In our household fantasy sports teams have been the source of great excitement..and angst. What pick will I get? Have I done enough research to know my top picks? What if the players I want are taken before I get my pick? Will somebody make a good trade with me if one of my players fails me? My son has amazing success at noticing the underdog with underestimated talent. Many times Joe wins the game because he puts the overlooked athlete into play. Long before the draft night, he determines his options and goes big!
Just fourteen verses into Mark’s gospel Jesus is choosing His team. Mark’s narrative is succinct. He doesn’t give us more than we need. In just a few verses he tells us about a few of the more memorable players—just like real life! The top of the heap is given more press than those who work equally hard but don’t stand out…like a lot of us. We work hard. We love well. Our sphere of influence is quite local and, for most of us, that’s enough! In Mark’s Gospel we don’t get a full roster of the twelve select men. We read that Jesus chooses two pairs of brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. The other eight go unmentioned. Mark is clear about the timing. It’s game time! God’s realm has come near. Repent and believe me that it’s all good news!
More than 500 years ago, John Calvin looked in on this Disciple Draft and stated that God called “rough mechanics,” like the disciples, to demonstrate that none of us are chosen because of our great talent. Jesus’ picks are solid grace. But there’s an element of risk for these guys who drop their careers and leave their families to travel with Him. The opening line of this passage sets the stage with sobering news: John the Baptist has just been imprisoned. He is Jesus’ relative and his job description was to pave the way for Jesus’ success. He did it so well that he got noticed and then arrested. So when Jesus calls Peter’s number and asks him to put on a jersey for Him, Peter knows that signing the contract doesn’t come with a bonus. It potentially comes with a bounty—on his head! Some of the twelve are believed to have been John’s disciples first. They saw what happened to him and still said “yes” to being on Jesus’ team. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “yes” when Jesus picked him and look at the price he paid!
Calvin called the twelve “rough mechanics.” Let’s look at this team that Jesus put together. It might make us feel better about ourselves!
Jesus starts the process of choosing His team members with an all-nighter. Unlike our college nocturnal cram sessions, Jesus spends the night intentionally in prayer. His choices are Spirit-led, not haphazard. In Mark’s gospel we begin with Simon and Andrew, a pair of brothers. Jesus renames Simon “Peter,” meaning “Rock” because “on you, Peter, I will build My Church!” Peter is the Lebron James of his team. Jesus knows He can trust this passionate, impetuous man to lay a lasting foundation for His legacy. Peter has some rough moments after saying “yes” to discipleship. When he refuses to believe that Jesus’ might die for the cause, Jesus rebukes him more harshly than He did anyone else: “Get behind me, Satan!” Yikes! Later Peter denies even knowing Jesus after loudly proclaiming that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, even laying down his life for Him. Jesus is able to tame his wild side and channel that passion so that Peter indeed becomes the foundation upon which Christ’s Church is established. Andrew has a Greek name with no Semitic equivalent. This makes us think that Andrew and Peter might have had one parent or close relative who wasn’t Jewish. Picking a pair of men with mixed race background points ahead to Christ’s Church. It will include all nations and peoples. Jesus wants to widen the circle and embrace the stranger.
The next pair Jesus picks (according to Mark) is James and John. They are the sons of Zebedee. When Jesus calls them they are doing a day’s work with their dad. They have a family fishing business. But they leave their poor dad in the boat with hired workers and walk away from all that is familiar. I always feel sorry for Zebedee since he loses two key workers and the sons who were his retirement plan. But Zebedee’s wife was Salome. She was at the foot of the cross and at the tomb on the morning of the resurrection. So this family, it turns out, is all in for the Jesus movement. Jesus’ pet name for the pair is the “sons of thunder.” Jesus understands that these brothers have some fire in their bellies that can work to His advantage. While traveling through Samaria, villagers refused passage to Jesus and the disciples. As if on cue, the brothers ask Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and destroy them?” Whoa, boys! Those are the instincts of the sons of thunder! Jesus redirects their energy. James is martyred for his faith. He is murdered for show by King Herod. John becomes known as the “Apostle of Love,” living the last years of his long life writing letters to the Church from prison. Only Jesus could take electric voltage and transform it into love!
Next in the line-up is Thomas, who is remembered as the Doubter. He can’t believe that Jesus came back to life (let’s be honest—would we?!). Jesus isn’t mad at Thomas for his doubts. Rather, when He pops up in their hidden room, slipping past bolted doors, Jesus invites Thomas to touch Him to verify His wounds. Thomas’ doubt melts away and he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”
In John’s Gospel we meet another pair. Jesus travels through Bethsaida and meets Phillip. All He has to say is, “Follow Me” and Phillip joins the team. Phillip is so drawn to Jesus that he drags his friend over to meet Jesus. As Nathaniel approaches the charismatic coach, Jesus declares —in Bible speak, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” Nathaniel wonders aloud how Jesus knows him and Jesus tells him things about his life that He had no right to know. These two friends join the team, perhaps opening up the playing field to non-Jews since Phillip’s name is Greek. Tradition holds that they are crucified upside down together. Two more “rough mechanics,” in John Calvin’s words, who give up their life for the chance to be on a travel team with Jesus.
Jesus invites Levi to join the team. Levi becomes known as Matthew and is a tax man. Who asks an IRS guy to be a central part of a movement? Yet we are so thankful for Matthew’s gospel account that gives us a unique look into the life of Jesus. Judas of Iscariot is the self-appointed treasurer. When the movement doesn’t go as he thinks it should, he sells off access to Jesus for some cash. The poor guy goes down in history as the one who betrays the Son of God.
Faces in the background of the team picture are those whose lives are never explored. Perhaps we relate easily to them? We show up. We work hard. We sacrifice for our loved ones and our communities. But we don’t get any press. There’s the second James whose skill set is so much less celebrated than that of the other James that he goes down in history as James the Lesser. How would you like that humbling name as a team player? There’s a second Judas who is the guy with all the nicknames: Thaddeus, Judas, or Jude. Finally, there’s Simon the Zealot who is known as the most obscure disciple. But lack of prominence doesn’t stop him from giving it his all. We believe that he and the others were martyred for spreading the good news about Jesus to distant parts of their world.
Jesus doesn’t ask them to add one more commitment to their schedule. They don’t have one Zoom meeting per month to talk about their faith. Jesus calls them into a new way of being. Their identity changes when they say “yes” to Jesus’ invitation. It turns out that being picked by the charismatic Jesus is just the beginning, not the end. Living and traveling with Jesus requires them to continually rethink their world. As disciples they are asked to live in the now and the not yet. They sign one contract only to discover over the course of three years that there are eternal implications. Like us, they are asked to live the faith in the face of confusion and questions so that others will be drawn into Christ’s Church. They spend three years on the road with Him but still don’t recognize Him after the resurrection. A tax man, a reactionary, a doubter, an outsider; a friend who isn’t sure that anything good can come out of Nazareth; a thunderous youth who lives the last of his days writing letters of love; a convert who betrays the team leader unto death. These 12 men comprise the team that Jesus chooses. Becoming a disciple, it turns out, is something that any of us can do!
Last week we welcomed a new team into the leadership of our country. They face a population that is divided. They face a people who have drawn distinct lines of exclusion. Our leaders argue among themselves, like Jesus’ team members did. Some doubt. Most serve. Some betray. We’ve seen it. We are discouraged by it. We know the temptations of power are great. So we pray today for our leaders. We pray that they will recognize the tremendous responsibility that comes with their position. We pray that they will be authentic in their service and faithful to their constituency. We pray for God’s grace to shine upon our nation so that we might truly be one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
We look in on a team of men Jesus hand-picked who, in Calvin’s words, look like they could have come out of a greasy automotive shop. But Jesus taught them to fish—not with bait that tricks fish into biting. They converted people to a saving faith in Christ without a clever bait and switch tactic. So we watch for the opportunities for God to use us. We step out. We play hard. We campaign honestly for Jesus. We give thanks that He picks each of us to be a part of His team, no matter our handicap. This is extraordinary! This is grace! Amen.