Sons of Thunder: Thoughts on what we know about and can learn from the apostles James and John.

Sons of Thunder

One of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid was the Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone ran for 5 seasons beginning in 1959 and had 150 episodes.

But out of all those episodes, I only remember one vividly.

It was called “It’s a Good Life” and was based on an award-winning short story by Jerome Bixby about a young boy who had God-like powers.

If anyone displeased him, he would use his powers to punish the offender in some horrible way and then “send them into the cornfield” never to return.

It was one of the creepiest TV episodes I ever watched.

Can you imagine having that kind of power?

If someone offends or displeases you, that person can be “sent away” with a wave of your hand.

Would you use it if you had it?

I think my Dad would have.

He used to say things like that to keep me in line when I was a kid.

He would tell me that if I didn’t stop doing something, he did not like he would “cloud up and rain all over me!”

Well at least he would not “send me into the corn field” never to return.

What does any of this have to do with the apostles?

Here is an event passed along by Luke.

Luke 9: 51-56

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.

This week’s featured apostolic biographies are about James and John.

The sons of Zebedee.

The Sons of Thunder.

Next to Peter, they are the disciples mentioned most in the Gospels, and almost always together.

They seem inseparable and of like mind.

James is usually named first indicating he was the older of the two.

Actually, many believe that John was pretty young when called by Jesus which is why in most paintings of John, he is beardless.

James is often referred to as James the Greater to distinguish him from the other apostle James, son of Alpheus, who is referred to as James the Lesser.

And just so you know, James the Greater is not the author of the Letter of James.

That was James the Just, brother of Jesus.

We first meet the Zebedee boys on the shores of Galilee.

They are in their fishing boat with their father and the hired hands.

Jesus comes along and tells them to follow him.

They do, immediately leaving behind their fishing business and family.

Along with Peter, James and John form Jesus inner circle.

The ones always named at important events in Jesus’ life.

We see the three of them at the healing of Jarius’ daughter.

We see them at the transfiguration.

We see them in the Garden of Gethsemane.

James’ and John’s close relationship with Jesus might have gone to their heads because they seek a place of privilege among the apostles and also believe they have the authority to render judgement on those who offend Jesus.

We see one of these events in Mark.

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ …

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

James and John wanted to be elevated to positions of power, even over the other apostles.

If you read Matthew, you might learn where they got their ambitious nature – from their mother who also asks Jesus to give her boys positions of power.

A bit more evidence of a desire for a special status with Jesus, maybe suggesting some sibling rivalry as well, is that John in his Gospel refers to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved”.

Maybe it was true, because Jesus gives John responsibility for Mary when John is the only member of the disciples who shows up at the crucifixion.

Anyway, the other apostles did not like this ambition, not one little bit.

They were furious.

This led Jesus to teach then all that to be great, one must be a servant, like Jesus.

Yet the passage about James and John I chose as our text today is the most telling, I think.

James and John have been with Jesus for three years.

Jesus in now headed for Jerusalem for his final act.

The disciples are sent ahead to find shelter and food.

James and John head into a Samaritan town.

Now, Samaritans think that the sacred place to find God is on Mt. Gerizim.

Jews believe it is Jerusalem.

Jesus is headed for Jerusalem and so these Samaritans want nothing to do with him.

James and John are offended and ask Jesus, Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 

Jesus rebukes them.

Some ancient Luke manuscripts add this statement from Jesus:

 “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy [the lives of men and women], but to save them.

While this addition to Luke might have been a later scribal supplement used to help explain Jesus reaction to James and John, it does exactly that.

Jesus did not come to destroy people, but to save them.

Just because these Samaritans had a different theological point of view was no reason to send them into the cornfield.

James and John seem to forget what they saw at the well when Jesus was with the Samaritan woman.

Jesus does not reject those who have differing points of view.

He saves them.

He loves them.

There are some references to John alone.

We see him telling Jesus about someone working miracles in Jesus name.

John told the man to stop.

“We get to do that and no one else!”

But Jesus tells John to let the man alone because he is for the Kingdom and so not against it.

Lots of judgement and privilege in these Zebedee boys.

John gets the honor of being the first of the Twelve to get to the empty tomb.

Not because Jesus loved him, but because he was fast.

John seems to have learned a bit of humility because he lets Peter go in first.

While Peter puzzles, John understands that the burial clothes having been left behind has meaning – Jesus is alive!

The last time we see James and John in the Gospels, they are on the beach eating fish with the resurrected Jesus.

Peter and Jesus are walking away and Peter asks, “What about John?”

Jesus says that John is not Peter’s concern and that John might live to see Jesus return.

That is it for the Gospels.

When we get to Acts, we see the brothers split up.

James has a brief presence.

He is executed by Herod with a sword pretty quickly.

His apocryphal history offers a bit more about James execution.

James encounters two magicians.

One is converted, the other magically binds him as punishment.

James miraculously frees the converted magician and the other unleashes demons who capture James.

James is handed over to the high priest and is ultimately beheaded.

Clement of Alexandria reports that the guard who took James to his execution asked James for forgiveness.

James forgave him and blessed him and the guard becoming a disciple.

For this, the guard is executed with James.

James is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament.

Other sources have James in Antioch with Peter before heading to Lyda and Africa all the while performing miracles along the way.

Finally, James is reported to have gone to India with Peter and ultimately alone to Spain at the behest of Mary who invites James in a vision.

James missionary journeys and particularly his trip to Spain are unlikely.

Nevertheless, Spain is where we find the second largest memorial to an apostle at the Cathedral of St. James of Compostela where it is claimed James is buried.

No evidence of this has ever been found, but Spain is happy to claim James much like Scotland claims Andrew.

We have a lot more information about John.

While we see a little about John in Acts.

John is with Peter in the Temple when they are accosted by the temple leaders and is also dispatched from Jerusalem to Samaria to investigate the acceptance of the Gospel there.

That’s basically it for John in Acts.

But there five books in the New Testament attributed to him.

The Gospel of John, which is believed by many to actually have been written John.

First John, which is also believed by many to actually have been written John.

Second John, which was likely written by a follower of John.

Third John, which was also likely written by a follower of John.

The Revelation of John, which is of considerable debate on many levels.

Unfortunately, other than the Gospel and Revelation, none really offer much biographical information.

I will say this, though.

If you read the Letters of John, the message is crystal clear.

That message is that we are to love each other – period.

Seems to show that John finally got off his high horse and understood what Jesus really came to say.

Revelation, if written by John, tells us only that he was exiled to Patmos during the time of Nero or Domitian.

What do we learn from the apocryphal literature?

One of the early traditions has John martyred in the year 50, before the Jerusalem Council.

The thinking is that John is not mentioned after Paul’s persecution of the apostles.

So, John must have been one of the apostles killed.

If true, John was not the author of any of the five New Testament books.

Most reject that early date of death.

There is way too much evidence that John lived a long life and died of old age in Ephesus.

The most detailed description of John’s missionary life is in the apocryphal Acts of John.

This book is full of fantastical material that defies belief but also offers some nuggets of geography that might be true.

This strange book has John head from Jerusalem through Miletus to Ephesus.

Along the way, John allegedly raises many dead people, destroys a pagan temple and commands bedbugs to depart.

He gets to Ephesus in 48, plants churches until 54 when he departs – maybe to exile on Patmos.

During his time in Ephesus, he drinks poison and lives to prove the power of God to a pagan high priestess.

John is also reported to have gone to Phillip’s crucifixion in Hierapolis to rescue Bartholomew.

He is also reported to have preached in Anatolia.

John’s exile to Patmos has two potential causes.

Nero, having heard that John would not give due obeisance to the Emperor, sends John there.

Others say that it was the Emperor Domitian.

Domitian is said to have brought John to Rome to be tried.

John is immersed in boiling oil and is unscathed.

He drinks poison and lives.

He then raises another who drank the same poison and died.

Because John seems impervious to punishment and death, he is sent to Patmos only later to be released after Domitian’s death to return to Ephesus.

Some of you might wonder about what happened to Mary.

She is rumored to have gone to Ephesus with John and lived there for many years.

Stories of John’s death, or lack of it, are varied.

There are a couple legends that John had a grave dug for himself and then lay in it offering a benediction and then dies.

Another report has the grave examined, found empty but for John’s sandals and a fountain.

This was believed to be the fulfilling the prophecy that John would not die before Jesus return.

Another of these ancient legends is that John, just before he died, old and unable to walk, was taken by his disciples to church where he said to them, “Little Children, love one another. It is the Lord’s command and if done is sufficient.”

What do we learn from the lives of these two brothers?

Maybe this.

James and John, even after years with Jesus were still pretty ambitious, judgmental and spiteful.

When they were rejected by the Samaritans, rather than just moving on to the next town they wanted to destroy the place.

To show what?

That they were superior?

That they were privileged?

That to disagree with them was such an offense that it called for violence?

Maybe all those things.

That was James and John.

Jesus rebuked them.

He came for the Samaritans, too.

Not to Lord over them.

But to love them and serve them.

Kind of like us, today, right?

We don’t take offense lightly, do we?

We take any slight or disagreement as a personal attack from “them” worthy of a violent verbal or physical response.

To show what?

That we are superior?

That we are privileged?

That to disagree with us was such an offense that it calls for violence?

Maybe all those things.

And Jesus rebukes us, too.

He came for “them”, too.

Not to Lord over them.

But to love and serve them.

And here is the good news, when we act like James and John, Jesus does not command fire to come down from heaven to consume us.

Jesus does not send us to the cornfield!

Jesus loves us and serves us and saves us.

That is what John ultimately learned and proclaimed to be the most important lesson he ever got from Jesus.

Little Children love one another.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Sons of Thunder – Who were James and John?

On June 28, 1972, Chiffon Margarine started running a commercial starring Dena Dietrich as “Mother Nature”. She is handed a stick of what she presumes to be butter, tastes it and gushes over the sweet, creamy taste of natural butter. Then she is told that it’s not butter; it’s Chiffon Margarine. “We fooled you, Mother Nature!” the announcer says. Mother Nature scowls, raises her hands and a there is a clap of thunder. This is followed by an elephant stampede in the direction of the announcer in one of the commercials. This amusing and popular commercial illustrated the common response of one offended by some perceived “lesser” person. Mother Nature is going to bring down a natural disaster on them because she was “fooled” into believing margarine was butter. We see this type of behavior in James and John, much to the annoyance of Jesus. Join us at John McMillan Presbyterian Church Sunday at 10 on Facebook Live as Pastor Jeff preaches “Sons of Thunder” a biography of apostles James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

The Keeper of the Keys: Who was Peter?

The Keeper of the Keys

One of the momentous birthdays of any young person is number 16.

Not just because it’s “Sweet Sixteen” and so the occasion for a big party.

But also, because the young person is now old enough to drive.

When I was 16, the process went like this.

I applied to the PaDMV and got my learners permit.

That allowed me to get behind the wheel as long as I was with a licensed driver.

Usually that was my Dad, sometimes my Mom, but never my brother.

After a couple of weeks of practice, I went to “Little Washington” where there was a State Police driver’s course where the dreaded driving test took place.

I took be a couple tries, I admit.

And once I passed the driving test, I was allowed take the care out on my own!

But I had only a junior license.

That meant I had to be off the road by midnight.

Finally, at 18, I had no restrictions, except for Jim and Marilyn Tindall.

They had the ultimate veto on my driving activities.

They had the keys to the car.

If I wanted to drive, I had to get the keys from them.

Then one day, my Dad came home from work and gave me my own set of keys to the car.

I had keys to the car!

I could take the car out on my own without asking for the keys.

My parents trusted me with the car.

My parents trusted me with the car even though they knew that I was far from perfect.

And I proved that.

I got traffic tickets.

One time I drove home from school with the emergency brake on.

Another time I ran out of gas.

And then there was the time I sideswiped the wall of the driveway and seriously scraped the side of the car.

Yet, despite all these demonstrated imperfections in my driving, Marilyn and Jim never took the keys back.

They continued to trust me and my driving.

One time I even drove most of the way to Florida on a trip with my Mom to deliver by Grandparent’s Cadillac to their winter residence!

And then, when my parents’ health began to fail, I became the keeper of their keys.

I was in charge of caring for them and their heritage.

In some ways, this is how Jesus dealt with Peter.

We see it in our scripture reading this morning.

Matthew 16: 13-23

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

We begin our series on biographies of the apostles with Peter, which is appropriate.

Peter is one of the most well-known of the Twelve.

And today, we see why.

Jesus has been teaching and healing all over Galilee and has amassed quite a following.

When he has a moment with the Twelve, he asks them who the other folks think he is.

A few answers come forth.

John the Baptist, Elijah, Jerimiah, one of the prophets.

These folks were all dead, of course, so one wonders why folks thought Jesus was any of them.

Jesus then askes the Twelve their view.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Peter, like an impetuous school boy, immediately proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of God.

Jesus seems more than pleased.

He rewards Peter’s incite and perception by giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

That is why we think we meet Peter and the “Pearly Gates” of heaven after we die to see if he will let us in.

Those Pearly Gates are a topic for another time.

Anyway, no one gets into the kingdom without Peter’s approval.

And anyone with Peter’s approval gets in.


That’s a lot of power.

So, Peter must have really understood Jesus, right.

He must have been a loyal, obedient disciple, right?

Maybe not.

In the next paragraph of Matthew, Jesus tells the Twelve that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 

This is Jesus’ mission.

How does Peter react to this?

Peter forbids it!

Peter tells Jesus to abandon his mission so he can stay in the world with Peter.

Now Jesus is less that pleased.

 Jesus scolds Peter for being like Satan who tempted Jesus, trying to get Jesus to give up God’s plan in return for worldly power.

“Get behind me, Satan!”


This was not the last time Peter would “fail his driver’s test”.

Remember when Peter witnessed the transfiguration?

He wanted to keep Jesus, Elijah and Moses on the mountain.

Remember when Peter jumped out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus?

He nearly drowns.

Remember when Peter prayed with Jesus in Gethsemane.

He fell asleep.

Remember when Peter said he would not abandon Jesus?

He denied him three times.

Remember when Peter went to the tomb?

He did not understand that Jesus was alive again.

And yet, despite all this, Jesus did not take the keys to the kingdom of heaven back.

Instead, Jesus reaffirms that Peter is the foundation of Jesus’ church and tells Peter to spread the Gospel.

We see a bit of what happens next in Acts.

Peter is now in charge.

He organizes the election of Matthias as Judas’ replacement.

Peter is inspired by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and preaches a sermon that results in 3,000 conversions.

He appears in the Temple daily telling people about Jesus and ignores the threats of the Temple authorities.

He and John go on a missionary journey to Samaria and Lydda.

While Peter is living in Joppa, he is summoned to meet Cornelius the Roman centurion in Caesarea.

Peter baptizes this Roman gentile and is summoned to Jerusalem to explain himself.

Peter declares that people need not adhere to Jewish purity restrictions to be followers of Jesus.

A few years later James the brother of John is killed by Herod.  

Peter is arrested by Herod when the Jewish population seem to approve of James’ death.

But Peter escapes.

He goes to the home of John Mark and then mysteriously “left for another place”.

Where, we do not know.

The next and only other time we hear from Peter in Acts, he is supporting Paul’s argument that gentiles are welcome to be followers of Jesus with few restrictions.

And that is the last we hear of Peter in Acts.

We have some gaps to fill, right?

Like, where was Peter after he left John Mark’s house and before the Jerusalem Council?

And where did Peter go after that?

We do have some clues in other books of the New Testament.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, describes running into Peter in Antioch and scolding him and accusing Peter of hypocrisy for refusing to eat with Gentiles when James and the leaders from Jerusalem were around.

So, Peter must have been in Antioch for a time, and secondary sources suggest Peter was a considered the leader of the church there for a while.

Paul also suggests in his first letter to the Corinthians that there were some folks in Corinth who claimed to “belong to Cephas”, another name for Peter.

So maybe Peter preached in Corinth, too.

We, of course, have two letters from Peter.

First Peter is accepted by most to be really Peter.

The second letter not so much, but that issue is for another day and 2 Peter offers no biographical information of Peter anyway.

First Peter. On the other hand, is addressed to churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.

We can conclude from this list that Peter had planted these churches or at least visited them.

Then we have the Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark is believed by many to be Peter’s memoirs recorded by John Mark while he and Peter were in Rome. 

There is a good deal of evidence for this belief.

If true, Peter made it to Rome, at least once, probably near the end in his life.

That is basically it for the New Testament.

Once we have used up our New Testament sources, we need to wade into what are called apocryphal sources and patristic sources.

Apocryphal sources have doubtful authenticity though were widely circulated and claimed to be true.

There are talking dogs and baptized lions and flying magicians.

There is a story of Peter’s beautiful daughter, Petronilla, who is paralyzed as a young woman so she could not be seduced by an older man.

Peter heals her to prove God’s power, but then paralyzes her again for her protection.

Peter’s wife, Perpetua, is martyred.

When taken off to be killed, Peter rejoices that she was being called home to the Lord and counsels her to “Remember the Lord!”

There are many of these apocryphal documents that are claimed to be authored by or are about Peter.

The Gospel of Peter.

The Acts of Peter.

The Apocalypse of Peter.

The Preaching of Peter.

The Letter of Peter to Phillip.

There are others.

All were rejected by the church fathers in the early church.

Regardless, they offer no insight into Peter’s life.

Where we do get some useful information is in what is called Psuedo-Clementine Histories and Recognitions which purport to be a diary-like account of someone named Clement (but not Pope Clement, which is why it’s “Pseudo Clement”) who traveled with Peter and observed his spiritual battles with Simon Magus the heretical magician we read about in Acts.

These “Star Wars” like battles are clearly dubious, but they do offer some descriptions of where Peter might have been as he and Simon Magus fought their battles.

It is claimed that Peter went to Rome early on to confront Simon Magus and then had to go back to later confront Simon Magus again.

That confrontation resulted in Simon Magus’ death, but while in Rome that second time, Peter was detained by Nero and ultimately killed.

While these stories from Pseudo Clement are fantastical, the fact they identify specific places on Peter’s purported journey might have some nuggets of truth.

If so, Peter was in Tyre, Sidon, Berytos, Byblos, Tripolis, and Laodicea during his travels.

So, what about Peter’s death on a cross upside down?

This is an apocryphal story from the Acts of Peter and Paul.

In this story, Peter is pleading to be killed in a way different from Jesus because he is not worth to be crucified like Jesus.

Was Peter buried in Rome?


The apocryphal sources claim that Peter’s body was taken by a Roman Senator and Christian named Marcellus.

Peter was buried on Vatican Hill and memorials sprung up commemorating the spot.

That where St. Peter’s Basilica is today.

In the 1940s there was a excavation of the site to see if Peter was really there.

What they found was a burial site of many, but one in particular, near the claimed burial site of Peter was thought to be … well … Peter.

In 1968, a study of the bones of a stocky, muscular man of 5’ 4” which was tall for Peter’s time.

Those bones are now relics scattered about the Vatican.

So, what do we make of this?

While many of the non-canonical stories of Peter are dubious, they do demonstrate that Peter, despite his impulsiveness and frequent misunderstandings, mistakes and failures, was, in fact, the foundation of the early church.

These stories are illustrations of how important Peter was to the early believers.

Jesus was right to leave the keys in Peter’s hands.

Does this have any application to us?


While Peter was far from perfect, Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom.

And while Peter made many mistakes, Jesus let Peter keep them.

We are not given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, but we are given a call to continue the spread of the Gospel and to live the Jesus way.

Like Peter, we are not always right.

We make mistakes.

We falter.

We fail.

But we keep on trying.

Jesus does not revoke our discipleship.

We are still trusted with the mission.

To some degree we are now members of the keepers of the keys.

Responsible for the care of our Christian heritage.

And like Peter, we do the best we can.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Who was Peter?

When I was in Elementary School, I was given a history lesson about George Washington, the Father of our Country. It was said that he never told a lie. Even as a child, he would not tell a lie. The story we heard was that his father gave him a hatchet as a gift. Washington was anxious to use it on something. He took it and cut down one of his father’s cherry trees. When his father, outraged, cried asked who could have done such a thing, young George said, “I cannot tell a lie. I did it.” Washington’s father purportedly embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was more valuable than a thousand cherry trees. Wow. That story is supposed to teach young folks that telling the truth even when punishment is inevitable is better than lying. An important lesson indeed. But did it really happen? No. It was a story made up years later by Washington’s biographer Mason Locke Weems. Why do we continue to tell that story? Because it is cute, and the message is a good one. This reminds me of the disciples. When we hear strange stories about them, we wonder if they are true and where we might find the sources. Peter for instance is who we meet at the “Pearly Gates” of heaven after we die. Peter decides if we get in. What’s with that story? How did Peter get that job? What doe we really know about Peter? Join us an John McMillan Presbyterian Church Sunday at 10 on Facebook Live when Pastor Jeff preaches “The Keeper of the Keys” and summarizes what we know and don’t know about the Apostle Peter.

Strange Companions: Thoughts on what little we know about the disciples, and what we can know.

Strange Companions

Last Sunday the Post-Gazette reported that former Pittsburgh Steelers employee Bill Nunn had been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nunn will be inducted this spring with former Steelers Bill Cower, Donnie Shell, and Alan Fanaca.

Pretty good company.

Who was Bill Nunn?

He was the first African American appointed to the front office of the Steelers.

At the time of his death in 2014, Nunn was a senior assistant in the Steeler’s player personnel office.

He had been with the Steelers for 46 years.

According to SBNation:

Nunn joined the Steelers in a part-time capacity in 1967 as part of the scouting staff. Working as the managing editor at the Courier, Nunn became an expert when it came to players at historical back colleges and universities. Working on a “Black College All-America Team,” Nunn’s extensive knowledge was something the Steelers tapped into. Coming on as a full-time employee in 1969 when Chuck Noll became the head coach, Nunn played an integral part in the selection of players who shaped the Steelers’ 1970s dynasty. In all, Nunn was a part of all six of the Steelers Super Bowl championships …

Who were some of the Steelers Nunn “discovered” at these historically black colleges and universities?

L. C. Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N) (10th round); Mel Blount (Southern); Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern) (8th round); John Stallworth (Alabama A&M)(4th round); Donnie Shell (South Carolina State)(free agent); and Glen Edwards (Florida A&M)(free agent).

Not too shabby!

And while Nunn was known best for finding players who would become extraordinary Steelers with many accomplishments and championships, that was not all of what he was trying to accomplish.

When interviewed by the Post-Gazette in 2007 when Nunn was first nominated for the Hall of Fame, he said this:

“The one doggone thing I’m proud of is the way I might have been a part of opening some doors to pro football for black men, not just players, but coaches and front office personnel. I’ve been able to see progress.”

Nunn spent his career seeking out the best talent to make the Steelers the best football team they could be, but he also opened doors of opportunity to people who would not have otherwise had it.

Nunn went to places to find folks who might otherwise been overlooked.

Men who might have been overlooked because of their color.

When I read about Nunn, it made me think of Jesus picking the best candidates for his inner group of 12 disciples from places and circumstances that would be easily overlooked.

Yet that is what Jesus did.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Mark 3: 13-19

13 He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15and to have authority to cast out demons. 16So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, 19and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

What is interesting about our text is that unlike other disciple call stories, even other call stories earlier in Mark, we don’t see a Jesus who just wanders along the roads and shoreline of Galilee picking off strangers to be his disciples.

By the time Jesus gets to this mountain, he has throngs of followers who have heard him preach with authority and seen him heal lepers and drive out demons.

He is famous.

Jesus is a celebrity.

He even needs to have a boat brought for to him to stand in so he can preach with some distance between him and the crowds.

After a day of teaching in a synagogue that included confronting religious leaders who were now figuring out a way to kill him, Jesus went up the mountain with the followers he wanted with him.

Jesus then intentionally selects 12 particular individuals to be his inner circle.

He ordains them “apostles”.

Those who will be sent forth as his messengers.

The apostles were probably like many of Nunn’s picks, unknown folks, likely unappreciated and even demeaned for their social status or occupation.

We don’t know what criteria Jesus used in making this selection of the Twelve, but I suspect he knew something about each of them that made them good choices.

Nunn’s criteria was to pick folks who fit the needs of Coach Chuck Noll.

“Athletic players with a strong work ethic and football sense,” according to Ed Bouchette and Ray Fittapaldo in their 2014 obituary of Nunn.

The first years of such picks brought Pittsburgh 4 Super Bowls in 6 years.

Seems like a pretty successful bunch of picks.

What we know of Jesus’ criteria was that he wanted folks to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. 

And in our scripture reading, we see their names.

With the exception of Judas, who we will look at later, that is exactly what they did.

How do we know?

Here we are, 2000 years later.

Without these Twelve, we might not even know who Jesus was, what he did, and what he said.

Seems like a pretty successful bunch of picks.

But what do we know about them?

Not a whole lot, really.

We know the most about Peter.

A fisherman who was quick with his words but less so with his wits.

A big talker who jumped to conclusions and often to the wrong conclusions.

A bit of a control freak, who tried to harness God.

At one point, a confused quitter.

But we also know that Peter did take the Gospel to the far regions.

Peter wrote a couple of New Testament letters and might have been the source of all the information in the Gospel of Mark.

Then we have James and John.

We can talk of these two in tandem because we never really see them separately.

Men in a commercial fishing business that was probably handed to them by their father.

James was the older of the two and John the younger.

What we do know about them is that they were concerned with their rank in Jesus’ kingdom.

Who was going to be at Jesus’ right hand and left hand?

Even their mother wanted to know the answer to that question.

Sounds almost like sibling rivalry that bled over into their discipleship.

Even the other disciples were irritated with them for their ambitiousness.

We know a bit about Matthew, also known as Levi.

He was a tax collector and so not very popular among the people.

We know that he had a dinner party for his friends and invited Jesus.

The religious leaders thought this scandalous.

But the event gave Jesus an opportunity to tell folks that he came to save and ended with a reconciliation between Mathew and Peter.

Andrew was Peter’s brother who was a disciple of John the Baptist.

Nothing more about him.

Thomas was a twin.

He was a skeptic.

Beyond that, nothing.

Of course, we know about Judas Iscariot.

Treasurer of the disciples.




Always named last in any list of disciples.

Then there are the rest.

This makes me think of the theme song to the first season of “Gilligan’s Island”.

A list of characters.

But not all of them.

Gilligan, the Skipper, too, a Millionaire, and his wife, a movie star … and the rest!

But what about the other two?

The next season the song was changed to replace “and the rest” with “the professor and Mary Anne” because … well … they needed to be named!

So, who are “and the rest” of the disciples?

Philip, and Bartholomew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean?

What do we know about them?

Virtually nothing from the New Testament.

We can look at the Acts of the Apostles.

We see some reference to disciples there.

But beyond that we must rely on other non-scriptural sources.

Why is that?

As the disciples went about their work, they took little time to document what they did.

They were not out seeking fame or fortune.

They were not out to be remembered.

Which is why we know so little.

That we want to know something about them is understandable, but that is not what they thought was important.

They were out to change the world.

And that they did.

What non-scriptural sources can we look to?

Most of the disciples have “histories” that arise from traditions of the early church.

Descriptions of where the disciples went on their missionary journeys, to whom they preached the Gospel, their successes, failures and ultimately how they died.

Here is an example.

Do you know why Scotland calls Andrew its patron saint?

According to legend, Andrew traveled extensively on his missionary journeys.

One legend claims that he actually came to Scotland and built a church in Fife.

Another legend claims that after Andrew’s death, several of his relics were brought to Fife sometime in the 4th century.

St. Andrew has also been remembered down through the ages for how he died.

Legend has it that Andrew believed himself unworthy to be crucified on a cross like that of Christ, and so he asked to be crucified on an X-shaped cross which became his symbol.

St. Andrew’s cross, in white on a blue background, is the symbol we see on the flag of Scotland.

Is there any basis for all this?

Who can say?

Most of the traditions such as this come from what we call secondary sources.

References to information purportedly provided by folks who knew a particular disciple.

Other sources include what we call “Gnostic Gospels” claimed to be written by or about particular disciples, but which contain stories that are fantastical and clearly mythical.

Some of these claim to quote Jesus with words that are nonsensical except for people “with special knowledge” called gnosis, which is where they get their name.

But in each one of these sources of information, however vague or weird, we can find nuggets of truth that tell us just a bit about a particular disciple.

But regardless of the different sources of knowledge about the disciples, we can know this.

What we can know is that the disciples, regardless of their strange biographies did indeed do what Jesus asked and trained them to do.

The went and proclaimed the Gospel to all the world.

They were the founders of the church of Jesus Christ.

Does any of this mean anything to us?

 I think so.

We are their descendants.

As the current generation of Jesus’ disciples, we are often strange companions, too.

Our differences are many.

Our goals and desires are diverse.

Our imperfections are too often obvious.

Our understanding of what Jesus how Jesus wants us to live are inconsistent.

Yet we all come here as one faith community with the singular goal of following Jesus.

We would like to be remembered for it, but let’s face it, no one here can expect to be remembered by anyone beyond a couple generations unless their name pops up on family ancestry search or someone peruses some old church baptismal records.

Our legacy is not who we were, but what we leave behind.

For those of us here, one of the things we leave behind is this church and all the impact it has and has had on our families, our communities and the world around us.

The changes to the world we made and make.

The changes in the lives of others we made and make.

That makes us very much like the Twelve.

Little known, but an important part of Jesus’ team knowing, glorifying and serving God.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: Strange Companions — Who were the disciples sermon series introduction.

The CBS sitcom Gilligan’s Island premiered in September of 1964. The premise of the show was 7 wildly dissimilar people stranded on a deserted, uncharted island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The initial theme song was a catchy tune that listed five of the seven characters. “Gilligan, the Skipper, too, a millionaire and his wife, a movie star…. The remaining two characters, the Professor and Mary Ann, were listed as “… and the rest” …. Why? They were originally considered “second-billed co-stars” But with the growing popularity of those characters in the first season, their names were inserted into the lyrics in the second season. “the Professor and Mary Ann” were added in place of “and the rest”. What does that have to do with the Christian religion? Nothing, of course. But it comes to mind when I am asked about the apostles. There are twelve, right? Can you name them all? Certainly Peter, James, John, Matthew, Judas and maybe Andrew. But what about “the rest”? Who are these second-billed co-stars? What do we know about them? What happened to them? Well, Pastor Jeff and Pastor Matt will be trying to find out answers to those questions in their 2021 Lenten Sermon Series,” Strange Companions”. We will be able to cover 7 of them, but we will cover all of them in time. This week Pastor Jeff will preview the series with a bit of background. We hope you will join us on Facebook Live at 10am on Sunday, February 14, 2021 (or later to watch the recording on Facebook or YouTube).