Sunday, January 23, 2011

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

For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God.

I've gone fishing, but I'm not really a fisherman. I remember catching catfish in my grandmother's pond when I spent time at her house during the summers of my youth, but it isn't a hobby I pursue. If I had to choose between fishing and almost anything else, I would likely choose the almost anything else. It isn't a bad way to spend time. It just isn't a way I like to spend my time and I don't identify with the language Jesus uses in today's Gospel lesson.

Yes, we all understand that Jesus means that the disciples will draw people into the kingdom of God, but what would Jesus have said if those first disciples had not been fishermen? What if he'd come across men who were building a wall or plowing a field? Of course, those ideas are used elsewhere, but how could this chapter be rewritten to fit the lives and understanding of carpenters or chefs? What does Jesus say to the writer or the artist? The accountant or the librarian? The CEO or the janitor? We are all called to be 'fishers of men' but we don't all have the aptitude or the talents to serve God by casting nets or using a fishing pole.

This brings into light the question of vocation. What is my vocation? I've been a mom for a long time, and I'll always be a mom, even when my children are grown, but my responsibilities for them grow smaller every day. By next fall both kids will be in college. Victoria will graduate soon after that. Eventually they'll both have jobs, homes, spouses and kids of their own. I'll still be mom, but they won't need me the way they did when they were young. So, I've spent the past twenty plus years 'fishing' for my kids to be faith-filled and faithful children in God's kingdom. What's next? Are two fish enough?

So, I've been asking myself what I should do next. How will I use my gifts to share God's kingdom with others. How will God use those gifts to fish for more people? Though I am asking these questions at a time of transition in my life, I think these are questions we can all be asking constantly. "How can my gifts be used to draw people into God's heart?" "How does my work in this world benefit the Kingdom of God?" We don't have to be fishermen to draw people into God's kingdom, but sometimes our work doesn't seem very appropriate jobs within the kingdom of God. After all, will there be accounting work in heaven? It is no wonder that we tend to separate our work for God from our earthbound work, they seem to be part of two separate worlds.

Jesus chose fishermen and then sent the fishermen into the world to do the job in a new light. He chose you, too. He didn't choose you simply for church work and He doesn't remove you from your every day tasks. He calls you to be transformed so that your every day tasks will shine light in the world. We are to fish for people, paint for people, build for people, cook for people, lead for people, mop for people, change diapers for people and even crunch numbers for people. Whatever we do can become a way for God to draw people into His kingdom.

What good would it be for everyone to be fishermen? We'd have a lot of fish, but man can not live on fish alone! That's why it is so important for us to have a congregation full of people with different gifts and vocations. How much more can we get done together, sharing what we have to offer as individuals, instead of trying to be the same thing as everyone else?

Of course, we run into trouble with this point of view because with different gifts and vocations we see the world from different points of view. One wants to focus on beauty while another focuses on numbers. One wants to plant seeds while another wants to build towers. One wants to cook food while another wants to clean up messes. This may not seem like a cause for division within the church, and yet how many of our arguments are centered in the way we use our resources? Should we be a church that serves the poor or teaches the Bible? Should we be a church that shares the Gospel in new and creative ways or should we continue proven methods? Should we be conservative or liberal? Should we be spiritual or practical? How should we accomplish the ministry God has given to us?

The problem with these questions is that it puts the focus on what we are and what we can do rather than on God. The disciples weren't chosen because they were fishermen; they were given the freedom to live out their faith in the world that they knew. Jesus does the same for us. And He puts us into community so that we can join our gifts into one body. Unity is not about being the same, but about being centered in the heart of God with a common purpose: to draw more people into that heart.

Paul addresses a serious question among those early Christians, a question that still divides us today. What is baptism? Which baptism is right? The requirements and expectations of baptism are different for different churches, so much so that one is not acceptable to another. Too many people have been re-baptized in an effort to do it "right" but we have to ask ourselves, "Who is it that you are following? Paul? Apollos? The leader of that church? While baptism is an important part of our life in Christ, the question we must ask is not "Have you been baptized?" but rather, "To whom do you belong?" The answer must be "Christ" first and foremost. And when Christ is the answer, then there is no division, despite our differences.

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.

Jesus Christ came to teach a different message. He came to restore people to God. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali had been located in the same region that came to be known as Galilee, where Jesus roamed and did much of His work. But they were lost at the time of the exile. It was now home to the Gentiles, foreigners. They were not Jews, and yet Jesus spent time with them. He took His message of hope so that they too might know God’s grace. Though the tribes were lost, Jesus fulfilled the promise found in Isaiah that people who walked in darkness would see a great light. He was the light.

When John was arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Was Jesus running away? We might think so if we did not have the prophecy from Isaiah. God promised that the Messiah would come out of the area known as Zebulun and Naphtali. Matthew recognized the connection when he quoted Isaiah. During this season of Epiphany we are reminded that Jesus came to bring the message of hope to all the nations. He came to be a light in the darkness. He came to bring peace between peoples. Zebulun and Naphtali represent all those who were once tribes of Israel, but were lost. God had not forgotten. But God was also reaching beyond them to all people. Different, and yet all the same in Christ.

It is good to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. It is right to teach one another how to live in our faith. But none of those ministries define our relationships with God or one another. We are called as Christians to be of one mind and purpose, not that every Christian is gifted to serve in exactly the same way. Rather, we are called to share the foolish message of the cross as we are able from the place where we are with the gifts we have been given.

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