by Caleb Ratzlaff
I wrote a reflection on the word Apostle. I didn’t share it Sunday but I wrote it with the Commons in mind so I thought I’d share it here.
The New Testament describes the way Christ’s disciples become apostles. This word “apostle” means, literally, “to send away.” In order to send someone away, he or she must first be with you. The apostles must have been at some point in the presence of Christ before he dismissed them, before he sent them away. And it is this event — the send-off — from which their title is derived. Typically Christians focus on being with Christ, following close behind him, being “Christ-like.” However, to be an apostle means something a little different; it emphasizes a departure from Christ, a commission.
My two adorable little boys follow Jen and I everywhere as they learn, grow, and mature. But a day will come when they must be sent out from under our feet into the world where, as Leland likes to say, it’s “too sunny”. The shift from child to young adult or disciple to apostle is a significant movement.
The transition between being a follower and being sent away is challenging. When we are sent away, we encounter new surprises, things that don’t fit perfectly into the curriculum, and now we must decide what to do without referring to an authority. And this tension, between following and making it up as we go, never subsides, it’s always with us as new surprises hide in each moment of our lives. Although exciting this movement can also be a struggle. Change, as we say, is never easy.
A parent’s desire for a better life for her child is a common hope. Wouldn’t it be great if all children grew to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate than their parents? Similarly, I believe this hope parallels the words of Christ when he says, in John 14:12a, that those who believe in him will not only do the works he has done but will do even greater works than these. So on the one hand, we learn from Christ’s example, just as a son watches his mother. On the other hand, each day brings new challenges some of which demand a response that goes beyond the lessons learned, a response of even greater works than the teacher. In fact, justice and love require that we continually invent ways of caring for the uniqueness of each situation and person. The lessons we learn, from Christ or from our parents, can only guide us, they do not provide an answer book for all the problems we will face in our lives. Hence, to go out into the world is to do more than simply follow. It requires that we become apostles, that we are sent away by our teacher, and perhaps achieve greater things than the examples we try to imitate.
The gospels are not shy in their portrayal of the way the disciple’s struggle to understand Christ’s potentially life-changing lessons. Part of this difficulty is due to the offensive nature of Christ’s message. In most gospels, it’s not difficult to understand how Christ offends the teachers of the law. Less clear is the way Christ offends his own disciples. In the Gospel of Mark, we find evidence of at least two disciples, Peter and Judas, offended by Christ’s teaching. The offence takes place in the moments leading up to and following Christ’s arrest.
In Mark’s account, the start of this rising action is found a story the NIV titles, “The Widow’s Offering”. In Mark 12 verses 38-40 Jesus tells his disciples to “watch out for the teachers of the law… They devour widows’ houses”. He then instructs his disciples to observe a poor widow as she tithes her last two small copper coins. Speaking of the widow, Jesus says “she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on” (Mk. 12:44b). Many accounts of this episode praise its illustration of true faith and adoration. Although the widow’s action is admirable, Jesus doesn’t praise what he sees happening. Rather, I believe, Jesus draws the disciples attention to this event as a way of illustrating the injustice of the temple system. Those living in already desolate conditions are being compelled to tithe their daily bread. In the tradition of the apocalyptic prophets who preceded him, Jesus then gives a long monologue in which he warns the teachers of the law of their coming destruction. This monologue is bookended by two stories, the first being the story of the widow and the second being the story of the unnamed woman with an alabaster jar.* The unnamed woman anoints Jesus with oil. Like the widow, she gives a token of immense value in honour of her beliefs. This event offends all the disciples who express disgust at the woman’s seemingly wasteful actions. In response, Christ says something about the anointing that he does not say about the widow’s two coins; he calls the anointing a beautiful thing. In these two stories, Mark shows how the life of Christ directly opposes the temple system. Christ himself replaces the temple as the new dwelling place of God.
Interestingly enough it is after this episode in each gospel, the interaction between Christ and the unnamed woman, that Judas decides to stop following Christ. We can only speculate what Judas was thinking in this moment, but it seems clear that the interaction between these two provoke him to act. One could argue the case that Judas genuinely desired to help the poor, after all, in the Gospel of Mark it wasn’t simply Jesus’ condemnation of the temple system that provoked him. I believe Judas saw something that Peter and the other disciples had yet fully understood. What he understands isn’t altogether clear to me. But it seems to be the case that he realised that Christ was calling his disciples to not only free the oppressed but identify with them by finding freedom and beauty in weakness. The women’s gift is perhaps wastefull and unwise, but she is not coerced. Her actions display a kind of faith denied by the temple system and somehow enabled by Christ’s life. Although I’m still unsure of the exact nature of this teaching, it offends; it goes against Judas’ preconceived ideas of what is right, just, and admirable. This offense touches on the heart of Christ’s message as he states that the unnamed women will be remembered so long as he is remembered. The parallel between Judas and Peter in the next scene, makes it seem plausible that it is the dawning of this offensive teaching that leads all the disciples to desert Christ on the day of his arrest.
The last supper takes place immediately after Christ’s anointing. During this scene, Mark makes it very clear that Christ knew his disciples had not yet grasped the full nature of his message. It is for this reason that he gives two predictions or warnings. First, Jesus says that one of his disciples will betray him. In response, each disciple takes a turn wondering if it is he. One of the only ways I can explain the reason Jesus sits down to enjoy a meal with a friend who he knows wants him dead, is because he believes his betrayer can still change. And so, rather than shunning Judas, Christ continues to teach through his example, sharing a meal with his enemy, calling him a friend, and demonstrating the radical nature of hospitality. Such an act begs the question, is there a setting at our tables for deniers and betrayers? The second warning or prediction comes after the meal, when Christ tells his disciples that they will all fall away (Mk. 12.27). Mark records Peter’s protest, “Even if all fall away, I will not,” he says and all the disciples agreed that they would follow Christ to the death. Like his first warning to Judas, this second warning falls on deaf ears, as Peter too ends up denying Christ.
The last scene occurs in the garden of Gethsemane. It is here that Judas betrays Christ. At his approach, a disciple cuts off someone’s ear and Christ immediately condemns the violent encounter saying, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mk. 14.48). In Matthew, it is Peter who wields the sword and in this case, Christ condemns the violence by calling Peter Satan. Interestingly enough, in John and Luke it is Satan who enters Judas the moment he decides to betray Christ. Christ’s proclamation of non-violence results in his total abandonment in the garden. Even Peter, with seemingly no one left to follow, denies Christ three times, breaks down, and weeps.**
In this drama, the gospels point to the way Christ’s teaching offend the violence found in both politics and religion. Christ exchanges the coerciveness of violence for the power and beauty of weakness. At this first sending of the apostles, the moment when they are forced to make a go of it on their own, both Peter and Judas struggle to understand and live Christ’s example.
The following poem by Luci Shaw illuminates the parallel found in the gospels between Peter and Judas:
JUDAS, AND PETER
by Luci Shaw
because we are all
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace
to weep and wait
after the voice of mourning
has crowed in our ears
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask us each again
do you love me.
*Nik Ansell makes this observation in, “Commentary: Mark 12:38-13:2.” In Third Way 20/4 (May 1997): 20.