Mark 3: 13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
“Jesus of Nazareth invites the honor of your company at a banquet to be held in his honor,” says a poster that was popular in many churches some thirty years ago. The banquet in mind is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the triumph of God at the end of this age, and the renewal of Creation, when Christ returns.
That poster, and that invitation are good ways to answer the first of three questions I’ll touch on briefly: Why did Jesus choose disciples? The other two are: Why did he choose twelve? And then, So what? What does that matter for us, twenty centuries later?
To answer the first question, Why disciples, when sometimes the church makes it sound like all Jesus came to do was die for our sins and rise from the dead? We need look no further than Mark 3, verse 14 and the words, “to be with him.” Yes, Jesus chose disciples, as the verses go on to say, that they might do things like preach the gospel and to free the demonized. But that’s based on the previous words, that they might “be with him.” Out of love Jesus came looking for company, for friends, for relationships, in particular, for you and me. For intimate, face-to-face friendships with the likes of us. Everything else we might do as his disciples, depends first upon this: a relationship with Jesus in which we hang out with him long enough for him to rub off on us. Then people will know that we have been with Jesus. That’s what prayer, worship and all the spiritual disciplines are about: hanging out with Jesus. So, remember that next time you pray: however much you long to be with Jesus, he longs to be with you even more.
At our sermon roundtable breakfast this past Tuesday, the question came up: So, why twelve disciples? We’re talking the kingdom of God, the renewal of creation. This thing is supposed to go global! So why not start with twelve thousand disciples? One person immediately said, “Like the twelve tribes of Israel.” Yes, having twelve disciples served notice, in a powerful, symbolic way, that Jesus was re-constituting Israel, that he was pushing the reset button on Hebrew history and doing something like a new Exodus to a new Promised Land.
But there’s another reason for just twelve disciples: twelve people is the maximum size for the best relationships of spiritual intimacy, accountability and mutual encouragement. More than that and people start getting lost and overlooked, while others are freer to dominate and monopolize the group process. The basic building block of the church anywhere and anytime is not just individual persons but relationships. People rarely come into church on their own. Even less rarely will they stay if they remain on their own. So twelve people or less, plus Jesus, equals the church.
Now, congregations are usually bigger than twelve, even by hundreds and thousands of people. But look more closely and you’ll often see within congregations groups and networks of relationships with twelve people or less. Some of these are informal, like families, extended family units, partners in some ministry, or long-time friendships. Others are formal, like small groups, cell groups, commissions or Bible studies. The biggest church in the world, the Yoido Full Gospel Church of Seoul, South Korea, has over a million members. But look more closely and you’ll see that it is actually a giant network of small groups, each with no more than twelve people. So, the most important thing about that church is not how many people they love, but how much each person loves and is loved. They capitalize on the fact that the basic building block of the church is not just individuals but relationships, relationships of twelve people, or less, plus Jesus. Anything bigger than that is a church of churches. That’s what churches really are.
And that explains as well, I believe, the success and power of the Anabaptist movement five hundred years ago. Not only because they pushed the reset button on the doctrines of the church, but because they stripped the structure and the life of the church back to their original First Century factory condition. The first Anabaptist congregations were personal, relational, face-to-face groups, because they wanted to be with Jesus. To be with Jesus, they found that that required being with each other in ways that were more open, committed, engaged, accountable and spiritually intimate, and not just institutional. In other words, small groups. Of course, persecution also forced them to gather into small groups of neighbors, friends and family members meeting in places that were easily overlooked, like homes, forests and even rowboats. Persecution also forced the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia, the world’s largest Mennonite denomination, to go the route of small groups, and thus become a powerful movement.
A few months back, Rob Haarsager sent me a link to a Youtube video. In it you see a man get up amidst a crowd at an open air concert and begin dancing, all alone, until someone else gets up and joins him. The first man dancing nods at dancer number two and encourages him by verbal and physical signs. Seeing this, other people then get up in groups to join the two dancers until just about everyone in the vicinity is up dancing with them.
The lesson of the video is that often person number two, who recognizes a good thing before everyone else does, and gets in on it, is often the real leader. True. But there’s more to the story. For one thing, that first man dancing learned about dancing from others, in relationships. Then when other people saw the signals of engagement and encouragement going between dancers one and two, they wanted in not only on the dance, I think they wanted in on that relationship. So that movement, like all movements, did not really begin with a leader as much as it began with a relationship.
And so it is with everything else of value that we learn, and that we keep. This month we had three weeks living with baby Zain and his mother, Charity, while they waited for an apartment to open up. Even if Zain should one day attend gonzo huge high schools, like Moundsview, or go to a gonzo huge college, like the U of M, the most important things in life he is learning in small circles of relationships, like with his mother, his grandmother and the other adults who interacted with him. In three weeks we saw him learn to concentrate on people’s eyes and faces for more than a brief second. We saw how he came to recognize and react differently to different people. For example, other people could put him down to sleep, but Momma’s supposed to carry him all the time. Sound familiar? Compare that to the sad story of what happened to Romanian orphans a few years ago who were warehoused in giant institutions and who received only the minimum requirement of care and attention: they were developmentally delayed and disadvantaged, and severely so.
Our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors of the 16th Century began a movement with a small group of at least Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and some of their friends and family members in Zurich, Switzerland. Probably no more than eight or ten in all. They grew so close to each other, that a few of them even died together in public executions.
And that’s the So-What? part of this sermon. Now that we know why Jesus chose disciples and why he started with twelve, what do we do about that? Emmanuel Mennonite Church seeks not its own growth, for its own sake. We seek the growth of God’s kingdom, and God’s honor in the world. For that we need to shrink. Really. Not to shrink in attendance or membership (I hope God brings us more friends), but to narrow our focus of engagement and commitment and understanding of how we relate to one another and support each other. If you want something to get big, think small. If you feel stuck, or stale in your spiritual life, again, think small. Since there just always are churches within churches, the basic congregational building blocks of twelve people or less plus Jesus, then let’s do like the first twelve disciples, and the first Anabaptists, and recognize that, work with it, shake our building blocks up, mix them around and use them to kingdom advantage.
Its time to talk small groups again. That was one of my goals this year, and that of the deacons. Its also one of the three congregational priorities we discerned before moving here. And in our most recent Pastor-Congregation Relation Review we re-affirmed it. We have had small groups here at Emmanuel Mennonite Church. It didn’t go so well getting this year’s small group up and running after my sabbatical this summer, but I plan to offer one again come January. But a church of our size could have several more than that, of various sizes, shapes and missions. I’ll help anyone else who wants to get one going. Its not that hard. It could meet during weekdays or nights; it could meet during Christian Education hour, or other times on Sundays. They can take many shapes, and in some ways they do already. We have also had prayer partners over the years. And a mentoring program for adults and youth.
So if we wish to grow in grace and godliness, think small. Not as small as the individual. People don’t really grow themselves, alone. But crowds, organizations and institutions don’t grow us either. Its great to get together in big groups, like this one. But to grow in the way that the disciples of Jesus first grew in grace and numbers, in the ways that our first Anabaptist ancestors grew, think small. For growth in God’s kingdom, we must truly know and love each other; even as we are known and loved. For that, you only need twelve people or less. Add Jesus, and you have the church in its most basic form.