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    The Unlikely Disciples

    In the midst of fear, weakness and doubt came the news that led to great faith. April 5, 2015
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    Jesus had risen from the dead? How could this be? Even to his closest disciples, the Resurrection seemed unbelievable. How did the disciples move from fear and doubt, to joy and faith?

    Major Isobel Wagner, Jonathan Raymond and Colonel Eleanor Shepherd look at how Jesus' Resurrection transformed the lives of the women disciples who came to the tomb, the Apostle Thomas and the Apostle Peter.


    The Witnesses


    Stunned. Numb. Distraught. Their minds could not process the recent events. Could it be that only a few days before, Jesus had addressed crowds of people in the temple and powerfully spoken words of life and healing? The women struggled to grasp their present reality. Jesus, the life-giver, was dead—crucified because of their religious leaders' demands. They had witnessed his death. And now his lifeless body lay wrapped and buried in Joseph's tomb. As a final act of their love and dedication, they walked the distance to the grave site, prepared to anoint his body with spices. Who will roll the stone away? This question plagued their thoughts and they spoke about the task that lay ahead of them.

    Surprised. Filled with wonder. Fearful. The stone was rolled away from the entrance to the tomb! God had answered their prayers. They entered the tomb but there was no body to be found. How was it possible that Jesus was not there? They had witnessed his burial.
    How could they have doubted God's plan?

    Suddenly the space they were standing in was filled with a bright light. The women saw angels and bowed down in trepidation. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels said. “He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again' ” (Luke 24:5-7). Yes, they remembered! How could they have forgotten? How could they have doubted God's plan?

    Joyful. Enlightened. Hopeful. Commissioned to share the good news, they ran to tell the other disciples what they had seen and heard (see Matthew 28:7-8). Jesus was alive! They had witnessed his resurrected body. He had spoken to them and they had worshipped him (see Matthew 28:9). Soon the other disciples would share in their joy and see Jesus in person.

    Today our hearts share in the joy and hope that these women experienced that first Easter. Jesus is alive! Our minds are enlightened and enlivened by the Holy Spirit so that we not only remember God's Word but are empowered to live it. We are witnesses of the saving grace and power of God who raised Jesus from the dead and offers forgiveness of sin and a new relationship with him through faith in Christ.


    The Doubter


    For millennia, the Apostle Thomas has taken the rap for being the quintessential doubter in human history. The story of Thomas doubting Christ's Resurrection is recorded in the Gospel of John (see John 20:24-29). Thomas was absent at the time of Christ's post-Resurrection visit to his disciples. Later, when he heard the news, he wanted physical proof of Christ's Resurrection in order to believe the good news.

    It is curious that Thomas is stuck with the label “Doubting Thomas” when actually Mary and Peter first raised questions. At the empty tomb, Mary thought others had moved or stolen Christ's body. Mary's personal testimony was “He is risen!” Peter did not believe it. He immediately sought proof, running to the empty tomb to see if it really was empty (see Luke 24:12).

    There is more to Thomas than the embarrassment of that moment of doubt. While he was an impetuous doubter, he was also an emphatic believer in expressing his faith. When finally seeing the risen Christ, he boldly proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” This reunion occasioned a word from Jesus to all Christians who would follow late. He replied to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29 NRSV).

    All of the disciples were human, flawed and understood relatively little. Peter, too, was impetuous. James and John were called “Sons of Thunder.” God works with flawed people to his glory. Together, the Holy Spirit-filled disciples give us hope. In his remarkable, personal gift—infusing his holy essence of pure love into them—he was able to do immeasurably more through them than they could have asked for or imagined. So it is with us. He powerfully equips us for ministry and mission above and beyond anything we could do on our own.

    This was the case with “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas became an admirable example of Spirit-filled courage, obedience, service and sacrifice. He went on to lead a life of remarkable witness, ministry and mission. Tradition teaches that St. Thomas journeyed on to preach the gospel in Iraq and Persia and sailed to the west coast of India. When the Portuguese arrived in India in 1600, they found the Mara Thoma Church established through Thomas' ministry 1,500 years earlier. Praise be to God and the faithfulness of Doubting Thomas.

    Three nails and a crown of thorns Photo: ©


    The Follower


    Peter had always wondered why Jesus visited his home and healed his mother-in-law. When Peter saw his kindness to the sick townspeople gathered around their door that evening, he knew he wanted to follow Jesus the rest of his life.

    He hadn't hesitated at Jesus' invitation to follow him when he stopped by his fishing boat. Yet Peter wondered. Could Jesus see the intense desire in the heart of this young man, who had grown up learning to fish, to do something with his life that would really make a difference? Did he know how Peter would have to struggle to overcome his battle with fear? Did Jesus realize that he could make more of him than he could ever be in his own strength? Was that why he was willing to risk inviting Peter into his intimate group of friends, so he could mentor him?

    The turning point was the horrible day Jesus died. By then, they had been with him for three years. Peter had seen a quality of life in him that he never imagined possible. Jesus consistently treated people with respect and it was obvious that he loved every one of them. His disappointment with those who claimed to be religious leaders was evident, yet Peter knew that the moment they were willing to look at things from his perspective, Jesus would have infinite patience with them. He saw how Jesus responded to the openness of Nicodemus, leading him into an understanding of his kingdom.

    Peter was convinced he was one of his key supporters. He understood Jesus was instigating permanent changes in human relationships when he taught how the one who would be the greatest must be the servant of all. Ironically, that lesson was in the midst of an internal squabble about which of them was greatest.

    The night of Jesus' trial, overcome by fears once again, Peter denied he knew him and cursed those who said he did. Then, he realized the truth of how weak he really was. Devastated, Peter knew Jesus could never really count on him.

    Then, miraculously, after Jesus' Resurrection, he met Peter on the beach. He knew how weak he was. Yet instead of allowing that to define him, Jesus affirmed his love and repeated his first words to him, “Follow me.”

    Peter dared to believe that in doing so, Jesus would empower him to be all he ever wanted to be. In following Jesus, his life would make a difference.


    * * * * *

    On Good Friday, as Christians remember the Crucifixion of Jesus, Rob Jeffery and Major Wil Brown-Ratcliffe look at two men who witnessed it first hand--the centurion and Joseph of Arimathea--and the profound impact Jesus' death had on them.

    The Centurion


    "Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54). The centurion who oversaw the Crucifixion of Jesus was a man well versed in the art of violence. He was trained to kill and in all acts of warfare. His skills helped enforce the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), in which nearly all the known world was brought under the subjugation of Caesar. His talents included torture and using public executions as a way to inspire fear among the oppressed population. The scourging and humiliation of Jesus may seem like a chaotic and out-ofcontrol affair, but it was, in fact, a carefully conceived ritual of violence. Making the “King of the Jews” suffer, as much as possible for as long as possible, would cause other would-be rebels to think twice before raising their hand against Rome.

    Did the centurion know that this “rebel,” whom he ordered nailed to a cross, was one whose kingdom was built on love, grace and servanthood? Did he know it was the same Jesus of Nazareth who heeded another centurion's request to heal a much-loved servant, transgressing the boundaries of his own culture? Who even praised this Gentile, saying, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matthew 8:10)? No, the centurion did not know this. But as events unfolded that day, he understood that the natural world rose in revolt against the death of Jesus. An unnatural darkness blotted out the sun and an earthquake shook the temple, tearing the curtain from the top to the bottom. The tombs of holy men and women broke open and the dead became alive again.

    In response to these signs and wonders, the Roman centurion exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” Amazingly, these words were first spoken by the divine voice in Matthew 3:17: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” And now they were being affirmed by the centurion. Humbling words, from a man who knew only violence and strife.

    Our world today is full of such people. People brutalized by violence who only know how to perpetuate its vicious cycle. Stopping the cycle requires repentance, forgiveness and pardon. When Jesus said to his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), he no doubt had in mind people such as the centurion. May we live in hope that today's enactors of violence will make the centurion's declaration of faith.

    Jesus chained and being led by a Roman guard Photo: ©


    The Aristocrat


    Judea was a precarious place to live in the first century. The occupying Romans asserted brutal justice under the banner of the Pax Romana. The Jewish leaders and aristocrats walked the tightrope of balancing their pretended subservience to the Romans, with safeguarding the cultural and religious life of their own people.

    Joseph of Arimathea was one of the men negotiating this delicate dance. He was wealthy and respected by his peers and the common folk, and held a prominent seat as a member of the Sanhedrin, the religious Jewish council (see Mark 15:43).
    In a cataclysmic 12-hour period, the events of Good Friday created a crisis of allegiance

    Joseph had his life neatly arranged; he was successful, respected, had a position of influence ... but the problem was Jesus! This young man of no means or standing in society had appeared on the landscape. His teaching and popularity threatened to destabilize the balance of life in Judea. Joseph was a spiritual searcher, one “waiting for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51). He was fascinated by Jesus' teaching, which revealed both depth and simplicity. He was astounded by the reports of all Jesus' miracles and charmed by his charismatic personality. Joseph's spirit resonated in agreement with what Jesus revealed about God and his own mission in the world—but the risk was too great to publicly align himself with this man. He would be ousted from the Sanhedrin, forbidden to worship at the synagogue, become the laughing stock of his friends and disgrace his family. It was safer to be a secret disciple—to admire from a distance.

    But in a cataclysmic 12-hour period, the events of Good Friday created a crisis of allegiance.

    Joseph must have been present at Golgotha, the place of crucifixion, because Jesus had barely breathed his last when Joseph sprang from the shadows of fear and pride to declare his connection with Jesus. At that point he crossed the Rubicon of discipleship by putting his reputation on the line and boldly went to Pilate (the governor) to request the body of Jesus for a decent burial (see Mark 15:43).

    Joseph owned gardens close to Golgotha in which a tomb had recently been carved from the rocky hillside. Joseph kindly provided a resting place for the broken body of Jesus, a gift neither his family nor disciples could have afforded or acquired.

    We notice wistfully that it took Jesus' death for Joseph to step forward, and we're reminded of Jesus' prophetic words, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

    I wonder how many people are disciples “secretly, for fear...”? What will push us from remaining on the safe, guarded periphery and the complacency of secret discipleship to being bold enough to stake our claim for Christ?

    Joseph's defining act provided the birthplace of resurrection. What identifying act of discipleship will be the place of new life for you?

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