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The New People of God

An address by Fr John Slater

24 August 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I read Theology in Cambridge in the late nineteen-sixties. At that time, the course was largely focussed on the Bible, Christian doctrine and Church history. Thirty-five years later the new course in Religious Studies now includes psychology, sociology, anthropology and comparative religions - a very significant change. In 1999 I had a sabbatical at St George’s College in Jerusalem. When I spoke with the tutors there about how I should spend my time, they pointed out that there had been a revolution in New Testament studies since my time in Cambridge and that it was time I caught up.

The really big change turned out to be a rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus - based on new archaeological evidence and new scholarship of the world in which Jesus lived. At that time there was no single form of Judaism but a number of groups trying to dominate each other. There were the Sadducees - a priestly aristocracy whose focus was the sacrificial cult of the Temple; and then the Pharisees with their emphasis on the Law of Moses. There was Herod’s party which was unpopular with the others because of its collaboration with the Roman Empire; and then there were the Zealots who were really terrorists seeking to overthrow the Romans by violence.

The historical Jesus belongs in this world. One of his disciples was called Simon the Zealot, while another, Matthew, had been a collaborator and tax-collector for the Romans. Jesus was very critical of the temple when he visited it in the last week of his life and overthrew the tables of the money-changers. Of all the groups in contemporary Judaism, he was closest to the Pharisees. Most of his ministry was spent in the villages of Galilee with their synagogues where the focus of the liturgy was the reading of the Law of Moses and the prophets. And yet it was for the Pharisees that Jesus reserved some of his most biting criticism for their obsession with the letter rather than the spirit of the Law.

One of the most significant features of the ministry of Jesus is his calling of twelve disciples. This was a way of saying that the old Israel could not simply be reformed and improved; there had to be a new beginning. Just as the old Israel began with the twelve son of Jacob, so the new Israel would be founded on the twelve apostles. When Peter made his great confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Jesus replies that Peter is the rock on which he will build his Church. There is to be a new Israel, a new People of God.

The twelve disciples were a very mixed group including fishermen, a former terrorist and a former collaborator as well as Judas who would betray Jesus perhaps because of a misunderstanding of what Jesus was doing. Even the inner core of Peter, James and John fell asleep during Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and most fled from the final scene of crucifixion. You might think they were not a promising start to the new Israel.

But one of the facts that we cannot avoid is that the very same men who were so weak and fearful at the time of the death of Jesus were so completely transformed by his resurrection. After a brief time of hiding behind locked doors the remaining eleven disciples went out to begin their own courageous ministry of proclaiming the risen Jesus.

Bartholomew is one of the disciples we know the least about, even in the New Testament tradition. We have to assume that he shared in this amazing transformation from fear to zeal, from looking back to the old Israel in which he was born to a commitment to the new People of God, the Church which Jesus had founded on the confession that he was the Messiah. The disciples became apostles. A disciple is a follower, just as the twelve disciples followed Jesus in his ministry around the Sea of Galilee. After the resurrection, they became apostles - men sent out on a mission to proclaim the Good News about Jesus.

This is something we all need to share. There is a time to be a disciple, a follower, someone who is learning what it means to be a Christian and to belong to the new People of God. There is also a time to be an apostle, a Christian with a mission to proclaim the faith and to call others to know God as he has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.
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