An Unexpected Twelve
November 2, 2014
Several weeks ago while driving, I ran across a radio interview with a fella by the name of Franz Wisner. Back a few years ago, Franz was preparing for the biggest day of his life – his wedding day. Franz was to marry the woman of his dreams in a lavish ceremony followed by a two week honeymoon to Costa Rica.
Then, the unexpected happened. Only days before the ceremony, his fiancé called and said she couldn’t go through with it and called off the wedding. Unfortunately, by the time of her call, everything was well underway. People were already in route to the wedding destination, all of the food had been ordered and the venue paid for in full. Even the honeymoon trip was all set.
Though devastated, Franz made an unusual decision. He decided to go forward with the whole thing. He invited his friends and family to come ahead as planned. Instead of a wedding, he treated all of them to a prolonged weekend family reunion and an unusual time to renew their friendships and long-time relationships.
Then, he took things a step further. He invited his only brother Kurt to make the two week trip with him to Costa Rica. At the time of the trip, Franz and Kurt were brothers in name only. They didn’t really talk and didn’t keep in touch. In short, they were not a true part of one another’s lives. Likewise, Kurt was at much the same place as Franz was in his life. He had recently divorced and both brothers were floundering in their careers.
In the end, those unexpected two weeks in Costa Rica changed everything. In fact, it so changed things that the two brothers came home, quit their jobs, sold all of their possessions and ended up taking a two year trip around the world while visiting 53 countries. But more importantly, they renewed their relationship as brothers.
At the end of the interview, Franz Wisner said something that really caught my attention. He said that these days, he and his brother Kurt often travel the country sharing about their experiences and the subsequent book that
they wrote about their story. As they do, Wisner pointed out that the most rewarding comments always come when someone emails or writes them to say that hearing their story compelled them as a listener or reader of their book to go home, pick up the phone and reach out to a brother or sister with whom they too had lost contact.
Many biblical scholars think that among the disciples there may have been a similar family reunion between Matthew and James the Lesser. You see, many believe that these two form a third set of brothers among the twelve along with James and John and Peter and Andrew. This comes not from the gospels explicitly saying that they were related but from the fact that the gospels say that both were the sons of Alphaeus which implies obviously that they were brothers.
If this was true, these brothers in adulthood, had moved in polar opposite directions. As we discussed a few weeks ago, Matthew became a tax collector. That is to say, he became an employee of the Roman Empire and enforced the Roman tax code. In so doing, he seems to have bought into the idea that since Rome was now in control, the best move was to find a way to make the best of that bad situation rather than simply exerting all of his energy fighting against a world that was not likely to change.
James the Lesser, on the other hand, appears to have been a Zealot. The scriptures don’t explicitly say this, but everything we know about James points in this direction. In fact, when we look at the four lists of the twelve disciples as found in the New Testament, many think that the last four names, which are always the same and which always include James the Lesser and Simon, were all Zealots. These individuals would have been fierce Jewish nationalists. They would have hated the idea that Rome occupied Israel at the time. In turn, they would have done everything within their power to make life problematic for the Romans and to be proverbial, ongoing thorns in both the side of Romans and Roman sympathizers among their fellow Jews.
Again, all of this leads to the conclusion that the brothers Matthew and James the Lesser had grown up and gone down very different paths. Matthew was working with the Romans and James was working just as fiercely against them. Related by blood, they had developed ideologies that sent their lives in directions that now made them enemies of one another.
In a fascinating twist, however, they both become two of Jesus’ unlikely twelve. In Christ, they not only found reconciliation with God but they also found a way to begin to be reconciled with each other.
Back in 2007, the Detroit Lions of the NFL selected a receiver from Georgia Tech named Calvin Johnson in that year’s draft. Two years later, in 2009, the Lions selected a quarterback from Georgia named Matthew Stafford in the draft. Both players, as many of you know became starters and offensive stars for the Lions. In many ways they are the two primary faces of the Lions today and are both team leaders. What is quite ironic is that Georgia and Georgia Tech, where Johnson and Stafford once played, are college football rivals much like Clemson and South Carolina. Today though, these two players, who were conditioned to be bitter enemies, now wear the same jersey. The success of their team is built on what they are able to accomplish together as teammates by rising above their past.
In essence, that is what happened to James the Lesser and Matthew. In Jesus, brothers turned rivals became brothers again. These two once had a shared identity. Then they lost it. In Christ, they regained it again.
In the same vein, Matthew and James the lesser are a microcosm of what happened to the overall misfit group of twelve – tax collectors, fisherman, zealots, rural, urban, young, old and all of the other adjectives that separated them was lost in their new identity in Christ. In essence, they traded these characteristics in for who Jesus called them to be as his followers. This became their new identity and this united them in the midst of their many differences.
I don’t want to oversimplify things, but, I do want us to recognize that the same needs to happen in our midst as Jesus’ disciples on a daily basis. We are all conditioned to want to wear our own team colors so to speak. That is to say, we are all prone to want to be clear about our own personal allegiances, to zero in on our own personal perspectives and to draw lines that separate us one from another. But, what the gospels invite us to do, is to take off the jerseys that we wear that make us rivals and put on the jersey that labels us as teammates in Christ. For the truth is, our ability to succeed as a church hinges on our ability to allow those jerseys that unite us to always reign supreme over those that separate us. Like James the Lesser and Matthew were reminded, those ties that bind us are far stronger than those viewpoints and ways of thinking that separate us.
If I may, let me boil it down to three distinct statements that are at the core of our faith and are hallmarks of the twelve that made up Jesus disciples. First, in the disciples, Christ didn’t make clones. No, Jesus made disciples who all looked and thought differently, but who embraced being his disciples above all else. Second, the disciples’ experience and the New Testament as a whole are clear that our faith hinges on our ability to love those who are different from us far more than it hinges on our ability to love those who are just like us. Third, the disciples’ story and Paul’s image for the church as a body emphasize the fact that different parts lead to different strengths and different abilities. It is when we harness our differences around the same cause that we have the ability to be at our best just as does the human body.
Let’s be honest. This isn’t easy. In fact, it may be one of the very hardest things we are called to do as believers and thus the reason we fail on this point regularly. It really would be much easier to surround ourselves with those who are just like us. The problem though, is that we simply can’t shake free of the fact that Jesus refused to do that and the twelve unusual people that he surrounded himself with are a classic example of this reality.
I read recently about a program at Duke Divinity. The program was highlighted in our Alumni magazine about a home connected to the school called Friendship House. Friendship House is a home for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults. At Friendship House, three of these special residents live with three current students who are enrolled in the Divinity School. Each adult in the program is paired with a student as their roommate. Likewise, the six as a whole, care for each other, eat together and live their lives with one another.
For the three adults, it is a chance to have a presence in their lives to care for them, to assist with their daily needs and to help them to grow in all facets of life including spiritually. For the divinity students, the program is about helping them to recognize that ministry and sharing God’s love knows no boundaries. It is about the great lesson of life that we are all different and unique. We all come at life differently. But, this can be a very good thing. For just like those twelve strange fellas that Jesus called his disciples, the family of God may just be bigger and broader than any of us have the capacity to ever imagine. Amen.