Lists of names are strange things. They are inclusive and bring people into a story or make it possible for us to remember the history of a place or of an event. Nevertheless, you have to be careful with lists of names – miss someone off and they could be offended. Put someone on and someone else could be offended.
But lists can also dehumanise in terrible ways. I will never forget visiting Auschwitz – the former concentration camp in Poland. Perhaps one of the most striking things were the lists – lists of people, most of whom died in the gas chambers – with details of their physical appearance and health, their possessions, their family history and three photos of each person – a profile from each side and one from the front. There were so many names, so many photos – in the end it seemed meaningless – impossible to understand. Each of these people had undergone dreadful suffering, but we who looked around not so very many years later, knew nothing of them and could not enter into their stories or experiences.
It is not easy entering the stories and experiences of the list of names in today’s Gospel reading Matthew 9:35-10:23 – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, another James, Thaddaeus, another Simon and Judas Iscariot – the Twelve Disciples. We read the story of Jesus sending them out, without any money or back-up, to bring the Good News to the towns of Israel.
All these years later it is hard for us to understand what Jesus’ call meant for them – maybe sore feet, unfriendly people, tiredness and hunger, nights spent sleeping rough – as well as hearty welcomes, warm hospitality, generous meals and comfy beds. Maybe some fared better than others – we can try to imagine them comparing notes afterwards – ‘Simon Peter always manages to choose the best places – look how fat he’s getting. I always seem to choose the wrong villages where people just aren’t interested – AND my sandals rub…’.
Certainly after Jesus’ death when the Twelve Disciples were once again scattered, their lives took different courses and many of them never met again to compare notes. We know something of their stories… Judas, of course, had hanged himself, Peter and Andrew were both crucified, Thomas went to Africa and lived to old age. John also lived to old age and wrote the Book of Revelation on a Greek Island – although reading between the lines, he also wasn’t unfamiliar with suffering. Matthew may have been executed in Ethiopia. We don’t know what became of either of the two James’s, Philip, Bartholomew, or the second Simon and Thaddeus. The latter is probably the same person as ‘Jude’ who is the Patron saint of lost causes so we can imagine that he also had a difficult time.
So much for lists! All we know is that many of the Twelve underwent terrible suffering as they went out to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Their lives were cut short by cruelty and hardship.
But God knows. Although time has laid a veil of anonymity over the Twelve and over hundreds of thousands of others, we as Christians believe that each of them has been loved, cherished and accompanied by God. Anonymous isn’t a word which God would find in his dictionary – all of his creatures are known, cherished, loved and accompanied, including us.
Abraham and Sarah are a case in point. Sarah laughed when she was told that her prayers were to be answered and she was to have a child in her old age. This might be hard for us to understand – most women, if someone told them they were going to have a baby when they were in their 80s and their husband was 100 would cry. But Sarah laughed! The thing is, God sent angels – messengers – to bring this news. And it happened. Isaac turned out to be the bane of his mothers’ life – but we cannot argue -her prayers were answered and God sent angels to let this be known.
You know, God still sends angels. They don’t often fly in on white feathery wings amidst a slightly radioactive glow. But they do come in all sorts of guises, bearing messages from God. No doubt many of them are perfectly ordinary and respectable human beings who would be greatly put out to learn of their promotion to the angelic realm – but if God passes on a message through them they are angels whether they like it or not.
Now why would God bother to do something like that? Why send angels to Abraham and Sarah – especially as Sarah was ungrateful enough to laugh? Why bother? Well, only because each of us matters, each is loved, and none of us are anonymous to God. If an angel is needed, an angel is what we get.
No doubt we are all on someone’s list… the electoral role at Church, the list of people wanting an NHS dentist or the list of people waiting for new or better accommodation. In many circumstances being part of a list takes away our individuality, rubs out our story, negates our individuality and makes us feel we are anonymous. This is especially true at this time for those people who have tragically lost their lives to Covid-19. It is good that various news outlets have set out to tell the individual stories of the people we have tragcally lost.
In these especially difficult times, we should always remember that we are all on God’s list, that he will treat each one of us as the person we are, and with great love – and that he’ll send an angel if necessary. Part of the duty of the Twelve who were sent out, and to us who God still sends out, is to help people realise that to God, each person matters, each is loved, and each is fully known.
Rev’d Dr. Anne Morris
Vicar St. Oswald’s, Knuzden