1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Called to Testify
I’m aware that this weekend the nation I call home will honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We will observe this moment with a cloud hanging over us, the cloud of an attack on a Congresswoman that left six dead, including a nine-year-old girl who was committed to creating a better world. This attack on one of our nation’s brightest leaders reminds us of the darkness that is present in the world. It was a darkness that Dr. King testified against with words and with deeds. In the end, he was assassinated, but his message lives on in the hearts of those who will hear this voice. Dr. King began his career as a civil rights leader, speaking out clearly against segregation and discrimination that was rife in our land. As time went on, he expanded his message to include giving voice to the concerns of those caught in poverty, and he lent his voice in support of the effort to end the war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King was a prophet deeply rooted in what is known as the Social Gospel. He understood that while sin was present in the heart of the individual, it was also present in the systems of society. One could not change the realities of life, without changing the systems of oppression. He was one who heard the call to bear witness to God’s love for the entirety of creation.
It is with the vigil for those wounded and killed in Tucson on our minds, along with the observance of Dr. King’s birthday, that we come to these three texts scheduled for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. These texts, each in their own way, remind us that this is a season where we focus on the ways in which God is manifest in the world in and through Jesus Christ. These passages of Scripture speak of our calling to bear witness to this presence in the world, to lift up the light that is God’s presence, and make this light known to the nations. As I read these three texts together, I hear in the first passage, from Isaiah, a statement concerning God’s providence in choosing – in the original context – Israel to bear witness of God’s goodness to the nations. From there we turn to Paul who reminds us that we have been gifted for this calling to bear witness, and finally we hear the witness of John the Baptist and Andrew to the mission and purpose of Jesus of Nazareth.
In Isaiah 49 we encounter once again the words of this prophet of the Babylonian exile, who speaks of God’s providential choice to call him (or is it Israel itself?) to this ministry of witness. Whether the intended recipient of this call is the prophet, Israel, Jesus, or even we who hear the call of God in our own time, the call is to be God’s servant, and the call has come even before birth. As is often the case, the prophet protests the call, though in this case it appears that the prophet feels as if the effort has proven to be in vain – “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Although at first blush, the prophet feels as if all of this has been in vain, the prophet is reminded that God is with this cause. And the nature of the cause? Not just to bring back the survivors of Israel to their ancestral home – the opening lines remind us of the scattering of Israel – that would be too easy, too “light a thing.” No, God would gather the people to their homeland so that they might be a light to the nations, so that God’s “salvation shall reach the ends of the earth.” Then, the nations would bow before the Lord and bring glory to God. This is the intent of God, as understood by this prophet, who sees more for God’s people than simply existing as a small country in a big world.
If Isaiah speaks of God’s intention to prepare a people to bear witness to God’s presence, then Paul takes up the issue of means. That is, Paul opens his letter to the Corinthian church, whom he speaks of as having been “called to be God’s people” in Jesus Christ. Having received this call, they have been “made rich through him in everything.” That is, they are not missing any spiritual gifts necessary so that they might bear witness about Christ until the time of his revealing. And this calling, for which they have been properly gifted or equipped (and Paul talks in great detail later in this letter about the nature of this giftedness), they are “called to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is an important word, this word about partnership. It’s a reminder that the life of faith isn’t a passive one. It’s not something that we simply let God do to us or through us, but which involves us in active participation. We’re not simply tubes through which God’s love passes through to our neighbors, without any input on our part (see Tom Oord, The Nature of Love, Chalice Press, p. 37). God has chosen to use us and to equip us, so that a light might be shared with the nations.
Finally we reach John’s gospel, which revisits Jesus’ baptism and calling by John and the calling of the first disciples. This passage from John’s Gospel pictures John the Baptist standing with two of his own disciples, and declaring to them: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World!” In making this testimony to Jesus, John submits his own ministry to that of Jesus. His baptism had been one of water, but it was a baptism that prepared the way for the one on whom the Spirit rested. Yes, this is God’s Son. Hearing this testimony, the two disciples leave John and go to Jesus. I’m not sure whether this was John’s intent, but the two disciples seemed to understand that if they were going to remain engaged in this work of God, then they would need to attach themselves to the one to whom John had borne witness. Having made a connection with Jesus, Andrew, one of these two former disciples of John, goes to his brother, Simon, and bears witness to what he has seen and discovered in Jesus. John points to Jesus and says – “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the World.” There he is, the one who will restore justice and mercy in the world, but the use of the imagery of the lamb takes to the end of the gospel, where Jesus becomes the Passover lamb. At this moment, the takeaway by Andrew is that “We have found the Messiah.” And when he makes this discovery he feels compelled to share it with his brother, and Simon, himself, feels compelled to come to Jesus. In response, Jesus puts his claim on Simon by giving him a new name – Cephas or Peter. I find it interesting that John makes the translation from Aramaic to Greek, but the imagery of this name change is left ambiguous. Unlike Matthew, we’re not given Simon’s confession (Matthew 16:16), but obviously in John’s mind, something happened in this exchange that placed the mantle on this new disciple.
So here is the question for us this day – to what have we been called to testify? What is this calling, and what are the gifts?