Apr212014
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JANUARY 26, 2014: THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

I can't imagine the nightmare it would be for Paul of Tarsus to walk down any of our large American cities and calculate the number of diverse Christian churches per square mile. Just as Back to the Future's Marty McFly loses it when anyone calls him "Chicken!", so the Apostle becomes greatly disturbed when anyone causes divisions in the communities he evangelized. This is certainly the case in his Corinthian church.

At the very beginning of the first letter he wrote to that particular community Paul deals with the one issue which is really bugging him: "I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose."

"Chloe's people" have informed him that some Corinthian Christians are actually creating factions based on the persons who baptized or evangelized them: Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (Peter). In frustration Paul demands to know, "Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"

The Apostle reminds his readers that his ministry to them revolved around preaching the gospel, not baptizing, and that the message he preached was always "the cross of Christ," a cross they were obviously trying to avoid or ignore. Over and over again, Paul had taught them that in order to live with the risen Jesus, they first had to die with the risen Jesus.

Just what does it mean to die with Jesus?

All of us know about the old "penitential orders" whose members, especially during Holy Week, would scourge themselves until their back became bloody. And every Good Friday we're made aware of some young men in a village in the Philippines who actually let themselves be nailed to a cross. Is this what Paul means by "dying" with Jesus? We never hear anything like this in any of his letters.

Paul's idea of dying with Jesus springs from his conviction that, before anything else, those who imitate Jesus are expected to die by becoming one with one another.

A fulfilled Christian life is more than just no longer having enemies breathe down our throats, as we hear in today's Isaiah passage. The "great light" we've experienced - the light which brings true rejoicing -permeates all our existence, not just those surface areas.

That light is rooted in the message the historical Jesus constantly proclaims: God's kingdom is all around us. The gospel kingdom of God (or heaven) has nothing to do with the after-life. It always refers to God working effectively in our daily lives right here and now. But in order to surface that kingdom, we must "repent:" completely change our value systems. We, like Jesus' first four disciples, are called to make people, not things, the focus of our lives. Nothing can ever become more important than our relations with one another.

Those familiar with I Corinthians know the importance of the second half of chapter 11. It's there that Paul pinpoints the place and time in which we're most expected to be one: the Eucharist. It's during that celebration that we best "proclaim the death of Jesus" by dying ourselves.

In this day and age it's hard enough for Democrats and Republicans to die to themselves enough to actually become one. But it's even harder for Methodists and Catholics to pull it off. After all, we don't even permit non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist. I would hate to think of what Paul will have to say about that when we one day meet him at the pearly gates.