What happened to the disciples? – 02/20/22

Luke 6: 12-16

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Sermon Text

I am prone to history heavy sermons, but today is going to be mainly a matter of history. When the question was posed to me, “What happened to the disciples?” I wanted to take the time to look at what their life looked like once the book of Acts ended. There will, of course, be plenty to learn for our own life as we dig through the legends and records of their life. However, in terms of reading scripture, reflecting, and drawing meaning from it, this sermon will not follow my usual patterns. Today we look at the lives of the Saints, as we have been handed their story, and try to understand what that tells us about our own life as disciples of Christ.

The disciples came from several walks of life in ancient Judea. The first to be called to follow Jesus were fishermen from his hometown of Nazareth or nearby Bethsaida. In fact, only a handful of disciples can be traced to a location outside these two towns, and all of them still are from the Galilean shoreside. This area was at the Northern extreme of the Judean province, far removed from the historic center of Jewish life in Judah proper. Jesus and his disciples were in an area that was once part of the kingdom of Israel. Between Galilee and Judah was Samaria, a province and a culture that was as similar to the Judean people as it was different. Jesus and his disciples, despite what our initial reading of the gospels may suggest, were outsiders among their own people. They were rural hicks launching a ministry in the urban centers to the south.

 The life of the apostles as recorded in Acts and the Gospels shows us only a glimpse of what they were like. We know the personality of Simon Peter, the bold, if not misguided, head of the disciples. We know John was devoted to Jesus like no other, that Thomas – though questioning of Jesus at times – was the first to say he would die for his savior. Judas is perhaps the most developed of all the disciples outside of these, a thief and a betrayer and, perhaps, even a violent revolutionary.

The first disciple to die was Judas. After his betrayal of Jesus, Judas was overwhelmed with grief and guilt and returned the payment for his betrayal to those religious leaders who had paid him. There are two accounts for his death in scripture, the first and most commonly referenced description comes from Matthew 27:1–10, in which Judas hangs himself and the location of his hanging becomes a potter’s field for burial of the poor. This is contrasted by Acts 1:18 which says that Judas became bloated and fell in a field, exploding on the land that eventually became a potter’s field. The difference in these stories is sometimes reconciled as Judas completing suicide and then the body bursting after being cut down. Acts is probably just reporting a separate tradition that builds off of its wider themes of divine control.[1]

Judas is worthy of his own entire study at some time, a tragedy on every conceivable front. However, the disciples closest to Jesus continued on in their ministry. The Church was born on Pentecost and the Kingdom of God spread across Judea and the Mediterranean world. Initially the disciples stayed in Judea, though some movement is recorded, as when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. This seems to have been a rarity of the early Church as the disciples worked as a central leadership body in those early days. However, a variety of conditions eventually led to the disciples moving out from Judea and into the wider world.

Firstly, Paul had begun his gentile ministry and was making major headway in expanding the Church. This put a fire under the disciples to go out and do their part in spreading the Gospel. Secondly, persecution in Jerusalem was rising as tensions between Judea and Rome were reaching a high point. James the son of Zebedee is killed, traditionally by beheading. Finally, those tensions mentioned a moment ago eventually culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem which ended the Judean church and began the full diaspora of Jews and Jewish Christians.

The records of the disciples’ lives now leaves solid documentation in scripture at this point. Hagiographies and Martyrologies – the stories of saints and of martyrs – are the primary way we know what became of the other disciples. Philip, Bartholomew, and Thomas went to India and preached. Thomas has a legacy in India that extends into today, where Thomistic Orthodox communities still exist that trace their spiritual ancestry to Thomas’s congregations. Philip and Bartholomew traveled west after their work in India to preach elsewhere. While in what is now Turkey, Philip was crucified upside down for his ministry. His preaching led to Bartholomew being spared, and he was allowed to continue his ministry into Europe where he was killed by being skinned alive.

Thomas would be murdered by spearmen, Jude killed by an axe, and Simon the Zealot sawed in half. The only disciples that do not have well documented deaths are James son of Alphaeus and Matthew. The final names to be lifted up are Peter, crucified in Rome on an inverted cross. Paul, apostle to the Gentiles who was beheaded in Rome. John, son of Zebedee, the only disciple to die of old age while in prison on Patmos. All these deaths are recorded in various sources and the details are not always identical across them, so take each description above with a grain of salt.

The lives of the disciples were not easy. They all met horrible ends in the pursuit of spreading the Kingdom of God. These deaths in themselves are tragic, but they are not pointless. Every person who gave their lives in those early years of the Church achieved something greater than themselves – they spread the good news far and wide and they allowed the world to know God in a way they never had before.

In our modern world, in our specific context, we do not experience persecution. While there are certainly people who are against the Church and people who may treat Christians poorly, there are no systemic ways that the Church is oppressed in the United States, at least not for existing. Some people point to certain social media bans toward specific figures or certain social trends and provide these as evidence of Christian persecution, but these are seldom anything more than disputes that happen to occur to Christians or around Christian groups. I can confidently say that I am not aware of any widespread, systemic persecution of Christians in the United States.

This lack of systemic oppression is not a given for Christians in many places. There are many places where Christians are persecuted today. These persecutions are often regional, lacking the approval of the state but nonetheless having widespread repercussions. The Voice of the Martyrs is an organization that lifts up the stories of these oppressed Christian groups around the world. For these people, faith is a matter of life or death, they choose to accept the cross of Christ everyday they get up, and they do not know if or when they will be asked to die for their faith.

We honor these modern day martyrs, those who live into the legacy of the apostles in several ways. First, we advocate for them. I go further to say that our solidarity with the martyrs of our faith should lead to us advocating for all victims of religious oppression. The Uighurs of China are a Muslim minority currently suffering extreme persecution, they must be on our hearts alongside the persecuted Church. Though we do not share the same faith, we share the image of God, and we must advocate for one another. We must stand against the oppression of religious minorities, and we must pray daily for the martyrs of our own faith, finding ways to help them however we can. Again, Voice of the Martyrs is a helpful resource for this.

Secondly, we honor the martyrs of the past and present by being honest about our own privileged position. I personally am exhausted of persecution narratives often used by American Christians. The idea that there is some grand conspiracy against us in the United States does not stand up to scrutiny. While our world has become more secular, we are not being punished for remaining spiritual. The reality is that our present friction with a changing world is a natural consequence of the change in itself. Our response must not be to reflexively cry out that this change is an attack, but thoughtfully consider how our ministry must change to reach the culture that currently surrounds us. As long as we are free, to call ourselves persecuted is an insult to those who are truly suffering persecution.

Finally, I would say that looking at the martyrs of yesterday and today, we are given insight into the truth of our life in Christ. Jesus said that those who hate their life will save it, and those who protect their life will lose it. This seems contradictory, but Jesus is being quite literal in what he means. To believe in the Kingdom of God is to believe that Christ is going to make all things new, even our own bodies and souls. This means that death, a necessary end, is nothing for us to fear. Yet, we who suffer no fear of death, bend the knee to social pressure and convenience without ever being forced to do anything. How many have we failed to love because someone told us it was wrong to help them? How many have gone without hearing the word because we caved to the expectations of those around us?

The disciples all died for their faith, but that does not mean we necessarily will need to. We will likely live out our lives free of persecution, even if we do face conflicts between our faith and our circumstances. We must honor the martyrs then through our support of those that yet live, our admiration of those gone into glory, our honesty about our own privilege, and in a willingness to do all we can to serve God. Give your life to Christ, and even death loses its power. Let us serve God, even when the going gets tough. The twelve disciples all attest to the reality that there is more to life than living, and when we face no threat of life, then God calls us to even greater adherence to all goodness. Let us meet that calling. – Amen

[1] Contrast with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 or Herod Agrippa’s death in Acts 12

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