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.

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