Today’s reading is Mark 3:13-19:
And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus picks twelve of his followers to be apostles. The word ‘apostle’ comes from a Greek word that means something like an envoy, or a delegate: these are the people that Jesus sends out to represent himself to the world. They are able in both word (preaching) and deed (casting out demons) to show the world who Jesus is. In this short snapshot, however, we don’t have all that much information about the men who were chosen for this exalted position—only their names.
So, what can we find in this list of names? For a start, the nicknames are telling. Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, which means “rock” in Greek. We might expect that this means he is sturdy, steadfast, reliable, but as the gospel unfolds we will see Peter deny any connection with Jesus out of fear for his own life. James and John are named “Sons of Thunder.” There is no clear account of why they receive that name, but it is probably not because they are calm, peace-loving, patient men. Already we can see the weakness of the apostles. The divisions of the group go beyond mere personality, however. Simon is called “the Zealot.” This doesn’t mean that he was a rather enthusiastic person; the Zealots were a radical political group dedicated to overthrowing the Roman occupation of Israel—the same group that would, about thirty years after Jesus’s death, fight the bloody war with the Romans that led to the destruction of the Temple. Simon’s inclusion among the apostles is even more striking because Matthew is also in the group. We learn from other Gospels that Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans, a figure hated for collaborating with the foreign government. Including both Simon and Matthew among the apostles is almost akin to forming a group with a Nazi sympathizer and a freedom fighter in Vichy France—potentially explosive.
Last, of course, there’s Judas—“Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” Mark doesn’t leave us in any suspense. We know from the first time we meet him that Judas will betray Jesus. This betrayal is not just the passive cowardice of Peter, but an active treachery, handing Jesus over to the authorities who will kill him. Already, in this first gathering of the apostles, we know that this group itself will bring Jesus to the cross.
And yet Jesus “called to him those whom he desired.” These twelve men—quarrelsome, rebellious, hot-headed, cowardly, treacherous—were the men that Jesus desired to be with him. More than that, they were the twelve that he empowered to preach and cast out demons. And we should take profound comfort in that fact. Yes, we are as feeble as Peter, and as impatient as James and John. Yes, we look around the church and we see people whose views fill us with just as much distrust and anger as Simon and Matthew must have had for one another. Yes, we betray Christ—in our sin, in our disregard for God and hatred for our neighbor—every day. But this means that we are exactly the sort of people who Jesus desires to call to himself. After all, if we read on through the Gospels and Acts, we see that this confused, cowardly, violent group of men doesn’t stay confused and cowardly and violent. Because they follow after Jesus, they are transformed into the faithful, joyful, fearless Church. I invite you, this Lent, to ask the God who has desired you and who has called you to let you see how you are being transformed by following after him.
Anne Goetz ’11, a former Managing Editor of the Ichthus, is currently pursuing her PhD in English at Northwestern University.