Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 26, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 9:1-4 Psalm 27:1, 4-9 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Matthew 4:12-23

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

We have been seeking in the passages assigned from Isaiah and the Psalms clues to how Jesus may have understood his mission. The Isaiah passage for today is one that Christians have been accustomed to using to announce the coming of Jesus. It could have been influential with Jesus own thinking, but that seems less plausible. It is written as if the event had occurred. Presumably the writer was excited about the birth of a descendant of David expected to rule. He prophesied that this new king would bring freedom and peace to Israel.

He does so in a language so extreme that it seems to fit Jesus better than any ancient king. There will be “no end” to the peace he brings. This of course, applies in fact literally no more to Jesus than to any king of Israel, but in the case of Jesus we can think of “the peace that passes understanding,” the peace we can have even in the midst of violence, and we can see how that has continued over the centuries. If Jesus thought that he was called to be the messiah, he could have been influenced by passages like this, which certainly had messianic interpretations in his day. But that is a big “if.”

When we turn to Matthew, we see immediately that the author had this Isaiah passage in mine.  He refers to it explicitly and even quotes it. But that the early church made this connection does not demonstrate that Jesus did so. If we want to learn what Jesus understood himself to be called to do, we must read on. As with the other synoptics, there is no question as to his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Matthew further calls this theme of Jesus’ preaching “the gospel of the kingdom.” This is important, since it was also possible to proclaim the coming “day of the Lord” as something to be feared.

We learn, therefore, that Jesus understood his message to be the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven understood as a great opportunity or blessing, not as a terrifying judgment. Nevertheless, it included the call to “repent.” In our ears, that sounds like a threat. John the Baptist’s call to baptism, as reported in Matthew, included a threat: “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt.3:10) He spoke of fleeing “from the wrath to come.” (Mt. 3:7) But Jesus’ call to repentance is not connected with a threat.

The Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia.” This means changing one’s mind of thinking. Rather than focusing on particular sins, it suggests that one’s basic mindset, one’s life-orientation change. Why should one change? Because something new is now a real possibility. Matthew calls it the “kingdom of heaven.” The other synoptics call it the” kingdom of God.”

This difference probably has no substantive importance. Many Jews avoided naming God directly, and pointed instead to “heaven.” In the Lord’s prayer, clearly addressed to God, we ask “your kingdom come.” The next phrase is “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is clear that what Jesus announced was a situation on earth in which God’s will is done.

This is not, however, a roundabout way of telling people to do God’s will. It is the announcement that this is already happening and that all are invited to join in that happening. The kingdom is “at hand.” The requirement for being part of that kingdom is that one change the basic way one thinks and lives. One can learn a great deal about that change from the next three chapters of Matthew, what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.”

I suggest that the content of Jesus’ teachings raises questions about the word “Kingdom” that has been so common in English translations of the Greek “basileia.” A “basileia” in Jesus’ day could be ruled by a king. But nothing in the term required this. The ruler might be a queen.

Even more important in my view is that a “basileia” need not be hierarchically governed at all. Of course, the “basileia” Jesus proclaimed involved God’s will being done. But when we read the beatitudes, to take but one example, we may be struck by the absence of one saying that those who obey God’s laws are blessed. The first one, for example, says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and it goes on to say explicitly that “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt.5:3) There is nothing here to indicate that we should understand that the government of the divine “basileia” would be like that of an earthly kingdom, simply with God replacing the earthly ruler. That may have been the theology of the translators of the New Testament, but there is no reason to attribute it to Jesus. Jesus prayed to God as “abba” of “papa.” Papa cares deeply how his children behave but even more for their true happiness. The basileia of abba is not a “kingdom.” I know of not perfect translation, but I am fully convinced that “commonwealth” is better than “kingdom.” One of the ways in which Jesus called people to change their thinking was away from the hierarchical mindset that expresses itself in “kingdom.”

Jesus’ message was not about a remote future. The divine commonwealth is “at hand.” By a fundamental reorientation of one’s thinking and one’s life, one could enter it. Jesus pointed to his inclusive table fellowship as embodying it. The different quality of life among those who followed Jesus was of immense importance to them. The resurrection appearances renewed it. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus drew him into it. He believed that those who heard his message also experienced a new quality of life.

Paul was distressed to find that although the communities he founded shared his view that they embodied a new quality of life together, they were not free from quarrelling. Today’s passage from I Corinthians goes immediately to his concern about dissension in the church in Corinth. Apparently they agreed with Paul about the importance of baptism as the entry into this new way of being. But this led to great concern about who had baptized whom.

This reminds us of the effects of the baptism by John the Baptist. One who was baptized by him belonged to his movement or party. So, in a similar way, those who were baptized by Paul himself claimed to be his followers. Of course, Paul did not want that kind of understanding. All were baptized into Jesus Christ to be his followers regardless of who administered the baptism. That probably involved new thinking about the meaning of baptism, new thinking that was essential for the unity of the Christian movement.

This is not the only dissension in the early church that troubled Paul. In a sense it is good news for us that dissension is not something that later Christians began after a period in which the church was free of all disagreement. Being Christian is not being perfect and Christian community shares in imperfection. It can survive and flourish even in this condition. People can authentically love one another even when they disagree.

I take delight in this passage also because it shows that Paul had a faulty memory. He first claims to have baptized only two members of the community. He catches himself and recalls that he baptized another family. And then he realizes that he does not remember clearly. But he can make a point out of his uncertainty. His mission was not to baptize but to preach the gospel.

Jesus’ mission was to proclaim the new community in which those who deeply reordered their thinking and living could participate. He was crucified because the authorities were deeply, even truly, threatened. In this sense he died for us.

Even these few verses at the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians make clear that the crucifixion was central to his thinking. He believed that Jesus died for all. It was Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die for all that made him the center of life and history. It shaped his understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus. It emphatically did not mean earthly success or protection from enemies. It meant that the reality Jesus proclaimed and embodied was of such value that he and others should continue to proclaim and embody it at whatever cost. In the way we can participate in the faithfulness of Jesus.