“Now 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.” – I Corinthians 1:10-18
“Now 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
In our New Testament reading for today the apostle Paul says: “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…”
How much these words needed to be heard this week! It’s been a week when we saw Donald Trump become President, which brought hope to some and fear to others. The very next day we saw the Women’s March, protesting against the new President… which brought hope to some and fear to others. I haven’t seen our country so divided since the days of the Vietnam War.
Speaking as a history buff, I’m sure there’s a history lesson in here somewhere… but that’s not what you came to church for today. And besides, the apostle Paul is much more to the point when he says the message of the cross stands above it all.
I’m going to come back to that thought in just a moment, but first I’d like to look at our reading from Matthew, which tells the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. This story sheds light on what it means to be a disciple because it’s how the whole Jesus-discipleship thing began.
In our reading from Matthew, Jesus calls the first four disciples. They are two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John. All four are fishermen and all four are at work on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus calls them. The thing that stands out in this story is that when Jesus calls them, all four men immediately drop what they’re doing and follow Jesus.
These men are tradesmen, average men from average families, and fishing is the family business. But they drop everything to follow Jesus. They don’t ask questions about how they’re going to make a living, or who’s going to look after the family. In fact Matthew says James and John “left their father in the boat” and went with Jesus, just like that.
Can you imagine doing that?
But listen to the words Jesus uses to call the fishermen. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” If someone said that to you, how would you react? Would it make you curious? Would you wonder if he was joking? Would you wonder what ‘fishing for people’ might involve?
I think our English translations address the mind, but in the original Greek language, Jesus’ words have a different feel. It’s more like: “Come! After me! I will make you fishermen of people!” There’s a spirit of enthusiasm and invitation and adventure that is absolutely compelling. Jesus will take something as common as fishing and give it eternal meaning. These four fishermen, by following Jesus, will play a part in changing the history of the world. They don’t know that yet, but what they do know is the feeling, in this moment, is a feeling of deepest joy, a joy you can’t say ‘no’ to, and they want more than anything to be part of it.
This joy is something we are called to also. In Jesus, the kingdom of God begins to break into our world, pushing back the darkness and bringing in light. Following Jesus does have a cost, and the road to eternity does pass through Calvary. But a large part of the essence of the Christian life is joy, because we know who we are and whose we are, and we are looking for a world, for a kingdom, in which righteousness / kindness, and justice /mercy, and greatness /humility, are no longer contradictions because they come together perfectly in Jesus Christ. We have our sights set on the joy of that kingdom.
Now contrast this feeling of joy with the feelings we had watching the election last fall. Did we feel joy? Or did we feel uncertainty? Did doubts and fears creep into our hearts? Have we been looking to human beings to provide what only God can give?
I would submit that if we fear any human being more than we fear God, we’re in trouble. If we think any group – political or otherwise – is going to accomplish God’s will (any other way than by accident) we’re in trouble. If there is anything more important than God in our minds or in our hearts, whatever that thing is needs to go.
After Jesus called his disciples, the message he preached was “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. And the Greek word ‘repent’ literally translates to perceive afterward, like we’re seeing something too late. For example, have you ever had the experience of having a conversation with someone, and then thinking of something you should have said about a half-hour after the conversation is over? That’s what the word repent means: to perceive afterwards.
In the future, when we look back on these days of division in our nation, will we regret how we’ve spent our time? Will we be sorry for things we’ve said to people? or for putting our trust in imperfect people instead of in God? Will we be peacemakers?
How we treat each other, and what we say to each other makes no difference to the people in Washington DC – but it makes a difference to the people we see every day. And our words and actions have spiritual repercussions.
Which brings us back to Paul, and Paul’s words to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church Paul was writing to was made up mostly of new converts to the Christian faith, and most were Gentiles, not Jewish. The new converts found themselves, to their surprise, richly gifted by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts like healing, speaking in tongues, hospitality, service, and many other gifts. But with so much giftedness they began to compete with each other. “My gifts are better than your gifts.” “My baptism is better than your baptism.” And so on. Which sounds silly to us today. But think about how gifted we are as Americans. Are we enjoying our gifts and thanking God, or are we backbiting each other?
The ultimate point of Paul’s letter is found in I Corinthians 13, where he says the greatest spiritual gift of all is love. Treating others with kindness and dignity. Just the opposite of what the Corinthians were doing.
In this morning’s reading, in I Corinthians 1:10, Paul writes: “Now 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.”
“I appeal to you” Paul says. In Greek this phrase is one word, parakaleo – it’s a compound word made up of para (“alongside” – the word we get parallel from) and kaleo (“to call”). This word is translated – depending on your version of the Bible – “I appeal” or “I urge” or “I exhort”. But the actual shading of the word implies not one who is pushing us (“I urge you”), but one who comes alongside and draws us.
Para-kaleo – to call alongside. Like Jesus calling his disciples, Paul’s words are an invitation to join him in a new way of life and in great joy.
“Parakaleo, brothers and sisters” – be united in mind and purpose. Have no schismata (no schisms, no rending of fellowship). And Paul makes his appeal in the name of Jesus, the same name by which the lame get up and walk, and the same name by which the sick are healed.
Is Paul saying all Christians should think the same, vote the same, be members of the same political party? Of course not. What Paul is saying is, the divisions among us – whether in the church or in society in general – are caused by people who feel they’re better than others, or at least that their leaders are better than others. So Paul is asking: Are some people better educated than others? Are some people more gifted than others? Are some people richer than others? Is it better to be baptized by Paul or by Peter? Do we follow Paul or do we follow Apollos? (And we could insert any number of names of politicians, celebrities, or media personalities in these questions.)
Paul replies: “Did I die for you? Was Apollos crucified for you? Has Christ been divided?”
In the world, among unbelievers, differences in education and wealth and giftedness cause division. But among believers, among followers of Jesus, this should not be so. John Wesley said: “Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?” That’s the essence of Christian joy and Christian unity.
There will never be permanent, meaningful, un-forced justice or peace in this life. This doesn’t mean we stop working for these things. It just means we know any justice or peace we find in this world is temporary. It’s a foretaste of things to come, not a permanent thing here on earth.
Paul says: “Christ sent me not to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel, and not with fancy words.” Paul doesn’t want to risk emptying the cross of its power.
And the power of the cross is this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the source and giver of all life and all joy, died in our place and three days later walked out of the grave alive, opening the door to God’s kingdom for us sinful human beings.
Paul says this is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” As we look at the cross, the power is this: out of unfairness comes justice. Out of despair comes hope. Out of injury comes wholeness. Out of betrayal comes trust. Out of death comes life. Out of sacrifice comes Joy.
The powers of this world cannot accomplish these things. They never will. And if they say otherwise they’re lying. Only our Lord Jesus can bring life out of death.
In the book of Galatians Paul says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And he says, “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Slavery happens whenever any thing, or any person, or any cause, becomes more important or more desirable to us than Jesus.
The message of the Cross is the love of Jesus and the power of God for forgiveness and redemption. It is liberation. It is freedom. It is new life. It is Joy. And it is unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ – not sameness – but unity in purpose, one in direction and one in destination.
Jesus calls us, as he called those fishermen long ago, to leave behind our former life and follow him into the kingdom of God. Paul encourages us to be united in that vision, and help each other along the way to the kingdom. Will we answer yes?
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/22/19