Jesus calls some more strange characters
Andrew was called by Jesus to be His disciple and apostle. Andrew is Scotland’s patron saint. He followed John the Baptist who pointed out Jesus as the Messiah to him. He introduced Peter to Jesus. He helped to organise the feeding of the 5,000. Historical tradition says that Andrew preached in Asia Minor and in Scythia, along the Black Sea as far as the Volga and Kiev. Hence he became a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. He founded the Bishopric of Byzantium - later Constantinople in AD 38. Andrew is recognised as its patron saint. Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion at the city of Patras in the region of Corinth today. Early texts, describe Andrew as bound, not nailed, to a cross, crucified in the diagonal form of our St Andrew’s Cross. Andrew’s public image is one of service and humanity.
Philip was called to be a disciple the day after Jesus called Peter and Andrew. He brought a friend of his called Nathanael who also became a follower of Jesus. Philip belonged to the lakeside town of Bethsaida. In John’s Gospel just before the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus asks him “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”. The text adds, “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip replies, “Eight months wages would not be enough to buy bread for each one to have a bite”. John 12:21 describes Philip as bringing Greeks to meet Jesus and 14:8 suggests again that he may have been a bit sceptical about Jesus Himself. He says, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us”. Jesus answers him, “Don’t you know me Philip even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me?” Philip the disciple is not the same person as Philip the evangelist who met the Ethiopian eunuch and converted him. Nothing is known about what happened to this Philip but there is a tradition that he preached far and wide and ended his life as a martyr in the city of Hierapolis in south western Turkey.
Bartholomew is consistently mentioned in the Gospel lists of disciples - in Matthew, Mark Luke and Acts. Otherwise there is nothing about him in the New Testament or elsewhere. This does not mean that Bartholomew never did anything important as an apostle. It is just that we don’t know about it. In that sense Bartholomew is one with so many Christians throughout the ages who have done great work for Jesus Christ but never found recognition in history. There are many more such Christians than there are high fliers and celebrity Christians. The strength of Christianity lies in congregations where people worship and serve faithfully from generation to generation and together they make up the Body of Christ in the world.
Matthew was a tax collector, excommunicated from Israel. Jesus befriended him and called him to a better life. When Matthew is mentioned in the Gospels, he is usually paired with Thomas. He was one of the witnesses of the Resurrection and the Ascension. Matthew remained in and about Jerusalem and proclaimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. These early Jewish Christians were thought to have been called Nazarenes. It is near certain that Matthew belonged to this sect, as both the New Testament and the early Talmud affirm this to be true. Matthew, for 15 years, preached the Gospel in Hebrew to the Jewish community in Judea. Later in his ministry, he travelled to Gentile nations following Jesus' Great Commission and spread the Gospel to the Ethiopians, Macedonians, Persians, and Parthians. What happened to him later in life is not known. He is said by some to have died a natural death either in Ethiopia or in Macedonia. However, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church each hold the tradition that Matthew died as a martyr.
Thomas was in the second group of disciples to begin with - not part of the innermost circle but not far away either. He would never have known that a few of his words would echo down through 2,000 years and give an easy description to people with a certain character trait - “doubting Thomas”. He was a twin but nothing seems to be known about his sibling. We learn about him only in John’s Gospel. After Jesus is told about the death of Lazarus, John 11:16 records him saying, “Let us also go that we may die with him”. Thomas knew the risks for Jesus in visiting Bethany, close to Jerusalem - less than two miles only. But Thomas was a brave and committed man who was prepared to be identified with Jesus. He had a practical mind and was not so spiritually perceptive. When Jesus said to the disciples, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me… you know the way to the place where I am going”, Thomas replied, “Lord, we don’t actually know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
But Thomas has come down through history famous for his disbelief in the resurrection of Jesus. Thomas had not been present at Jesus’ first appearance after His crucifixion. Why not - you might ask? Where was he? What was he doing? Maybe he had gone out for the night. Maybe he was with other friends. Maybe he went out for a meal. We don’t know. His absence suggests a lack of expectation and a lack of commitment and perhaps a loosening of the ties he had had with the other disciples after Jesus’ death. He did not believe the testimony of the other disciples, not even those of Peter and John. The archetypal sceptic, he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it”. As we know - he got his wish - a week later. He was present this time and he was not going to miss the action a second time. Jesus quoted Thomas’ words back to him and that must have been unnerving. “Put your finger here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe. Unsurprisingly, Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God”. For a Jew to say as much was astonishing and a complete surrender to Jesus as God’s Son and the Messiah that was expected. But Jesus gave him a mild rebuke also. “It’s only because you have seen me that you believe - but others who have not seen me like this have believed and are blessed for their faith”. And that means the huge proportion of Christians throughout the ages. For most have not seen the Risen Jesus. We may have known His presence but it has largely been an unseen presence. Faith uncorroborated by physical sight is commended by Jesus Himself.
There has been a long and strong tradition associating Thomas with mission to India. He is said to have sailed to India in 52 AD to spread the Christian faith among Jews at Kerala in the south west of India at the time. He is said to have founded churches including Niranam St.Marys Orthodox Church which you can visit today as it is a living worshipping community (with its own website) dating its foundation to Thomas in 54 AD. A later generation Christian leader in Syria called St. Ephraem, recorded that Thomas was put to death in India, and that his remains were subsequently buried in Edessa in Turkey.
James son of Alphaeus is also thought to be the ‘James the younger’ mentioned in Mark 15:40. This could also mean James the smaller one, either through age or stature or status in comparison with the James who was part of Jesus innermost circle. His father’s name was the same as Matthew’s father’s name but the two are not identified as brothers. He has become known in Church history as James the Less. There is a tradition that he was martyred when beaten to death at Ostrakine in Lower Egypt, where he was preaching the Gospel.
Thaddaeus is again one of the scarcely known disciples. There is little known about him except that he was part of the early Church. There is a tradition associating him with mission to Edessa in Turkey.
Simon the Zealot was either initially a political zealot. Zeal of course means keenness and commitment, bordering on if not including fanaticism. Nothing is known definitely about him thereafter. There is a tradition that he went to Alexandria and, after working up the Nile, penetrated into the heart of Africa, everywhere preaching the gospel of Jesus and baptising believers. Thus he laboured until he was an old man and feeble. And he died and was buried in the heart of Africa. This is not verified.
Judas Iscariot is the last of the Twelve Disciples. He was the group’s treasurer but John’s Gospel says he embezzled money. He was resentful of Jesus’ being anointed at Bethany with precious oils, perhaps thinking that he could have got his hands on some of the money if that has been sold instead. He conspired to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. At the last supper he maintained his deception. St Matthew’s Gospel records Judas’s later remorse. There - he returns the 30 pieces of silver with the words, “I have sinned - I have betrayed innocent blood”. The Jewish authorities did not want the money back and Judas threw it into the temple. They priests picked it up but it could not be used in the temple because it was blood money - so they used it to buy a field to bury foreigners in. Matthew 27:5 says that Judas went away and hanged himself. Acts 1:18 suggests that while doing so his body fell and burst open. Acts 1:25 describes Judas as one “who left to go where he belongs”.
Judas is the only bad egg among the disciples. The question we cannot answer is this. “Why did Jesus call him?” Did He hope to redeem him? Was Judas a necessary part of the great plan of redemption which necessitated Jesus’ death and resurrection? Would Jesus have been crucified if Judas had not betrayed Him? Was Judas possessed by evil - by the Devil? The Twelve Disciples had one really bad member. The early Church had its fakes and fraudsters too. Throughout Christian history there have been many false Christians, false ministers, false priests, false bishops and false popes. Every congregation has its mixture of good and some bad people - even today. Some people behave so badly that you wonder why on earth they come to church at all. The great Scottish Judas of our times is Richard Holloway the former Episcopal bishop of Edinburgh who has betrayed his calling and the people he served and who supported him and whose offerings paid for his salary and pay for his pension. Judas is the archetype of false friendship and betrayal in everything in life. We all carry a bit of Judas with us. We are capable of shopping anyone, spreading untrue gossip and seeing the worst in others.
Some Christian traditions regard Judas as damned for ever and others see a way back for him in heaven. Great issues of human free will and personal responsibility are seen in his life. Are our actions caused by our own intentions only? Or by our inherited nature? Our childhood experience, social environment? Was Judas to blame for what he did? Was he to blame that he was a rotter? How could he live so close to Jesus and see all the good that he did and betray Him as he did? Judas represents the unredeemable evil that exists in some people’s lives, mass murderers like James Tobin, historical figures like Hitler and Stalin. What is our comfort is that Jesus triumphed over such evil and conquered it for you and for me. Jesus as God’s Son was and is stronger and greater than the greatest evil that exists in and around the human community. That is the Gospel. It is saving power.