It is not uncommon to hear the words disciple and apostle interchangeably. While both are part of our faith lexicon, they do not mean exactly the same thing. Today’s Gospel helps us to understand them and how they relate to our Christian identity. Jesus, having previously called the Twelve and sent them out to preach and heal, is now sending seventy-two more disciples – again with the same message and task.
So, what is the difference between the two? By definition, a disciple is one who learns from or follows: a student. It is the root of the word “discipline.” Each of us, by our baptism, is made a disciple of Christ.
An apostle, on the other hand, is one who is sent forth – to preach and share the teachings of another with others. These two titles, or descriptions, are different and yet related – for clearly, one must be a disciple before being an apostle. Otherwise, what would one have to share and preach?
Saint Paul, writing to the Galatians, knew the difference and fully embraced both identities. Having begun as a persecutor, Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus and experienced a radical conversion to being a follower of Christ. Through that first life-changing moment and then, through the witness of the other disciples and the community in Damascus, Paul is equipped to be both disciple and apostle.
Historically, the Scriptures – and the Church – have reserved the use of the word Apostle, with a capital “A,” to refer to the Twelve – or, with a lower case “a,” to mean those of Jesus’ time who were sent with the authority of Christ to evangelize. All Apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles. More colloquially, many of us may have heard it said that “we become disciples by our baptism and apostles (lowercase “a”) at our confirmation.”
Despite this lesson in etymology and historical usage, the focus here is really less on the “titles” and more on the roles. We, too, must first embrace the Gospel and make it our own – become that disciple who not only knows its challenges and joys but is intentional about living out its mandates on a daily basis. Only then can we be prepared to embrace our identity as apostles – who go forth as missionary disciples to share the Gospel with others.
People often ask why being part of a parish is so important to our identity. The answer is simple: The parish should be a place where every believer finds the resources and opportunities to grow as both disciples and apostles. The PARISH should be a house of prayer, a school of formation, and a refuge in times of need. It should equip the faithful at all levels to be ready to live and share the Gospel.
This coming week, perhaps we might reflect on our role as disciple and apostle and on how well we are prepared for the mission. May God help us rely upon him for our needs.