TITLE: Another Apostle? SCRIPTURE: John 20:1-18
How many apostles were there? Twelve, of course. Matthew lists their names (see Matthew 10:2-4). There were the big names, like Peter, James and John. There was the bad apple, Judas. There was the doubter, Thomas. There was the tax collector, Matthew. There were several about whom we know practically nothing. Quite a motley crew!
But Jesus chose these twelve to be his apostles. They traveled with him while he was alive, and after his death he turned over the whole enterprise to them. He trusted these apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to carry on his work-- to spread the Gospel -- to build the church.
Jesus chose twelve apostles to parallel the twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve was a more-or-less holy number among the Jews.
But there weren't always twelve apostles. After Judas betrayed Jesus, he killed himself, leaving only eleven. Dale Bruner, a Christian writer, says of the eleven apostles, "The number 'eleven' limps." That's true, isn't it! After Judas' death, we occasionally hear of "the eleven" in the New Testament. Each time we hear "the eleven," we are reminded that there should be twelve.
So after Jesus' resurrection, the apostles got together to choose a successor to Judas -- to bring the number back to twelve. Peter outlined the qualifications. First, the person had to be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning. Second, the person must be a witness to the resurrection --must have seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22). The apostles had two candidates to replace Judas, and God helped them to chose Matthias (Acts 1:26). So once again were twelve.
But then later, there was Paul, who saw the risen Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). So then there were thirteen.
And then Luke (the author of Acts) refers to "the apostles Barnabas and Paul" (Acts 14:14) -- so apparently the early church considered Barnabas to be an apostle. So then there were fourteen.
And then Paul refers to "James, the Lord's brother" as an apostle (Galatians 1:19). So then there were fifteen.
So at first there were twelve apostles -- then eleven -- then twelve again -- and then thirteen with the addition of Paul -- and then more -- all men.
But in my study for this Easter sermon, I learned that the Eastern Orthodox Church regards Mary Magdalene as isapostolos (pronounced is-a-POS-toe-los) -- equal to the apostles -- because Mary had been with Jesus from the beginning -- AND she was the FIRST witness to the resurrection -- the FIRST to see the risen Christ -- AND the FIRST to be given a commission by the risen Christ. Jesus told her:
"Go to my brothers
and say to them,
'I am ascending to my Father and your Father,
to my God and your God'" (20:17).
I don't want to carry it too far. I don't want to say that Mary Magdalene was an apostle, because the Bible doesn't say that she was. But I think it is wonderful that in that patriarchal society -- that man's world -- Jesus honored this woman to be the FIRST to see the resurrected Christ and the FIRST to receive a commission to spread the word.
It's especially wonderful, because Mary Magdalene had been a flawed woman. She had been demon-possessed -- inhabited by seven demons --but Jesus had cast out those demons and restored her to wholeness (Mark 16:9).
It's important to remember Mary's story on Easter, because Easter is about God taking a hopeless situation and turning it around -- redeeming it. That's what Jesus did when he cast out Mary's seven demons. He took her hopeless situation and turned it around. That's what God did on Easter. He took a hopeless situation -- a dead man-- a corpse -- and he turned the hopeless situation around -- brought Jesus back to life -- opened the tomb -- and set the stage for the salvation of the whole world.
So on that first Easter, Jesus chose Mary Magdalene, one of the many hopeless people whom Jesus had helped, to take word to the disciples (who had given up hope) that they no longer had to bother with hope. With the resurrection, Jesus leapfrogged over hope like a pole-vaulter. Hope is the expectation that something good WILL happen -- but Jesus sent Mary to the disciples with the Good News that something wonderful HAD ALREADY happened. So the disciples could go straight from Despair to Joy without even having to pass through Hope.
But the disciples didn't "get it" immediately. They had been in hiding since Jesus' death-- scared that the men who killed Jesus would come after them next. But Jesus came to them in that locked room -- came through the locked door -- stood in their midst and said, "Peace be with you!" -- and then showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. Then the disciples were finally able to believe -- and to rejoice. Then Jesus said once again, "Peace be with you" (20:21). And then he said, "As the Father has sent me, SO I SEND YOU" (20:21).
"SO I SEND YOU!" That was the beginning. Those few unimpressive disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, were to take the message of the risen Christ to the rest of the world. They were to spread the word of the risen Christ to all those places that we find so difficult to pronounce -- Parthia and Phrygia and Pamphylia (Acts 2). They were to spread the word to Egypt and Rome.
Later, the disciples who followed after them would spread the word even further -- to Europe -- England -- Scotland -- Ireland -- the Americas -- Korea -- Australia -- New Zealand -- Fiji -- South Africa -- Zimbabwe -- and a thousand other places.
In some places, tyrants tried to stomp out the Gospel, but it spread anyway. The more oppressive the place, the more determined people were to hear about freedom in Christ. The darker the place, the more anxious people were to see the light of Easter. And so the faith spread.
The faith is still spreading today -- and there is plenty of room to keep it spreading. In our own community, there are many people living lives of quiet desperation. Some are trying to put a spark in their lives by using alcohol or drugs. Some are trying to feel good by buying bigger houses or cars or boats. Some are trying desperately to climb the corporate ladder, but wonder if they have their ladder propped against the wrong wall. Many wonder if anyone loves them -- and the answer all too often is that no one does.
You can multiply that times ten thousand and get an idea of the scope of the problem in this nation. You can multiply it by a million and get an idea of the scope of the problem worldwide. As Jesus said in another context, "The harvest is PLENTIFUL, but the laborers are few" (Matthew 9:37).
And so Jesus said to Mary, "Go to my brothers" (v. 17). Start spreading the word!
And so Jesus said to those first disciples -- the ones hidden in that locked room, "As the Father has sent me, SO I SEND YOU" (20:21). Start spreading the word!
And so Jesus says to us, "And SO I SEND YOU." Mary Magdalene did what Jesus told her to do -- she went to those disciples huddled in that locked room and told them about seeing Jesus. But Mary's voice has long-since been stilled. Now it is our turn.
Those disciples eventually came out of their locked room and began preaching wherever they could find a synagogue or a soap-box. But their voices have long-since been stilled. Now it is our turn. Jesus says, "And SO I SEND YOU."
Where does Jesus want us to go to tell the resurrection story this Easter morning? The answer will be different for each person.
- He might be asking you to invite your neighbor to church.
- He might be asking you to get involved in the work of this church -- to teach a Sunday school class or sponsor a youth group or help in the kitchen.
- He might be asking you to go on a mission trip.
- He might be asking you to help someone who is hungry or homeless, because helping people in need is a witness for Christ.
- He might be asking you to pray for someone at your workplace.
There are a thousand different ways that we can spread the Easter message this morning. Pray for guidance, and then listen to hear how Christ would guide you.
Let me conclude with this story. In his book, Sources of Strength, Jimmy Carter tells about a Cuban pastor named Eloy Cruz. Carter observed that Cruz seemed to have a special touch with poor immigrants. Carter saw Cruz connect with person after person. He always had the right word to say -- just the right touch. Invariably, people walked away from their encounter with Pastor Cruz just a little stronger-- just a little more hopeful -- just a little better prepared to face life's challenges.
Carter asked Cruz the secret of his success. At first, Cruz was embarrassed -- but then he thought for a moment and was able to answer Carter's question. He said:
"Senor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in our lives.
and for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time."
Easter is the story of God's love for us. We will be able to spread the Easter story if we will have those two loves in our lives --love for God and love for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time.
This Easter, let us ask God to show us how he would like us to serve. And as we listen for the answer, let us resolve to love God -- and to love the person who happens to be in front of us at any time.