Second Sunday after Pentecost
Thirteen years ago I started my time at the Virginia Theological Seminary. My class had thirty something students. And I remember meeting them for the first time and realizing that these were going to be my colleagues for the rest of my life. Better make a good first impression, right?
You figure out pretty quickly that there are as many different types of people who want to be priests as there are different types of people. I was on the younger end of the spectrum, working as a priest would be my first full time job. For others, this was a second or third career. We had lots of retired military, lawyers, civil service, and so on. It was about an equal breakdown of men and women. Seminarians came from the United States, Jamaica, Tanzania, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Myanmar, and the Dean of the school is English. Class was like a meeting of the G8.
Now, to our increasing polarized world, this may look like weakness. I mean, how in the world are you supposed to get a guy who is a hippie from California and the woman who was a retired West Point Army colonel who just got back from Iraq to agree about anything? How can you possibly think that the guy who has a full length tattoo sleeve and the guy who only wears starched collared shirts and the woman from Myanmar and the state trooper from Arkansas would have anything in common? And yet, there we were. Of course, we didn’t agree on much. Sparks would fly in the lunch room and the classroom. I was guilty of starting more than one argument. But those differences did not define us. Because in Christ, we are actually weakest when we are all the same. We are strongest when we are diverse.
This goes straight back to the twelve disciples, the twelve that Jesus names today in our gospel lesson. Strength in diversity. What I would like to do today is spend a little time going through all of these personalities.
Let’s start with Jesus. The holy scriptures tell us that Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6:3). Now, the Greek word there is “tekton.” “Tekton,” more specifically, means “craftsman” or “artisan.” So Jesus was not a rough carpenter, he would have been a highly skilled laborer. This probably means that he spoke Aramaic and Greek to communicate with the diverse population in first century Palestine. Hey, a businessman has got to talk to his customers, right?
We have Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. They are fishermen. Importantly, we note that they, too, are more than simple laborers. They own their own boats and nets (Luke 5:1-11). Peter, of course, goes on to hold a position of authority in the early church while Andrew is mostly forgotten.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are also fishermen. We can figure that they also have a fair amount of wealth as their father is able to pay hired hands (Mark 1:20). When they drop their nets to follow Jesus, they aren’t just leaving their dad. They’re leaving a business, economic security, and generational wealth. I’d like to point out that Jesus did not go and call other carpenters to follow him, though that would have made sense. A group like that would have shared a common work ethic, practices, and lingo. But again, strength is in diversity. A bunch of carpenters walking around together looks more like a convention than the Kingdom of God.
There are some lesser known disciples listed. Philip. Bartholomew. James “the Less,” son of Alphaeus. And Thaddeus, also known as, “Judas, not Iscariot.” Important distinction there. You all have heard of Thomas, known as Doubting Thomas for his disbelief on that first Easter afternoon. While there are legends about these early figures, we don’t know much about them. Jesus did not go around picking celebrities or people in the limelight. He picked people who would follow.
Jesus names Simon the Cananaean as one of the twelve. He’s also known as Simon the Zealot. Zealots were first century Jews who wanted to get rid of the Romans. Zealots also despised other Jews who were working with the Romans, seeing them as collaborators with the evil empire. Some of the Zealots were known as “knife men,” because they went around stabbing Romans. In other circumstances, we would call them, “insurgents.”
Speaking of Jews who worked with the Romans, Jesus also names Matthew, the tax collector, as a disciple. Being a tax collector means that he was a Jew working for the Romans and their insidious system of taxation. Can you imagine - “hey Simon, you hate the Romans? Follow me. Hey Matthew, you work for the Romans? Follow me.” Talk about diversity.
And there is Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. Even he, even Judas, is sent by Jesus to cast out demons, cure the sick, raise the dead.
Of course, there were many others who followed Jesus. The scriptures tell us about Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, and Joanna to name a few. This movement around Jesus was not determined by gender. Because, again, strength is in diversity.
So, how did Jesus convince all of these people to get along? In the midst of all the political and ideological debates in first century Judaism, how did Jesus manage to unite so many different people from so many different backgrounds? How could Matthew have listened to Simon spout off about the Romans? What could carpenters and fishermen learn from each other?
How can you grow from someone on the other side of the aisle? How can you receive grace from someone diametrically opposed to all you stand for? What can you learn from someone who watches a different cable news channel than you do? What hope is there for us today as we survey our fractured culture?
Again, our only hope and answer is found in Jesus Christ. As Christians, we can live with people not like us because we have found someone, a person, who has given us a new direction, new meaning, new purpose. We have found someone who loves us. And through that love, we are able to love each other, despite our differences. We have found Jesus. God will take us in, no matter where we come from.
But more than that, we can live together because we have a common mission. Our mutual bonds of affection are not founded upon ideology or partisanship. No, Christians of all stripes can live and work together because we have the same mission that Jesus gave to the twelve: cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.
In order to pursue that mission, we must change. The fishermen give up their business. Simon puts down his knife. Matthew stops collecting taxes. We must no longer identify ourselves with worldly characteristics - progressive or conservative; Yankee or southerner; rural or urban.
Those old human identities must be buried in the waters of baptism. That is the only way we can fully receive our new identities as brothers and sisters of Christ in the Kingdom of God. If we are still defining ourselves by all the ideologies that the world puts upon us, then we have failed to live into our baptism. If we think of ourselves first as fishermen, or carpenters, or Democrat or Republican, or this or that; then we are still living by the old laws instead of the new way of grace.
Saint Paul sums it up best - “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29).
This is our work in this present moment. To find strength in our differences. To find grace in our disagreements. To give thanks to God that we are not all the same. And to rejoice that God makes us a new people and gives us a new identity. As Jesus called those twelve disciples two thousand years ago, Jesus now calls you. And together, as one in Christ, we go into the world proclaiming this love, this unity, this new way of living. My friends, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Jesus started with twelve. But even twelve, even our parish family, can change the world for the Kingdom of God, not because we agree on everything, but because Jesus Christ loves us.