The responsibility of ‘the Twelve’

Father John A. Kiley

The four Gospel accounts from Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written perhaps thirty, forty, even fifty years after the events which they relate actually occurred. These four accounts were written possibly in Jerusalem, maybe in Syria, perhaps in Rome or elsewhere. One or two of these narratives were destined for Jewish readership; the other two were destined for Greek, Roman and Gentile circulation.

Yet all four Gospel accounts and Acts of Apostles as well agree on the centrality of “the Twelve” in the foundation of the early Church. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke list “the Twelve” with compelling similarity, especially when the differing decades and assorted destinations of these writings are considered. In Acts, St. Luke lists “Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas, son of James.” For obvious reasons, Judas Iscariot is omitted from this post-Easter listing but the betrayer had been included in St. Luke’s chapter 6, St. Matthew’s chapter 10 and St. Mark’s chapter 3.

St. Luke’s Gospel account makes explicit reference to the “Twelve” having been chosen by Christ himself and also having been characterized specifically as “Apostles” by Christ himself. St. John never uses the word “apostle” preferring instead the more generic word “disciple,” but he quite clearly makes an explicit reference to “the Twelve” on the occasion of St. Peter’s celebrated confession of Christ as the Messiah. Agreeing with St. Luke, St. John understands “the Twelve” to have been personally nominated by Christ himself: “Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?”He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray him, one of the Twelve.”

Deliberately reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel who directed ancient Jewish public life, the original apostolic band of selected disciples definitely flowed from the will of Christ himself and their importance was undeniably accepted as divinely inspired by the early Christian communities that were beginning to spread around the Mediterranean world. As this coming Sunday’s first reading at Mass will indicate, the Twelve were integral to the Church’s life from the beginning and they courageously and quickly accepted their divinely appointed tasks of discernment and leadership.

It is critical to note again that both St. Luke and St. John who wrote for quite different readerships made specific reference to the Twelve having been chosen by Christ himself. Christ had called them, educated them, formed them and commissioned them. The apostles never forgot that Christ was indeed their Lord and Master. His word was law. Any authority they possessed came from him. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” are the final words place on Jesus’ lips in St. Mathew’s account of the Ascension. Now, the eleven apostolic novices are impelled to act in the place of the Master by selecting a replacement for Judas the betrayer. This decision to act in the name of Christ was a truly awesome and courageous judgment on the part of St. Peter and his fellow apostles. These inexperienced and unproven apostles bravely and boldly began to appreciate the Church and their place in it as the continuation of the Incarnate Christ down through the ages. They were beginning to understand that the Church was indeed the Mystical Christ, still promoting his message, still maintaining his standards, still effecting his mission with authority and power, but now through their humble agency.

This assumption of authority was a tremendous step toward self-understanding on the part of the early Church’s leadership. The Apostles’ sense of calling, their awareness of vocation and their consciousness of mission would soon be greatly enhanced by the Pentecost event still a few days away. But their election of Matthias to replace Judas was already an impressive step toward collegial maturity and ecclesial responsibility. The machinery to teach, rule and sanctify, so powerfully displayed in the Church’s later centuries was taking shape in the very first week of the Christian era.