Saturday, June 17, 2023

The difference between a disciple and an apostle…

 What’s the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? 

You’ll see one later and one in a while.

What’s the difference between a broken clock and a weatherman? 

A broken clock is right twice a day.

Clare will like this one:  What’s the difference between a man and a computer? 

You only have to tell a computer to do something once.

What’s the difference between a disciple and an apostle?  Not a joke!

A disciple is someone who willingly sits under the discipline of a teacher.  Discipline, you see, is a many-layered word.  It’s different from punishment – although being a committed disciple might involve getting punished from time to time.  We might talk about the discipline of learning a sport.  Or, in the case of Jesus’ disciples, the discipline of living alongside Jesus – to learn all they can from their, teacher, their rabbi, their master.

But there comes a time for every disciple when they’ve absorbed enough of their master’s teaching that they are ready to strike out on their own.  They are ‘sent’ out into the world, to spread the Master’s message.  The Greek word for ‘sending’ is ‘apostolos’.  So apostles are those who are sent out, by their master.

And that’s what Jesus does, in today’s Gospel.  He sends his disciples out on their first ‘training mission’.  He clearly believes that they are ready to strike out on their own.  They are not yet the fully formed Apostles that he will commission on the day of his ascension…but they’ve learned enough.  They’ve demonstrated enough knowledge, and enough change in their attitude, for Jesus to trust them to be his ambassadors. 

But notice how carefully he puts boundaries around their mission.  He tells them “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.  We can guess that Jesus thought his disciples were not yet ready to take their message of the coming Kingdom to people other than Israelites.  Perhaps he thought they weren’t ready to take on the deep theological arguments of a debate with Gentiles and Samaritans.  So he protects them…he carefully circumscribes this training mission, because (as he says) “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

You see, theological and ideological opponents can be tricky forces with which to grapple.  I personally enjoy a jolly good intellectual battle with theological opponents.  I have great fun, for example, every time I encounter Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses on the street.  I’ve studied quite a bit of theology, as you know – whereas your average Mormon ‘Elder’ is a teenager without much accumulated wisdom.  I love fencing with them until they get to the point when they (inevitably say) ‘we can’t answer your question – but if you give us your contact details, we’ll ask one of our senior elders to contact you’.  They never do, by the way!

The real challenge, of course, comes when one’s ideological opponents are in positions of real power.  Jesus warns his trainee apostles that is they are not wise and innocent, they will end up flogged, and dragged before governors and kings.  Jesus’ message of love, tolerance and peace was a real threat to the religious and political leaders of his day.  They could use the full force of their law, backed up with martial power, to silence anyone who threatened their status quo.

I wonder whether we see examples of such power in our society today?  Some may think that the arrest of anti-monarchy protestors during the Coronation looked rather like an abuse of state power.  Others might consider that new laws to stop the protests of the Green movement – like ‘Just Stop Oil’ - have been employed precisely because such protestors threaten the status quo; a status quo in which big energy companies continue to make billions, while the world tips over into unstoppable climate catastrophe.  Others might point to recent changes in immigration law to permit the indefinite detention of children as an abuse of power.  Some might regard many of our nation’s newer laws with a great deal of suspicion.  I couldn’t possibly comment.

In a few moments, we will say these words from the Creed:  “I believe in one catholic and apostolic church”.  What we mean by that simple sentence is that we believe in a Universal church, across time and space, which is sent by her Lord to declare his good news to the world.  That, my friends, is our sacred task.  We are disciples, at this moment.  We come together to sit at the Master’s feet, taking in his words and wisdom from the pages of Scripture, offering him the worship he rightly deserves.  But when we leave here, this morning, we are sent out.  My last words to you will be ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.  And you will reply ‘thanks be to God’ as a sign that you gratefully accept the call to a transition from disciples to apostles.

This is a tough call.  No-one said that obeying Jesus would be easy.  He warned his disciples, in today’s reading, that “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death”.  The good news of the Kingdom of love is a fundamental challenge to many power structures in the world – not just to governments and tyrants, but also perpetrators of domestic abuse, or powerful people in companies who are quietly syphoning off wealth for themselves, or predatory abusers in football clubs, schools and even churches.  Such powerful people will use every tool at their disposal to silence the voice of Jesus. Jesus’s message of love, tolerance, care for the poor, justice for the falsely imprisoned, welcome to the stranger – this message undermines the powerful people of the world – or what Jesus called the ‘powers of the age’.  Don’t be surprised when powerful forces try to imprison those who speak about Kingdom values, even when they don’t own the name of Christ.  Don’t be surprised when social media warriors try to ‘cancel’ the voices of those who challenge their positions of power.

Some churches have words painted over the inside of their main door.  It’s something I’ve wondered about doing here.  The words are ‘Welcome to the mission field’.  They are a reminder to every disciple, that as they step over the threshold of the church building, they become Christ’s missionaries, his ambassadors, his apostles – to their families, to their workplaces, to their friends and clubs, on social media and to the very streets. 

So the question I leave with us today is this:  are you ready to make the step, to answer the call, to make the transition from disciple to apostle?  Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea.  Day by day his sweet voice soundeth, saying ‘Christian, follow me’.  Are you ready to follow him, to transform the world, to be sent as Apostles of his message?  Amen.