The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
January 22, 2017
What a weekend this has been. On Friday we celebrated the inauguration of our 45th President, and hundreds of thousands of people watched at the Capitol, on television, and online. Saturday hundreds of thousands of women along with allies took to the streets of cities across the world to advocate for women’s rights—human rights for all people—and in protest of the election of our 45th President.
In the media it seems as though we are a country divided—of people who have supported the election of President Trump and who find hope in his message of populism, of promised jobs, of a future that puts America first—and of people who feel left behind, marginalized, by the President’s rhetoric around minorities, his remarks about women, and his disdain for a social safety net that provides for care for the poorest among us.
Division extends to the relationship between the new administration and the press itself; on Saturday the biggest news story—getting as much airtime as the Women’s March, it seemed—was the press secretary Sean Spicer’s first press conference in which he chastised the press on its reporting about the number of people in attendance at the inauguration. CNN and other news outlets spent the rest of the afternoon refuting Spicer’s claims—showing photos of the inauguration compared to photographs of previous inaugurations. Comparisons and competing claims of Metro ridership, photographs, and claims from news agencies and the press office and the President himself differed widely, and the disagreement was contentious.
I left the day feeling as though we were divided as a nation, as a society—that allegiances were no longer to our common civic life together but to the President’s administration or to those who oppose it.
Even the church seemed to disagree; Franklin Graham told the President that the rain at the inauguration was a biblical sign of God’s blessing. The President told the CIA that it had stopped raining as he gave his address—and that was a sign of God’s blessing. The Southern Baptist preacher in the pulpit at St John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, preaching for a private service for the President before the inauguration, cited Nehemiah, saying, “You see, God is not against building walls!” Pope Francis, for another perspective, reminded Mr Trump of the importance of care for the poor, writing: “Under your leadership, may America’s stature continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need who, like Lazarus, stand before our door. “ And just a day later Episcopalians were marching in the streets of major cities, filling social media feeds with images of peaceful protest.
The church at Corinth had some disagreements, too, about who they were following. Paul has heard that the growing Christian community at Corinth is full of people that identify with the person that taught them about the Christian faith, the person that baptized them. He hears that they are competing with one another, drawing lines, claiming allegiance to Peter, to Apollos, and even to Paul himself.
Were their theological claims so very different? Maybe. Was it just allegiance to the person who first taught them about the Way of Jesus? Perhaps it’s that. But Paul calls them back to something else, away from the individual paths, the cliques, the factions that they’ve fallen into—calls them back to the unifying power of the cross of Christ.
“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.” (1 Cor 1.17-18).
The Corinthians were traders and merchants, wealthy and poor, from all over the Mediterranean region and even beyond—from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities and belief systems. Many of them must have been Greeks and devoted to philosophical systems that prized wisdom. But here this story of a simple carpenter’s son from the backwater of Judea had come to them. And Paul, and Peter, and Apollos were telling them that this man, this human, was the revelation of God’s love—the very son of God—and that he’d been executed on the cross by the Roman government and yet rose and appeared to them again. That God’s love was sacrificial, self-offering, and couldn’t be put down by the powers of this world.
It must have sounded like a crazy story. And yet they’d believed. They’d committed to follow this Jesus. Could we blame them if they got a little off track, a little attached to the men who told them the story, the skill and wisdom they demonstrated? Don’t we in our own day get attached to the ways we hear the story of God? I follow Cranmer! I follow Calvin! I follow Francis! I follow the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian!
And yet Paul calls us back, not to the lenses through which we follow Jesus, not to the permutations of the stories, our own understanding of the wisdom we’ve received—but to the simple, unvarnished truth of the cross—this foolish message of the Son of God who comes, who is killed, and who rises. Who brings us hope. Hope that no matter what death the world deals, we are bound up in the lifesaving death and resurrection of Jesus. That everything else is dependent on that love, on that life.
We belong to Jesus—to this saving story of resurrection.
This Sunday we are squarely between the feasts of the Confession of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul, two men that are completely different and yet follow the cross of Christ, who shows others his saving love. Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus names him as the Rock, the one on which he will build his Church. And yet Peter denies knowing Jesus three times there in Jerusalem. After the resurrection, as recorded in the gospel of John, Jesus calls to Peter, asking three times, Peter, do you love me? Peter replies each time yes. Jesus commands him, “Feed my sheep.” And Jesus invites him, just as at the beginning, to come and follow him.
Paul, who had by the account in Acts, persecuted followers of Jesus, standing by even at the stoning of Saint Stephen, is struck blind on the road to Damascus, when Jesus appears to him. Paul is received by Annanias, who ministers to him, and Paul’s life is changed. He goes forth from that place to proclaim the love of Jesus with as much zeal as the first apostles—as one who has met Jesus, even after the resurrection, even as we meet him.
These are unlikely characters to spread the Gospel—a man who persecuted followers of Jesus. Another who denied Jesus. And yet here they are—the most prolific apostles and evangelists of the early Church. If God can use them, won’t God surely use us?
In the gospel today Jesus invites Peter and Andrew, James & John, to come and follow him—to come fish for people.
Even as our civil society is fractured, can we follow Jesus—can we fish for one another, throw one another a line, to share his great love?
The cross is the thing that unifies us as Christians—that great love of God in Christ. God can use Peter and Paul to share that love—those disparate souls with their massive faults—and God can use us.
As you navigate the world this next week, this next month, these next years, remember the thing that we are called to proclaim—the thing that unifies us—the cross of Christ that is foolishness to the world, but that to us who are being saved is the power of God.
Come and fish for people. Come and follow Jesus.