May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock and our redeemer.
This past week was the week of prayer for Christian unity, situated between the celebration of the confession of Peter and the celebration of the conversion of Paul. It’s quite fitting, then, that Paul’s message for unity in his first letter to the Corinthians would show up today.
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Paul has heard of divisions and quarrels amongst the churches in Corinth. I can’t help but chuckle a little bit when I hear Paul asking that all be in agreement, with no divisions amongst them. That seems quite a tall order! Paul goes on to clarify what he means by the divisions and quarrels he has heard of, and things become serious quite quickly.
Paul states, What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Here Paul is listing the names of different teachers, with differing schools of thought on the message of the Gospel or whom it should be given to, ending with Christ as the ultimate and actual teacher. Paul then asks questions, all of which his expected response is a resounding and emphatic, No! I can almost hear Paul’s own responses. Has Christ been divided? No! Was Paul crucified for you? Absolutely not! Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? That’s heresy!
Almost as if he is proud of it, Paul expresses his gratitude that he in fact baptized few people, instead understanding his call to be that of proclaiming the gospel of Christ, a message he finds to be life-saving and powerful. And that message is one that speaks to unity.
It is not difficult to see the ways in which Paul’s message is still as relevant today as it was for the Corinthians back then. Christianity is split into more denominations than can possibly be listed in this sermon, and while there have been great strides in the work of Christian unity, there remain deep divisions in many places, with wounds and traumas that are hard to overcome. Add to this the highly charged political climate of this country, where the gospel has been hijacked and seen as partisan by both the major political parties.
If Paul were to write his letter to us today, it could very well say something as follows: What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry,” or “I belong to Pope Francis,” or “I belong to Franklin Graham,” or, God forbid, “I belong to Father Allan and Reverend Anna.” The point is clear: do not put your faith in the human leader and institution, but rather in Jesus. As one commentary noted, “to put loyalty to a leader above fidelity to Christ is unacceptable.” And so, in order to find a message for unity, we must turn to Jesus Christ.
In our gospel passage for today, Jesus has just been tempted by the devil after being in the wilderness for forty days and nights. He hears that John has been arrested and so he withdraws to Galilee. From Nazareth, a place closer to government headquarters, he heads to Capernaum, which was by the sea, a location from which Jesus could easily flee if necessary. Matthew tells us that this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that the Land of Zebulun and Naphtali, of which Capernaum is a part, has seen a great light through the arrival of Jesus.
From Capernaum, Jesus takes John’s message and begins to proclaim it himself, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus begins his public ministry by continuing John’s message, a message that has dangerous consequences. “Turn back to God,” he is saying, “for God’s reign is close at hand.” This is a joyful message! It is good news. God wants us to be in relationship with God and with one another.
Matthew then tells us, from his perspective, the story of the call of Peter and Andrew, which we heard last week from the point of view of John’s gospel. Jesus sees two brothers Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. Jesus’ message to them is simple – Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. And with those words, Peter and Andrew drop their nets and follow him. Similarly, Jesus comes upon two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, their father, who also is in the boat with them. Jesus calls to them, and they, like Peter and Andrew, leave and follow him. These disciples see the light that Jesus brings, and they immediately follow him.
Imagine what that must have been like! What might it take for us today to immediately drop what we are doing and follow Jesus? Would we have responded to Jesus’ simple call, if we had lived in the time of his being on earth? Are we responding to that call now?
With his new disciples, Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Jesus’ message is simple – Follow me, repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near. But simple rarely means easy. What gives me hope is that people like Peter, who so openly struggled in understanding and following Jesus’ message, and Paul, who openly persecuted those who gave their lives to that message, became leaders and pillars in the faith. It is because of their flaws and their humanity that I have hope. Because I am just as deeply flawed.
Following Jesus is not about belonging to Peter or Paul, to this or that denomination. What unites us is that message of God’s nearness, of working towards that kingdom of heaven here and now. How might we bring about this kingdom in our lives today? Can we drop our own safety nets and lesson our grip on the identities that we cling to and follow Jesus? Can we turn toward God and see that kingdom come near?
As we prepare to re-member the body of Christ, unifying that body in our ritual of the Eucharist, may we all take some time to pray for that unity, to recognize the light of Christ, and bring that light to others as we turn back to God and follow Jesus.