A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Year A – January 26, 2014
by Kim Baker Glenn
Master of Divinity, Union Presbyterian Seminary
Gracious and merciful Lord, open our hearts and minds this day that we may hear and be changed in some small way by this reflection on your word. Let us become more of the people you would have us to be. Amen.
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
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. (Matthew 4:12-23)
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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 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.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)
As the fishermen in today’s gospel reading, I am endeavoring to follow Jesus’ call. Some of you know already that I graduated from seminary this past May. I spent my summer preaching at churches where I knew the priests; I wanted to find out what it was like to write a sermon every week. It was a daunting experience to say the least, but I truly enjoyed it. My husband explains my passion for ministry to his friends. He tells them he’s just waiting for all the money from my upcoming television preaching show to come rolling in! He’s kidding of course. He is actually my biggest and best supporter.
Knowing I would be bored if I didn’t do something last fall, I decided to enroll in “CPE.” “CPE” stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. Some denominations require it for ordination. I signed up for it because I really wanted to face the challenge, to test myself to see if I was up to it. I had heard my friends who are now priests talk about this CPE experience as having a significant impact on them – both personally and professionally. They told me how it had strengthened them in many ways for the challenges of priesthood.
I am not a stranger to challenge. I’m sure each of you has faced challenges that have somehow tested your mettle. We all face emotional, intellectual and physical challenges as part of just living in the world. We face a challenge or two every day it seems. How many of us have faced the challenge of getting to a meeting on time when all of a sudden we find ourselves stuck in traffic? Or maybe you have been challenged to find your way in anew city. Those are challenges that we handle alone; we make the decisions on our own. It is one thing to have your mettle tested as an individual but quite another to have it tested as part of a group.
The way we handle challenge takes on a different shape when the challenge is posed to a group that we are part of. Have you been part of a group that has to raise a certain amount of money? Or have you been part of a group that is challenged to find a more efficient process for manufacture of a company’s product? In a group, there necessarily needs to be someone who provides leadership to guide the group toward its goal. Not everyone can be the group’s captain. In the reading from the Epistle this morning, the apostle Paul played the role of the leader.
The apostle Paul was addressing the members of the church in Corinth in this morning’s epistle. He had heard formed the church there and then moved on to form other churches. Through his trusted friends who remained in Corinth he heard of the infighting that was disrupting the mission of the church. We in the 21st century like to think that the early church was a place of peace and compassion with simple but lovely traditions of worship. We suppose that most churches of Paul’s day each followed the same set of traditions. It was far different from that in reality. The norm for that period was disorganization and a bit of chaos.
Have you ever studied anything about group formation? Groups tend to go through periods of unrest before they get to a point where they can effectively perform tasks. Part of the CPE experience is the study of groups, how they form and how they per-form. The other part is spent as an intern as a hospital chaplain. In the role of chaplain we are challenged on a deeply personal level. We learn to improve our performance when we perform alone. We have to interact individually with patients and reflect on our interactions in order to improve. In the study of groups, we start the process by getting to know each other, sharing autobiographies and personal stories of special significance. The idea is to learn to trust each other so that the group can move to a relatively high level of functioning.
The church that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians describes is an example of the woes of dysfunction that the early church experienced. First of all, the church inCorinthwas mainly composed of Gentiles. The Gentiles were primarily of Greek descent while the apostles who formed the churches were all Jews. Most Gentiles inCorinthwere familiar with Jewish tradition. They had seen the city’s synagogues and the people who worshiped in them. The Gentile Greeks and their Jewish neighbors interacted with each other in everyday trade and city life. They got along as a society, but there were cultural differences. Life there was not too different from life in any port city we can think of today. Lots of people from lots of different cultural backgrounds participated in city life.
With all of the commercial activity in Corinth, the people were exposed to a variety of religious beliefs and some of them began to converge. When Paul came along to begin a church he brought these two groups, the Jews and the Greek Gentiles, together for a purpose. They were to serve as witnesses to the mystery of the risen Christ. These new members of the church in Corinthcame together for the same purpose but they didn’t share the same mind or understanding of what drew them to it. Because they disagreed about the reason for their being, the church members became divided. In very naturally human ways, they tended to compare each other’s thoughts and experiences and argue about them. Human competitiveness really got in the way of the Corinthian church group cohesion.
Paul was a visionary type of leader who understood intuitively what was causing the dysfunction. One of the traits of a visionary is an excellent ability to understand concepts and apply logic to solutions. He had an instinctive grasp on what each of the groups inCorinthwas thinking. They were split into factions that argued over the source of their baptism. It was up to Paul as their leader to step in and help them refocus. He understood that their baptisms were about the person in whose name they were baptized. The baptisms were all about a foundational relationship with Christ. Baptism was not at all about the person who performed the ritual. We do not belong to the person who baptizes us.
For Paul, baptism marks the beginning of something new It marks the beginning of the transformation of a human life from one committed to worldly achievements to one committed to the achievements of the cross. Paul wanted the members of the church inCorinthto be united in proclaiming the power of God. He saw the power of God most vividly demonstrated in Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. That understanding had come to him through the vision of Christ that he had experienced on the road to Damascus. That experience had transformed him from a Christ persecutor to a Christ believer and persuader. He wanted the church members in Corinth to embrace and proclaim the power of Christ crucified. He personally knew that the power-of-the-cross had delivered him and all of humanity from the binding grip of sin and death. He knew that the power-of-the-cross meant freedom for people to live life fully. Paul wanted the church in Corinth to be united in mind and purpose about this mission.
Think back to your experience of meeting a goal as part of a group. To be able to meet the goal, it’s important for each person in the group to be invested in it, for each person to believe in the validity of the group’s mission. Once that has been established then the whole group can move forward toward it’s goal despite the difference in personalities or cultural backgrounds of the individuals. It’s not even necessary that the individuals personally like each other or their leader. It is the common goal to which they all are committed that carries them forward.
That is what Paul meant for each member of that church to do. Each member should individually choose to make a commitment to Christ and not to anyone else – not to him or to Apollos or to Cephas. Then they could together be a witness to the power of God as it is revealed in the cross. Then they would be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Father Richard Rohr, a Catholic mystic, priest and theologian, says “Unity (happens in) the reconciliation of differences.” Father Rohr insists that individual differences be maintained within unity. The differences derive from the diversity of cultural influence and the diversity of individual personalities.
When groups gather, the balance of personality types can be quite variable. For example, as part of getting to know each other as a group in CPE, we share our personality preferences. When we examine all of our preferences in grid form we can see where the group will face challenges and where we will get benefit from working with each other. For instance, one of the preferences is between introversion and extraversion. You can imagine that it would be very difficult to get a discussion going if the group was made up of all introverts. The appropriate balance of diverse personalities helps to propel the group toward its goal.
Given that the church in Corinthwas formed out of a melting pot of cultural influences, balance may have been difficult to achieve in Corinth. Nonetheless, Paul urged them forward. This was no small challenge. Corinth represents a microcosm of the church we know today. It is no small challenge for us today to stay focused on the mission and not the minutia.
The church today is filled with people representing different cultural identities. There is diversity of personality, culture, gender, race, age, financial resources and most significantly, theological interpretation. There are men and women, old and young, rich and poor of all nations. There are liberal and conservative spectrums in many denominations. These differences can be an enormous asset but they become a problem if each of us allows a single area of difference to define us. Paul is telling us in this letter to the Corinthians that the one thing that is truly definitive for each of us as human beings is the fact that Christ died for us. All of the other factors, that make us who we are, are important – but they are not ultimate. The cross of Christ is ultimate.
Paul says the cross of Christ is deemed to be foolish to those who are perishing. He means that those who claim that the cross and resurrection are foolish notions are not able to realize the fullness of life as God intends for it to be. In other words, since they are not fully living they are fully dying. Those who do not acknowledge the power-of-the-cross are perishing. My prayer for each of us is that we fully embrace the power-of-the-cross that is the center of our life together at St. Mary’s and the wider church. Let us together be united in the same mind and the same purpose that God intends for our church to be in the world. Amen.