Can you name the twelve disciples? I can’t. On a given day, with no preparation, I think I could probably name ten or eleven of the twelve, but I feel certain that one or two would always elude me. Why is that? Maybe it’s because the list of names wasn’t chosen to help me remember them. Although I’ve tried, I still haven’t come up with an easy mnemonic that would help me remember all twelve. (Anyone for “Silly People Aren’t Just Juggling Plastic Balls; They May also Jump Through Silver Jettas?”) Plus, there are confusing overlaps like two Simon’s and two James’s or two different Judas’s (depending on which account of the gospel you’re using as your guide). Ultimately, the reason I can’t remember them is that I haven’t every taken the time or effort needed to commit them to memory.
Others, I am sure, could name all twelve without hesitation. Do you remember that episode of West Wing in which the president asks the Chinese dissident to name the twelve and he does so without blinking an eye? For some, their faith is founded upon things like being able to keep straight James son of Alphaeus and James son of Zebedee. But, as much as I enjoy the bible, I’ve never been very good at or interested in memorizing parts of it. Every once in a while I impress myself when I am actually able to tell a parishioner what chapter and verse a particular passage of scripture comes from. Usually, when faced with that sort of question, I shrug my shoulders and say in a half-joking, half-desperate tone, “I’m not really that good with the bible.”
Whether I remember their names or not, the twelve were chosen by Jesus to be remembered. They were memorialized in scripture despite my inability (unwillingness?) to commit them to memory. What does that say about me? What does that say about the role of the twelve in contemporary Christianity? How many people know their names? How many people know why there are twelve? How many people even know what a disciple is?
Today’s gospel lesson from the Daily Office (Mark 3:7-19a), which names the twelve, reminds me that many aspects of my faith are more important than I give them credit for. Yes, I should be able to name the whole dozen. But it also reminds me that there are more important things than remembering a list of names. Some of those twelve no one really knows anything about except their name (e.g. Thaddeus—who the heck was he?). But the fact that there were twelve and the fact that they were called by name and the fact that they were sent out across the face of the known world does make a difference. My job as a Christian is to figure out what that difference is.