A Disappearing Act

By Peter Groves

“You also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:27)

When I told my friend the Chaplain of Merton that I was to be speaking to you on the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude, he immediately replied “I sincerely hope you’ll be making a connection between the Patron Saint of Lost Causes and Anglican Theological Education.” As it happens, I wasn’t planning to do that, perhaps because — as my friend knows all too well, we having trained together — I disliked my own theological college so much that I became convinced ordination training was a conspiracy designed to make us all so desperate to leave that we instantly fell in love with parish ministry. If so, it certainly worked in my case, but that was a long time ago, things are very different now and, don’t worry, I didn’t train here.

One of the things I did to keep me sane was escape to London as often as possible to watch Queens Park Rangers. My extended long dark night of the soul was made even darker by the fact that they chose precisely this time to get themselves relegated, and have struggled ever since. Ever since, that is, until an interesting character called Flavio Briatore bought the club and persuaded his super-rich friends to invest. Whilst the club was saved from financial ruin, the takeover was rather bad news for one particular employee, a mascot called Jude the cat.

You see, Queens Park Rangers started life in the 1880s as St Jude’s Boys Club, and you don’t need to know much about the game to know that lost causes find plenty of homes in the football league. Around ten years ago a black cat was living at the stadium, and seemed to appear only in the middle of matches which we went on to win. As a result, Jude the cat became our official mascot and some poor chap was paid to dress up in a huge black cat costume and dance around the pitch before the match.

That is, until Signor Briatore came along. In Italy, black cats are unequivocally bad luck. It’s estimated that some 6,000 are killed every year by Italians for this reason. The church, as usual, is far from blameless in all this, since it was Pope Gregory IX in an edict of 1233 who declared the black cat to be a servant of Lucifer. So for an Italian owner, a black cat as a mascot was beyond the pale, and Jude was no more, replaced by the spectacularly unimaginative and irrelevant Spark the tiger.

St. Jude and his traditional companion St. Simon have undergone something of a similar disappearing act in Christian history. Too many people in the Christian tradition have seemed so afraid of confusing Judas Son of James with his notorious namesake that devotion to St Jude was often positively discouraged. If this were not enough, he has to cope with the confusion that he only appears in the Lukan list of apostles, his equivalent in Mark and Matthew being Thaddeus (or Lebbaeus in some Matthean texts).

The church has traditionally got round this problem simply by lumping the two together and calling him St. Jude Thaddeus, an effective if intellectually brutal solution. As for St. Simon, well, we also know virtually nothing about him, except that he is called the Cananean in Mark and Matthew. This word is simply derived from the Hebrew word for Zealot, and tells us nothing of his hometown. Luke, in his gospel and in Acts, makes things clearer by calling Simon the Zealot, and though this probably refers to a religious rather than a political fervour, nevertheless the historically mysterious Zealots are a strange bunch, seen by some as the terrorist freedom fighters of their day. As with Jude, Simon suffers from the fact that there is a more famous apostle called Simon, but as we know, his name wasn’t clearly quite good enough because he had to be given a new one, and far be it from me to contest the wisdom of Our Lord who decided that the name Peter was an improvement.

To call them anonymous Apostles wouldn’t be quite right, but it does make a point. The fame of the individual is not what is at stake when we honour the saints and celebrate the apostolic ministry. An apostle is only an apostle because of what someone else has done. To be an apostle is to be one who is sent, and hence there must be someone else doing the sending.

In the case of the 12, there is a double divine initiative at work in the gospels, because we see them called by Jesus in extraordinary fashion — drop everything and follow me — in narratives deliberately reminiscent of Elijah’s call of Elisha. But having called the disciples to himself, Jesus then makes them apostles by sending them out, giving them authority over unclean spirits and the power to heal. Disciples — mathetes, those who are learning — become apostoloi, those who are sent, and they are sent not to do their own thing, but to extend Jesus’ ministry — to struggle against evil, to heal infirmity, to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives.

The Christian ministry to which all are called, lay and ordained, is never a ministry we own for ourselves. If it is Christian ministry it belongs, by definition, to Christ. Discipleship is the prerequisite for such ministry because that which we have to learn from Christ is infinite and inexhaustible — if we stop learning, we are no longer disciples, and hence no longer Christians.

But the learning Jesus required of Simon, Jude, and all those who followed him was just that, a following. Moses, placed in the cleft of the rock in Exodus 33, is granted the highest of all gifts, a vision of the Yahweh as he passes by. But this vision comes only from behind, for no one can look on the face of the Lord and live. Instead a glimpse of God from behind is all that Moses can snatch — a view of the posteriora Dei, as Luther, following the Vulgate, put it.

But long before Luther, Gregory of Nyssa had observed that the image presented here is one of vision equated with following. As the Lord recedes into the distance, the chosen of the Lord is confronted with a choice. Stand still and watch the Lord disappear, or follow and maintain the vision which God in his grace has granted. In other words, the vision of God and discipleship are one and the same.

To see God is to follow him. For the priest, or indeed anyone called to share the apostolic ministry, the challenge presented by this image of discipleship is double. Not only are we required constantly to follow if we are constantly to see, we are also charged with the responsibility of helping others follow. For the Christian minister, our following is always also a leading, and that is a rather frightening thought, because the most important aspect of our leading must therefore be avoidance and anonymity. If the Spirit leads us to follow Christ toward the unknown future, then even as we hold on to the vision which we follow, we must take every precaution to make sure that we are not getting in the way.

To obscure the vision of Christ is the greatest crime of all: causing others to lose that vision, to wander aimlessly without direction or guide. But the apostolic ministry is as much about humility as it is about celebration. The mascot who prances about the football pitch before the match is, in the end, nothing at all to do with the team. The disciple of Jesus who is always striving to learn the more and more he has to teach is never, whilst a disciple, separated from the teacher.

What we think of as the anonymity, the second-class citizenship of the mysterious apostles Simon and Jude, is not, in fact, a cause for complaint, but a source of celebration. For their transparency, their being lost in the mists of Christian time, is a sign of the success of the ministry to which they were called.

Their words and acts long gone, they remain forever alive and present to us in the church which they planted and nurtured, in the worship of heaven to which that church is united in this Mass, and in the learning and the being sent out to which every Christian is called. And if St. Jude were actually here, he might just remind us that the resurrection tells us something about lost causes.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Peter Groves is parish priest of St. Mary Magdalen’s in Oxford.


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