Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives-Pt. 2

Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles

 

ChristandAposltes

Part One of this series gave us an overview of the Apostles and discussed the lessons we can learn from Simon Peter in particular. In Part Two we will look at the inspiration that can be drawn from the lives of Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew and Thomas.

Andrew

Before meeting Jesus, Andrew and his younger brother Simon Peter, along with James and John, were partners in a fishing business. Andrew and John were disciples of John the Baptist; they were the first to follow Jesus when the Baptist pointed him out as “the Lamb of God” [John 1:36]. Later, Andrew brought Simon Peter to Jesus. Yet although Peter, James and John became part of the Lord’s “inner circle,” granted special confidences and privileges, Andrew did not. I often wonder how he felt about this. Was he hurt? Did he struggle to rise above jealousy and envy? Being human, he probably did.

Although perhaps not so strong a leader as his brother Peter, Andrew was active in bringing others to Christ. In contrast to the bemused Philip, he was resourceful enough to tell Jesus about the boy who had the loaves and fishes [John 6].

Andrew also helped the hesitant Philip inform Jesus that a group of Greeks wanted to meet him [John 12:2022]. This suggests that Andrew understood Jesus’ call to save all people, not just the Jews. It’s a safe bet that Andrew was a strong organizer and administrator among the Apostles.

Andrew traveled to Asia Minor, Scythia and as far as Kiev to preach the Gospel of Christ. He was crucified in Achaea in Greece, on an X-shaped cross, upon which he suffered for two days before he died. He is often pictured in art with the X-shaped cross as an identifying symbol.

Andrew inspires us to lead others to Christ and to conquer envy and jealousy in order to serve the greater good. In Andrew’s strong, quiet, solid character, we see a shining example of the humility that acknowledges that God can accomplish great good through those who don’t care who gets the recognition.

standrew-greco

James and John

These brothers were the sons of Zebedee, a respected and prosperous Galilean fisherman with an explosive temper. Because of this, Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder.” They apparently inherited their father’s temper: when the Samaritans refused to welcome Jesus and the Apostles, James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume the whole village. This attitude, needless to say, was not appreciated by the Master.

Their ambitious mother, Salome, a close relative of  Mary, the Mother of Jesus, joined James and John in demanding that they be given positions of power in Christ’s kingdom. This caused resentment among the other Apostles. As Jesus pointed out, whatever we do in the name of God must be done for the purpose of serving Him and humankind, not for personal gratification or recognition. This teaches us to beware of the hunger for power that exists today, even within the Church, and to realize that along with God’s gifts and privileges come tremendous responsibility and sometimes great hardship.

James, believed to be the elder brother, was a fair-minded, modest man with a quieter nature than John. Although James and John were usually inseparable, James was not with his brother after Jesus’ arrest.

James later became a leading spirit in the early Church and was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom. James was beheaded with a sword by order of Herod Agrippa around 44 A.D., making him the second martyr of the Christian church (St. Stephen being the first, in 34 A.D.). James did indeed “drink the cup that Jesus drank.”

John always referred to himself as the “disciple Jesus loved.” Of course, Christ loved everyone, but John may have been the “Teacher’s Pet.” The youngest, and perhaps the only unmarried one, John was treated with paternal affection. He was the only Apostle present at the Crucifixion. Affectionate and trustworthy, it was to his care that Jesus entrusted his precious Mother.

John is recorded as the first to recognize Jesus at the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection [John 21:1-7]. However, it was Peter who jumped into the sea to get to Jesus as soon as he heard John’s exclamation, “It is the Lord!” These little anecdotes, so revealing of personality, are what make the Apostles so endearing.

From John we learn loyalty. Even when the chips were down and the other Apostles deserted Jesus, John remained with Him to the end. In caring for Jesus’ Mother, he is a fine example of how we should care for the grieving, the lonely, the needy, the elderly.

John’s greatest legacy is love. Under the tender tutelage of his beloved Master, John gradually learned to channel his assertiveness into an active and enduring charity for all. This fiery young man, who once wanted to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and who with James once called for vengeance on their enemies, came to be known as the Apostle of Love.

John refers to Christian love more than two dozen times in his Epistles. When we are tempted to strike back in anger and revenge against those who have hurt us, we can look to John and the lessons in love he learned from Christ, who was Love Incarnate.

Philip

In the Gospel of John, Philip is the first to whom Jesus says, “Follow me” [John 1:43]. Philip brought his friend Bartholomew to Jesus, thus recruiting another Apostle.

Although a devoted follower, Philip possessed a childlike nature and sometimes showed a weakness of faith. When Jesus told the Apostles to feed the crowd of five thousand, it was Philip who protested, “Two hundred days wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little bit!” [John 6:7].

Philip reminds us of how often in our own lives we, too, doubt God’s ability to take care of our needs. In John 14:8, Philip tells Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Even as we smile at this naïve request, we realize how many times we ask God for signs to bolster our own weak faith, how often we lack confidence in the gifts and abilities Jesus promised in answer to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father….Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these” [John 14:9, 12].

Bartholomew/Nathaniel

Early lore describes Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, as being tall, handsome and distinguished, with his clothing trimmed in fashionable purple. Born in Cana, Bartholomew worked as a vinedresser before joining Jesus. Both he and his friend Philip came from Bethsaida, the same town as Peter and Andrew. Bartholomew was inclined to meditate. Perhaps this is what he was doing when Philip found him under the fig tree.

He was honest and straightforward, though sometimes inclined to be critical and prejudiced. He never hesitated to say what he thought. When Philip told them about Jesus, Bartholomew retorted, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” [John 1:46].

Despite his initial prejudice, he was open-minded enough to meet Jesus, who called him “a man without guile,” and “a true son of Israel.”

Bartholomew quickly had a change of heart and was the first recorded as calling Jesus “the son of God and King of Israel.” After the Crucifixion, he was part of the group that went fishing and saw Jesus at the Sea of Tiberius.

From Bartholomew we learn to have the sincerity to speak our mind while being willing to admit our mistakes, the faith to see the Divine hand in the events of our lives, and the open-mindedness to look beyond our prejudices to see ourselves and our fellow humans in the light of truth.

doubting-thomas3

Thomas

There is little said of Thomas except in the Gospel of John. This is enough to bring out his skeptical and somewhat pessimistic nature. Although his given name was Judas, he was called by the Greek name “Didymus,” translated Thomas or twin, although nothing is known about any siblings.

Thomas had worked in Galilee as a stonemason and carpenter, so he and Jesus must have had a lot in common. Thomas, though slow to believe and quick to give up, was a brave and reliable man with an ardent love for the Master. He was ready to follow Him even to the grave. When Jesus proposed going to Judea to see Lazarus, Thomas exclaimed impulsively, “Let us also go, to die with him!” [John 11:16].

During the last supper, Thomas asked Jesus, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” [John 14:5-6].

The most famous incident involving Thomas is, of course, his refusal to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection until he had seen and touched Him, at which time he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas asked questions before he acted. He wanted to understand why he was doing something. Jesus may have chosen him for that very reason. Thomas’ healthy skepticism would show the world that Jesus’ disciples were not just blind followers, but had minds that examined and weighed what was presented to them. When his questions were answered, Thomas was a man of devotion and courage.

Pope St. Gregory the Great said of him: “The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened.”

From Thomas we learn discernment, to challenge and evaluate the sometimes overwhelming information and opinions with which modern society bombards us. In spiritual matters, we need to understand the deeper meaning behind what we do, lest religion becomes for us a matter of empty ritual and boring routines.

Like Thomas, we must realize that no matter how great our knowledge of spiritual matters, we can never fully comprehend them all. Rather, our deep and enduring faith sustains us in times of doubt, helping us to believe even when we cannot see or fully understand the great mystery of God and his plan for our lives.

In Part Three: Matthew, James the lesser, Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot.

 

Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives-Pt. 1

Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles

JesusApostlesWhenever I feel discouraged by my own limitations, I find hope and inspiration in the lives of the Apostles. Each of these men called “The Twelve” had jobs, families, and ambitions, just as we do. But when they met Jesus, He transformed everything about them, giving them new lives, new goals. As writer/historian Daniel-Rops points out in his book, Jesus and His Times, one of the best proofs that the Gospels are authentic is their account of the Apostles, because no one could have invented such human, fallible characters! I’m glad Jesus chose them, rather than brilliant paragons of virtue with whom we could never identify.

Unfortunately, we have little information about some of the Apostles. Often, all we have to go on is popular tradition, because many of the facts are veiled in obscurity. But there’s nothing obscure about the timeless lessons we can learn from the Apostles. That’s what we’ll explore in this series.

Who were the Apostles?

The word apostle means “one who is sent”; the number 12 corresponds to the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus called his Apostles at the beginning of his public ministry, along with a nucleus of 72 secondary disciples. This was the forerunner of the Roman Catholic Church’s present hierarchal structure. Before choosing the Twelve, Jesus went up a mountain and prayed and meditated all night, asking the Father’s guidance. Jesus did not require genius, wealth, or social prominence from His followers. He sought willingness, a loving, giving nature and total dedication. At the Last Supper, He told them, “It was not you that chose Me, but I who chose you.” This is true for all of us: God has chosen each of us to fulfill a particular purpose that no one else can fill.  No disciples of any other prophets or philosophers, including John the Baptist, were given the power and authority of their master as were Christ’s Apostles.

The traditional grouping of the Apostles given in Matthew is: Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; James and his brother John, sons of Zebedee; Philip and Bartholomew (also known as Nathaniel); Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; Jude Thaddeus and James, son of Alpheus; Simon the Cananean (the Zealot) and Judas Iscariot.

They were simple, ordinary men, typical of the people God usually chooses to do his work. Most were probably of average height — 5’6” inches for a man of that time – and approximately the same age as Jesus, who was 30 at the start of his public ministry. Like all observant Jewish men in those days, they wore untrimmed hair and beards. Most of the Apostles belonged to the social class we would call “blue-collar” workers. Only a few could read or write, but they were by no means stupid or totally uneducated. They knew Aramaic and Greek, and from earliest childhood had been orally taught the Hebrew Scriptures by their parents and the synagogue school. They were no more or less pious than the typical Jew of the day. Because they were not religious scholars, Jesus knew they would be teachable, open to new ideas, and able to understand the average person’s struggles.

None of the Twelve realized at first what their new life would entail. Christ’s followers had to give up everything: family and social life, occupation, familiar daily routine, orthodox ideas. For Jews in Christ’s time, religion consisted of countless rules and regulations. Proud of their status as the chosen of God, they longed for the day when God would wreak vengeance on their oppressors. Yet Jesus asked His disciples to embrace a religion of universal love, brotherhood, and forgiveness towards everyone – even enemies, oppressors, and those they considered “unclean.”

With these twelve humble men, Jesus experienced true brotherhood. Living together for three years as they did fostered a profound and intimate friendship. There were days spent walking the dusty roads, stopping in villages to preach and minister to the throngs; nights gathered around the campfire, sharing food and their deepest thoughts and feelings. The Twelve felt so familiar with Jesus that they often had a possessive, protective attitude towards Him, trying to tell Him what to do, where to go, whom to avoid. As is evident in the Gospels, their vying for Jesus’ attention sometimes generated envy and competitiveness among them. Ardent and emotional, they weren’t above petty squabbles as to who was more important and favored by Jesus, or who should get special honors. They gradually learned to overcome these shortcomings and truly love and support one another. This is a perfect lesson as to how we, as members of Christ’s body, the Church, should behave towards one another.

In their trials and weaknesses, we find encouragement for our own struggles to transcend our limitations and be transformed. They desperately tried to believe, but didn’t know how to trust; wanted to be courageous, but were cowardly. Aspiring to love others and renounce self, they were at times egocentric and manipulative. They wanted to be devoted, but didn’t always succeed. Often, they found Jesus’ words hard to understand and asked naïve, even childish, questions. Only after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost were they truly enlightened about the deeper meanings in Christ’s teachings.

Although Jesus told them repeatedly that He would have to die, they were still profoundly shocked, bewildered and despondent when it actually happened. In this we recognize our own tendency to ignore the inevitable and refuse to prepare ourselves, only to complain and despair when the inevitable finally happens.

Yet, despite all their flaws, Jesus saw their great potential. He knew that through their association with Him, these twelve very human, very ordinary men would someday become extraordinary.

Simon Peter

Born Simon bar Jona (son of Jonas), upon meeting Jesus he was given the nickname “Kephas” in Aramaic (“Peter” in Greek), meaning “rock.” This must have amused those who knew him well, because Peter was far from rock-like in those early days! He was a volatile man, constantly wavering between loyalty and inconstancy, faith and doubt, bravado and cowardice. Big and broad, rash and impetuous, he often tactlessly put his foot in his mouth and was admonished by Jesus for speaking out of turn. But as the natural leader and spokesman of the Twelve, Peter was quick to respond to whatever Jesus wanted. When the others were disconcerted by Christ’s teachings, Peter remained firm. Although he found it hard to comprehend the true meaning behind Jesus’ mission, he loved Him heart and soul.

Along with the brothers James and John, Peter was part of the “inner circle” who were greatly trusted and relied upon by Jesus and sometimes singled out for certain privileges. For instance, they were present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, were the only Apostles to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration, and accompanied Him when He went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion.

When Jesus asked the Apostles who they thought He was, it was Peter who gave the touching, truthful answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” [Matt. 16:16]. At that point, Jesus made Peter the head of His new Church. Yet shortly after this extraordinary declaration of faith and loyalty, Peter tried to talk Jesus out of fulfilling His destiny of going to Jerusalem to die, and was admonished by Jesus with the shocking words, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Peter had to learn, as we all do, not to question or resist the will of God or apply human argument to His mysterious ways.

My favorite story about Peter is Matt. 14:28-31, which recounts his famous, impetuous dash across the water from the storm-tossed boat towards Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. When Peter’s mind caught up to his heart, he realized what he was doing, panicked, began to sink, and had to be lifted up by Jesus. This shows us that with faith in God and the abilities He has given us, we can do marvelous things. It’s only when we stop trusting God and rely solely on our own resources that we fall apart. It’s also a reminder to focus on the present moment. While Peter was concerned only with answering Jesus’ call to come to Him on the water, he was able to accomplish the miraculous. But when his mind moved off the present moment to dwell on doubt and fear, this marvelous ability fled as quickly as it had come.

The most striking example of Peter’s vacillating nature is, of course, his denial of Jesus, whom he loved so dearly. Yet, as horrified and filled with remorse as he was over his disloyalty, Peter did not despair as Judas did. He trusted that God in His infinite mercy and love would forgive him. Peter put his sin behind him and went on to become the leader of Christ’s Church on earth. This is a lesson in perfect contrition: the honesty and humility to admit our failings and make amends, the confidence that we will be pardoned, as well as the ability to forgive ourselves and move on towards what God has planned for our lives.

After Pentecost, Peter became a powerful leader, but still sometimes wavered in his resolve. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul admonishes Peter for separating himself from the Gentiles because of pressure from some Jewish members of the early Church. Peter learned to have the courage of his convictions despite criticism and opposition. In our own increasingly secular society, where our spiritual beliefs and moral values are constantly being challenged, we need to look to Peter’s example.

Peter was martyred in Rome by crucifixion during the reign of Nero in AD 64.  Popular tradition says he was crucified upside-down, although historic evidence of that particular detail is inconclusive.

Peter’s finest qualities were leadership, humility, devotion, faith, honesty, perseverance and hope. When first called by Jesus, Simon Peter protested, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” [Luke 5:8]. In our own lives we, too, often respond to God’s call by saying, “Not me, Lord – I’m not good enough!” But like Peter, we can put our past behind us and move forward, firmly believing that God can transform us into something greater.

In Part Two: Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew, and Thomas.

Photo courtesy of Waiting for the Word (no changes made). Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/