Jesus without His Disciples?

This past week on Maundy Thursday my father played Matthew, the tax collector, in my home church’s annual dramatic depiction of The Last Supper. For over two decades Christ UCC in Dupo, Illinois has celebrated Jesus’ last earthly meal with his disciples this way. In this small community, members and friends alike, come together and pack the pews to worship and remember the power of being community. It is a dramatic retelling of the importance of being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and a reminder that we never walk alone, not even on our way to the cross.

The importance of being in community is just that, being in community. Scripture tells us that Jesus spent most of his adult life traversing the Ancient Near Eastern landscape with the men and women he called his disciples. These were his brothers and sisters in faith who provided for him as much as he provided for them. We do not know him apart from the disciples and even find it peculiarly odd when he steals away to pray alone (though as an introvert I completely understand). In our artwork, we rarely see Jesus depicted alone even when he hangs on the cross. Jesus without his disciples? It does not seem possible.

And so it is with us who follow this Jesus of Nazareth. We are never alone. We stand with our brothers and sisters in all times and places. As we provide for them, they provide abundantly more for us. This is what it means to be in the community of faith. As disciples of Jesus the Christ, we bear witness to centuries of the church in action making tangible differences in the lives of real people. We dance with each other in times of great joy; we cry with each other in times of great sadness. But through it all, we are not without our fellow disciples.

I want to return to the idea of religious congregations as resource brokers. (For background, see my last post.) This past week I sat with two PhD students who are working with me on data analysis and writing projects. Both are curious about how communities provide support to individuals in their efforts to find wholeness. We spoke of the need to find ways to support folks in managing their day-to-day lives filled with innumerous challenges, but also to find ways for folks to make life-sustaining changes. I consider religious congregations – our local churches – to be such organizations. We provide manna for the daily journey and we part the sea so that we may all, together, cross the treacherous sea.

Before we dislocate our shoulders by patting ourselves on the back, know that we have work do to. My research with urban congregations reveals that members possess important resources but are reticent to share them with other church members. Not surprisingly, members most often reported the ability to lend personal support (e.g., help with shopping; provide care when ill; be there to talk about the day) more than any other type of resource. Yet, on average, less than half of members reported sharing these simple resources with other church members.

When considering resources that might help others get ahead, we tend to share even less. Members in the congregations I studied rarely shared problem solving skills (e.g., lending money; helping someone find a place to live) or employment support (e.g., giving a good job reference or career advice). And when it came to expert advice (e.g., giving advice on using a personal computer; sharing knowledge of regulations), congregants shared very little. Simply said, we are not sharing what might be most impactful.

Resources exist within our congregations, yet we may not have figured out the best way to harness these gifts for the greater good. Some mechanisms likely impact our willingness to share – someone’s reputation; the likelihood the one with whom we share will return the favor; and simply how much we trust each other. In my conversations with congregants about why they may or may not share their resources with others in their congregations, some even said they were never asked or never even thought about it. Maybe we just don’t think of our faith communities as places where we might find support for all areas of our lives. Maybe we live with an attitude of scarcity rather than one of abundance.

Regardless, as I argued before, religious congregations are important resource brokers. We are disciples of Christ and that means caring for our brothers and sisters in all ways. We continue Jesus’ work through the Church. Not reaching out and sharing our gifts with others is like Jesus without his disciples. How might you share just one gift in the coming weeks, even if you are not asked to do so? How might we all consider our gifts as belonging to the community and not to just ourselves?

We journey through life with the care and support of our community. We carry and are carried. New life is ours at every turn, in the most unexpected places. I suppose this is an Easter message. Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed!

Many thanks to Brad Bauer for giving me permission to use this image.

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One thought on “Jesus without His Disciples?

  1. Kirk, your research is important for ministers and congregations to consider. I was struck by your finding that most people were never asked or never thought about offering their own gifts, skills, and talents as resources for others. This may be anecdotal, but it seems that mainline traditions (including the UCC) have a strong history and tradition of charitable giving of tangible resources (food, money, clothing, shelter, etc.) rather than skills and resources that would require more time, involvement, and relationship building and that seek to transform systems and institutions of inequality or oppression. (However, I could also argue the opposite case with our rich tradition of social justice work and activism that continues to this day.) In general, though, tangible charitable giving is easier which is probably why it is more prevalent.

    I wonder if your research has any correlations with mainline demographics of race, age, and socio-economic status in this regard. It’s sort of like we are great at “giving a person a fish” rather than “teaching a person to fish.” Does your research make some of these distinctions between types of resources shared? Maybe I should just read your book to find out..

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