Some of the stories in the New Testament make me wonder about the disciples. Were they any more religious or spiritual than we are? I mean, these were handpicked people who spent three years with Jesus. But I wonder about them.
They talked with him; they saw him with friends and enemies. They gathered with him in the upstairs room of a certain house in Jerusalem. They shared his last meal with him, and then they came back there after the resurrection.
But were they any closer to God than we are? Read about them in the stories of Jesus written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Sometimes the disciples were down, so down after the crucifixion they thought they would go back to Galilee and just be fishermen again. Then they were brought up to such a high that they were willing to go to the ends of the earth to tell the story of Jesus. Couldn’t they make up their minds? And do we have the right to be sometimes up and sometimes down in our relation to God?
Of course there were times, too, especially those times we read of, when they were just plain thickheaded. Time after time, Jesus would think he had taught them plainly, and when they did not understand, Jesus would say, “How long have I been with you,” and still you do not know. And yet. God apparently had no other plan to make his way known upon earth, his saving power among all nations.
It’s fair to say that God was relying on a slender reed with which to sway the history of the world. Some of the disciples were gifted and talented, some were enthusiastic. Some wanted to be merely followers, some, leaders. And some were just lukewarm. They all had varying degrees of faith.
Now we look at ourselves, some twenty centuries after the New Testament era, and we ask God an artless and disingenuous question: “If some of the disciples were thick-headed or lukewarm or uncertain and confused, then why can’t I plead the same disorder before God so he won’t expect so much from me?”
Or, again, “If the disciples in the first century didn’t know what to make of Jesus who died and rose to become the Christ of the ages, what does God expect of me in year 2016?”
Our answer comes in the story where Jesus is in prayer sometime in that great week before his crucifixion and death. In the section we read from John, Jesus is looking ahead to the time when he has left the disciples. He must have had us in mind, too. He says in his prayer to the Father, “I do not pray for these only — the disciples in the upper room with him — but also for those who believe in me through their word.”
If the disciples hadn’t told the story of Jesus, we and the whole Christian church would not be at worship today or any other Sunday.
Is that not the most fragile of bridges across the generations, that God’s story of salvation depends on something as flimsy as one generation telling the next?
Jesus is admitting that God has completed the salvation story, the story worked out in Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah, and all the other prophets and kings and fathers of the faith.
God adopted a people, guarded them against extinction until they built a culture into which Jesus of Nazareth would be born.
The Son’s time is at an end, and nothing more than the spoken and later written message is left to tell each succeeding generation. God has no plans to write in the sky, or send a superman figure to do spectacular deeds like feeding 5,000 at once to demonstrate that he is the bread of life.
If the world believes the Father sent Jesus Christ to be his son in the world, it will be because those who remain alive in this age will pass the word on.
When I lived in Virginia, I saw an advertising campaign dedicated to preserving public education. The billboard had a picture of a one-room school with one teacher, and students of all grades, sitting two to a desk, and writing on slate tablets.
The caption underneath read “Public education is a hundred years old. Pass it on.”
So it is with God’s plan of salvation. As the 78th psalm says, “Things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us, we will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord.” (New Jerusalem Bible)
And exactly what shall we pass on? Why, the simple declaration that the God the Father has sent God the Son into the world.
The father is the creator of the entire universe, the vastness of which keeps unfolding every time we learn how to look farther out into space.
His son is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter turned teacher who inflamed the authorities with his talk about the kingdom of God.
Since believing, or faith, or the ability to be a witness — all being the same thing — is a gift from God that comes through the work of the Spirit, there is no difference between how the disciples finally saw Jesus, and how we see him.
God is as near to us as he was to the disciples. Jesus Christ is the living reality of God not just in Galilee and Judea, but also in North Carolina and the world.
We may live in the fast lane, but the world is spiritually starving to death for a taste of God, and if in our experience we can believe that God is with us, then we will help others find the peace of God.
Jesus came as the Son of God and if we believe the stories about him passed on to us by those who saw him in the flesh, then we can comfort ourselves that God is in touch with us and we, with others around us.
God came in Jesus Christ, and now we are bound up with his life, death, resurrection, and his activity today through the Spirit.
Because he lives, we know God the Father. Want to know God? Learn who Jesus of Nazareth was.
The prayer that Jesus prayed so long ago specifically concerns us today.
If we are looking for God, if we want to know how to expect his touch and how we should live in the way God expects, we must look to what has come down to us from the disciples.
By the witness of the disciples we have received the story of the son who came in all the glory and power of the Father.
That glory relates to both the cross and the resurrection, and through our baptism into Christ we are buried with him. Throughout life we keep moving forward in newness of life.
God keeps on finding and keeps on renewing his children, for wherever the story of God’s love is told, wherever the story of deliverance is rehearsed, wherever the people of God are reminded that our story is caught up in God’s story, we come again to the living God.
When our baptism is called to mind, which is what the candle given to the parents at their child’s baptism is all about, when we come to the Lord’s Table for the bread and wine, in these and more the power of God comes again to us like a fresh washing and as an energizing nourishing holy meal.
Where the story is told and sacraments are given in the life of the church we can meet God who sent Jesus Christ into the world. Just as Christ was bound up in God since before the foundations of the world were laid, so we are now caught up with the Father.
We in our own age and place are witnesses to the power and glory of Almighty God.
There are a lot of people who imagine that they might like to see God, thinking that they might be interested in him, maybe even expect something from him.
Yet they turn away from the company of the disciples and their followers in this age for whom Jesus prayed. But disciples still cluster around the word to hear the story and pass it on, still refreshed by the waters of baptism and nourished by the Bread of Life, Jesus himself.
The waters of baptism continue to cleanse us and make us new people. The Word of God as it is prayed, and read and sung and preached, brings God’s story to bear on our own story.
And the bread of life given to us in the holy feast nourishes us so that our own lives extend God’s story out into the world, to all whom we meet.
These are the means which God uses to make himself near to us. In the life and activity of an ordinary Christian congregation at worship, in the standard and often even undramatic singing of hymns and praying of ancient prayers, the hopeful prayer of Jesus Christ is being fulfilled.
We are the ones who believe in Christ through the word of the disciples that is passed on through us. The message of that word, passed on from one generation to the next, is that the father loves us and accepts us not for what we do, but for what God in Jesus Christ has done for us.
We are the disciples today, and through Jesus Christ, God’s love lives in us.
We are the children of God.