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Second Sunday after Epiphany: “Somebody”
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
What do lessons about Jesus’s early ministry teach us about our own lives? That’s our purpose throughout this season of Epiphany: to reflect on his unfolding mission as we examine our own. Last week, we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan, and Eric connected this story to the meaning of our own baptism. The meaning of our vows to make this world even a little better through our compassion, our respect for the dignity of every person.
So, I carry this approach forward as we look at today’s readings, which explore questions of spiritual identity. As the young Jesus left his home in the Galilean countryside to seek baptism, whom did he choose as his mentor? How did he use that example to guide his path? And, how do Jesus’s choices guide and inspire us to form our own spiritual identity?
By all accounts, Jesus’s mentor was John the Baptist. Yet the agenda of the Gospel of John we read today is clearly to transfer authority from the Baptizer to Jesus. In the first chapter of this Gospel, John the Baptist states decisively to the Pharisees that he is not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet. The next day, he declares to the world at large as Jesus comes toward him, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” And, in case this isn’t clear, he repeats to two of his disciples the next day, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” At which point these two join Jesus and accept his authority: “We have found the Messiah.”
The Gospel writer sorts out the authority between these two men in four emphatic paragraphs: Jesus was superior from the time of their meeting. This narrative was a deliberate choice. The writer wanted to ensure the primacy of the Jesus movement over John’s remaining followers, “still wandering in Judea and Galilee, baptizing people in his name,” long after his death.
But the historical relationship between these two, as far as we can determine, was likely more complex. At the time Jesus arrives at the River Jordan, John is already known and established, drawing flocks with his call to repentance and redemption. In rough dress, “a wild man clothed in camel hair . . . feeding on locusts and honey,” he sent a “simple and dire message: The end was near. The Kingdom of God was at hand.”
This message was intensely popular among the masses and delivered in a voice that challenged both the oppressors of Rome and their collaborators in the Temple priesthood. John the Baptist may very well have been born into a priestly family, but he had left this privileged life for a lonely, austere one in the wilderness. In this humble but powerful state, he promised a new source of salvation to any Jew who wished to embrace a path of righteousness. Baptism was a purification, an entry into his order, the acceptance of a new spiritual identity to prepare for the revolutionary Kingdom of God.
According to the research summarized in Reza Aslan’s work Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, this “promise was enough in those dark, turbulent times to draw to him a wave of Jews from all walks of life.” And in this wave was the young Jesus—a working-class day laborer, who knew firsthand how the traditional, pastoral life in Galilee was being destroyed by taxation and repression by the Roman rulers and the priestly aristocracy.
Jesus begins his association with John through a baptism, as many others did. But he does not return home, to life as he knew it. He enters John’s inner circle, a disciple himself, likely preaching the message of the new Kingdom and baptizing along with John’s other followers.
For Jesus, this period of growth with John was a leap into a new life of spiritual activism and also reflection. We’re told Jesus wrestled with the devil during retreats in the wilderness, but it’s likely he also communed with John and his other disciples, searching for a vision and a practice to change society in God’s image.
This search ended abruptly when the local ruler appointed by Rome, Herod Antipas, arrested and then killed John for sedition—for his threat to the ruling order. And Jesus left Judea to return home with Andrew and Philip, taking on John’s mantle, knowing the danger of his message, beginning his own ministry of transformation within an occupied country, to serve a repressed people.
So, back to my original question: how do we apply this lesson about the way Jesus began his ministry to our own lives? To the formation of our spiritual identity? To our mission in our society? I invite you to search your hearts on this question as I offer my reflections.
First, I see that Jesus took up John the Baptist’s essential message that the foundation of the Kingdom of God is inner transformation. That is, before great changes can be made to right the wrongs in our society, to establish a new peace and justice in God’s way, we begin with our own renewal. And we set ourselves right not with rituals prescribed by religious leaders—sacrifices of money, a bird, or a goat—but with the personal commitment to change, to take up a new life centered in the practice of compassion and love.
This, I believe, was the message of John’s rite of baptism, the message Jesus then carried forward. Both were committed to transforming an unjust society, on this earth. Yet both told us: first, start within.
To John’s program of inner spiritual renewal, Jesus then added his own great gifts as a healer, which brought him overwhelming attention and fame as he traveled the countryside. Unlike other miracle workers or magicians of his day, he gave his gift of healing freely as a sign that he was God’s agent on earth, that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus used these startling gifts—and shared them with his disciples—to communicate God’s love in the most direct way possible. Through healing touch. Healing attention. Compassion.
And his example reminds us that we are all called to discover and put our unique gifts into action to heal the world. Perhaps in modest, but life-changing, ways. To make life at home more peaceful. To expand our church. To make our workplaces run more fairly. To protect the poorest and the weakest in our community.
We are just as capable of communicating God’s love as the fisherman and farmers and day laborers John and Jesus called around them. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, and us, this morning: we are not lacking in any spiritual gift; we have been enriched by God in speech and knowledge of every kind, to build God’s kingdom.
But we need encouragement in the use of those gifts. What strikes me most in this story is the way John and Jesus empowered the poorest, the most oppressed, in their society to take on the identity of spiritual leaders in their movements. To rebel against the label of “nobody” forced on them by their society’s elite. To heal their inner fears and wounds to become great “somebodies” in the Jesus movement: preachers, missionaries, healers, organizers.
As miraculous as Jesus’s physical acts of healing were in his later ministry, I see equal or greater power in the inner healing he brought his disciples by calling them to lead. Jesus had so internalized God’s love that he did not feel any inadequacy to challenge society. And, like John, he transmitted this confidence and righteous strength to the men and women he gathered around him—whether illiterate or uneducated, poor or despised in society. You are blessed, he said; you have gifts, he said; you will not only transform but inherit this world.
I lift up these lessons to guide us in our forming our own spiritual identity. Like the young Jesus, we start to heal the world by committing first to change within; then by trusting and using our unique gifts freely and compassionately; and always by firmly encouraging ourselves and others that we are all ”somebody”—no matter what an undermining inner voice or an unjust society may tell us.
In this, we take for ourselves the prophet Isaiah’s bold words:
called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's womb he named me.
And he said to me, "You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
This message of spiritual healing and empowerment is especially significant to me on this weekend honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. With the liberating message of John and Jesus, he fought the degenerating sense of “nobodiness” inflicted by racist America. He said a new day was at hand in our country. He raised up, in average citizens of all backgrounds and colors, the inner strength of “somebodiness” to take action, to transform our society into something fairer.
Let us take that message into our own lives today: that we are somebody, precious and powerful in God’s love. That’s the spiritual identity, Jesus showed us, that heals us, that heals the world. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Associate for Interfaith Ministry
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada
January 19, 2014
 Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 82.
 Ibid., p. 80.
 Ibid., p. 82.
 Ibid., p. 89.
 Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963) [http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html].