ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Year A

By
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Called, Consecrated, Commissioned

ISAIAH 49:3, 5-6
1 CORINTHIANS 1:1-3
JOHN 1:29-34

Recently, I was invited by friends to participate in the baptism of their newborn son. As I watched and listened, the celebrant asked the traditional questions of the baptismal rite. . . “Who presents this child for baptism? . . . What do you ask for your child?. . . What name have you chosen for your child?” Naturally, the baby, only weeks old, was unresponsive to the questions, and, except for a little crying and gurgling, was a rather passive participant at his own christening. His parents and God-parents responded to the celebrant’s questions for him and it appeared to be obvious to all present that these loving parents would continue to be responsive and responsible for their son until such time as he was capable of doing so himself. For many Christians, the experience is similar; baptized as infants and raised in the heritage of the faith, awareness of the sacrament of baptism and its significance is only gradual. As I reflected on the child’s lack of spiritual awareness regarding the momentous event taking place in his life, my thoughts gravitated to my own baptism and my understanding of it. The young child’s christening had become, as it were, a teachable moment for me, calling me to a fuller understanding and appreciation of my long ago, unremembered baptism.

The readings chosen for today’s liturgy offer believers a similar teachable moment; with their references to Jesus’ baptism, and his ensuing dedication to the Father’s saving plan, these texts invite those who read them to examine their own baptismal initiation and quality of their own Christian commitment.

In the first reading from Deutero-Isaiah, the prophet described the servant whom God had called, consecrated and commissioned to engage in a ministry of universal salvation. Early Christian believers identified Jesus as the promised servant and portrayed him, from the moment of his baptism as God’s chosen One, endowed with God’s own Spirit for his saving work (gospel). Paul in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (second reading) reminds his readers that believers have been called by God and consecrated in Christ Jesus for a life of holiness and service. By virtue of their baptism into Christ Jesus, believers become members of his Body. As such, they share in the mystery of his dying and rising. Moreover, what was said of Jesus, viz. that he was called to be light to the nations, consecrated by God and commissioned for a work of universal service and salvation. . . should also be said of those who have been baptized in his name.

While it is relatively facile to speak of our baptism in sublime generalities, today’s liturgy challenges us to think in terms of the “nitty gritty” of daily commitment. Through the call, consecration and commission of Christian baptism, we are to understand ourselves as personally responsible to and in genuine communion with God. This election demands daily attentiveness and, when necessary, daily change, conversion and growth. But we are also to recognize that baptismal commitment is a cooperative, not an autonomous endeavor. Called by God, we are also consecrated and graced by him; thus equipped for any eventuality we are commissioned by him for service. In a word, we are called, consecrated and commissioned to be a light in this world. To be light means that by our lives we illuminate and not cloud or dim his truth. As light, we become clarifiers of the values and priorities put forth in the gospel. To be light means to be a place where others can meet and know God.

ISAIAH 49:3, 5-6

Over fifty years ago, the young German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, from his cell in a Nazi concentration camp, that one of the major challenges of the church is to find a way to be a servant-community in the spirit of Jesus, the suffering servant of God. God is not a distant being who dwells in the heavens, nor on the borders of human life, but at its very center; as Bonhoeffer noted, God is indeed “the beyond in the midst of life.” Therefore it devolves upon the church to model itself on the servant-presence of God in the midst of life (Letter and Papers from Prison, The Macmillan Co., New York: 1967).

Within 30 years of Bonhoeffer’s death (1945), the American Catholic theologian, Avery Dulles underscored the idea of the church as a servant, whose ministry could transform the world and human society according to the values of the Kingdom of God. (Models of the Church, Doubleday, New York: 1974). At about the same time, the Third International Synod of Bishops affirmed that, in its role as servant, the church is to be an agent of social change and that it should see its service in the socio-political order as constitutive, or as essential to its mission as are proclamation and sacramental celebration (Justice in the World, Rome: 1971).

Approximately two and one half millennia before Bonhoeffer, Dulles and the International Synod of Bishops, the author of today’s first reading understood that it was through the person and mission of God’s appointed servant (vss. 3, 5-6) that the world would be forever changed. By his ministry to the word of God, the servant would bring the beyond into the very midst of human existence so as to transform the world and human society. By the service which was constitutive of his ministry, the servant would bring restoration to Israel and light and salvation to all the peoples of the earth.

Because the prophet probably wrote his songs of the suffering servant (42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) at a time when he and his contemporaries were enduring the exile in Babylon (ca. 587-538 B.C.E.), Deutero-Isaiah may have thought of himself as the servant, chosen by God to serve his people. Or perhaps, he had in mind the person and ministry of his colleague, Jeremiah. Some scholars have suggested that the prophet may have understood the servant as a composite figure representing the degraded and suffering, but nonetheless divinely chosen people of Israel. Centuries after Deutero-Isaiah, and in the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early Christians ascribed this role to Jesus, called, consecrated and commissioned by God as servant for the light and salvation of humankind.

Today, we acclaim and honor the servant-saving-presence of Jesus and acknowledge the fact that by virtue of Christian baptism, members of his body, the church, are called, consecrated and commissioned to assume a similar servant-presence in the world. In that way, humanity shall be able to find “the beyond in the midst of life.” If service is indeed constitutive of the ministry of believers, that focus may necessitate certain changes in posture and perspective. This Sunday’s liturgy prompts us to consider . . . what posture do I assume in ministering to others. Is it one which looks down upon or over the heads of others? Or is it one which humbly and respectfully bends down to look up into the faces of those in need. Regarding perspective. . . is my world egocentric or do I have the altruistic perspective so much in evidence in Jesus, the servant par excellence?

1 CORINTHIANS 1:1-3

For the next six Sundays, the second reading will be an extract of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Therefore, it may prove beneficial to introduce the congregation to their ancient spiritual ancestors.

One of the foremost experts on Paul’s correspondence to Corinth, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, has deduced that the apostle traveled to that Greek city ca. 49 C.E., while on his second missionary journey. By his own account, Paul described his mood upon arrival as one of “weakness and fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). Although he had had some degree of success in establishing communities in Philippi, Thessalonica and Beroea, he had been driven from one Macedonian city after another. Needless to say, the sarcastic and disinterested reception Paul experienced in Athens had done little to lift his spirits. According to Luke, Paul received divine consolation and encouragement shortly after coming to Corinth. One night, in a vision he was told “Do not be afraid. Go on speaking, and do not be silent, for I am with you. . . I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). Thus bolstered, Paul served in Corinth for eighteen months.

Geographically, Corinth was an ideal choice for the foundation of a church. Located on a narrow isthmus (about four miles wide) Corinth was on a crossroads of sorts; trade routes traveling north and south as well as east and west passed through the city. Enjoying great commercial prosperity, Corinth’s population was an eclectic mélange of Roman veterans (the city had been a Roman colony since 46 B.C.E.), Jews, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freed persons, slaves, as well as “hucksters and agents of every form of vice.” (Federic William Forras, Life and Works of St. Paul, 1879).

Home to the Isthmian Games (held every four years) Corinth was also notorious in the ancient world because of the life-style of its citizens. Each evening the one thousand priestesses (a euphemism for sacred prostitutes) affiliated with the temple of Aphrodite, goddess of love, plied their trade on the streets of city. As a result of its decadence, the word korinthiazesthai, which means to live like a Corinthian, was incorporated into the Greek language as a term to describe the utmost depravity, drunkenness and debauchery. Nevertheless, it was in this unlikely place and among these unlikely people that one of the most vibrant churches in the ancient world flourished.

In today’s second reading, Paul extended to the Corinthians the conventional greeting used in all Greek correspondence and infused it with the faith he had helped to foster in that community. Accenting both their call by God and their consecration (vs. 2) in Christ Jesus, Paul reminded the believers in Corinth of both the privileges and responsibilities they had received at baptism. Because of their baptism, a new posture and a new perspective were to characterize lives that had once earned the worst reputation in the ancient near eastern world. Graced (vs. 3) by God the Father, the Corinthians should assume and maintained a posture of holiness, ever receptive to hearing and diligent in living the good news. With regard to their perspective, notice that Paul greeted the Corinthian believers as the church of God which is in Corinth (vs. 2). Because of their tendency (as will be evident later in 1 Corinthians) to flaunt their charisms and assert their self-importance Paul made it clear that the church in Corinth was simply “the local embodiment of the universal ecclesia. There can be only one people of God and each congregation is nothing by itself, but is only a manifestation of that one people.” (Reginald Fuller, Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville: 1976). In other words, each community of believers is to maintain a perspective which is universal. Today, every assembly wherein this pericope is proclaimed is duly reminded to live according to its call and consecration and to do so with the appropriate posture and perspective.

JOHN 1:29-34

By the time the fourth gospel was given its final from in the last decade of the first Christian century, there is little doubt that the community had had to come to grips with the cooperative but distinctive roles of Jesus and John the Baptizer. In this regard, there was perhaps no other single event as controversial as the baptism of Jesus by John. Because it seemed to imply that Jesus was subordinate to John and, because certain disciples of the Baptizer continued to regard him as messiah, and awaited his return, despite his death at the hands of Herod Antipas, each of the evangelists underscored John’s preparatory and temporary contribution to God’s saving plan. In this the last gospel, the evangelist has been most definitive in his assessment of the two cousins. Without even alluding to the actual baptism, the gospel focuses attention on Jesus.

While John’s call and consecration by God had commissioned him for the important ministry of precursor, nevertheless it was Jesus who was consecrated, and commissioned to bring salvation to the world.

For this reason, John is portrayed as assuming a posture subordinate to Jesus; by his testimony he cast himself and Jesus in proper perspective for his contemporaries. “After me is to come a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me” (vs. 30). By witnessing to the Spirit, descending on Jesus like a dove from the sky (vs. 32); by testifying that he had been told (by God) that the Chosen One on whom the Spirit remained would baptize with the Holy Spirit (vs. 34), and, by pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (vs. 29) John has offered clear insight into the superior role of Jesus.

As Chosen One, endowed with the Spirit, Jesus has fulfilled the mission of long awaited servant (first reading) whose saving mission would bring light to the world (Isaiah 42:1, 49:3). The title Lamb of God was evocative of several salvific images. First, the title brought to the minds of John’s readers, the paschal lamb, whose blood, smeared on the door posts and lintels of their homes had saved the Jews from death (Exodus 12:22). In his passion and by the shedding of his blood, Jesus would effect the passover of all people from death to life. Secondly, the title, Lamb of God, referenced the image of the Deutero-Isaian servant of God, who “bore the guilt of others” and who was led “like a lamb to slaughter”. Through his suffering, the servant-lamb “justified many” (Isaiah 53:7, 11). Elsewhere in the Johannine literature, there is a third image of a lamb, who was slain and yet victorious, a conquering lamb by whose blood he “purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation and made them a kingdom and priests for our God” (Revelation 5:6, 9-10).

John the Baptizer’s call, consecration and commission made him the herald of the one whose call, consecration and commission was to be servant-savior of humanity. Each of us who believe in Jesus are to understand our own call, consecration, and commission in reference to and as an outgrowth of his.

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