Claiming the prophetic tradition | Jeff Nowers | Jan. 26, 2020
For the last 100 years or so at this time of the year, Christian churches of various traditions have observed an ecumenical initiative called the “week of prayer for Christian unity.” Yesterday marked the conclusion of that week for 2020. Christian unity is challenging concept because I don’t think many of us have any idea of what it really means. Does it mean that all the individual congregations in a given radius should meet together every Sunday morning in a single location? Does it mean that different churches share clergy? Does it mean that different churches sign on to a common statement of faith? Does it mean that different churches operate under a common budget and share resources? Much confusion remains with these sorts of questions.
Another reason why Christian unity is challenging is that there are limits to how much of it we can tolerate, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves. How many of you grew up in, or spent significant time in, a church tradition other than Anglicanism? I’d wager that for a significant percentage of you who just raised your hand, you left your former church because you could no longer in good conscience remain. Perhaps frustration or woundedness forced you out. So what does it mean to pursue Christian unity with traditions that we intentionally want to distance ourselves from?
These challenges come to a head for us when we hear St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading: “all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you.” Paul is writing to a specific congregation in the city of Corinth, which has been undermined by infighting and quarreling over leadership loyalties in the early Christian movement. Some in that congregation were fiercely loyal to Paul, while others were partial to Peter or Apollos. Paul tells this Corinthian congregation that their focus out of whack. They need to be loyal to Jesus the crucified one, first and foremost.
We can see, then, that this congregation in Corinth was already, as early as the mid 1st century, deeply divided over what it meant to define oneself as a Christian. Christian division is not something peculiar to our day, or the Reformation 500 years ago, or the great split between the Eastern and Western churches in the mid 11th century. Fault lines were present in the 1st century, almost from day 1. Paul knew that these divisions weakened the church and the Good News it stood for. So he made a plea to get back to the basics. Instead of being seduced by internal party politics, Christians should recover their primary identity as followers of the crucified Jesus.
I think Paul’s recommendation still holds importance for us and for all Christians in the present moment. But what does it actually mean to get back to the basics? As I was thinking about that question this past week, I realized that today’s Gospel from Matthew describes the very beginning of Jesus’ public life, right after his baptism and 40-day withdrawal to the wilderness. If you’re looking for the genesis of the Jesus movement, today’s Gospel is where you find it. The precipitating factor is the arrest of John the Baptist. That event compels Jesus to leave Nazareth and assume Capernaum as his home base. We’re told that it’s here Jesus begins his proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” With these words, Jesus is taking up the mantle of John the Baptist and assuming the identity of a prophet. But prophets historically are often not well-liked because they unsettle the status quo. That’s no less true of Jesus. He pushed the envelope and ended up executed.
I’d like to make a case that at its basic core, the challenge of following the Way of Jesus has always been, from the very beginning, to embrace his prophetic identity. Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets, and that tradition is the basis of Christian unity. We’ll probably never see the Anglican Communion dissolve into the Roman Catholic Church, or Baptists start baptizing babies. But Christians of all diverse stripes can and should be united in furthering Jesus’ prophetic proclamation.
What does that look like for us on the ground? I think it means, first, that we must be committed to repentance ourselves—to turn about our lives in a different direction. What are we repenting from? We’re turning away from all those practices and habits and ideas that distract us or impede us from seeing that the reign of God is near. The reign of God is an alternative vision of the world, a radically compassionate one that differs from so much of what we see and experience around us. If there are things in our lives that block our vision of God’s reign, then we must reorient ourselves. It might mean something as simple as a more consistently healthy and sustainable diet, or as drastic as a career change. That’s for each of us to discern.
The second implication of living into Jesus’ prophetic identity is that we call others to repentance. That doesn’t mean wagging our fingers in judgment. The prophetic work of Jesus is to “fish for people.” Jesus’ very first followers supported themselves by catching fish in the Sea of Galilee. It was a meager existence. When Jesus called them to join him, they dropped their nets without hesitation. We don’t know why exactly. But something about Jesus they found irresistible. Perhaps it was Jesus’ words: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Their role would be to embrace the prophetic identity of Jesus and invite others along the way to do the same. Little by little a movement would be born, a movement that would testify to the dawning of the reign of God.
We too are invited to fish for people. In our day, this may take the form of community organizing—seeking out other people of faith, or even no faith, who long for a world transformed by the vision of the reign of God. But this sort of prophetic work can be costly. It forces us to name structures and institutions that suppress God’s new creation waiting to burst open. The Achilles heel of Anglicanism is that it affords us a very comfortable faith, approved by the status quo of empire. After all, our mother church is the established Church of England. We need to undertake the hard work of unlearning this legacy. Recovering a sense of the prophetic origins of Christian identity is a place to begin.
We have our work cut out for us. Christian unity isn’t simply about occasional cooperative projects between churches. It’s about together embodying the prophetic spirit of Jesus and fishing for people who will testify to the hope of an alternative world that we can even now begin to see. Let’s get on with this critical work!