October 01, 2013

MISSION MATTERS: Are We Disciples Or Can We Strive To Be Apostles?

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When day came, he called his disciples to himself, 
and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles
— Luke 6:13

James O'Leary, S.J., chaplain and campus minister at SLU Madrid, offered this reflection as the homily for the Mass of the Holy Spirit on Sept. 10. Of particular interest is the distinction he makes between disciples and apostles.

The full Gospel is printed at the end of the homily, below.


We've just heard that when Jesus began to embark on the mission given to him by the Father, he first spent a whole night in prayer. He prayed to his Father so as to make a decision — a big decision — out of all of the many disciples who were following him, who were those few who were finally going to become his apostles?

I believe that sometimes we can be overly casual about using the terms "disciple" and "apostle," but when you actually think about it they really do have very different meanings. The word "disciple" comes from a Latin word that means "pupil" or "learner," and in the gospels, it's applied to those who commit themselves to following Jesus and learning from him.

There is almost a passive element to the term. We can imagine a disciple sitting at the feet of a guru and learning from him. The word "apostle," however, has a much more active meaning. It comes from the Greek and means "one who is sent." These twelve, then, are being chosen by Jesus to be sent out; they are being called by Jesus to carry out a mission, the same mission that Jesus received from the Father: the mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God and proclaim it in both word and act.

And yet, when we look at these twelve apostles, we see that Jesus has chosen a group of very ordinary people. When we look at some of them, we almost have to wonder if Jesus actually did make contact with his Father that night or if maybe the Father wasn't listening very closely at the time. We look at a man named Peter, someone who would later deny that he had ever known Jesus. Or Matthew, a former tax collector, and therefore considered by the Jewish people to be one of those hated collaborators with Rome. Or the sons of thunder, Jesus' nickname for James and John, both of whom wanted God to smite and incinerate a whole town because its villagers had refused to accept Jesus among them. There's doubting Thomas ... and Judas, who, as our gospel says, turned traitor. I think that any businessperson today could rightfully ask Jesus the question, Did you ever interview anybody for this job?

And to me, the amazing thing is that, with one notable exception, all those whom Jesus called, finally did commit themselves to proclaiming the risen Lord and the Kingdom and even testified to it with their own blood.

So...? Does the term apostle apply to us today, and if it does, how? Many of us gathered here this afternoon really are disciples. Literally, many of you are students. And yet, as Christians, each one of us, no matter our age, responsibility or place in history, is called by God to pass on the Gospel message, so that others may see and hear and respond. Each one of us is called, as the SLU Mission states, to transform society in the spirit of the Gospels.

And how do we do this? How do we become apostles? One answer, I believe, is found in an important decree from one of our General Congregations of not long ago. At this meeting, Jesuits from all over the world, gathered in Rome, asked themselves an important question, "What is it to be a Jesuit today?" And after much prayer and discussion, and probably arguments, the group came to the conclusion that to be a Jesuit today is to know that one is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus, as Ignatius was. It is to engage, under the standard of the cross, in the crucial struggle of our time, the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.

So the answer to the question of how to become a true apostle is, I believe, rather simple. Like the first apostles, we're not perfect people. We have our good days and our bad days, our ups and our downs. In a word, we, too, are sinners. And yet, when we, as men and women committed to the Gospel, come down from our mountains and encounter those who feel abandoned and disoriented, when we encounter those who want to listen to Jesus and to touch Jesus, we must know that, just like Peter, just like James and John, just like St. Ignatius, we too are empowered by the Spirit of God. We, too, are empowered to spread the Gospel, empowered to transform our world, through the way we live our lives, through the way we speak and listen, and through the way we establish right relationships with those whom we meet on this journey we call life.

Let us pray for God's favor so as to be up to the task.

— James O'Leary, S.J., chaplain and campus minister at SLU Madrid
Mass of the Holy Spirit, Sept. 10

Luke 6:12-19
Jesus departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. And he came down with them and stood on a stretch of level ground. A great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and even those who were tormented by unclean spirits were cured. Everyone in the crowd sought to touch him because power came forth from him and healed them all.

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