Have you ever noticed what fools the Apostles are? I mean, they’re kind of the comic relief of the Gospels. Check them out:
Jesus: *feeds 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish*
Apostles: Oh, no! Now there are 4000 hungry people? What are we going to do??? (Mt 14-15)
Jesus: Beware the leaven of the Pharisees.
Apostles: Aw, shoot, he’s mad because we forgot to bring snacks!
Jesus: Seriously? Snacks? Remember yesterday when I fed the 4000? Seriously? Nobody gets what I’m going for here? (Mk 8)
Jesus: I’m going to die and rise again.
Peter: Nuh-uh, Jesus, no you’re not! (Mt 16–yes, right after Jesus made him pope.)
Jesus: I’m going to die and rise again.
Apostles: Okay, but really, who do you think is the best? Me, or him? Because I think it’s me, but he thinks it’s him and…. (Mk 9)
Jesus: I’m going to die and rise again.
James and John: Yeah, cool, can we ride shotgun? Like, can we sit next to you? (Mk 10)
Jesus: One of you will betray me.
Apostles: I would never do that because I’m the best. No, I’m the best! No, I’m the best!
Jesus: Oh, let’s just go so I can be handed over.
Apostles: No, Jesus, it’s okay. See, we have two swords here!
Jesus: Oh my goodness I am SO DONE with you people!! (Lk 22)
Jesus: BAM! I totally rose from the dead!
Apostles: (once they’re done being terrified) Cool. We’re going fishing. (Jn 21)
Okay, so I’m paraphrasing here. But taken all together, this is some pretty damning evidence against their eligibility for Mensa. They’re not very bright, they’re not very holy, and they’re not very brave. Remember how 10 of the 11 (we’ll leave Judas out of all this) ran away when Jesus was taken? And remember how they kept hiding after he died? And remember how they were still hiding in the upper room 50 days after he rose? They weren’t exactly written as heroes.
But aside from the fact that ordinary Apostles teach us that God can use any one of us, flawed as we are, I think comparing the Apostles before Pentecost to the Apostles after Pentecost teaches us something dramatic.
The transformation of the apostles and the spread of Christianity throughout the known world not by violence but by preaching was impossible without the Holy Spirit.
The Apostles are uneducated, mostly fishermen, not philosophers and public speakers. Acts 4:13 makes this clear: “Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus.”
There was nothing charismatic about these guys. They weren’t clever or persuasive or attractive. They were “ordinary and uneducated men.” They had no business changing the world.
And even if they had been little cult leaders in the making, they were too cowardly to do anything as risky as preaching Christ crucified. Before the resurrection, they were so scared, Peter ran from a serving woman. But on Pentecost, he preaches to thousands. What changed? If Jesus didn’t rise, what made these inept cowards into brave evangelists? How did men who could barely follow a conversation convert the brightest minds of the ancient world?
Remember, if you will, that 10 of the 11 Apostles who walked with Christ and touched his resurrected body–risen with the wounds of his crucifixion–died to tell the story. And poor John didn’t survive to old age for lack of his enemies’ trying–they boiled him and poisoned him, he just wouldn’t die. The Apostles knew for sure and for certain that Jesus had risen from the dead and they gave their lives to spread the news.
They were convincing in ways they’d never been convincing, passionate and courageous and brilliant where before they’d been…well…ordinary at best. And what did they get out of it?
Well, first, they made themselves look like morons. Then they established insanely difficult standards of behavior. Finally, they were tortured and executed in excruciating ways–joyfully embracing shameful deaths for love of the Risen Christ.
Peter Kreeft exposes how ridiculous it is to credit anything but the resurrection with their transformation:
If the miracle of the Resurrection did not really happen, then an even more incredible miracle happened: twelve Jewish fishermen invented the world’s biggest lie for no reason at all and died for it with joy, as did millions of others. This myth, this lie, this elaborate practical joke transformed lives, gave despairing souls a reason to live and selfish souls a reason to die, gave cynics joy and libertines conscience, put martyrs in the hymns and hymns in the martyrs—all for no reason. A fantastic con job, a myth, a joke. (Fundamentals of the Faith)
See, there’s just no other explanation I can come up with for the peaceable spreading of Christianity throughout its first three centuries. Say what you want about Christendom and the Crusades, that first century, when people still remembered having known Jesus of Nazareth, that was some serious Holy Spirit action.
Otherwise, you’re telling me that incompetent, timid, ill-educated Jews transformed the world so that they could make themselves look dumb and get tortured in new and exciting ways? That all eleven of them were so committed to this lie that not one broke despite ridicule and sleepless nights and failure and fear?
If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with? (C.F.D. Moule)
It just doesn’t make sense to me.
And look at the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, a bureaucracy as inept as any the world has ever seen, has lasted longer than the greatest empires of earth—if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, why do we still exist? If he didn’t rise, who inspired and strengthened the Apostles? If the resurrection isn’t true, why on earth did they all throw their lives away to say it is?
Shoot, friends, there’s just too much happy coincidence in this if there isn’t grace. I know I’m presupposing that the Gospels are fairly historically accurate (a post for another day), but I just can’t get past the Apostles. This is what made me a Christian all those years ago: the eyewitness testimony of eleven weak men with nothing to gain and everything to lose. I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s got to be something there.
So go ahead, laugh at the Apostles. I think God chose the foolish of this world to shame the wise for the very reason that their weakness and simplicity and lowliness makes his power that much more evident. Choosing Peter as the first pope may seem foolish, but the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. Thank the Lord for our weak, scared, foolish Apostles and the way their poverty testifies to God’s power. Thank him, too, that our flaws frame his beauty just as theirs did.
I’ve got all this on my mind because of the Office of Readings from yesterday, the feast of St. Bartholomew. As usual, the Doctors of the Church say it better than I.
From a homily on the first letter to the Corinthians by Saint John Chrysostom
Paul had this in mind when he said: The weakness of God is stronger than men. That the preaching of these men was indeed divine is brought home to us in the same way. For how otherwise could twelve uneducated men, who lived on lakes and rivers and wastelands, get the idea for such an immense enterprise? How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? That they were fearful, timid men, the evangelist makes clear; he did not reject the fact or try to hide their weaknesses. Indeed he turned these into a proof of the truth. What did he say of them? That when Christ was arrested, the others fled, despite all the miracles they had seen, while he who was leader of the others denied him!
How then account for the fact that these men, who in Christ’s lifetime did not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, set forth to do battle with the whole world once Christ was dead—if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: “What is this? He could not save himself but he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? In his lifetime he brought no nation under his banner, but by uttering his name we will win over the whole world?” Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them?
It is evident, then, that if they had not seen him risen and had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much.