Monday, January 27, 2014

Epiphany III - Disciples

Year A, Epiphany III

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

May God, who is eternal light, be birthed anew within each of us through these words. Amen. 

Does anyone here have one of those cherished relatives who loves to tell the same story again and again and again? Oftentimes if we pay close attention, which few of us do after the first telling, we would realize some of the facts and little nuances in the story change with each telling. It isn’t that the storyteller is seeking to rewrite history nor have they forgotten what happened to them. The reality is few of us can perfectly remember any event  and eventually we will all be guilty of being one of the cherished relatives, if we are not already in the eyes of a few. 

Paul seems to be one of these storytellers today in our reading from the book of Corinthians. Briefly he attempts to share the story of all those he has baptized during the course of his ministry to the Corinthians. First he emphatically tells us he didn’t baptize anyone, well except for Crispus and Gaius that is. Two names that frankly we could have fun with all evening but we will do our best to resist. Then suddenly he remembers and has to interject that he also baptized the whole household of a man named Stephanas, which would have included everyone regardless of their age or position. Therefore, we could guess he baptized 7-10 members of the Corinthian church, a church which mind you was likely no more than 50 adherents total in size. But that’s all, right? Well probably not, because he completes his confusing story by saying, “I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.” Thank you Paul for this extremely coherent and straight forward explanation of your baptismal practices. He has summed it up beautifully, wouldn’t you agree? 

However, before we give Paul to hard of a time, let’s take a moment to think of that cherished relative who is just as guilty of befuddling their stories. Often just like our relatives, Paul had a point he was attempting to make that had little to do with specific numbers or absolute facts. He was trying to explain to his audience, and to us, a much deeper truth of the blossoming new faith. A faith which was radical and turned the religious ideals of the day upside down! To find this truth we have to turn to Paul’s last statement in this Corinthians passage. He tells us:

“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.”

Paul was speaking to a group of people who cherished rituals and traditions above all else. A group of people who found their entire identity within certain liturgical acts and affiliations rather than within the message of freedom that Jesus had given to them. Paul slaps them and says baptism is not of primary importance to me. Your disagreements on how you are a member of the church or the way in which you were brought into God’s love are completely pointless and serve only to divide and cause strife. To Paul the mission of following Jesus was one of spreading the truth of the cross.

What is the message of the cross? The realization that sacrifice and love for one another is the only road that leads to peace, freedom and ultimately true salvation on this earth and in the age to come. The message of the cross is one of hope to the hopeless. Life to lifeless. 

As a people of faith in 2014 we are often no less guilty, than the Corinthians, when it comes to elevating ourselves simply because of denominational ties or views of certain doctrines. Our eloquent ideas and theologies replace the simplicity of a man willing to give his life up in order to call us to the service and love of all those around us, even our enemies. We bring division into the family of God because we look not to all that unites us but rather to what divides us and sometimes we even glory in those divisions, we relish them as labels of superiority. Today, we might be heard saying something like: “I belong to the Methodists. I belong to the Unitarians. I am a born-again Christian. I am a Bible believing Christian.” Paul says, “Stop it!” 

He reminds us that if our entire focus is only on these labels we have missed the point, the purpose of the cross, the purpose of Jesus’s life and in reality we are seeking only our own demise. We perish when we lock ourselves into our own little titles, claims to fame and self-centered worlds, severing all ties from opinions and outlooks which differ from our own. We perish when we lose sight of the simplicity of the Gospel, which is purely accepting our radical calling to be willing to lay down our life for another. The message of the cross is our calling to become icons of God in this world through word and deeds. An icon opens a window to the world around us in order that they may see God’s ways and thoughts which are loving, freely given and always sacrificial to help another in need. 

All of our readings today spoke about the destruction of darkness and the appearance of a marvelous light, a light which is unending and can never be conquered. Jesus himself told us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Which could be better translated in our understanding to say, “Turn around, take notice, the kingdom of God is all around you!” He was saying, “the light is here!” Jesus’s mission was to reveal to all who would listen that God is not some far off parent in the sky seeking to destroy but rather an eternal presence that surrounds each of us, coming forth from within in us, and beckoning us to participate in holy work. The Gospel reading today reminds us of those first few people who noticed the light of God emanating from Jesus and they couldn’t help but join the revolution that was beginning. We call them the disciples.

Today God asks us, “Will you be my disciples?” Will you become my icons on this earth, revealing to all the world that grace triumphs and that the purest Gospel is one of simplicity, one which preaches radical, inclusive love? God’s promises are first and foremost fulfilled through us and our willingness to participate in the kingdom of God. Yes, we are called to be destroyers of darkness just as Jesus was and is! 

The light of God is not a temporary light, it does not have a beginning nor end, there is no belief, fear or doubt which can hide its radiance. The perpetual light is found within every person that walks this earth, ever has walked this earth or ever will walk this earth. To be sure the light is found within all, however it is up to us to remove the curtains and allow the light the shrine through us to others. Tragically, some never participate in the light of God, some even spend every moment of their life striving to shut out the light in deeds of hatred and judgement. Some do not heed the words of Jesus, “Turn around, take notice.” But many do and they are truly fulfilling the message of the Gospel, not through eloquent words, dogmatic decrees or certain affiliations but through the simplicity of love which is oftentimes tangible and always given freely. 

Saint Teresa of Avila, a famous mystic who entered a life of contemplation at age 18, composed a famous poem entitled: Christ Has No Body. I would like to read it to you now:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
These are such simple thoughts, simple words and yet a calling that is unsurpassable in greatness. Will you be God’s icon? Will you be a disciple? Will you allow the mystical light of God to work within you and through you so that your neighbors and enemies might one day say, “we walked in darkness but have now seen a great light.” Will you become a parent to the parentless, a protector to the vulnerable, a bearer of truth for the one who is falsely condemned? Will people in need find their yokes destroyed because you took the time to be a friend, to be a caretaker, to be the shining light in what seemed to be the darkest of days? 

Yes, some will say, “you fool!” They will feel you have wasted your time and resources on those who are beyond help or products of their own demise and deserving of what they get. But the one who says, “yes,” to being a disciple and to following the message of the cross knows they have found the power of God within themselves and can’t help but to give it away. Then and only then will the world behold the goodness of the Lord. Only when you become the hands, the feet, the eyes and the bestower of compassion.

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