1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25
Good morning. This is one of those mornings when the readings are really in harmony with one another and they really paint a clear picture of how we are supposed to engage with the world around us. The passage from First Corinthians instructs us in how we’re supposed to live into Jesus’ call to follow him. It also implies that repentance is a constant need.
Our gospel reading show Jesus as he begins his public ministry. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, telling the people that the Messiah would come from the land of Zebulun and Naphtali which were two of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. They settled in the north of what was ancient Israel in territory that was later conquered by the Assyrians. After that conquest, the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were dispersed; they disappeared from the historical record.
The history and geography are relevant for several reasons. First, Jesus reminds the people that the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would not come from the center of the religious and political culture, but from the fringes of society. The Messiah comes not from a place that is purely Jewish, but from a place where different groups of people are dwelling together. Jesus is also suggesting a restoration of what had been lost: a common identity among all the tribes. And this passage makes clear, in the last two verses, that Jesus’ message is for everyone, not just Jews:
24 So [Jesus’] fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Some of those places are very clearly Gentile territory: Syria, the Decapolis, and from beyond the Jordan. This is not exclusive, it’s very, very inclusive.
Let’s face it, as human beings, we are much better at exclusion than inclusion; we are much better at division than we are at unity. That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote the letters to the congregation at Corinth. He saw too many divisions within that community. Mind you, this letter was written maybe twenty or thirty years after Jesus was crucified and resurrected. That’s all the time it took for divisions to emerge within the congregation.
The problem was that members of the congregation were identifying too strongly with particular leaders within that congregation, such as Apollos or Cephas, or even Paul himself. That weakened the witness for Christ. Paul urged the congregation to be united and reminded them that their true identity was in Christ, not in any particular leader within that congregation.
Later this morning, some of us are going to walk across the street to stand—and sing—with our brothers and sisters in Christ at the First United Methodist Church. This is an act of unity and solidarity; it’s an act of reconciliation. Now the divisions among the four Protestant churches here on West Main Street are fairly minor. I don’t think these divisions are all that harmful to the Body of Christ—that is, the Church universal.
However, when we focus on the things that divide us, we can get some pretty awful results. Millions of people died in the wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s. And the divisions between Catholics and Protestants persisted until the twentieth century, even if most of the fighting stopped by the late 1600s.
The religious wars of the 1500s and 1600s are not on the minds of most people today. But many of us are well aware of the wars of the twentieth century, and the horrors that can result when political leaders choose to stoke the fires of fear, anxiety, and hatred.
Later in his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
I know you don’t need me to remind you of this, but we are in the midst of an election cycle. I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. However, I don’t hear a lot of love. And this is true for both sides. Unfortunately, when this is true for both sides, we take that as license to continue to stoke the fires of division. Now I don’t think we’re going to descend into the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, nor the wars and genocides of the twentieth century, but I do think that the political climate, with all its shouting and tribalism, is a real problem for us as Christians.
When we choose to embrace our secular identities, we do this at the expense of our Christian witness. When we cling to our political identities as Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, we elevate those identities; we raise the flags of division. There are a lot of people outside of our churches who need to find God. When we shout at one another, those people don’t hear or see the love of Christ in our words and actions. We come off like so many noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls people to repent. When we hear the word repent, I think a lot of us hear a call to stop sinning, and we think of sins as a collection of bad acts that we do, even when we know we shouldn’t. That’s why we, mistakenly, might describe a rich chocolate cake as sinful. Deep down, we know that’s a pretty shallow definition of sin, but we like it, because it’s relatively easy to follow—if we choose.
But the word that is translated as repent is anything but a shallow change of habit. Rather, the Greek word metanoia is a radical transformation of the heart and mind, and it’s what we see in the call stories of Andrew, Peter, James, and John. When Jesus says “Follow me,” they literally drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus, no questions asked. That’s metanoia; that’s repentance.
Andrew and Peter set aside their jobs, their livelihood, their secular identity to follow Jesus. James and John went even further—they walked away from their family identity. They were the sons of Zebedee; they walked away from their birthright to follow Jesus. Which identities are we willing to walk away from to follow Jesus? Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to continue Jesus’ mission of reconciliation among all people. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!