I want to offer you a theory about the organisation of the apostles by the Lord Jesus. I think it is intriguing, though not compelling. In the lists of apostles recorded by Matthew and Luke respectively, the first six names appear in identical positions but, of the remaining six, only the last (Judas Iscariot) and James son of Alphaeus have the same place in each. It’s perhaps easy to imagine why the well-known apostles – and indeed Judas – are listed in the same order. But why, of the remaining five, should only James be mentioned by both in the same, ninth, position?
Some commentators have suggested this is because the apostles were grouped in fours; the names of the ‘leaders’ of each group are mentioned first in each group and the names of other members do not require to be listed in any particular order. Simon, Philip and James may respectively lead these groups and so their names appear in the same positions. If this is true – and even if it is not, it does still make some sense of the variation in order – it suggests a particular concern for collaborative working on the part of Jesus.
And that shouldn’t surprise is if we believe he was rooted in the teaching of the Old Testament, for we read there a frequent concern that God’s people work together. It was not good for the man to be alone and so Eve was created to be a collaborator. Moses was encouraged by Jethro, his father-in-law, to engage others in the business of determining disputes. David had his small band of mighty fighting men. Elijah found encouragement following opposition in the friendship of Elisha.
In the time of Paul it seems customary for apostles to work together, not simply a convenience for personal safety but expressing something of relationship with one another as Christ’s people share Good News about relating to a personal God.
Back to this list of names, though. The idea of team in later verses seems somewhat broader. The apostles are instructed not to take very much with them; they are to rely on the generosity of people in the villages they visit. They offer the Gospel freely; having freely received it; they are also to receive hospitality and move on to seek it elsewhere if it is not freely offered. What might the effect of depending on other’s hospitality? Many more people would then be encouraged to see that they had a part in this advancing kingdom of God about which the apostles preach. The Word is spread not only directly by evangelists, but also by those who support them, who give them food and a place to lodge. The team expands even through the mission methodology Jesus articulates.
None of this is to say it will be easy. These apostles will face real and significant challenges. They will not be universally welcomed; there is the real risk they will be arrested. And, at precisely those most challenging times, they will discover the greatest partnership of all. God, by his Spirit, will be particularly present to them. Whilst always present among them, the Spirit shall, at these moments of greatest need, remind them most clearly that speaking of the kingdom is a team effort. The Spirit of the King of kings will be with those who are sent. Christ collaborates; and Christ calls those committed to him to collaborate, too.
I don’t want to bore you with details of the many committees the Church of Scotland needs to have in order to operate. I do want to tell you, though, that it’s through such groups that things happen. Presbyterianism is all about partnerships: no single person is entitled to make any decision. Instead, committees are entrusted to have vision, to make plans, to do certain things – and then other committees supervise and check what’s planned or has been done. It’s a strongly accountable system which, though it can stifle independent vision, is on the whole quite good at providing support.
As a parish minister I value partnerships and friendships as we strive to serve together. All those in every congregation, members and office-bearers, bring their experience, their opinions, their faith to bear in addressing all sorts of issues. We are all in this together, and it seems that is how God intends it to be.
I want to encourage you to think about what part you might play in Christ’s team: right here in your fellowship, or in the regional structure of presbytery, or in national committees.
In doing so I want to tell you about John. I met him in a city church which had been facing tough times and was worried about paying the financial contributions. We met to talk about money, but it was clear they had a real heart for mission. So local members were encouraged to worry much less about paying their way to ‘121’, and focus on what they did well – sharing the Gospel.
It was exciting to hear of a church keen to reach out, and I think they were encouraged to hear that the broader church was on their side. They continued relevant, engaging mission, welcomed a new minister and saw their givings rise so they paid the outstanding debt earlier than they imagined. John was moved to consider getting involved with this national church. It was a brave step on his part, and he is now a key member in a major central council. As a man of deep devotion to Christ with huge expertise in his professional life he is someone I look up to; and I am delighted to discover he is part of the team.
I therefore want to ask you: have you considered service in this way? Your gift may not be preaching, but your insights might be just what the Church needs today. You may not know all the intricacies of presbyterian processes – but your concern to be involved where God’s work is going on would stimulate many others.
Of course we think differently and that’s part of the challenge of being a broad church. But in ministry I have discovered a strength of fellowship, a richness of shared faith and a deep desire to serve and follow Christ which has enlarged my sense of calling as a Christian minister.
Within this list of apostolic names might be a principle of collaboration which is by no means unfamiliar to God’s people but needs to be put into practice regularly and faithfully.
Where, and among whom, is God calling you to serve? May you sense the strong leading of our gracious God as you prayerfully and faithfully take steps to work with others to Christ’s glory.