Sunday, January 16, 2011

Called To Extraordinary Witness & Service

Two of today's liturgical readings (Isaiah 49:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 1:1-9), within the first line, explicitly talk about being called. "The Lord called me before I was born...And he said to me 'You are my servant...'" (Is 1;1); "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God..." (1 Cor 1:1) Jesus' invitation to Andrew and John, "Come and see", in John's Gospel (1:39) rounds out the theme. These Scriptures together span a 700 year time period, and we continue to ponder them today.

The context of the Isaiah text is that Jerusalem has been destroyed. Israel is displaced, in exile. This is the 2nd of four "Servant Songs". The writer, whom scholars often term, "2nd Isaiah" or the "prophet of the Suffering Servant", from c. the 6th century BCE, is, perhaps, the greatest of Israel's prophets, though the writer is anonymous. The text speaks of commission and empowerment: "The Lord called me...made my mouth like a sharp sword...made me a polished arrow..." In essence, this prophet becomes a sharp weapon by speaking the truth. His message is unencumbered and goes straight to the mark.

The bad news which the prophet announces is that he has failed: so miserably, in fact, that he has "spent my strength for nothing and vanity", and now the people are in exile. Despite this, he experiences a new call, a call to bring Israel back to God. It involves two things: 1) restoring Israel, resurrecting Israel; and 2) being "a light to the nations", i.e., speaking the truth world-wide.

Paul, speaking to the Corinthian community, also acknowledges his call: "called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God". The word called serves as a "bookend" word in this passage which ends thus: " him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." Corinth was a major maritime center. At the time of Paul's ministry the population numbered some 600,000. Corinth was famous for the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics. It was also famous for the temple of Aphrodite on the summit of Acrocorinth and its "sacred" prostitutes. The name "Corinth" became an insulting byword for vice. And, as we can gather from Paul's two Epistles to the people there, the community had an abundance of divisive issues. Yet Paul unequivocally tells the Corinthians that they, even they, are "called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours..." -- even those who differ from them! That should make us today squirm a little! Paul reminds them that they're waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." They don't have all the answers, and neither do we!

John the Evangelist, in his magnificent Prologue, alludes the previous call of John the Baptizer. He makes is clear that the Baptizer: 1) was sent from God; 2) that the Baptizer wasn't "the light", but only "a witness to the light". In vv. 19-23, John the Baptizer, when grilled by priests and Levites from Jerusalem reemphasizes that he's neither the Messiah, nor Elijah redivivus, nor "the prophet". In vv. 24-28, we learn that, in reality, John's questioners had actually been sent by the Pharisees -- "the Establishment" -- who wanted to know why he was baptizing across the Jordan, drawing people (in droves presumably) away from the Temple, thus cutting into their profits.

John the Baptizer is obviously committed to his call, viz., to "witness to the light", to keep the focus on the One whose sandal thong he wasn't even worthy to untie. "Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!", the man who ranks ahead of him, the man he didn't even know, but for whose revelation to Israel John had been designated the messenger. The Baptizer then refers to a recent event, spelled out in the narratives of Mark and Luke, where Jesus shows up at the river bank and asks John to baptize him. Excitedly, John tells what happened there: "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the One who sent me  to baptize with water [God] said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who is to baptize with a Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." John the Baptizer is the vehicle through which the Father confirms that, indeed, Jesus is the Messiah.

A day later, the Baptizer is standing with two men, Andrew, brother of Simon, and one other who could be either Simon, James or John the Beloved, author of the Gospel. Once again, John the Baptizer yells out: "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" Andrew and the other disciple start bird-dogging Jesus, who notices this, turns, and says: "What do you want? What are you looking/searching for?" Note the double meaning. Notice, too, that it's Jesus who initiates the conversation and the eventual invitation to discipleship. The two men address him, whose fame had already spread in the region, as "Teacher/Rabbi". "Where are you staying? He said to them, 'Come and see.' They came and saw...and they remained with him..." The Greek word can refer to lodging, in the ordinary sense, or it can refer, more profoundly, to dwelling with, abiding in. John the Evangelist seems to imply that these men come to Jesus, look and see Jesus, and finally believe and remain with Jesus. The sense of Jesus' comment "Come and see" has the flavor of "Come, and keep on coming..." Jesus chooses to have them around.

For Andrew, especially, it's a profound experience. He immediately runs and seeks out his brother, Simon: "We have found the Anointed One!", and he brings him directly to Jesus. Jesus "looked at him", saw within Simon, and says, "You are Simon...You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)." Cephas (Heb.) = Petros (Gr.) = Rock or Rocky. The great ancient father Origen writes that Simon will take Jesus' place, since Jesus is the rock struck by Moses in the desert, giving living water to the Israelites in distress. In John 21:15-17 Jesus makes Peter a shepherd: "Feed my lambs/sheep", even as Jesus is the noble Shepherd.

These readings coincidentally appear within the annual Week of Prayer for Unity, as well as the day preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s commemoration. Since last Saturday, especially, it has also been a time of great distress in our country, especially in Tucson, AZ. It's a time of distress and division within the Church, even as many who have left the Anglican Communion embark this week on their new Vatican-approved Ordinariate in England. It's a particularly opportune time for each and all of us to think about our personal call as servants of God; about our call to the Church to do servant mission and ministry; about our call as individuals and as the Church corporately to reach out in love and truth (light) to the world: "that all may be one even as you, Father, in me and I in you, that the world may know that you sent me..."

Great ecumenist, Albert Outler, has written: "...denominations may be justified in their existence for this 'time being' only or that, but not forever. We are commissioned by the Spirit of God 'for the time being' to carry out an extraordinary mission of witness and service, for just so long as our life apart is effective in the economy of God's providence. We are, or ought to be, prepared to risk our life as a separate church and to face death as a denomination in the sure and lively hope of our resurrection in the true community of the whole people of God...The price of true catholicity may very well be the death and resurrection of the churches that we know -- in the faith that God has greater things in store for his people than we can remember or even imagine."

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