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JANUARY 27, 2008: THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

Before I began to study Scripture, I presumed today's gospel pericope narrated Jesus calling his first four priests. That's how most of my seminary spiritual directors interpreted the event and I often heard bishops homilize on this passage during ordination ceremonies.

Today I realize the "gospel Jesus" called no one to the priesthood (or the religious life). He simply called people to be Christians: other Christs. That's why those who originally heard this narrative listened carefully to every word. Matthew places it at the beginning of his gospel in order to help the members of his community reflect not only on the fact they've been called, but also on their response to that invitation.

Notice the circumstances of the call. "As (Jesus) was walking by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, called Rock, and his brother Andrew, casting nets into the sea; they were fishermen . . . . He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets."

The four aren't on retreat, participating in a mission, or engaged in spiritual reading. They're at work, doing what they've probably done every day of their adult lives: fishing. Jesus encounters them where they are; not where they should be.

But no matter where we are, he always calls us to go somewhere else. In no biblical call - all the way back to Abraham's Genesis 12 call - is anyone ever commanded to stay put. People of faith are constantly called to move, sometimes physically, but always psychologically. In this situation, Jesus expects his first four disciples to change their value system. "Come after me," he commands, "and I will make you fishers of people." They'll no longer focus on fish; people will now be at the center of their lives.

Matthew dramatizes this psychological sea change by actually having the four men move physically. "At once they left their nets and followed him . . . . Immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him." They're now going to be "where" Jesus is, not just physically, but mentally.

The evangelist is convinced that not all who claim to be Christians are actually where Jesus is. Matthew's certainly not the only Christian author to encounter such a contradiction. Almost 25 years before, Paul faced the same difficulty in Corinth.

The Apostle's overriding fear revolves around divisions in the churches he evangelized. He's passionate that his communities "be united in the same mind and in the same purpose." Factions springing from who evangelized or who baptized specific individuals force Paul to cut through the nonsense of "I belong to Paul . . . Apollos . . . Cephas," and cry out, "I belong to Christ!" In other words, no one can bring us to true faith unless they bring us to the point where we begin to follow Jesus.

I presume Paul is so deeply concerned about unity because he wants his communities to live fulfilled, happy lives. Isaiah wished the same for his community. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing . . . ." The prophet here is referring to a temporary withdrawal of Assyrian forces from the north of Israel, reflecting on the joy the enemy's retreat creates for everyone.

Paul, on the other hand, is speaking about a more permanent state of mind, the joy that comes from following Jesus. Such happiness and contentment doesn't depend on the actions of others. It's rooted in how we integrate the "cross of Christ" into our lives. Paul believes it depends on everyone in the community dying enough to themselves to actually become Christ's Body - in our case, to identify even with the community's priests.