3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 27, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 9:1-4
Reading 2: 
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
Reading 3: 
I Corinthians 1:10-18
Reading 4: 
Matthew 4:12-23
By Bruce G. Epperly

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” In those words of promise, Isaiah portrays the joy of liberation and safety. Those who were lost have now found their way and are celebrating the bounties of harvest and home.

This same sense of celebration continues in the affirmations of Psalm 27, “God is my light and salvation: whom shall I fear?” Whether internal or external, involving ourselves or those we love, the reality of threat reminds us of faith’s most basic reality – the trustworthiness of God. Recently, one of my seminary students described her faith as simple – the heart of it, she admitted, is that “I trust God, regardless of what happens in life.” God will come through when our own efforts fail us and those we love. This simple faith in God’s faithfulness inspires courage and endurance when we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Progressive and liberal Christians often struggle with the interplay of divine fidelity and power. Many of us identify trust with passivity. As children of the enlightenment, we want to be able to stand on our own two feet and shape our destiny on our own, and without the help of God and others. But, when we reach our own limits of inspiration, strength, power, and courage, we recognize what has been true all along – we cannot make it on our own. We need the support of others and the God who moves in and through all things. While spiritual maturity involves claiming our agency and ability to be actors in transforming the world, it equally involves embracing the healthy and life-supporting interdependence of life within which we live, move, and have our being. At the heart of that healthy interdependence is God’s ever-active support and presence. This ability to trust God’s presence within the interdependence of life is both a metaphysical and a spiritual issue.

If, as Margaret Guenther proclaims, spirituality deals with life’s “unfixables,” authentic spirituality involves trusting God’s grace and guidance, and God’s providence, to make a way when there is no way. This is not a matter of praying for a divine suspension of the laws of nature for our sake or the sake of those we love, but rather a trust that in life and death that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

The trustworthiness of God inspires us to “shout with joy” even in difficult times. As I pondered Psalm 27, the words of the hymn “My Life Flows On” came to mind. In the midst of trouble, “how can I keep from singing” when I know that God is with me and will outlast the schemes of tyrants and the threat of illness.

The gospel narrative describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John’s arrest inspires Jesus, first, to withdraw to Capernaum by the sea and, then, after a time of reflection, to proclaim the coming reign of God. Did Jesus need to go on retreat in order to find the inspiration he needed to fulfill his vocation as God’s beloved one? Did Jesus need solitude in order to come to terms with likelihood of John’s martyrdom? Did Jesus’ need to grow into his future calling as God’s messenger to humankind? In the days at the seashore, did Jesus finally find the words he needed to share the good news that the “reign of God has come near?”

The calling of the disciples is, I suspect, a telescoped account of what may have taken days or weeks. When Jesus calls to Andrew and Peter and the sons of Zebedee, “follow me,” was this a “call to decision” after a period of mutual prayer and conversation? Although it was written after Matthew’s gospel, last week’s reading John 1:29-42 suggests an ongoing relationship between Andrew and Peter prior to the call to commitment. In any event, Jesus’ first followers leave their familiar occupations to follow Jesus into a land of unexpected challenges and adventures. Perhaps a gentle process of divine luring through prayer and conversation led them to the “immediate” decision to say “yes” to a new vocation and way of life.

Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians initially stands on its own among the four readings in terms of subject matter. The topic circles around the themes of Christian unity, the varieties of Christian experience, and the power of the cross to transform our lives. The interplay of unity and diversity is crucial in most mainstream and some primarily evangelical denominations. Different denominational factions within the United Church of Christ, Episcopal, United Methodist, Presyberian Church (USA), and Disciples of Christ, wonder if they have anything in common, including Christ. Many Christians, like myself, experience more common ground with the spirituality of Dalai Lama, Thich Naht Hanh, Martin Buber, or Abraham Joshua Heschel, than with many of our more conservative brothers and sisters in the faith. While this greater affinity with persons of other spiritual traditions may be a sign of spiritual stature, the reality of alienation within our own faith is also a cause for mourning and confession rather than celebration.

Perhaps, our inability to live with diversity within Christianity is a result of our inability to place God at the center of our faith. The “foolishness of the cross” reflects the divine “foolishness” that embraces friend and foe alike. The nearness of God’s reign calls us to become persons of stature who see the highest values of different theological and spiritual perspectives as we seek to affirm and grow in our own perspective on God.
It is a test of spiritual stature to see “something good” in certain conservative religious leaders and televangelists, but God is at work even in their ministries, seeking the “best for the impasse” and bringing forth “good fruit” even from problematic theological positions. Could God be luring Pat Robertson or Kenneth Copeland to greater stature in the same way that God is inspiring us toward a more mature and inclusive faith? Our theological and ethical disagreements should not prevent us from recognizing that these persons, and others with whom we disagree, provide help to many persons in need.

Perhaps, our ability to acknowledge, even if we can’t fully embrace the value of contrary theological positions is ultimately a matter of trusting God and going beyond our fears. If “God is my light and my salvation,” I do not need to fear the success of, or conflict with, other Christian paths. Surely in the multi-billion year, multi-billion galaxy, universe, we are all looking in a mirror dimly. While God’s transforming presence surely motivates our own Christian quest, no one, including progressive Christians, can fully claim God’s truth or healing touch.

Paul does not deny the value of the many paths of Christianity and their respective leaders. Indeed, Paul recognizes divine inspiration in each path. That sense of global, divine inspiration, embodied in particular theological paths, guided Paul’s quest for Christian unity and serves as the inspiration for our own openness to the diversity of Christian experiences as well as the gifts of other religious traditions. While all Christian paths may be revelatory, no one path is sufficient, nor should any path claim ultimate truth. Our stature in the faith comes from recognizing our limitations and seeking the truth of God in its many diverse forms.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.