Sunday, January 23, 2003

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

And they straightway left the nets, and followed him.

This week’s epistle lesson is a continuation of our lesson last week where we heard about the divisions and difficulties in the Corinthian church. We looked at Paul’s greetings and how he pointed them toward the source of their salvation even as he was preparing to correct and rebuke them for their quarrels. They were focusing on the wrong aspects of ministry – themselves and their own gifts, their leaders and theology – rather than on the foundation of their faith, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul appeals to the Corinthians, asking them to be united in mind and purpose. With different leaders guiding the growing church and ministry, it is a wonder that there was some question about what they should be doing together in the world. What is our ministry? What is it that God has called us to do? As I look around at the churches in our area, I can note distinct differences in the vision and purpose of each congregation. One is focused heavily on reaching out to those who are outsider. Another has strong family and children’s ministries. Yet another reflects the small town country needs of its parishioners. There are those congregations that have extensive ministries that reach the needs of the neighborhood in which they exist – food banks, thrift shops, job help centers. Other congregations are more focused on meeting spiritual needs.

Now, no congregation should focus solely on one type of ministry while ignoring another. The inner city church with its food bank should also provide discipleship training and prayer. The country church should share its wealth as they are able in ministries that reach beyond its borders. The family church should welcome those who are alone. Yet, a church that is located in the country would be foolish trying to open a shelter for the homeless that live in a major city thirty miles away. That ministry would be a waste of their time and their resources. If they felt called to that type of ministry, they could go in partnership with a congregation closer to the problem. Or, instead of a homeless shelter, they could build a spiritual retreat center for the inner city missionaries to be refreshed in the Spirit in a quiet setting away from the hustle and bustle of their normal ministry.

These are just some brief ideas among the millions of things we could envision for our churches. I’m not sure what sort of ministries the church at Corinth might have had in place. Certainly we read in the scriptures about Christians who took care of widows, who made clothing for the poor and who sent financial resources to the church in Jerusalem. Perhaps they also fought for justice in the courts, built homes for those who were displaced and had schools for the children. We do know that the early Christians shared everything and that at least one church had trouble determining their vision of what it meant to be a church in their world.

Paul continues in this passage to ramble on about how few people he baptized because he did not want to become the focus of the baptized person’s faith. He says that he did baptize this person and that person and oh, yeah, one other family. Maybe there were others, but who knows. The point is that they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and that’s what matters. It does not matter who did the baptizing or the preaching or the ministry. What mattered were the Gospel and the power of God. Paul says that he did not speak with eloquent wisdom, yet how many of us will quickly follow a charismatic leader? We think there is more power to the words when the person speaking is educated and articulate. Yet, how many times have we been persuaded to believe a lie because it was said well?

Paul brought the focus of the Corinthians back to the work of Christ. Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter) were most likely great preachers. From the stories in Acts, we can see that they all were quite convincing in their arguments and adept at sharing the Gospel message. We can also see that they all had a slightly different vision of the future of the Church. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, Peter to the Jews. They would reach these different people in different ways. Peter used the Old Testament witness and the experience of historic faith to share Christ. Paul reached out to a wider, more diverse audience that needed a different type of ministry.

Despite their differences, Paul, Apollos and Cephas were united in the same mind and the same purpose, to share the message of the cross. Of course as Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God.” How much easier it would be if we could say that the message of the Gospel is that everyone will have enough food and clothing and a roof over their head. How much more inviting it would be if the message we were called to take into the world is that everyone will be free from oppression and safe from all harm. We would be overflowing with believers if our purpose was to meet the needs of every person no matter what the need.

But the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is spiritual, but seems so far from spiritual. The message of the cross is that all men are equal – not in their ability to be righteous, but in their inability to be right with God. The work of the cross is that the Son of God, the Word made flesh, came to die so that we might be forgiven. To accept a message such as this, we must accept that we are sinners in need of a Savior. To believe it is to die. This is why the message was foolishness. To the Jews, they were made right with God by their acts of worship, by their sacrifices and their offerings. To the Gentiles, there was no need to be made right with God for they were good by nature. How many today still think righteousness is either earned or innate? Too many people believe this, even in the church.

That’s why it is difficult for us to preach passages like today’s Gospel message. We do not look at ourselves as living in darkness. Jesus has become less a Savior and more a social justice advocate. We cringe when we hear Jesus say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” because we like to see Jesus as one who loves us for who we are and who practiced a radical inclusiveness. How much easier it is to preach about the good things we are doing in the world, to pat ourselves on the back when we do something amazing in our community. Are we really calling people to death so that they might truly live?

Do we ever think that God calls us to discipleship the way He called those first disciples? According to this Gospel narrative, Peter and Andrew were on a fishing boat casting a net into the sea when Jesus called them to follow. The story does not say that they waited until they were done fishing. It does not say that they took their haul to the co-op first and then went to find Jesus. It says “And they straightway left the nets, and followed him.” Then Jesus called out to James and John who were on the boat with their father. They did not say good-bye or try to explain. They immediately left the boat and followed Him.

There are those who suggest that these fishermen were probably fairly well off. They had their own boats and nets and a lucrative business. Being a fisherman was hard work and it can be risky, but these four had some sense of security. At the very least they had food for their tables and a chance to try again tomorrow. Yet, they walked away for an unknown future. What did it mean when Jesus said that they would be fishing for people?

What would happen today if we walked away from everything we know – our homes, jobs and families – to go out on the road preaching the kingdom of God? People would call us foolish, they would call us freaks. If we do it well, we might gain a following. If we are eloquent in speech or have some sort of shtick, we might succeed and live well enough. But Jesus did not call the disciples to go out on a bus tour to earn fame or wealth. Though the scriptures tell us that Judas carried a money bag, I doubt that he a great deal of money in it. It was probably enough to buy some food when they needed it but I don’t see Jesus collecting offerings at His meetings like the traveling evangelists.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were not called away from a life of security for a life of fame and wealth. They were called away for a life of sacrifice, sharing a message of hope that would be rejected by most. The message was even more mysterious and difficult to understand after Jesus died, because it was foolishness to those who were perishing in this world. It is a spiritual message that does not look at all spiritual. A man dying on a cross is far from spiritual. It is horrible, a gross injustice and seems lacking in love. Death on a cross seems more like darkness in the midst of light rather than light in the midst of darkness. Yet, Peter, Andrew, James and John did not turn back. They left their fishing boats immediately, without a second thought, and went into a life of uncertainty to follow Jesus.

The first part of today’s Gospel lesson mirrors what is said in the passage from Isaiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise that those who walked in darkness will see a great light. Jesus is that light. Isaiah writes, “Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased their joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as in the day of Midian.” This is the work of God, not the work of man. Midian was defeated, not by the great army of Gideon, but by a remnant. God insisted that he cut his troops dramatically so that it would be obvious that the victory was God’s. This can also be said about the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ. It is neither by the gifts of the preachers, nor by the work of the congregations that people come to Christ. God Himself multiplies the nations, He increases our joy. He has broken the yoke of our oppressor – sin and death – and made us free to live.

This is why our mission is not to feed the hungry or clothe the poor, though these might be ways in which we serve God. We are called to be of one mind and purpose, not that every Christian is gifted to serve in exactly the same ministry or situation. Rather, we are called to share the message of the cross, that foolish message of life that comes out of death. We are called to die and to bring others to the cross so that they too might die to themselves and be raised to new life in Christ. We are called to sing to the Lord a new song of praise and thanksgiving for being our light and salvation.

The psalmist writes, “Hear, O Jehovah, when I cry with my voice: Have mercy also upon me, and answer me. When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; My heart said unto thee, Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek. Hide not thy face from me; Put not thy servant away in anger: Thou hast been my help; Cast me not off, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.” This is what it means to die – to humble ourselves before God. Peter, Andrew, James and John walked away from a life of security to face the unknown with Jesus. We are called to do the same, to die to our old life and walk with Christ, sharing the message of the cross with the world. Thanks be to God.

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