Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17-18, Matthew 4:12-23
On the Gospel, Time to Begin
Matty, believes he should be a soul winner for Christ. In the parish Bible class he has learnt how to share his faith with people and lead them to Christ. But he has never done it. Matty prays to God to give him a sign so that he would know exactly when to start. One day Matty is travelling in the subway to meet his Bible study friends. He has his Bible in his handbag. A young man about his own age enters the train and sits next to Matty. He wears a T-shirt with the slogan, “who has the most toys wins.” Matty bends his head and says a little prayer, “Lord give me a sign when to start.” The young man’s cell phone rings. His friend wants him to come and pick him up. After arguing with his friend awhile, he says, “All right, I will come to the church and pick you up, but I will not enter the church. You will find me at the parking lot,” and hangs up. Matty bends his head a second time and prays, “Lord, I’m still waiting for the sign!” Finally, the young man turns to Matty and says, “You know, I got this weird friend who skips work on Sundays to go to church. I don’t get it.” Matty smiles, bends down his head once again and says, “Lord, the sign, the sign!” End of story.
Today’s gospel is on Jesus beginning his public work. After living a private life for more than thirty years, how did Jesus know exactly when to end the hidden life and begin his public work? Our first thoughts are to suppose that, of course, God his Father spoke to him and communicated to him exactly when to begin. He got a special green light from God. But today’s gospel suggests that Jesus probably arrived at this decision the way most people do, that is, by inferring from the things happening in their lives what God is trying to say to them.
Our gospel reading begins, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea” (Matthew 4:12-13). Jesus hears that John has been arrested. He figures that the renewal movement that John started would be needing a new leader. He looks around and finds that none is more suited to assume leadership of the movement than he himself. That’s it. That is all the sign he needs. He says farewell to his family and moves on to meet the challenges of his public calling. Unlike Matty in our story, Jesus does not sit there and wait for a special supernatural sign from above. Rather, Jesus learns to read the “signs of the times,” that is, to infer from the goings-on in the world around him what God might be saying of him.
What needs do we see in the world around us? Do you, for example, see the need for more messengers of God’s love and peace in our world today? What can you personally do about it, given the personal circumstances of your life? When are you actually going to start doing something about it, or are you, like Matty, waiting for a special sign from God? Well, that sign may never come. We, like Jesus, must learn to read the “signs of the times” in which we live.
Note that Jesus does not start preaching immediately. If he had started preaching right away from his home town in Nazareth, they would probably have silenced him there and then. The first thing he does is to look for a location and a community that would support his vocation. He finds it in Capernaum where he quickly attracts a group of friends and disciples. Even though he is the son of God, Jesus does not work like a lone ranger. He shares his vision and his ministry with people. That is why, even though he was stopped and killed just three years after, they could not stop his work and his vision for a new world of sisters and brothers. In Jesus we see not only what it means to do God’s work but also how to do God’s work.
Let us ask God today to give us the wisdom to read the “signs” of our own times so that we can correctly infer from events in the world around us what demands God is making of us, as individuals and as a church. And let us ask for the courage to start doing it, not just praying about it.
On the Epistle, Is Christ Divided?
Archeologists working in Corinth have uncovered ancient religious objects bearing these inscriptions: “I belong to Aphrodite” and “I belong to Demeter.” The making of such confessional slogans and inscriptions was one of the ways people expressed their faith, devotion and loyalty to one of the many gods or goddesses of the ancient Greek mystery religions that were practised in Corinth before Christianity came. It appears that when these same people became Christians they tried to express their new Christian faith in the same old way. But this time, instead of proclaiming their loyalties to the one Lord in whom all Christians believe, they erroneously directed them to the different ministers who were instrumental in founding and establishing their Christian communities. That is how they ended up with the divergent Christian confessions and claims that we find in today’s 2nd reading: “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12).
First we see that by identifying and defining themselves primarily in relation to Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter), the Corinthians have raised these notable missionaries who brought them the Christian faith to the same status as Christ whom they preached. These slogans, no doubt coming from a sincere desire to express their faith convictions, nevertheless became a source of rivalry and conflict among them, a source of division (schism in Greek) and heresy. The Corinthians forgot the words of Paul: “For we do not preach ourselves; we preach Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
This story of how the one Christian church of Corinth ended up in fragmentation and polarization can tell us a lot about how the one universal church founded by Jesus Christ came to become the thousands and thousands of different confessions we have today, with some working at cross purposes to others. As in Corinth much of the division among Christians stems from groups of Christians idolizing their favourite leaders and putting them in the place of Christ. Of course it is inevitable that certain Christians would feel more at home with the dogmatic security of the keys of Peter (Matt 16:10-19), others with the charismatic liturgy of Paul (1 Corinthians 14:18), and still others with the pedagogical eloquence and learning of Apollos (Acts 18:24). Unity is not uniformity. This legitimate expression of diversity, however, should never lead to division (schism) because, as Paul reminds us, what unites us as Christians far outweighs whatever it is that divides us (1 Corinthians 1:13): “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
If only all Christian ministers and leaders had the spirituality and humility of Paul to direct their members to give their unquestioning allegiance to Christ rather than to themselves! The unity of all Christians in Christ would be more of a reality than the fleeting dream it seems to be today.
Did you notice that among the “followings” criticized by Paul in Corinth was one that had the slogan, “I belong to Christ?” Now why would anyone criticize such a slogan? After all, the members of this confession are right and all others are wrong. Yes and no. One may have the right words and slogans and yet carry on with the same wrong attitudes of divisiveness and exclusiveness that is characteristic of less enlightened groups. This was apparently the case in Corinth. To heal the wounds of the divided body of Christ, right words and slogans are certainly necessary but they are by no means sufficient. Over and above the right statements of faith, we need the right attitudes which spring from a recognition that we all belong to Christ.
What an appropriate reading for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25! This week was purposely chosen as Christian Unity Week because it brings together the feast of St Peter’s Chair in Rome (January 18) and that of the Conversion of St Paul (January 25). As we celebrate these two pillars of the one catholic and apostolic church of Christ let us resolve, as individuals and as a community, to work to heal the wounds of division among Christians, for a house divided against itself cannot stand.