June 1, 2014

Thomas, Bartholomew, James son of Alphaeus

Passage: Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11
Service Type:

When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

If I gave you each a blank piece of paper and asked you to write down as many of the names of the twelve disciples as you could, how would you do? The names Peter, James and John could come easily because they seem the more popular of the disciples—at least as far as mentions in the New Testament are concerned. Thomas might appear on many lists because we associate him with doubting. We might get Judas Iscariot for his nefarious betrayal. But what about Bartholomew and James the son of Alpheaus? Perhaps, these names would not appear on many of our lists.

For many of us today having the ready knowledge of the names of people from by gone era is something we consider to be of interest to the history student—exactly why someone would be interested in history that is another matter. But we consider this sort of information the purview of a few—those interested in history, and in the case of the New Testament, those interested in theology. Generally speaking, knowing the names of the twelve disciples is not thought to be all that important.

Some might be interested in people’s names from past eras for reasons of ancestry—for creating a family tree. AT the 175th Anniversary of St. Andrew’s United Church in Markham a history of the congregation was published and I learned that a minister with the same last name as mine served that congregation in 1899. I was interested to learn a little more about him given the family connection. But without these sorts of personal motivation most of us don’t pay a lot of attention to such details. So, we may lack interest in history or our interest selective. What of it? Is this important? Let us try this exercise. Make a new list on your page beside your list of disciples. Write down as many names as you can of people now serving on the council of Central United Church (or sing in the choir). The lists are related … bear with me a little longer because it also has to do with the appearance of your name and mine.

1. When the list of the twelve disciples are given in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke they are speaking of a very particular group of twelve men. You can tell by the how they are named. These lists, for example, are given in three groups of four and Peter, Philip and James the Son of Alphaeus always appear at the head of these three groups respectively. The New Testament bears witness this it is these particular people who bore witness to Jesus and that it is important that is was them—namely it was these individuals that Jesus called to himself.

Luke, the gospel writer, is also the author of the book of Acts. In speaking of this group of disciples of Jesus who gather in Jerusalem following the Ascension of Jesus to heaven, Luke very carefully names the remaining eleven disciples; he does so in the same pattern they are named elsewhere in the gospels. He wants his readers to know that it was the same disciples Jesus called—now eleven in number (Judas Iscariot took his own life)—who gather together with some others followers and devote themselves to prayer.

Take a moment to remember the trauma these men went through when Jesus was crucified. At that moment they were convinced of one thing—that their time with Jesus was a complete waste. Their following of Jesus ended in utter disaster. How could they have been so naive? And yet here they are together thoroughly convinced that Jesus is alive and that his death was the very hinge of history when everything changed, the new age had been ushered in.

Consider for a moment how difficult it is for people to remain together after some trauma. We know how a trauma can strain marriages. Think of congregational life. From time to time in the course of congregational life a challenge will come and it is not easy for people to hang together. Groups made up of close friends know those days when the joy of being together seemed to be going from strength to strength only to see such disintegrate in the face of difficulty.

That these eleven—these particular eleven—are together in a common declaration about Jesus Christ witnesses that something powerful has happened in them; the New Testament story claims that this powerful something was witnessing the risen Jesus who made himself known to each of them. It is an amazing thing that not one of them was lost. The fact that they are together all singing the same hymn of the crucified Jesus now raised to life is among the most powerful witnesses to the truth of what happened to Jesus.

2. But there is more. While their collective witness is foundational to making the good news of Jesus Christ known they participated in it as individuals; each of them one at a time. The fact that they are named tells you that and so too every other believer who joined with them. The gospel insists that every believer joined to Christ has their role to play in this collective witness. Paul uses the image of the human body to illustrate this point.

Think about Thomas for a moment. We know him by the moniker “doubting.” He was that disciple that helps every believer who struggles with the fantastic-sounding nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He spoke what many are thinking—“unless I see the nail print in his hands, I will not believe.” And Jesus showed him and then uttered those faith affirming words—“blessed (happy) are those who do not see but come to believe.” With Thomas we come to see the shortcoming of our limited ability to see; we come to know that seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, and smelling will only take us so far. I am grateful for the witness of Thomas

Consider Bartholomew. Bartholomew means “son of Talamy.” Without giving you the detailed explanation of why (happy to provide it for those who enjoy such historic detail), Bartholomew has traditionally been identified with the disciple Nathanael that John tells us about in his gospel. Philip was the one who told Nathanael that he had found “him whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth the son of Joseph.” Nathanael retorted with the close scrutiny of a scholar and skeptic, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus said of Nathanael that he was a man in whom was no guile. What you see is what you get. He is not simply going to take Philip’s word for it. We would say that he “didn’t suffer fools lightly.” Yet, here he is with this group in Jerusalem. I am glad for Bartholomew’s witness because he isn’t going to be there if his heart had not been moved by Jesus. Bartholomew is like the friend who, if she told you of some hard-to-believe event, you would stop and consider its truth because you know something about her character, about her scrutinizing of things that happen.

And then there is James, son of Alphaeus. We know very little of this man. He is sometimes referred to as James “the lesser.” The father of the disciple Matthew was also known named Alphaeus. This has led some to propose that Matthew and James were brothers. It is possible but impossible to say so conclusively. There are lots of journey-men and women disciples. Their name is recorded and beyond that we know little of a personal nature. It is disciples like James the lesser who show us that the importance of your discipleship is not in things to which we normally attach significance. It was important to Jesus that he was there. So too for every believer. We each have a role to play and it is the Saviour who determines the outcome.

It seems to me that many Christians today consider being at church a weekend leisure activity and if we can fit it in we will. It may be that as a church we need to provide other worship opportunities than only on Sunday morning. Still this text tells me that it matters if we are here. All eleven plus some others were there gathered together. The church—meaning the people who belong to Jesus—share a collective responsibility to bear witness to Jesus Christ; to announce the gospel. There is a very important “together” aspect to this. Sometimes being at church doesn’t feel like we are doing much; we need to trust Jesus that he wants us together and leave the outcome to him.

3. The playwright Arthur Miller, most widely known for his play Death of a Salesman, was reported to have said: “Generalization is the death of art. It’s in the details where God resides.” I would not presume to know enough about art to make comment on his observation about generalization and art. I do, however, think he is on to something in what he observes about God and details. The names of very particular people tells you that the details matter to God; that your details matter to God.

Every one of these disciples was a collection of their DNA, personality, gender, life experience, parental influence, academic ability, education, etcetera, and etcetera. Among them was the thinker, the bombastic, the pushy, the self-absorbed, the hesitant, the driver and many of them some collection of these. Jesus Christ was sufficient to each of them and for each of them as individuals to make them his own. He knew their details and loves them so thoroughly they are all together in Jerusalem each identifying themselves as belonging to Jesus Christ. So it is for any of us if we will open ourselves to him.

Not only is their witness together powerfully used by Jesus Christ so too their individual witness. On Sunday, April 13, Bubba Watson won the Masters golf tournament by a three-stroke margin at Augusta National Golf Club. The New York Times reported on what they called Bubba's recent goal of "improving as a person as well as a golfer." The article noted, "Watson has had enough childish transgressions on the course over the years to fill a psychology handbook, including a tirade directed at his long-suffering caddie, Ted Scott. … At the end of last year, Watson convened the members of his inner circle and solicited feedback on how to become a better player and person." Unfortunately, the article failed to mention the most important ingredient in Watson's "improvement" program—his faith in Christ. An article on the Billy Graham website gives the story of Bubba's transformation. Bubba said, "I was so wrapped up in 'Why am I not winning?' It created frustrations in my head and in my life." Now Watson says his main goal is to show the light of Christ to others. Take one look at his Twitter profile and you may figure out what's different about Watson: @bubbawatson: Christian. Husband. Daddy. Pro Golfer. In that order.

Now you don’t have to be famous to witness to Jesus Christ. We all have our own personal role to play in this. We might write a different set of titles than Bubba did. But the instructive part is what is first. Christian or write Christ-follower. To name this first sets the trajectory for the rest. I live out being a Christ-follower in these other pursuits.

I wonder about the struggle so many in our culture have with anxiety. I wonder if it might be because we expect things to anchor us that cannot; we expect important things, yes worthy things, to be that thing that will integrate life and make it worthwhile. These good things were never designed for such a role. I am not saying that focus on being a Christ-follower will make every anxiety disappear. Jesus never promises a problem free life. Still, commitment to his love—faith—will help us navigate the anxieties and, I think, make some reduction.

3. Which leads me to this last point. These names also tell us that with Jesus we are known. Known better than we know ourselves. I know of little that reduces anxiety like being known by God. Your name is known by the King himself. The Ascension of Jesus is the declaration that Jesus has taken his place as this world’s rightful sovereign. As this rightful sovereign he is never like the king standing on the palace balcony viewing the vast crowd of nameless, faceless “subjects”. The number crunchers say there are over 2 billion Christians in the world. But our King is no number cruncher.

He is Jesus who calls you by name; Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James—and so on and so on as each believer has been added to this number ever since. This is why we name these children when we baptized them, we want them to come to that place of claiming Jesus as their own—the One who calls them by name today.

The King of Kings is calling us by name.