Avengers, Apostles, and Us

This Sunday was the second week in the “Screenings” series that our church has been running, and I got to preach for a second time.  We are spending the month looking for meaning in the media, specifically in movies and television.  The movie I decided to focus on is “The Avengers.” Not the 1998 film based on the classic British television series, but the most profitable movie of last year, and based on the Marvel Comics superheroes. Anybody see “The Avengers” last year? Well, you don’t have to have seen it to understand what I’m going to tell you about it. I hope. Let me know afterward if I am wrong about that.
But before I get into the movie that I am supposed to be preaching on, let me back up a little bit and tell you about some other movies. You know Marvel didn’t used to have a movie studio, so they used to sell the rights to their various characters to whichever studio wanted to make a movie about them. So Fox makes the X-Men movies, and Sony makes the Spider-Man movies. But one day Marvel decided to form their own studio and make their own movies, and they decided to start off with a hero who was almost completely unknown to the general public. Iron Man.
The Iron Man movie was an out-of-the-blue success story. Robert Downey, Jr. played Tony Stark, a egocentric billionaire industrialist playboy weapons manufacturer who builds a metal suit to save his own life and ends up trying to do some good in the world. The movie made over three hundred million dollars and was a runaway hit. This was good news for Marvel’s fledgling studio, because they had a plan. You see, after the end credits of the movie there was an extra scene, in which a shadowy government organization shows up and starts talking to Iron Man about something called The Avengers. So Marvel follows up Iron Man with, well, another Iron Man movie of course, but they also try to revamp their Incredible Hulk franchise, and they roll out films with two other superheroes, Thor and Captain America.
Captain America is, in some ways, the opposite of Iron Man. He is selfless. He puts everyone else’s needs before his own. He is also from another time. Leading the charge against the Nazis in World War II, Cap gets frozen in ice and miraculously wakes up in the present day. The world has moved on, but he hasn’t. He remembers how things used to be as if it were yesterday, because to him, it was. But don’t feel too bad for him. His movie made $175 million. Almost as much as Thor’s movie did.
Thor is a Norse god from the realm of Asgard who gets banished to Earth for starting a war. He’s a warrior, by which I mean a headstrong jerk who cares mostly about personal glory for himself and his allies. His movie made $181 million. Which brings us to the Incredible Hulk.
Poor Hulk. He had a movie which made only $132 million, and nobody liked it, but they recast it, changed it completely, and gave it another go. It made $134 million. So, a teensy bit better. In case you don’t know who the Hulk is, he is a scientist that gets big and green and strong when he gets angry. And you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
And that brings us to the Avengers. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk, all in one movie. Throw in a couple of non-super-powered government agents, Hawkeye and the Black Widow, and you’ve got the team. And nobody knew how this was going to work. They were going to try to take four different movie franchises and combine them into one film. Oh, how they argued online about the various ways that this could fail. Robert Downey Jr. was a huge star, and the others not so much. Would he overshadow all of them? Would he even be in enough of the movie to satisfy the people who only came to see it for him? Because come on! Iron Man made almost twice what any of the other movies made. Clearly this was a desperate cash grab by a studio trying to prop up its less successful franchises by mashing them together with its most popular one. What a joke.
Except it did work. The Avengers went on to become the second highest grossing film of all time, at least until they re-released Titanic in 3-D. Now it’s third. But this movie made over 620 million dollars. And those are just the domestic numbers. Worldwide, over one and a half billion dollars. It worked. It worked a lot. Because these characters actually play really well off of each other. They don’t always get along, but that is part of the charm. A condescending inventor who worships the new, hanging out with a guy trapped in the past who is constantly sad that things aren’t the way they used to be. One guy always looking for a fight, alongside a guy who is terrified of getting angry. But there is something almost timeless about a group of people with different skills and abilities getting together to fight for a common cause. I feel like this is a familiar scenario. Have I read something like this somewhere before? A bunch of people from different walks of life, who argue, fight, and sometimes can’t stand each other? Personality conflicts? But in the end they have the same mission. To save the world. Avengers? Apostles? Us?
Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fisherman. Not the most glamorous of trades. These are your uneducated common folk. Yes, fishing was an important and valued profession, but these were rough guys. Think “The Deadliest Catch: Galilee Edition.” And then you have Matthew. He was a customs official and tax collector. This is the Enron executive, or Wall Street inside trader of the group. He was corrupt, and making a lot of money from the poor people that he collected from. And of course you have Simon the Zealot. Zealot. That means he was a revolutionary dedicated to bringing down the Roman Empire. He would be first in line to occupy Wall Street. Either that or he would be in a bunker somewhere in Montana with his militia group. So we’ve got some fishermen, a corrupt CEO, and a protesting hippie/crazed militia member. That’s not a team; that’s a reality show! And that’s only half of them!
To say that Jesus’ disciples came from different walks of life and had differing views on things would be an understatement. We know that they argued. We hear in Mark 9:33-35 how they fought over which one of them was the greatest. We know that Judas was upset with the way Jesus was spending their money. Judas thought that they should spend more on mission, and in the end it caused him to separate from the group. But you can be sure that this particular collection of people disagreed about a lot more than that.
The idea that the Avengers don’t really like each other is almost a central theme of the film. The idea that none of them really wants to be there. Black Widow is in the middle of another mission when she gets the call, and she is not happy about being interrupted. The Hulk is hiding on the other side of the world, trying not to get involved. Captain America is there because he a soldier following orders, but he has no use for someone like Iron Man, a man who views someone telling him what to do as almost a challenge to do the opposite. Iron Man doesn’t want to be there either, and really only got involved because his girlfriend made him. Thor introduces himself to the group by attacking their plane and stealing their prisoner. Fighting ensues, quips and one-liners fly fast and furious, and eventually they put aside their differences to unite against a common enemy. The world is in danger, and they have to save it. Two are better than one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
In our world, there are no superheroes, but that doesn’t mean it is not in danger. It doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t need saving. But instead of metal suits and flapping capes, the world has us. A group of people who care very deeply about this place that we live, but who can’t always agree on how best to help it. A group of people who sometimes find each other annoying, or downright rude. A community that sometimes finds it hard to even accept, much less understand, each other. And yet here we are. And we’re no different from the early church, who immediately tried to divide themselves up and couldn’t decide what they believed. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-15 Paul told them to stop quarreling. “Thank God Ididn’t baptize any of you!” he says to them. Otherwise they probably would have divided along those lines as well. How many divisions are in our churches? How many groups have we sectioned ourselves off into? Is there quarreling here?
Though I have tried to point out some similarities between the apostles and the Avengers, there is a pretty big difference as well, that I’d now like to make very clear. Throughout the gospels the apostles are frequently telling Jesus that they don’t understand. They want to understand, but they just can’t. There is a humility that comes from giving your life over to Jesus that the Avengers do not have. The Avengers are happy to work together when the Earth is threatened, but when the threat is over, they go their separate ways, having learned something from their teammates to be sure, but ready to go off and have their own solo adventures in future films coming soon to a theater near you. The apostles, on the other hand, want to be there. They’re in it for the long haul, because they know that their lives are no longer their own. They are new creations, not because of gamma radiation, or the super solider serum, but because of the transforming love of Jesus Christ. And we are new creations as well. Our job is to live in community with one another, to listen to one another, to support one another, and to save each other’s lives. We are here to build something.
But there’s a catch. When I told you how much money the Avengers made, $620 million dollars, well, I don’t know if you did the math, but if you add up the amounts of money that the other movies made individually, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk, it comes to around $800 million. And that’s not counting the sequels. Cumulatively, the heroes made more money working on their own than they did working together. Sometimes the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. There are things to be gained by working as a group, but we give something up as well. Which is better? None of us, on our own, can reach the heights that we can reach as a team, but don’t be fooled into thinking that there isn’t a cost.
When Jesus calls us, the cost is everything. Whether we are fishermen leaving our boats behind, or tax collectors closing up shop, our lives are no longer our own when we make this commitment. What we have to realize is that each person here is making the same commitment. There isn’t a person here that doesn’t want this community to succeed, and who hasn’t given something up to try to make that happen. No one in this room has been tricked, coerced, or otherwise forced to be here. We are a worshipping community and, though we don’t always agree, we know that there is a power and importance in just being together. And we’re here to save the world. Our world. Together. Because it’s what Jesus called us to do. Are we ready? It doesn’t matter if we’re ready or not. Have some given more than others? That doesn’t matter either. We give it all. We stay humble, knowing that we don’t understand everything. We ask questions. We pray together. We love one another. We forgive one another. Because we aren’t superheroes. We are disciples of Jesus Christ. And we’re here to change the world.
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