June 14, 2020
My final Sunday with First United Methodist Church, New Ulm, Minnesota
How do disciples become apostles? When does following turn into being sent?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched those first disciples of Jesus gather in fear after the crucifixion, be amazed at Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven, and receive the Great Commission to make disciples. We’ve seen them return to Jerusalem with joy, praising God, and we’ve looked on as they gathered once more in a room together, praying to receive what Jesus had promised them, power from on high. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blows them out into the city to share the Good News, and the church is born.
Somewhere in there, they’ve been transformed from frightened followers to bold announcers of the gospel. Somewhere in there, they’ve changed from apprentice craftsmen to master builders in God’s kingdom here on earth.
They’ve joined Jesus in the work of healing and driving out demons and preaching Christ. They are no longer disciples, but apostles; no longer following behind, but being sent out ahead. How did this happen?
Matthew’s gospel gives us a clue, but it isn’t at the end of the story, as you might expect. This transformation begins much earlier, and if we’d been there at the time, we might not have even noticed that a change was happening. It’s one of those things that only makes sense looking back.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
These are the names of the twelve apostles:
first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean [Simon the Zealot], and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. (Matthew 9:35-10:8)
Did you catch it? Did you hear where the switch happened? Listen again:
“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: …”
Right there in the middle of it all, Jesus calls his twelve disciples and gives them authority to cast out unclean spirits and cure every disease and sickness, and they become apostles, or ‘sent ones.’
Last week, I talked about the idea of authority. I mentioned that authority comes from two different directions. There’s the authority that gets handed down to you from above, and there’s also authority that comes from those who place themselves under your authority.
Disciples who place themselves under the authority of Jesus are given authority to act in his name, performing the same works and speaking the same truths as Jesus. And that’s how they become apostles.
That’s how we become apostles. I think sometimes our unwillingness to submit fully to Christ’s authority over us keeps us from experiencing the power of Christ’s authority working through us.
There’s something else I want you to notice about this passage. Matthew uses a special literary device to help us get the point. He arranges his ideas to form a sort of ‘mirror image’ that reflect on each other, revealing the main idea at the very center. Let’s take a look.
At the beginning, Jesus is doing what Jesus does, traveling from town to town, healing the sick, teaching in the synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (9:35). At the end of today’s passage, he sends his followers out to do exactly the same thing. “As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (10:7-8). Next, Jesus has compassion on the crowds because they are “Harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:36) Next to the end of the passage, Jesus tells his disciples to go to “the lost sheep of Israel.” (10:6)
Then we get to the sending. Jesus explains that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, and he tells his disciples to ‘ask the Lord of harvest’ to send more laborers. Guess what happens in the mirror? The disciples to whom Jesus has been talking become the apostles Jesus sends out with specific instructions.
This brings us to the heart of the message, the point Matthew wants us to get. “These are the … apostles.” Not the disciples any longer. Not the apprentices. These are the sent ones. Here are their names.
And do you notice that Matthew lists them two-by-two? This is not an accident. When we are sent into the world to proclaim good news, we dare not go alone. The buddy system has always been Christ’s model for discipleship, and it’s the best model for apostleship, too.
There’s something else we need to remember about these disciples who have become apostles. They all come from very different backgrounds, hold very different opinions, and have very different ideas about Messiah. Social class, politics, theology – you couldn’t ask for a more diverse bunch.
We have Matthew the tax collector, who upholds (and profits from) the Roman occupation, right alongside Simon the Zealot, who wants to overthrow the government!
There’s Peter, leading the pack with his impetuous loyalty, and Judas the betrayer bringing up the rear.
We have Thomas, who blurts out whatever is on his mind, and Thaddeus, who – if he ever utters a word – never gets quoted in any version of the story.
How on earth did these twelve men manage to get along? What qualifies them to become the spokespersons for the kingdom of God?
It’s the same thing that qualifies you and me, the same thing that keeps us united in faith, even when we disagree dramatically on just about everything else. It’s the One who does the sending. The One who gives authority, who walks beside us, who promises to never leave us. It’s Jesus.
Over the past seven years, you have walked with me, as I have walked with you, learning and teaching each other what it means to follow Jesus, and to be sent by him. We may have disagreed on some things. We certainly rejoiced over others.
I know I have grown deeper in faith and stronger in love of God and neighbor, and I hope many of you can say the same. And while, for this season together, you have given me the authority to serve as your pastor, I have sought to be faithful to the authority God placed on my life when calling me into ministry.
In a couple of weeks, you will welcome a new pastor, and I know you will place your trust in him as your spiritual leader. This is as it should be. You are ready for a new chapter in the story of First United Methodist Church, and I am confident God plans to make it a good one!
But here’s the thing: the core of the good news of the Kingdom of God is found right here, among you all, in the people who choose to follow Jesus, loving God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and loving their neighbors as themselves. You are the gospel. You are the good news. The center of the story of how disciples become apostles is the people who are named, two by two, different from each other as all get out, but united in this one thing: Jesus. May it ever be so.
Our scriptures today have all centered on the idea of covenant promise. From God’s promise to claim the people of Israel as his own, to Christ’s promise to be with us always as he sends us out, we have been given the opportunity to respond to God’s infinite grace with promises of our own.
In 2014, as my friend Geoff Twigg and I were being approved for ordination, Geoff shared with me a hymn he had written as his own intentional covenant with God and with the congregation he would serve. He wanted my critique, and I told him the only thing I could see that it might need was a stanza for the congregation to sing in response.
He said, “That’s a good idea. Why don’t you write it?”
So in June of 2014, as we were ordained together in Chicago, our ordination class joined us in singing this hymn, and the congregation responded with that final verse, led by a choir of our colleagues. As we prepare to set out on our different paths, trusting that God leads us, I invite you to join me once more in singing this hymn together.
I Heard Your Call Tune: FINLANDIA, UMH 437
I heard Your call and stepped out in obedience.
Now looking back on easy times and hard,
The path I’ve walked prepared me for the future,
Your grace and truth, my compass and my chart;
And I’m resolved to turn as you direct me,
Or stay the course if you will guard my heart.
I’ll cast the seed in every situation;
Wait for each season trusting in your grace.
I’ll go aside to pray and seek your Sabbath;
Walk to your pulse, and not the world’s harsh pace,
And I’m resolved to turn as you direct me,
Or stay the course and please you in the race.
My Savior’s call! Renewed with each new morning;
I pledge to answer, go where I am shown;
As He, the Maker calls, who truly knows me,
I’ll use His gifts, tho’ called to ways unknown.
Lord, I’m resolved to turn as you direct me,
Or stay the course if you will lead me home.
We, too, will follow where the Savior leads us.
We, too, will answer when we hear his call.
We’ll use the gifts that God has freely given,
In loving service both to great and small.
So may we also turn as God directs us,
Or stay the course, ‘til Christ is all in all.
©2014 Geoff Twigg and Jo Anne Taylor, used with permission.