Getting Down To The Essentials
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
Sunday 26 January, 2014
1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18
Divisions in the Church
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
Christ the Power and Wisdom of God
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Matthew 4: 12 – 23
Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, in his poem Sailing to Byzantium, uses the term “perning in a gyre”. It’s an image that could refer to a falcon as it circles ever closer to landing on its master’s arm. At its simplest, it means spinning in a kind of vortex – probably in ever-tightening and descending circles.
The poem can be seen as a kind of prayer expressing a spiritual journey where the person praying imagines a descent through life into eternity where all that is extraneous, all that is no longer useful or helpful is sloughed off – where the pure essentials are left.
As human beings in our fallen state we are often keenly aware that we accumulate both in experience, and consciousness, much that is peripheral, that doesn’t contribute to our spiritual growth.
In the Maori translation of the Lord’s Prayer this is given wonderfully eloquent expression where the word forgive is translated as muru, which means strip. God, strip us of our sin. Thoroughly remove it from us.
The writer to the Hebrews says (Hebrews 12: 1b – 2a) let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
We know, deep down, that we have a tendency to stray from God and that we need to get rid of the things that hold us back, to spin them off. We need to get back to the pure essentials lest we are bogged down in the race of life.
Now Jesus shows a similar desire to get back to the essentials. In our reading we see that John the Baptist dies – John, whose task was to be the forerunner, the one who paved the way for the coming of the Messiah – when John the Baptist dies Jesus responds by withdrawing from where he had been to Galilee. He withdraws from Nazareth too and centres himself in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. And we are told that this is in order to fulfil a prophecy of Isaiah where the Messiah is seen as a light dawning on the darkness of the Galilee region.
As his ministry begins, Jesus gets down to basics. It’s all wonderful being baptised by John and having the Father publicly affirm you as his Son in whom he is well pleased, it’s all very well seeing off the devil in the Judean Wilderness in a marathon fasting session – but this is the real deal: challenging people with Himself.
It must have taken real courage to confront a sin-addicted world with the sort of news that went something like this: Here I am. I’ve arrived – therefore the Kingdom of God is on the doorstep. Repent and follow me.
As C. S. Lewis said, either he was a liar, or he was mad, or he was who he said he was. His claims do not leave room for saying, “O, he was just a good teacher.” No, what he says is too outrageous for that. Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh and he bluntly told people to make a 180 degree turn and follow him.
You know John says that if everything about Jesus’ ministry were written down, the world could not contain the books. (John 21: 25) so what we have in the Gospels are the essentials – those bits the Holy Spirit deemed essential for us.
And so as Jesus withdraws to Galilee in fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, Matthew tells us 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
There really is only one initial response to being confronted with Jesus and that is repentance – altering course – making a choice between following our own ways, or following Jesus.
The idea of a stark choice in spiritual things has a long history in God’s dealings with humankind: Moses says to the Israelites, 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, (Deuteronomy 30: 19)
Joshua (which is the Hebrew version of the Greek name Jesus) put it this way to the Israelites, 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’ (Joshua 24: 15)
This is essential: do we choose Christ or not? If we do, we repent; we turn away from following our own desires. It’s that simple.
But we don’t simply turn away from something, we turn to something: to Jesus. As Jesus says in our reading to the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John:Follow me.
The essentials: repent and follow Jesus. Not some theology, not some philosophy, not some guru, not some cranky theory espoused by someone making money out of novels – Jesus.
That’s the Gospel: repent and follow Jesus.
And if you were to say to me right now, “Okay. But what is our guiding principle in following Jesus?”, I’d say, “The Scripture points to one central image – the cross.”
In the Epistle this morning we read of how Paul castigates the church at Corinth:12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you?
He goes on a little later: 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The ministry of Jesus came down to one critical point: the cross. At the base of the spiral, when all was said and done lay the thing Jesus’ whole life was leading to: the cross. It is the essential thing.
The cross is central in our access to God, and it and it is central to our continuing walk with God. It has to be applied to our lives or we only imagine that we are following Jesus. He said, Take up your cross and follow me. (Matthew 16: 24). The cross is not only the theological or forensic justification for God to forgive our sins as we are embraced in his love, but, as Paul says; its message is the power of God to us who are being saved. We need the cross to keep us on the right path.
Paul tells the Corinthians a few verses beyond our reading, 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2: 2)
Nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Down to the essentials.
You see I don’t think any of us here this morning wants willingly to reject God and God’s ways. But it is easy to do so. Let me ask you:
- What is your perception, what is your feeling towards the message of the cross?
- Is it puzzling to you?
- Does it disgust you?
- Do you think it’s silly?
- Do you think it’s unnecessary?
Well, the question is a bit unfair because I’m about to ambush you with an answer. Paul says in verse 18 of our reading 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
Have you wondered what embracing the message of the cross means for you? If you have, that’s wonderful. That’s the first step after repentance in following Jesus.
You see the cross brings us to our knees before God. As we have communion we think of the cross, because that is where Jesus gave up his body in sacrifice, where he shed his blood. Being on our knees before God is acknowledging that we muck things up, that we need God to lead us, to accompany us as we go through life.
The message of the cross reminds us of God’s incredible love for us in laying down his life for us. The cross draws from our hearts gratitude and worship; and when we are worshipping God we are doing what we were created for.
Only holding to the message of the cross can make sense of that.
The message of the cross enables us to crucify our foolish and harmful desires and to acknowledge God’s ways as good – as truly life-giving. The message of the cross is the power of God. It is essential for both our salvation and for our growing in Christ – in other words for our repentance and following.
Jesus gets down to the essentials: repent and believe the good news + and follow me. And it is the cross that opens the way. The cross holds heaven and earth together and the cross hold us and God together. It is essential.
As you “pern in a gyre”, as you circle down towards the end of your life, are you:
- Spiralling out of the control of God, losing only your natural abilities as you age?
Or are you
- Passively drifting towards your final days without much thought for either what you are losing from or building into your life?
Or are you
- Submitting all of yourself to the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work, jettisoning the sin we so easily entertain and actively following in Jesus’ footsteps?
Our answer to these questions could decide eternity.
Let us pray – and as we pray, if the cross has been more symbol than reality to you, open your heart to the message of the cross, ask God to apply it to your life.
Dear Lord, in your great love and mercy you have sought us out, you have found us and embraced us in Jesus. Lord we know that your cross is so much more than simply a link to you. Help us not only to understand the message of dying with you to our own desires, but to live it too. Find in us willing hearts, O God, take us now and renew our minds, change us from within as we make a conscious choice to embrace you fully.
In Jesus’ Name.