"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. And these are the names of the twelve apostles..."
Wait a minute! Something's happening here, something important, but it goes by so fast you may not even have noticed it. In the first sentence, they're "disciples." Then, suddenly, they're "apostles." What happened?
Even if you caught the change, you may not have paid much attention: "disciples", "apostles" -- what's the difference? They're just interchangeable names for the same twelve guys, aren't they? What's the big deal?
All over the country at this time of year there are young people (and not so young) making the same kind of transition. The papers these weeks are full of reports of commencement speeches, lists of graduates, pictures of young people tossing mortarboards and cadet caps into the air to celebrate their change in status. One minute they're students, still in training, still learning the ropes, the rules, the formulas and logarithms, syntaxes and structures. Then comes the moment of graduation -- diplomas in hand, shifting tassels from one side to the other, grinning for pictures with proud moms and dads -- and suddenly they're somebody else, something else: no longer students, but graduates, ready to go out into the world to practice what they've been learning for lo these many years.
They're no longer "disciples" -- students, learning the disciplines of their craft or trade or profession. They are, in effect, "apostles," people being "sent out" into the world to do what they've been "discipled" to do. That is what "apostle" means: someone who is "sent out."
This passage from Matthew marks the moment when the followers gathered around Jesus "graduated," when Jesus seems to have decided that they knew enough, were formed and shaped and changed enough, to be sent out to share the mission and ministry with him. Unlike our contemporary graduates, it wasn't that they'd completed a nice, tidy set course, with the required numbers of credit hours and proficiency tests and final papers. Discipleship isn't as easily marked out and measured as that. It was more a matter of Jesus deciding that he'd taught them about all he could, at least for the moment. And he knew that the world needed their ministry.
For several chapters before this story, Jesus has been traveling around, healing and teaching, and the crowds are building. More and more people keep coming, with their pain and their need and their troubles -- "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd," as Jesus describes them. As he looks on them, he can see the great need -- far more than he alone can reach. And so it is time to add some helpers -- "to send out laborers into the Lord's harvest..."
So Jesus called to him his closest followers, the ones who'd been with him longest and observed the most closely, and passed on to them some of his power -- the power to name and overcome evil, the power to heal and reconcile, power granted to him by the heavenly Father, the one, holy and living God. And then he sent them out -- "apostled" them -- with these instructions:
"As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons...Proclaim the Good News, 'The kingdom of God has come near.'...It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."
And off they went, to do the work in his name, as disciples become apostles.
Did they do it perfectly? Not at all. The gospels and the book of Acts tell us over and over again of the ways they missed the mark, dropped the ball, fell over their own feet, and generally were the gang who couldn't shoot straight. They couldn't understand the parables, didn't know what he meant when he predicted his own death, slept through his last agonized hours, deserted him as he went to judgment and the cross, barely recognized him when he appeared to them as the risen Christ, and hadn't a clue what to do when he ascended into heaven. One of them even sold him to the enemy government for a briefcase full of unmarked bills. And yet -- and yet....
There is a church around the world today, witnessing in every nation to the Good News of God in Christ. The sun never sets on the Christian hope, the faith that proclaims the good news even in the darkest hour, the ocean depths of the love of God. All because the disciples, imperfect as they were, answered the challenge of Jesus to be sent out to proclaim the good news: "The Kingdom of God has come near."
Our baptismal promises include the promise that "we will, with God's help, proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ." That's because we, too, are apostles.
Oh, I know you've probably always thought that title belonged to those first twelve guys. When was the last time you spoke of yourself as an "apostle"? But if you've made those baptismal promises, you've taken vows as an apostle. You might even try it on for size. Try saying to yourself, "I'm ______ ______. I'm an apostle."
All too often we're tempted to treat our life as a church as if it were an end in itself. We're happy to gather within the comfort of our worship and our buildings and our communities, just to be in the presence of the Lord. We've been content to be disciples, safely gathered around our Lord, shutting out the world. To be an apostle is to risk, to venture, to step outside our close supportive company and into a world of people caught in suffering and fear. It takes courage to be an apostle.
The followers gathered around Jesus weren't much different. They certainly weren't eager to go out there, outside the comfort of the close circle of friends and companions, where they had to be "wise as serpents" as well as "innocent as doves." But Jesus saw the world, grieving and wounded, and knew its suffering, felt it in his own bones, in his own heart. He sent out his first apostles to bear the power of God into the struggle with evil, to heal the sick, to bring the reconciliation of love. And he sends us still, to do the same.
Chances are you've seen this summer's blockbuster hit movie, Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible." If you haven't seen it, you've probably seen the ads. You know the line: "Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is..."
Good Christian people, as apostles of Christ, we are called to a "mission impossible": to bring healing, reconciliation, and love to the world, in the power of the grace of God. Each of us has our own places to which we are called -- families, homes, workplaces, clubs and groups -- wherever there are people hurting, searching, in pain. Our world is as full as Jesus' world was of people who are "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
Like the first apostles, we won't be perfect. We'll make mistakes, miss opportunities, welsh on our word, betray our Lord. But our Lord is endlessly forgiving. And he keeps sending us back out into the world, in his name. The first apostles, our forebears in the faith, turned the world upside down, in the power of God. You can too.
Good Christian people, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go out from this church to the world you live in. Name evil and injustice and sleazy practices and work to change them. Touch the sicknesses of the world -- fear, rage, racism, people set against people, hopelessness, despair, emptiness, pain -- and heal it. Say to the world, "The Kingdom of God has come near." And don't worry about how you'll accomplish it. The words and the ways will come to you, because it will be the Spirit of God moving through you. So the "Mission Impossible" will be the "mission possible" in the power of God. This is your mission. How do you choose?