Last week, the theme of our readings was our calling to follow Christ. That’s true this week, too. But before we get to our calling, I need to say something about the context.
It’s hard to know exactly who was the last prophet in the Old Testament. The dates of the late ones are pretty fuzzy. But there was clearly a period of something like two-hundred years between the last of the Old Testament prophets and the emergence of John the Baptizer, something like two-hundred years without any generally acknowledged prophets proclaiming the word of God.
Then John erupts onto the scene. You can imagine the excitement as word spread about this new prophet. God was once again speaking directly to God’s people about the coming of the kingdom and the Messiah who would usher it in. People rushed from all over to see and hear John and receive his baptism of repentance. Jesus himself joined the crowds.
But John’s ministry didn’t last. Herod had John arrested. Matthew doesn’t give us the full story until later in the Gospel, but [spoiler alert!] it doesn’t end well for John.
In our reading for this morning, Matthew just tells us that John was arrested, and that Jesus then retreated to Galilee. That makes John’s arrest the immediate context for the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
Now, imagine that moment as ordinary people must have experienced it. All the excitement around the first prophet in centuries, gone. All hope for the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, gone. It must have seemed like a dark time.
But up in Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, all was not as dark as it seemed. Something was stirring. Jesus took up John’s mantle.
And in Jesus, people who sitting in darkness began to glimpse new light. Light dawned on people stuck in the region and shadow of death. In Jesus, God was still at work after all. Indeed, God was more powerfully at work than ever before, more powerfully at work than in John’s ministry, more powerfully at work than in the ministry of even the greatest heroes of the Old Testament.
That’s what Christ does: bring God’s light when everything seems dark. Bring hope, when everything seems hopeless. Bring life, when everything seems dead.
Matthew goes on to tell us what this new divine light looked like in practice. God’s light shined as Jesus roamed “throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Teaching. Proclaiming. Healing. That’s the light of Christ at work in the world.
And Jesus called disciples to join him in the work of spreading God’s light. At first Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the others who would soon join the movement, just followed Jesus. But eventually, Jesus sent his followers out to do what he was doing, to spread God’s light themselves, to teach and proclaim and heal in Jesus’ name.
That was the calling of Jesus’ disciples then, and that’s our calling, too. Today our world needs God’s light at least as much as theirs did. And so, Christ sends us, his contemporary disciples, out into the world to spread God’s light by doing what he did, by teaching, proclaiming, and healing in Christ’s name.
Of course, our ministries look different than the ministries of the first band of disciples back in the first century. Not many of us are likely to wander the countryside in sandals, relying on the kindness of strangers, preaching on street corners, and working miracles. Speaking for myself, I prefer to get around in a car, rely on a salary, and use the internet to communicate.
Still, in our different circumstances and in our different ways, it remains our basic task as followers of Jesus to share God’s light by teaching, proclaiming, and healing. Today we call that Christian formation, evangelism, and loving service to people in need, and it is what we do. It’s our calling. It’s what it means to be Church. It’s what our world needs.
And here at Saint David’s, we often get it right. One of the pleasures of working on our annual reports is the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we really did shine a little of God’s light in a time that is, in some ways, pretty dark. I encourage you all to take a look at the reports and enjoy the reminder that God’s light really does shine through us.
But we don’t always get it right. Our denomination doesn’t always get it right. The Church as whole, Church with a capital C, doesn’t always get it right.
That’s always been true. From day one, Churches have had problems, have struggled to stay focused on Christ’s mission, have obscured God’s light.
We glimpse those problems in this morning’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and we get a lot more than a glimpse in the letter as a whole. Whenever I fret about how we are doing, I take perverse comfort in how much healthier we seem to be than the Corinthian Church. They had all kinds of problems including, most dramatically, members suing each other in civil court. That must have made coffee hour awkward!
What worried Paul most about the Church in Corinth were the divisions among them. The particular issues mattered, and we’ll hear a few of the specifics over the next weeks. But here at the beginning of the letter, Paul worried that the simple fact of divisions among them deeply compromised everything they did to follow Christ.
Divisions compromised their efforts at ongoing Christian formation and growth—the teaching part of the mission. Divisions compromised their efforts to share the Gospel with their neighbors—the proclamation part of the mission. Divisions compromised their efforts to serve their neighbors—the healing part of the mission.
So, Paul begs the Corinthians to be in agreement with each other, to be united in the same mind and purpose, to shine God’s light into the darkness, to stay focused on their mission to form and evangelize and serve.
The Church is a lot bigger today, and divisions continue to plague us, compromising our ability to serve Christ’s mission, as divisions compromised the ability of the Corinthians to serve Christ’s mission.
But division is NOT Christ’s will for us. So, the World Council of Churches has declared this the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. They encourage Christians throughout the northern hemisphere to spend time this week repenting of Christian division and praying that we might come together in our shared commitment to Christ’s mission. We’ll do that in our Prayers of the People. I invite you to pray for Christian unity at home as well.
Thankfully, we are not particularly divided here at Saint David’s. But the example of the Corinthians forces us to ask the question, do we sometimes compromise our own efforts to follow Christ’s example, to shine God’s light in the darkness, to continue the teaching, proclaiming, and healing of Christ’s mission?
If the answer is yes, and it always is yes, at least in part, we need to hear the very first word of Jesus’ public ministry, the very beginning of his proclamation: repent. And we need to commit ourselves yet again to Christ’s mission, so that God’s light shines a little more powerfully in our world today, as we continue our efforts to follow Christ’s example of teaching, proclaiming, and healing.
My prayer for us is that God will help us to be faithful to that calling. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan