life!”

From this we can extract all kinds of principles. Here’s one: in a diverse group called “church,” you might not get your way all the time. You might not get your way at all. Instead we work together to pursue God’s way. The most important question before the church is always this: What does it mean, in our place, in our time, that God rules over human lives? What would it look like for us to build the love of God? To welcome the justice of God? To do the work of God?

I’ve noticed that when churches stop asking these questions, they start to fizzle out. Perhaps they get tangled in personality disputes; the “Sons of Thunder” start mouthing off rather taking care of the neighborhood, or Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the revolutionary start plotting harm to one another in the parking lot. If a church, like any other organization, is merely a human organization, it can go off the rails in a hundred different ways. And it will need a Book of Order to keep Christian disciples from beating up on one another.

But the true church of Jesus is always more than a human organization. It is a holy fellowship, commissioned by Jesus to do the work of God. We are God’s tactical team on this planet. We welcome God’s Breath to fill our lungs, we pray for God’s Power to push us into action, and we know God’s Spirit will raise our spirits. Christ infuses his people with his own presence. When we put a bridle on our own whims, when we submit our willfulness to God’s greater will, the Gospel Message takes on skin and bones – and the world’s demons can be chased away.

That is why we are here, my friends. That is why he chooses us. We are part of a world-wide movement to enflesh the life of Jesus Christ. We are here to love all the people that Jesus loves. We are here to do the work that Jesus inaugurated. And to every destructive power that threatens God’s children, we say, “Christ is risen! Get you gone!”

In the year 1912, when Mrs. William Gibbons prayed this church into being, when she discerned that God wanted Presbyterian Christians in this town, she began, not with a dozen men, but with a dozen or so women. That is because God’s work is never restricted by who we are; it is only restricted by our unwillingness to do the work. In a church where Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot serve side by side, there is room for all of us.

We don’t have to have faith all figured out in advance. We don’t have to be right about everything. We don’t have to compel everybody else to agree with us. We don’t have to worry about who is on the list and who is not, because it is not our list. It is his list.

So we gather around his Table to sing that Jesus our Lord is at the center of it all. In broken bread, we affirm that his steady work of salvaging the world is the most important work of all. We do this work together, and we do this work with him. It isn’t easy. Crosses will be handed to us. Betrayers will appear from time to time. Faith will be tested. Even strong Simon Peter will have moments when he thinks he is unworthy.

But here we are, “chosen of the Lord and precious.” We are the church that Christ chooses. Look around. We are the kind of people that Jesus loves. We are the ones who bear his love to the world. And if he can love us, he can love everybody.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 8:1-3
[2] Compare Mark 3:13-19 with Matthew 10:1-4 and Luke 6:12-16
[3] Mark 1:14-15

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