Last week we heard the story of an unnamed woman who anointed Jesus – he says – in preparation for his burial (Mark 14:3-9). Her giving was lavish and extravagant, to the annoyance of some who were there, but accepted by Jesus. I wondered if, instead of a frugal Lent, we might have an extravagant, lavish Lent – a Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.
Today we think about Twelve men. They have names we might know, although it’s not easy to compile a definitive list. Two of them – Peter and Judas – we will come back to on these Wednesday evenings. Tonight we think about ‘the Twelve’ as a group. It seems that Jesus had a purpose in choosing precisely Twelve apostles, or ‘messengers’ (Mark 3:16–19; Matt 10:2–4; Luke 6:14–16; and Acts 1:13). They are called by Jesus. They spend time with Jesus and are instructed by him. They are promised a role in the coming kingdom (Matt 19:28) and are sent out by him preach and heal. But why 12? What is the significance of their twelveness?
In the Hebrew Bible, the people of God consisted of the 12 tribes of Israel. Way back in Genesis (35:22–26), the patriarch Jacob (AKA Israel) had 12 sons who became the heads of 12 tribes which made up the people of Israel. The number 12 turns up in various places in the OT symbolising the whole people of God. In Exodus (24:4), Moses “built an altar … and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel”. Joshua was told to choose 12 men, one from each of the tribes, to take a stone from the river Jordan and to set them up as a memorial to their crossing the river (Joshua 4). In calling 12 men, Jesus seems to be gathering around himself a new people of God. In the OT story, the 12 tribes became divided and factional: the united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon became a divided kingdom, one northern (Israel) and one southern (Judah). Both north and south went into exile and were dispersed. The idea of drawing the 12 tribes back together became a potent one.
So, Jesus chooses his 12 and sends them out as missionaries to the contemporary people of Israel. In the OT, God’s calling of his people, from Abraham onwards, was never just about them: the people of God were supposed to be a blessing to the whole world.
I’ve just finished reading a book about mental health and I’ve started a book on politics – they are different subjects but there have been some interesting overlaps. Both books talk about community. Our ancestors were social beings. The human race has done so well as a species because we learned to cooperate. On the African savannah our ancestors were surrounded by large, fierce creatures. They managed to survive because they learned to hunt together and to defend themselves as a group. They learned the value of looking out for one another. Both books talk about the loss of community that began in the C20th and has accelerated in the C21st. We live much more separate lives – we have become ‘atomised’. My dad left school and did his apprenticeship at Dowty Rotol. They made parts for aeroplanes. When he retired, he had never worked anywhere else. Every morning he got on the bus and went to work. Every evening he came home on the bus. Some Friday evenings he would take us to the works sports and social club. In the summer, there were fetes and at Christmas, a party for the children. When we went on holiday, usually to Butlins, he would invariably meet someone he knew from work. My children, by contrast, have already had more jobs than my dad had in the whole of his working life. We talk about the gig economy. Zero hours contracts. Work is precarious. Increasingly, people work from home or on a rented desk. Work is no longer providing community.
We think of loneliness as being a problem of old age. And it is. But it’s also a problem for younger generations, who have social media but no social lives. Who have facetime, but no face-to-face time. The image of the modern family is of parents and kids, even in the same room, all looking at different screens. We no longer gather around the telly to watch the Morecambe and Wise show, we binge watch box-sets on demand. Families don’t eat together like they used to.
When I was at university, the personal stereo – the Sony Walkman – was invented. Seeing people walking in the streets with their earphones in, someone I knew commented, “defeated the object of being human”. And now we all do it.
The two books I have referred to both see this as a loss: one talks about the damage we are doing to our mental health, the other to the loss to society of shared experience. Both books say that building community is a project vital to our wellbeing.
But isn’t that what church has always been about? Community? Like the 12, centred on Jesus, learning from him, and sent out by him to mission and service. The time we spend together, the experience we share, the support we give and receive, equip us better to live our lives and to love one another, including those outside the church fellowship
The numbers attending worship are dwindling – partly because of the phenomena I’ve mentioned – and yet the need for community has not diminished. The 12 weren’t perfect – we know that – and neither is the church, present company excepted. But what we have found is – we believe – what the world needs. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t know that it needs what we have! And we are not very good at sharing it.
Jesus calling the 12 is a clue: although our faith is personal, the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone. It is meant to be lived in community; that community is not meant to be a fortress that keeps others out but a beacon of light that welcomes others in. And he calls them together around the meal table.