Part One: Division
I was having a little dialogue with someone on Facebook last week about the intersection of politics and religion. It was once of those situations where the other person and I actually were in general agreement concerning the subject at hand, but he seemed intent on convincing me to become more vocal about our concerns. Pastors should preach these socio-political and religious issues from the pulpit every week, if our country is to be saved! I pointed out that the preacher’s first concern is preaching the Gospel, and as the texts of Scripture speak to one contemporary issue or another then we address those issues. However, in doing so, I quoted from the New Testament Epistles, to which the other fellow replied “Are you saying Jesus did not kick over the money changers’ tables? Do you risk putting so-called Saint Paul before Jesus?”
As if talking politics and religion on the internet was silly enough, that statement right there brought any hope of fruitful discussion to an abrupt end. This juxtaposition of the teaching and example of Jesus on one hand, and the writings of St. Paul and the other Apostles on the other, is a death sentence for meaningful Christian teaching. Once you drive a wedge between the words of Christ and the words of the Apostles, the New Testament ceases to be God’s Word, but becomes a battle ground. This is an extreme example of why Bibles with the words of Jesus in red letters can be a bad idea – it can be wrongly used by some readers as a false hierarchy within Scriptures, imagining that the words of Jesus in red are more important than the rest of the Bible, in black. What Jesus said and did is the Word of God, and, they imply, the rest of the Bible is the word of men. Once you accept this premise, the authority of Scripture is broken. It’s reduced to a painstaking discipline of study and speculation, working out “what Jesus really said” and what the apostles, especially the radical Saint Paul, put into his mouth after the fact.
Part Two: Unity
Historic Christianity does not allow for such a division. As we’ve been proclaiming in the Nicene Creed for over 1,500 years, we believe that Jesus “rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures,” and we believe in the Holy Spirit, “who has spoken through the Prophets.” Twice there we point to the Bible without positing any separation between Jesus and his Apostles. In fact, there is no appeal to the words and actions of Jesus as forming the basis of the Scriptures, but instead the voice of the Holy Spirit in and through the Prophets and the witness of the apostles who saw their Lord’s resurrection. We profess that every writer of Sacred Scripture, therefore, is a Prophet of sorts, speaking God’s Word in their writing, and that the Church has the prophetic role of keeping those words alive by binding them together in a volume we call “The Bible” and reading and preaching it to us day in and day out until Christ returns.
As Saint Paul wrote to the Ephesians, the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” There is a distinction between Christ and the Apostles & Prophets, but no separation. They are all, together, the foundation. On the simplest level, Jesus wrote nothing; we only know about his words and deeds because others wrote of him. If they are to be trusted in their reporting of him, then they must also be trusted in what else they wrote. One might point out that the Gospel writers didn’t write the bulk of the New Testament Epistles, and so the issue is between the early disciples and Saint Paul, but that’s just inventing a narrative that simply cannot be found in the New Testament documents.
In no way does this appeal to Ephesians, or the other epistles, “put Saint Paul before Jesus” or even risk going near it. Jesus himself spoke of the authority of his disciples, soon to become Apostles. In John 15, Jesus said to his disciples:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.
This is as clear as day. If people Jesus’ word, they will also keep the words of Jesus’ apostles. So there is no Christian option of believing Jesus and rejecting his apostles. The Gospel and Epistles cannot be divorced; they speak with one voice. The guarantee of this is, as I already mentioned from the Creeds, the work of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said to his disciples at the end of chapter 15, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
In short, the Apostles speak (and write) with the same authority with which Jesus spoke.
Part Three: Zeal
Now, it should be noted that most of the Apostles didn’t contribute anything to the New Testament canon. Only three to five of the twelve, (depending upon who wrote the Epistles of James and Jude) wrote anything that made it into the Bible. Saints Mark, Luke, and Paul were not of the original band of disciples, though Mark and Luke may have been among the larger group of seventy. What did the rest of those disciples do? I mean, we know there were twelve of them because the Gospel books keep reminding us of that number, but do we actually remember all their names? They are Andrew and Simon Peter sons of Jonah, James and John sons of Zebedee, Philip of Galilee, Simon the Zealot and his brother Jude, Nathaniel-Bartholomew, Thomas the Twin, Matthew (or Levi) and James sons of Alphaeus, and Judas Iscariot who was replaced by Matthias. Most of them have brief appearances in the Gospel books and that’s it. Today we celebrate the brothers Simon and Jude, or Simon and Thaddeus, as the latter is known by two names. Jude/Thaddeus may be the author of the Epistle of Jude, or that may be someone else with the same name. Getting the family trees and identities worked out has never been universally solved and agreed-upon.
All we can say for sure, about most of the apostles, is that they went on to preach Christ after his death and resurrection, ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. A few of them wrote, but all of them preached. Ironically, the challenge of knowing most of the Apostles is the same as knowing Jesus – we have to rely upon the writings of others to illuminate their history. So with most of the twelve, all we know is that they proclaimed Christ throughout the known world both within and without the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
Simon may have traveled to Persia, or Spain, or stayed in the region of Palestine and served as the second Bishop of Jerusalem. Jude probably traveled to Persia and Armenia, where he is believed to have been martyred. That Christianity flourished in the regions these apostles traveled is a testimony to the work of God in and through them.
In short, although we do not hold any words from Simon or Jude (unless this Jude authored the epistle of Jude), we do know of their zeal for the Lord. This is a great witness to us of the worthiness of Christ and the crucial importance of the Gospel – these were causes worth living for, and dying for. Yes, writing of Christ is a good and worthwhile thing, and someone had to do it, but the apostolic call is primarily one of bringing the Word of God to people face-to-face. There is no dividing the “words of Christ” from the “words of the Apostles”, and not only can we see that in the unity of the Sacred Scriptures, but equally in the lives and deaths of those Apostles.
Let us pray: O God, we thank you for the glorious company of the apostles, and especially on this day for Simon and Jude; and we pray that, as they were faithful and zealous in their mission, so we may with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.