May News from the Clergy

May News from the Clergy

12 Jun 2024 • From the Clergy

The prompt which the editors gave me for this month’s letter was ‘Apostles’, prompted by the feast of Saints Philip and James on 1st May. Were I Greek Orthodox, then I would be celebrating a ‘double name day’ on that date, with the two saints for which I am named sharing a feast day. (I am almost certain this was not in my parents’ thoughts when they named me, but it is a tidiness of which I approve.)

There would be an epic party and everyone would give me lavish gifts to celebrate…

Back in the real world, this does raise the question of what an apostle is. It is a word used so much in the Church that we never really think about it. There is clearly something special about being an apostle, as is obvious by how desperately Paul

It is clear that the apostles are a big deal

tries to prove he is one. ‘I am the least of the apostles, unfit even to be called an apostle’, he writes in 1 Corinthians, only to declare in 2 Corinthians that ‘I am not in the least inferior to these super-officials’. Paul was touchy at the best of times, but apostolic status was something he seemed very eager to have, and he had the hindrance of being the only one of those deemed apostles who had never met Jesus in his pre-crucifixion/resurrection lifetime. This was not something he liked, and he went to great lengths, not least in his tirade to the Galatians, to stress his apostolic credentials.

At its simplest, the word ‘apostle’ derives from a Greek verb meaning ‘to send out’ or ‘to send away’. The apostles (‘the sent out ones’) only become so after the resurrection. During Jesus’ ministry, they are disciples (‘pupils’ or ‘students’), being taught by Jesus, learning and making all the mistakes we might expect from students. Only with his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are they transformed into apostles. They have done their learning, and now he is no longer physically present to instruct them, Jesus sends them out to teach others and spread his message, making new disciples. From very early on, the apostles were seen to have a special status because they had been Jesus’ most literal disciples, and were the ones sent out by him in person. Paul claims his apostleship through his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, but he is the only non-disciple who makes it into these elevated ranks.

Even when it came to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, and English Protestants were highly suspicious of saints and their cults (look at what Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and their henchmen did to shrines), the apostles were exempt. Look at the collects and readings in the Book of Common Prayer, and you will discover that aside from the Sunday provisions, plus the principal feasts, it is only the Apostles who are allowed named days and special provisions. No other saint, except Mary, makes it in. Of course, the apostles are those who have been acceptable to the misogynistic culture that has prevailed across much of the last two thousand years: Men. Yet think about some of the women, not least Mary Magdalene (the first witness to the resurrection), who are apostles in every sense we might understand, and, were we not constrained by that misogynistic history, we should call them apostles too. We think in terms of twelve (hence Matthias has to replace Judas after the Ascension), but if you count up the apostles named in the four gospels, you will find fourteen, which means that some have to be doubled up to preserve the fiction of twelve. That number is only to echo the twelve tribes of Israel, not any realistic account of the number of close followers Jesus had.

So, when we think about apostles, it is worth asking how our understanding might be of something more than historic interest. We are constrained by our

reading of scripture, but if we think about how there were likely far more than twelve, how a significant number of these were women, and how they were people who had no status or qualification in the world beyond being sent by Jesus, it might remind us that they can remain an example to us today. As they were sent out to live the good news, so their example is a reminder to us that we are likewise sent out, into our own time and context, to make Christ known in the world around us.