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JANUARY 23, 2011: THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 8:23-9:3
I Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
Matthew 4:12-23

All of us have experienced having our “button pushed.” Someone says or does something which causes us to lose it. Years ago while directing our diocesan diaconate program, a candidate simply had to ask, “When can I start wearing a Roman collar?” and I’d go bonkers. One of the reasons I became involved in that relatively new ministry was because of my problems with clericalism, symbolized, among other things, by distinctive clerical dress. I’d hoped these new deacons would follow the teaching of Jesus and avoid any signs which would support a biblical-forbidden Christian caste system.

Paul experienced a situation in his communities which also pushed his button. The Apostle had a passion for unity in the churches he founded. Nothing set him off quicker than surfacing divisions among Jesus’ followers.

He presumes all Christians make up the body of the risen Jesus. As other Christs each plays a unique role in carrying on the work of Jesus. Yet as different as we are, the Spirit unites all the body’s members into one entity. When someone creates divisions, the body can’t do what the Spirit intends it to do. Though one, not everyone has the same gifts or the same experiences. In Paul’s Corinth, not everyone entered the Christian community in the same way, or was baptized by the same person.

The latter is creating divisions. “Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas.” Many Pauline scholars contend that the last statement (“I belong to Christ!) is actually the Apostle’s way of saying we owe allegiance to the risen Jesus, and no one else.

It’s no accident that Paul immediately refers to “emptying the cross of Christ of its meaning.” Creating unity in any Christian community can only be achieved if each member is willing to mirror Jesus’ death in his or her relations with everyone else in that community. Dying with Jesus, in the biblical sense, has nothing to do with fasting or performing physical acts of penance. It simply revolves around accepting everyone in the community as equal - but unique - members of the body of Christ.

We know from the gospel call-narratives that Jesus expects his followers to make their relations with others their main sign of discipleship. In today’s Matthew pericope we hear this expressly stated. “Come after me,” Jesus commands, “and I will make you fishers of people.” Though the two pairs of fishing brothers are giving up the tools of their trade, they’re not asked to give up the drive which sustained them in that profession. They’re simply promised that people - not fish - will now be their focus. (I presume had Jesus called hunters, they would become “hunters of people;” if shepherds, “shepherds of people.”) In no way are these first four disciples expected to “catch” people; they’re simply to put people, not fish, in the center of their lives.

This seems to be why Matthew precedes the call with Jesus’ proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The historical Jesus’ primary goal doesn’t seem to be getting people into heaven, but helping them perceive God working in the lives right here and now. (Mark’s rich young man passage shows the difference between just getting into heaven and achieving the 180 degree change in one’s value system necessary to enter the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” long before we physically die.)

No wonder Matthew refers to Isaiah’s oracle about people in Galilee seeing “a great light.” Responding “Yes!” to Jesus’ call takes away lots of gloom. But it also means we have to die to our former values before we can surface him/her alive in our daily lives. If we don’t die enough to become one with those around us, we’ll have to endure this gloomy environment until we actually do pass through those pearly gates to experience God’s presence.