Sunday, May 17, 2015
Is there someone who is for you a hero in the Christian faith, maybe an author or an athlete or a musician? I really appreciate the testimony of former football coach and player Tony Dungy. I have learned much from the late Dallas Willard, philosopher and author. Philip Yancey is a magnificent story teller in print as was the late Fred Craddock in pulpit. Who are Christians we admire?
I think of the former Ohio congressman Tony Hall. He recognized the problem of hunger in the United States and around the world. He saw it with eyes of faith. In an attempt to call attention to this problem and to awaken his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, he went fast. He went without eating for a long time. He lost over 30 lbs. Many of his fellow congressmen seriously questioned his sanity, but he achieved his goal. He drew national attention, including the media, to the issue of hunger. And for Tony Hall, it was always a matter of faith. He did this because he thought it was what he should do, as a follower of Jesus.
I truly appreciate how the individuals I admire lived their faith. Tony Dungy won Super Bowls as a player and as a coach, but for him, more than anything else, the accomplishments served to give him a platform to point people to Jesus. Dungy loved the football part of it, but the witness was a bigger deal. Congressman Hall did dramatic things, but he wasn’t trying to be the lead on CNN. His actions were an expression of his understanding of the Gospel. Action; attitudes; an approach that does good as it points people to Jesus; each of these Christ followers that inspired me had specific attributes and experiences that brought them to my attention.
After Jesus rose from the grave, he appeared to the disciples on several occasions. However, after 40 days, he ascended. That is, in bodily form he left them and went to the eternal realm of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. He left with a promise that he’d return and that promise is reiterated throughout the New Testament. One day Jesus will return, history will end, and all who have died in Christ will rise as he did and be with him forever. We can count on this. But it is in the future.
That day has not yet come. Immediately after Jesus was gone, the disciples and the community who had gathered around Jesus, some 120 in number (according to Acts 1), had to go on. They had to take that next step in following Jesus but they did so in the reality that they would be following was no longer before their eyes in bodily form.
What was their next step? They returned to Jerusalem and gathered for a season of deep prayer. They may have actually been in the room where Jesus instituted the Last Supper. In that place that was familiar and yet different, as everything, even the most familiar is different after resurrection, they prayed. It was their principle activity.
Peter assumed leadership of the group, but he had no intention of taking Jesus’ place. He had been humbled and restored. He knew his job was to guide people to God, and in order to get to God, one needed forgiveness of sins and a confession of faith in Jesus. Peter also worked to maintain the forms Jesus has established.
Jesus had over a 100 followers; over 500 hundred if we go by the count in 1 Corinthians 15. Of that group of disciples, 12 were selected for a special role – the 12 apostles. These had a relationship with Jesus that was unique. Yet, this special group was not immune to temptation. Peter denied Jesus. They all abandoned him in his darkest hour. And Judas, one of the 12, betrayed him.
Now, shortly after the resurrection, the community of Jesus followers was gathered, but with only 11 apostles. Judas had died. Peter felt a top order of business was to fill his shoes and keep their number the symbolically importer number 12. He said, “So one of the men who accompanied us … must become a witness to his resurrection.” (1:21, 22).
Later on, the number would increase beyond 12. As the church developed it became clear that women could also be apostles. Paul identifies a woman named Junia as an apostle in Romans 12. And Paul identifies himself as an apostle. Also, Acts 12 reports the death of the apostle James. After Herod had him beheaded there is no account of the need to replace him to get the numbers right. But at this early stage, Peter said, one must become a witness to the resurrection.
In this action taken by the disciples, they named criteria for what makes one an apostle. First, the person had to be one who followed Jesus from the very beginning, when John the Baptist immersed Jesus in baptism. I did not even know he had a following that early on. He did. This probably means he was formally recognized as a rabbi. It also means those who became apostles had the full experience of learning from Jesus. They were seasoned disciples. Sure, they made mistakes, but they were not recent converts. They had walked many miles with Jesus and heard his words many times.
Second, the would-be apostle had to be one who remained after the crucifixion. Yes, they all scattered, but this group did not scatter so far that they were out of touch. They were close enough that when the risen Lord began appearing, they were there to see it. And upon meeting him, they immediately put their faith him and dedicated themselves to him with such loyalty many ended up as martyrs.
Third and most importantly, to be an apostle, one had to meet the resurrected Jesus in person. I believe we all meet him, but in our time, in most cases that I know of, he comes as Holy Spirit. At that time, to be an apostle, one had to, as Peter said, be a “witness to the resurrection.”
Both Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias met the criteria. Both had followed Jesus for years, had sat in the circle of his teaching, had been empowered by him to work miracles, and had seen and touched him after the resurrection. The disciples prayed. Then they took a rock and put the initials of Joseph on one and Matthias on the other. They put both rocks in a cup and shook it until one rock popped out. They turned it over to see Matthias’ name. This was how they discerned that the Lord called him to be the 12th apostle.
After this, neither name is mentioned again in the New Testament. There are post-biblical legends of what became of each of these men and some of the accounts are outright contradictory. We see in Revelation, in John’s vision (Rev 4-5), 24 thrones. If those represent the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles, then Matthias is sitting on one of those thrones, praising the Lord. But other than that, this is the last Biblical mention of him. And that is OK. Even though Peter and Paul, John, Timothy, Silas, and Luke all become important figure in the early church’s life, none of them were in it for personal gain. They gave their testimony, often under duress, so that people would hear and put their trust in Jesus.
We fill the shoes of those who preceded us as apostles. Today some denominations do call some of their leaders apostles, and I have no problem with the. But, by the definition in Acts 1, there is no one today who is an apostle. No one today was there when Jesus was baptized. No one today that I know of has met the risen Christ. If there are those who have, they are so few in number it would be impossible to set that as a standard for leadership in Jesus’ church.
Our focus should be on the urgency Peter set on the task. He felt they had to find a witness to fill a role of telling the world Jesus is alive. What must we do, and who among us is able? Remember, by the end of the book of Romans we see more than 12 apostles. So today, we aren’t trying to fill a number. We want to spread the word that Jesus has come and is coming again and all who confess their sins and put their trust in him can have life in His name. What must we do?
Like the apostles, we must tell the world Jesus is Lord. When this is our message and we embody it then no other person or thing or trend or institution is Lord. No other power is the standard by which we are measured. We are who we are because we are in Christ. So, we have to tell ourselves and each other and the world that Jesus Christ is Lord over all. And he is a Lord who is present today by way of his church and by way of the word and most importantly by way of his Holy Spirit. In these ways, the Lord Jesus is active in the world today. We have to tell that.
Second, we have to believe and then announce that the resurrection actually happened. There is significant evidence that the resurrection of Jesus was an event in history. He was really God in the flesh, he really died, he was buried, and he rose. We are not one of those who met him in person after the resurrection, but we are their descendants. So keep perpetuating that message to the world. We follow this risen Lord with the same devotion and intensity shown by the first disciples.
These are the things disciples do. We follow Jesus with complete devotion. We believe in and defend the historicity of the resurrection event. And we give our allegiance to Jesus as Lord, master over everything in our lives.
Who among us can do this? The simple answer is each one of us. But it is a bit more involved than just that. We are called to the singular vision for life the disciples showed – prayer and devotion to God. This life will take us in countless different directions. One is a missionary, another is a Bible scholar. One is a Christ-follower as he does his work as a plumber, another as she does her research as a scientist, and another as she keeps life rolling as stay-at-home-mom. A Christ-follower’s discipleship looks one way when he is 18, another when he is 35, and that is different than when he’s 55 and that’s different than when he’s 80.
In all cases, we are devoted to a life prayer and fellowship within the community of Jesus-followers. In this way, we are very similar to those in the earliest Christian church. We continue a chain of witness to Jesus that began right after he ascended.
I started asking you to think of heroes in the faith, people you might admire for the way they live out their love for Jesus. I shared a bit about a Christians who has impressed me, a member of the House of Representatives from Ohio, Tony Hall. Congressman Hall did a lot to give witness to the goodness of Jesus. What is really important for me is not that I find myself wowed by his faith but that I am moved to act.
You might say you favorite famous Christian is Tim Tebow or maybe you admired Dean Smith or singer David Crowder or the popular speaker Beth Moore or a theologian like Karl Barth. That impression becomes something more when admiration of that person inspires us to do things in our own lives to strengthen our witness, enrich our testimony, and embolden our words about Jesus. We might not meet apostle criteria as Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias did, but we have a story and God is calling us to be his witnesses, speaking the Gospel in the world today. That call is for me, for you, for all of us. And it is serious, just as serious as when Peter said, we must find one to testify with us to the resurrection.
We must be those who testify to the reign of Jesus. He is Lord and we can have life in His name. We stand in this heritage and add our voice to it. And as we do, people hear and come to Christ. And Christians watching us are inspired to grow into their individual callings.