How the Disciples Became the Church
Did Jesus intend that his post-resurrection church continue the pre-crucifixion model of discipleship in every respect? I don’t think Luke understands that to be the case. At the conclusion of Jesus’ last Passover supper with his disciples, Luke records these words of Jesus:
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:35-37)
“But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” Jesus’ comments apply directly to the conditions of discipleship he imposed in Luke 9-10.
“When I sent you out,” refers to Jesus’ sending of the 12 (Luke 9:1-6) and the 72 (Luke 10:1-24) as an element of his earthly mission to proclaim the kingdom of God and demonstrate its gracious power. Jesus’ traveling disciples went out defenseless and penniless, completely dependent upon the hospitality (or hostility) of those to whom they brought the message and power of the kingdom. The traveling disciples’ ministry was a direct extension of Jesus’ own ministry. They proclaimed the same kingdom and called for the same repentance. By the spirit, they performed the same acts of power. They lived the same mendicant lifestyle. Like Jesus, they abandoned themselves completely to the grace of God for the sake of love. They exhibited the same ethic of pure grace and, like Jesus, made no concessions to the exigencies of living in a fallen creation. Jesus’ traveling disciples had no concern for building or maintaining the institutions of this world, either religious or secular. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he required his disciples to leave behind their wealth, property and occupations – even their homes and families.
Of course, the traveling disciples were not the only people touched by Jesus’ message and powerful deeds. Luke tells about some of these others who accepted Jesus’ ministry. Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) was one such person. Zacchaeus didn’t sell all that he had to follow Jesus on the road; rather, he gave half of his possessions to the poor. While this is still an extraordinarily generous act (motivated by God’s grace), it is not the same response that was expected of the members of Jesus’ traveling band.
Not everyone who heard Jesus preach or saw him heal was called to become a member of the traveling team. Most stayed at home, not because they were less faithful than the traveling disciples, but because Jesus’ required something different from them.
That makes sense, when you think about it. If everyone in Galilee and Judea had accepted Jesus’ message and then followed him on the road, who would have stayed to fish and farm and perform all the other mundane tasks that existence in this world requires?
Jesus’ crucifixion marks a turning point for the church. Before we examine why it was a turning point, let’s look at how it was a turning point.
Jesus’ little band of traveling disciples did not constitute the entire people of God. Jesus healed and taught many who did not follow him from town to town. While Jesus developed some on-going relationships with those who stayed at home (Lazarus, in the Gospel of John, for example), there was no attempt to create a single community, united in common mission and identity, out of all the people who accepted Jesus’ word and power.
After Jesus’ resurrection, however, the church (the “called” community, the ekklesia) was born. In Acts (Luke’s second volume) and the letters of Paul, we see that the New Testament church spent a good bit of its energy building a community (and an institution) with a common sense of identity and a common sense of purpose out of both its itinerant and its settled elements.
Some Christians traveled throughout the world to proclaim the message of Jesus and plant new congregations. Most, however, lived more settled lives in towns and cities (early Christianity was largely urban), worshiping God in Christ and exhibiting Christian love in their mundane lives. The stay-at-home Christians were just as much a part of the Christian movement as the go-on-the-road Christians. The settled church became the power-projection platform and sustaining base (to borrow some language from military institutions) for the itinerant church.
While the early Christians attempted to apply the example of Jesus’ words and deeds in their lives, they did not mimic in wooden fashion the model established by Jesus for his traveling band. Paul, for example, earned his living by his own labor, and did not survive by begging. Paul practiced the trade of tent-making, as did Aquila (Acts 18:3). There are also many references to the homes of believers (and the churches that sometimes met there), which would only be possible if some believers had homes (and jobs).
More significantly, we don’t find the New Testament Christians simply walking into town, casting out demons and asking someone to put them up for the night. The means and occasions for engaging people with the message of Christ became more varied as the church took the message of Jesus into the world.
There are clearly major points of contact between the apostolic church and the original community of traveling disciples, but there are significant differences as well.
Has Its Fulfillment
Why is the church living differently than the first disciples did? Why aren’t all Christians walking from town to town, without baggage or money, performing miraculous deeds, hoping for a meal, a bed and a welcoming ear?
The answer is not simply, “It’s not practical.” If that’s what Christ still demands, that’s what we should be doing.
The answer, rather, has to do with the unique place of Jesus’ earthly ministry in the salvation of humankind and the redemption of the world.
Jesus did not come just to show us how to live; he came to accomplish our salvation. That salvation culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In the cross and empty grave, the scripture has been fulfilled. The disciples who followed Jesus from town to town (and who went forth in his name) were part of that unique era of fulfillment. The exceptional rules by which they and their master lived arose from the exceptional purpose of Jesus’ life and death. Jesus was both the embodiment of God’s transforming power and the suffering servant who offered his life for others. The original rules of discipleship were intended only to support the revelatory and redemptive nature of Jesus’ ministry. They were not meant to be enduring laws for living, but to reveal who Jesus was and what he was sent to do. (There are also significant implications here for our understanding of Jesus’ teachings, but they are beyond the scope of this article.)
As Jesus announced to his disciples on the night before his death, the promises of God are now fulfilled. The rules that applied in the days of fulfillment no longer apply in the days of witness. Christianity does not consist of imitating the disciples of AD 30-33. The mission is now in a new phase and requires new rules.
Our job today is to witness to salvation in Christ, not to help Jesus effect salvation. That doesn’t mean that we ignore the example of Jesus’ life. The story of Jesus’ earthly life is the one great shining moment in history that shows us who we are and what we were meant to be. The “greatest story ever told” judges us where we fall short and draws us to become more than we are.
While Jesus walked on this earth, his disciples lived faithfully by abandoning the institutions of this world. Today, we are called to live faithfully largely within the context of everyday life.
As Christians wait for Christ’s appearing – and the arrival of the promised age – we live in a world where fields must be farmed and lakes fished, where taxes must be collected and institutions built and managed. For our work in this world, we need purses and luggage and, according to Jesus, sometimes even swords.