Third Sunday after Epiphany
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
While in Divinity school, I went on a travel seminar to the Middle East with thirty-nine other seminary students and lay people. During our time in Jerusalem, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which sits atop the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
It is a place of immense consequence for the Christian faith, and it’s unsurprising that representatives from multiple denominations are housed inside the church. The description “sharing space” would be too strongly worded and ultimately inaccurate, for these six denominations have partitioned the churches down to the tile. Armenians are only allowed in a certain area, Orthodox in another, Catholics can process in a certain area for a determined amount of time, etc. Our guide recounted stories of garbed priests name-calling and throwing punches because a priest moved a piece of furniture or stepped a couple of tiles too far to the left during a procession.
Despite the fact that these men all follow the Prince of Peace, they’ve allowed their denominational affiliation to supersede their common Christian identity. Centuries of very public bickering and violence is the result.
This lamentable situation is not so different from the issue at Corinth that Paul addresses. Church members have divided themselves into factions so spectacularly that news of internal drama makes it way to Paul via Chloe’s people. The Corinthians are aligning themselves with either Christ, Paul, Apollos, or Cephas and arguing about who knows what. Also, not so different from our own congregations: denominations are the result of factionalized divisions (intentional or not), people leave churches because a certain pastor stays, administrative meetings about spending money on a building or missions can produce heated moments, hurt feelings and regrets.
What we all need in times of disunity and division, is a reminder that my Aunt Faye enjoyed offering. Aunt Faye was aunt-by-love to many of the kids who grew up in my church, including me and my brother. She was a woman of tremendous faith and beaucoup grace. (She mentored me through confirmation and taught me that it is, in fact, proper to eat asparagus with your fingers.) When I went to my high school prom, my date and I dropped by her house to say hello and take a few photos. Before we left for dinner, Aunt Faye whispered in my ear, “Remember whose you are.” Pointed timing for a 16-year-old with a potentially particular implication in that context, but it is a larger truth that has deep consequences for all of us whom Christ claims.
Paul makes the same point, putting it this way, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Remember whose you are. Aunt Faye and Paul’s essential message is that Christians belong to Christ.
Paul’s appeal to for unity is rich with tactile imagery of fabric, which gives us a powerful sense of exactly how Christians are in relationship with one another by virtue of our common belonging. Paul advocates that there be no divisions (schisma), a noun also used in the gospels to describe a rip in a cloth. Rather, Christians have been united (katartizó) in the same mind and purpose – knit together for proper use or mended as James and John’s nets are katartizó-ed in Matthew 4:21. Christians are literally woven together.
Remembering whose we are is fundamental to our life together, and it is only a first step. Both Paul and Aunt Faye imply that our common identity necessarily affects how Christians make decisions, behave and live together when it’s relatively easy to do so and when it sucks. In other words, we are not an ornamental tapestry meant to decorate a wall. We are like a net – a functional, flexible fabric – that when cared for and put to right use offers life-giving sustenance to us and those around us.
Discerning and living into our proper use together is a life-long endeavor called discipleship. It’s most certainly a challenge that calls us to practice the communal discipline of net-mending when our communities unravel in the corners or rip down the middle. By God’s grace, Jesus invites us, along with James, John, Andrew, and Simon Peter this week, to follow and learn from him.