Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
Having finished his reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, Dietrich Bonhoeffer turns his attention to the disciples and their work as embodied representatives of the kingdom outlined in that Sermon. The gospel writer mentions on several occasions that Jesus has identified and sent 12 disciples. In the above passage, all 12 disciples are listed by name. Importantly, in the four gospels, while the list of names of the 12 disciples differ from each other one thing remains the same—the number 12.
The fact that the number 12 repeats itself in the gospel iterations proves important because the disciples become a walking, living embodiment of the people of Israel, a people composed of 12 tribes. This 12-fold people serve as the continuation of a task believed to have been started generations earlier. And, of all the gospel writers, this role of continuation is most important for Matthew.
In Matthew’s estimation, Jesus takes up the task begun by Abraham, directly linking the work and role of Jesus to that begun by Abraham in the Genesis story. Through this inclusion of Abraham as Jesus’ distant grandfather, Matthew’s gospel underscores that the work of Jesus is but a continuation of what was started once before.
And, just what had Abraham started?
Given the importance of highlighting Jesus’ Jewish roots and his task of identifying 12 disciples as a representative core of Israel, we might assume that Abraham’s work assumed by Jesus and his followers is a specifically Jewish task, directed toward a Jewish people for those people’s benefit. Such an assumption would seemingly be apropos. Yet, interestingly, such an assumption is entirely too limiting for Matthew’s message and Jesus’ task.
Rather than a specific work limited to one people, Matthew understands Jesus’ role and work to have universal ramifications . . . as did Abraham’s before him. While looking limited in nature, Abraham’s work in Genesis is not just a work meant to set Israel aside to be God’s chosen people. That fact of being set aside was just the first part of Abraham’s task when he and Sarah are chosen by God to leave Ur and travel to a new land.
Israel was established through Abraham. However, that establishment was for a greater purpose than simply setting aside one people. We learn that Israel’s larger role is to serve the whole of humanity so that through those people “‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”* In other words, Abraham has a specific task with a general purpose.
By deliberately linking the work of Jesus to the work of Abraham through both the reference to Abraham in Jesus’ genealogy and through the repeated use of the number 12 in the selection of the disciples, the gospel writer is intimating that Jesus’ work has import for the whole of the world.
The breadth of Jesus’ work is reinforced in the listing not just of the number of disciples but by listing their names and offering some descriptions of their backgrounds, too.
The disciples fish, work for the government, are zealots, are beloved and betrayers. The disciples seem to be not just representatives of all of God’s people with the implied responsibilities inherent of those people, but these people come from all corners of life’s social and relational iterations, confirming and expanding the representative work that the disciples fulfill. Said in many different ways throughout the text, the disciples are doing God’s broad and all encompassing work.
This work is specific and general, public and private, reasonable and mystical, healing and confounding, separating and uniting. The work of Abraham and of Jesus and of the disciples and, ultimately, of God is understood to be limitless and boundless and powerful and transformative, affecting powers understood and powers inexplicable.
Put another way, the life of faith is life itself. There is not space into which God and faith do not stretch or a time at which they should not be assumed to have an effect.
Often, especially in our modern worlds, we tend to compartmentalize life into sacred and secular, holy and humane. Yet, the message offered from Abraham and Jesus and taken up by the disciples is a reminder that all of life is embraced by God’s love and every moment a possibility to encounter the Divine.
Importantly, this declaration has an inverse that should be remembered and appreciated.
While faith has potential meaning and import for all aspects of life, faith and people of faith must not assume that the space we enter is unoccupied nor not to be shared with many other voices and ideas and positions and convictions. (After all, if we enter the world, we should assume that the world will be there.) To say that faith has a reach into everything assumes a concurrent claim that everything has a reach into faith—confounding, confronting, challenging, and complementing.
Such a recognition requires an assumption of hospitality to make it manageable. It seems no accident that following Jesus’ declaration of sending is an outlining in that same chapter of how to react and maneuver in the social complexities such sending and receiving assumes. Such work mandates a willingness to receive and to be received, to share and to be shared, to risk and to be risked.
So in a week on our campus when we return from our breaks to share our adventures and reflect on what was learned and experienced, we seek to rebuild our community anew, having been changed through the venture yet willing to be the same people if not slightly altered from the diversions of our resent courses.
Receive each other well for the roads traveled are not always welcoming, easy, expected, or joyful. Sometimes tragedy becomes a way station that requires traveling companions to help us endure. Sometimes experiences alter us so significantly that we become barely recognizable to each other. Sometimes gifts become burdens and burdens gifts. Sometimes the only way forward will require a bit of rest before continuing the journey. Sometimes hope becomes the beacon for a tomorrow that promises more than today. Yet, as this gospel text reminds us, it is not a journey to be taken alone but with friends and mentors and fellow pilgrims and unexpected travelers who become a living reminder that the empowering Divinity of All Life walks with us into joyful or painful new towns and into anticipated or surprising places and into welcomed or uncertain tomorrows still unknown.
That seems like good news to me.
Have a great week, share the journey, and see you along the way.