“Appreciating the Close Followers of Jesus” by Pat Conover

April 10, 201616 04 10 Altar Easter

Third Sunday of Easter 

 I try to take preaching with reference to the lectionary readings seriously even though that sometimes isn’t closely related to my sermon theme. My compromise today is to point out two things about the lectionary readings before getting down to the body of my sermon which has a slight relationship to the reading from the gospel attributed to John.

 Psalm 30, verse three, in the New Revised Standard Version reads: “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from those gone down to the pit.” I’m not sympathetic to the theology of Psalm 30 but I am interested that the author refers to Sheol as a metaphor for recovering vitality and engagement in life. Sheol was understood to be an underworld, like the Greek Hades and the Babylonian Aralu, an underworld inhabited after death by both good and bad people. Sheol is a place of stillness and darkness cut off from the Presence of God. The metaphorical contrast is Heaven as a place of light and living in harmony with the Presence of God.

Regarding the Damascus Road story, I merely want to point out that the healing of Paul by God begins with blocking Paul’s vision and purpose which is then restored and transformed through the courage and caring of Judas and Ananias in Damascus who were part of the Jewish diaspora that followed Jesus. They offered hospitality and guidance to Paul in his hour of need even though he had come to oppress them.

 The gospel writers mostly diminish the importance of the close followers of Jesus and write mostly negative narratives about them. The gospel authors wrote in a time when Christian Jews and Gentiles were clashing with traditional Jews over the control and use of synagogues, and clashing with each other over circumcision and table fellowship. One symbol for me of the clash of the Christian Jews and believing Gentiles with the traditional Jews was that they changed their day of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday. At least for awhile they shared use of the same building they had both built and supported using time separation as a compromise in response to discomfort and disputes over worship traditions, theology, and practice.

 My point for this sermon is that the gospel authors and audiences had a strong motive for wanting both to heal the divisions while at the same time taking the side of the Gentiles. The Jewishness of Jesus, and the imagery of the Jewish followers of Jesus, was minimized as the living Jesus fades from view into an image of the universal Christ whose most important act was to suffer and die so that God could forgive the sins of those he was supposed to love. 

 This perspective shows up in our lectionary reading after the third and final appearance of Jesus. We get the question of Jesus to Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” All to often we often shorten the question to “Do you love me?”

 Who were the “these?” The answer is the other disciples. Peter has to love the Risen Christ, not his friend Jesus, more than his Christian companions. The reward for Peter is authority. “Feed my lambs.” Peter is lifted up out of the bonds of friendship to institutional authority, as a transitional figure to the emergent Christian institutional clergy and church, later interpreted as the beginning of Roman Catholicism.

 Then the author has the Chutzpah to claim himself as John the disciple whom Jesus loved in verses 20-24, an historical impossibility. I find a certain humor in this claim since there is at least the possibility that Jesus and John were lovers, perhaps the reason why Jesus never married.

 The fact remains that the close followers were the first inheritors and interpreters of the religion of Jesus. To recover the religion of Jesus, to appreciate who Jesus was, we need to point out that Jesus was not only a healer and teacher. Jesus was also an inspirational leader and his close followers were the ones who most bought into the salvation guidance of Jesus for their own lives. 

 The guidance of Jesus was confirmed after the death of Jesus, as the close followers worked through their transformational grieving over his death. They discovered that the guidance of Jesus to rely on the Presence of God as Spirit was sufficient to sustain their humility and courage for their callings and ministry. They integrated their lives around what matters most. Whatever they thought about Heaven or Judgment Day, the close followers of Jesus remembered the guidance and empathy of Jesus, trusted that the inspiration of the Divine Presence was enough for them to continue to experience salvation in the midst of enormously difficult circumstances. They were filled with excitement and had navigational aids for their difficult paths. Their friend Jesus was dead, but the efforts of the Romans and Temple Leaders to shame and show his weakness  did not matter to the close followers who knew better in their bones. With this in mind, we can read past the passages that diminish or disparage the close followers and care a bit more about who they were and what they carried forward. Such reconsideration is a window on the religion of Jesus before it became the religion of the Risen Christ.

 Who were the close followers of Jesus? I nominate the following: Simon and Andrew, Mary of Magdalene, James and John and their mother Joanna, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, and John the brother of Jesus. We need not worry about defining the boundary of the concept of close followers, about how close you had to be to be close, about how many traveled with Jesus when he traveled, about who Jesus lived with when he was home as an adult in Galilee, about who was with him in a Galilean synagogue in Jerusalem.

 However, I do mean to distinguish between the close followers of Jesus, including women, from the the tradition of focusing on a supposed twelve disciples. Luke makes clear why there had to be twelve disciples in Luke Chapter 22, verse 28-30.

 “You are those who have stood by me in my trials and I confer on you, just as my Father conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink with me at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel”. This leaves Jesus as the Universal Christ to be the judge of the Gentiles.

 Whatever the fine points of biblical theology that are at stake here, we get a lot of gospel narrative concerning Simon Peter, James and John, and not much about the rest of them. Two are named as Zealots, that is as terrorists against Rome. It is reasonable to think that Zealots would have been attracted to John the Baptist and Jesus as opponents to the temple leaders who colluded with the Romans in shaping the grinding poverty in Galilee at that time.

 Judas Iscariot, a Zealot, is named as a traitor. Thomas is named as doubting and as inferior to Gentile Christians who believed in the Risen Christ without having directly seen and touched the Risen Christ still in the form of Jesus. Matthew is named as a tax collector, a despised role serving Roman masters. Andrew is primarily named as merely being the brother of Simon Peter. We are told that Jesus loved a disciple, presumably John the Son of Zebedee, but we get no story of James and John showing much agency or specialness of character. Which leaves us with Peter as the primary Jewish apostle who gets good press in Acts because he has a vision of a heavenly feast floating down from Heaven, a feast with food not ritually clean by Jewish standards. This makes Peter a bridge of transition to Gentile Christianity.

 In Mark we get Peter as betraying Jesus after his crucifixion with no story of his reacceptance or forgiveness. Peter gets no special authority in Matthew, which ends with Jesus appearing to the eleven disciples in Galilee and giving them the great commandment “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This great commandment is Matthew’s mark of the transition from Jewish to Gentile Christianity.

 The dominant treatment of the disciples is that they don’t understand Jesus and amounts to a direct attack on their spiritual authority as a basis for the authority of Jews in clashes with Gentile Christians.

 Perhaps you noticed that in Luke’s story of the trial and crucifixion, the disciples disappear and the narrative characters who carry the cross and provide the grave are otherwise unknown. His close followers cannot stay awake while Jesus agonizes and Peter shows his lack of faith by denying Jesus three times before the rooster crows.  It is women who find the empty tomb and have a vision of Jesus. The Emmaus story is about otherwise unknown disciples plus Thomas whose faith was second rate.

 We are left with is a gaping critical hole in the narrative of Jesus and his close followers, a hole with a bad smell. Fortunately, when you ask about what kind of Jew Jesus was, what kind of Jews the close followers were, we have at least three important things to work with.

 Jesus and his followers were Galileans, Israelites of the Northern Kingdom without close cultural ties to the temple leaders in Jerusalem and their religious focus on animal sacrifice. The Samaritans had sustained their Torah focused Judaism apart from the control of the Jerusalem priests for centuries and Jesus is presented in narratives as sympathetic to Samaritans. It isn’t surprising, given this background, that Jesus was critical of the religion of Temple Judaism in Jerusalem. It isn’t surprising that the religion of Jesus was synagogue focused rather than temple focused.

 Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, were fishermen located in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee in a time period when Rome was creating poverty by forcing fishermen to sell the fish they caught at low prices to be resold in other parts of the Roman Empire or fed to Roman soldiers. One of the ways we know about such poverty is the archeological discovery and reconstruction of a fishing boat from that period on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a boat constructed of scraps from other boats, not a good serviceable boat at all. Some fishermen, at least, could not afford good boats.

 Think of these four young men, and Johanna the mother of James and John, as dissatisfied and looking for something better in life. Think of them as used to living poor and skilled at finding ways to sustain life. Think of Mary of Magdalene as a single woman without the status of marriage or children. Think of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as home-owners with enough resources to throw a party or at least host a pot-luck dinner.

 Jesus was named and functioned as a rabbi in Galilee and had students appropriately called disciples. Jesus as rabbi appropriately was called on to read scripture and explain it in Jewish synagogues. With one modest exception, what we get in the synagogue narratives is conflict between Jesus and the synagogue leaders. Argumentation in synagogues was probably common but the synagogue narratives often indicate conflict and not just argument. In the Nazareth Synagogue story, where Jesus is presumed to be well known, the synagogue leaders drag Jesus out to kill him but Jesus escapes by merely walking away through their midst, a suggestion that Jesus was more popular with the followers than with the leaders.

 Understanding Jesus as rabbi means that Jesus had rabbinic training and the two schools for rabbis were in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where there was constant employment for tectons and Jesus was named as a son of a tecton. He probably participated in a Galilean synagogue in Jerusalem which fits with locating the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem after his death.

 The two rabbinic schools were in bright, sometimes violent, conflict with each other. It makes sense to think of Jesus as a Hillel oriented rabbi for several reasons, most importantly because his guidance was similar to the guidance of Hillel and in conflict with the Shammai rabbinic school which held positions similar to those of the Pharisees presented as opponents to Jesus. It makes sense that his close followers recognized Jesus as a Hillel oriented rabbi and could appreciate what he said in that context.

 Jesus and his close followers were probably followers of John the Baptist. We know that Jesus was baptized by John, but Jesus is not reported to have baptized with water but rather with the Holy Spirit leading to speaking holy gibberish to express feelings deeper than language. However, the followers of Jesus did baptize with water in the tradition of John the Baptist.

 Jewish Baptists were a centuries long tradition of Jewish separatists in the Jordan Valley, long before the rebuilding of the Second Temple under Herod the Great. They were critical of the religion of the temple priests who were colluding with Roman domination. They were a huge economic and spiritual threat to temple religion based on animal sacrifice to propitiate an angry Yahweh. Who needs to sacrifice in the Temple when the Jewish ritual bath, a mikvah, provides a cleansing from sin?

 John the Baptist was a charismatic leader with a much bigger image and following than Jesus. I believe Jesus was deeply inspired by John and the gospels tell us he waited until John’s death before taking on larger leadership. The Gospel writers are not kind to John the Baptist and were mostly intent on imaging Jesus as more important than John.

 The stories of calling out the disciples are set in Galilee and it is reasonable to suggest that they already knew each other through the John the Baptist network in Galilee. In turn, it makes sense to understand and appreciate Jesus as a charismatic leader and not just a teaching rabbi, an inspirational leader who could gather crowds. Jesus as a gatherer of crowds was much more of a threat to temple authorities and to Rome than Jesus as merely a Hillel oriented rabbi with a few disciples.

 Jesus made sense to his followers in their context. He didn’t just drop down from Heaven as a visiting distinct individual. Jesus was an empathic leader who had the same kinds of experiences as his followers and knew how to listen to them and speak to them in contexts they could understand and appreciate. Think of Jesus and his close followers as sustaining themselves as best they could with fishing and other work, and by accepting hospitality during their mission trips beyond Capernaum.

 Think of Jesus teaching, healing, building community, building trust and hope, inspiring living with the guidance of hesed as here and now salvation. Think of Jesus as excited and empowered by living in harmony with the Spirit, conceptually guided by Hillel and emotionally guided by John. Think of his close followers as similarly excited and empowered, confirmed in their callings by experiencing the emotional healing that comes with living in harmony with God known as Spirit. Think of his followers as also having empathy, caring, and hope that their followers could experience as hear and now salvation even in their desperate circumstances. Think of Jesus and his close followers as embodying humility and courage. Think of Jesus and his close followers as modeling the importance of following one’s callings whatever that may cost.

 Think of the close followers of Jesus banding close together in grief and agony, depression and anger, and deeply in need of each other when Jesus was crucified. Think of the wonder of the close followers when they discovered that they still experienced the Divine Presence in their lives as Jesus had taught, that they were empowered and prepared for their callings, that their hope was not crushed, that they could live meaning filled lives.

 That is how Christianity began as a Jewish sect, that is how the close followers gained the spiritual power and authority to build out the community and networks of the followers of Jesus. This is how the Jewish Baptists Christians became open to recognizing the validity of the spiritual journeys of Gentile believers and to welcome Gentiles as equal partners in faith.

 Jesus offered the guidance of love, caring, calling, and forgiveness. That is good guidance for our Seekers mission groups, for our worship as a gathered Christian community. Jesus offers an inner journey of coming into deeper harmony with the Spirit with repeated transformations from attachments to what matters to what matters most. Such transformations support shared pastoral care for each other in the midst of our illnesses, injuries, limitations, and diminishments. This includes even healthy dying. This guidance supports transformative integration with those we serve within our community, supports stewardship, justice, and peace for people we will never meet. This is costly guidance and worth every penny, every minute. We too can explore, embrace, and embody what it means to become close followers of Jesus. 


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