January 25/26, 2014
Listening to that first reading from the prophet Isaiah, you might wonder whether or not we had forgotten to turn the pages of the lectionary from a few weeks ago, as this reading and its memorable phrases are so very reminiscent of the readings from Christmas. “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.” In fact, those are the very words which open the reading from Isaiah for the Christmas Liturgy at Midnight. How appropriate they are for that particular liturgy, celebrated as it is in the darkness of night and drawing a stark contrast between the literal darkness of that time of day, and our belief that in Jesus darkness is dispelled and God’s Light – more so than the dawning of daybreak – enlightens the world in a new and permanent way.
We then hear – as we do during these early Sundays of this Cycle A Liturgical Year – a passage from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. The Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth was founded by Paul during what is known as his 2nd Missionary Journey – probably around the years 50 to 52. This Corinthian community – which probably numbered in the hundreds – was clearly very important to Paul, who lived and stayed with them for over a year. They would gather for prayer not in the synagogue or some church or other public building – for there were as yet no such places – but rather they would gather much like we are doing today, in the home of someone who has opened their doors in hospitality and welcome.
Because Paul was so very fond of this community that he founded, it should be no surprise that he writes such a challenging letter to them. He writes about many things in this relatively brief letter, especially when he hears that there is division and in-fighting among them. Having heard that they have divided themselves into factions and cliques, Paul wastes no time in telling them why he is writing, urging them to have no divisions among them, to be of the same mind and the same judgment. It’s not difficult for us – some two millennia later – to see how the issue Paul addressed head on way back then must somehow be inscribed in the very essence of what it means to be human. After all, has much changed since then? Aren’t we, no matter what the context, so very good at putting people into categories and camps – labeling others and even ourselves so that our attention is on what separates us rather than what unites us? Is human society or even the Christian community any more united or “of the same mind” today than it was two thousand years ago? For those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, are we following someone – or, more likely something – else more closely than we are following the One in Whose footsteps we claim to walk? If we were to look at a “Family Tree of Christianity,” we would see that there are some 1,200 organized Christian groups or churches in the US alone, and over 30,000 such groups worldwide. What do you suppose Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, would think of that?
If the evidence seems to show that divisions among Christians have not diminished but have increased, then what does this say for us who gather here today, allowing ourselves to be challenged by the Scriptures and nourished by the Eucharist? For Paul, what was important was not being part of a certain group, but rather being a Christian meant dying with Christ so as to live in his Light.
But what does it mean to “die with Christ”? What does Paul’s vision of Christianity say to us who, believing that Jesus has dispelled the darkness and brought his saving Light to the world, are called to bear forth the Light of Jesus and the Peace of Christ? How can we – how can I – make that Light and Peace of Christ more present in a world which, at times, seems so filled darkness? We need not look far to see a world still burdened by wars and the lust for power, by senseless violence and death, by poverty and suffering that cry out for relief.
In the Gospel reading we hear Jesus call his first disciples, men who gave up all that they had – however much or little – to follow him. Jesus’ call to Peter and Andrew to “Come after me…” is no less our call today. As Jesus’ own ministry will show, the “Kingdom of Heaven” he preaches refers not to some heavenly after-life, but rather to daily life lived here and now. That Kingdom, that Reign of God, is much less about the future than it is about the very real presence of this day, this moment. However, in order for God’s Reign to be revealed in the present, Jesus calls us to repent. Repentance means ensuring that our values are in sync with Jesus’ values, that our words and our actions are truly “what Jesus would say and do.” Like those first disciples, we are called to make people, not things, the focus of our lives. Nothing – no thing – can ever be more important than the relationships we have with one another, and nothing should ever blind us to seeing the face of God in every human person.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the song that begins with the words, “Come! Live in the Light. Shine with the Light and the Love of the Lord!” It goes on to state what it means to live in that Light, who is Christ. As we go about our lives this week, let us keep in mind the challenge of those words to be the Light and Presence of Christ to all we meet. As the hymn says:
Come! Open your heart! Show your mercy to all those in fear!
We are called to be hope for the hopeless, so all hatred and blindness will be no more!
Sing! Sing a new song! Sing of that great day when all will be one! God will reign and we’ll walk with each other as sisters and brothers united in love!
We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly. We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God. (We are Called, by David Haas)