Apostles. This Sunday School lesson gives them a special cachet; a privileged status as special emissaries and powerful witnesses of the Savior. There is no mention of Judas, or William McLellin, of Richard R. Lyman, or even Peter. Though the lesson states that “many of those who heard Jesus failed to recognize him as the Savior,” it does not acknowledge what we learn in the Gospels: that in fact his own apostles never fully understood his role as Savior. So, in this post, rather than extol the virtues of apostles, I’d like to examine, lament, and celebrate the all-too-human characteristics of those men who are called as special testators of Christ.
Our correlated material takes the real characters from the New Testament and cleans them up a bit, rounding off the rough edges so that they appear in the best light possible. This establishes the proper example for members to follow. Certainly nothing embarrassing is presented. But the Gospel writers show the flaws, the less than perfect traits of these men:
- Several times the Apostles contend with each other for preferential treatment (Mark 10:37) or argue about who is the greatest among them (Mark 9:33-34).
- They often succumb to fear, as in Mark 4:37-39, Matthew 14:30, Matthew 26:47-56, or John 20:19.
- Their lack of faith is demonstrated when they are unable to cast out demons (Matthew 17: 9-20).
- The Apostles didn’t understand Jesus’ parables (Mark 4:10), his power, (Mark 6:35-44), his warnings (Matthew 16:6-11), his teachings (Matthew 15:10-20), his actions, (John 13:6-10), or his announcement of his own death (Matthew 16:21-23).
- Jesus’ three favorites: Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake and keep watch with him an hour or so in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-41).
Rather than whitewash the foibles of these chosen ones, I think it’s important to understand that Christ can still choose and work with some very flawed human beings. I’m often dismayed when Church history presents characters as either completely good or completely wicked. The truth is, Joseph had his vices and Thomas B. Marsh had his virtues. Latter-day Saints tend to make the difficulties disappear.
This was symbolically presented in a recent incident that came to my attention. I learned that actor Fred Hunting, who played the Apostle John in one of the temple films, had been edited out of all of the scenes in which he appeared. It wasn’t clear why Hunting merited such a fate. Some speculated that it had to do with his position on same sex marriage during the recent California proposition. He signed a petition that was sent to the First Presidency, asking them to change their position on same gender attraction. Was he removed from the temple film at the Church’s discretion, or did he ask to be taken out? The information is unavailable.
When I heard this news last week, I made a trip to the Columbia, South Carolina temple to see for myself. There was indeed a different John — the change was very striking to me and I would have noticed it even had I not been looking. (The new John looks a bit like John Remy, with a slight Asian cast to his face.) It looked as if the entire figure had been edited, not just the face. I say this because his clothing seemed different than before. Also, the lighting on the new figure appeared a teeny tiny bit brighter, which made the figure stand out. On the whole, though, the editing was done fairly professionally, so it wasn’t distracting. John stands pretty still in most of the scenes, making few extraneous motions, so he is unobtrusive. Someone who is seeing the film for the first time, or even someone who doesn’t attend very often will probably not even notice the change.
All of this made me unaccountably sad. Where do the fallen go, in our Church? Are they replaced as if they had never been, as when Jesse Gause‘s name was stricken from the Doctrine and Covenants and replaced with Frederick G. Williams? Can we admire and revere our pitted prodigals, or do we banish them in favor of polished paladins?
Temple John: Where do the Fallen Go?
You disappeared without the slightest trace,
Your face erased, estrangement none knows why.
To Punic marble pillars in the sky
A new disciple came to take your place.
And ne’er a hole to mark the spot you took,
For from your sacred calling did you swerve.
Though stalwart in the background one may serve,
Once fallen, soon forestalled in God’s grim book.
The leather sandals that you used to wear,
The apostolic staff you held in hand,
Are gone, as well as angels at your side.
The mighty Priesthood that you used to bear
Cleaves even now unto another man,
Replacing you in temples far and wide.