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While Epiphany, the day when the wise kings from the east visited the baby Jesus, is already a few weeks ago now, in the church calendar we are still in the season of Epiphany. We are in a time when the identity of Jesus is revealed to us and this revelation transforms us, just as seeing the infant Jesus and knowing his identity transformed the wise kings. We are in Epiphany tide when we seek to know more about who Jesus is with the desire that what is revealed to us will change us. Is this not what it means to be faithful; to seek to know God more and to want to live life in a new and transformed way with the people around us? Is this not why you and I are here this morning, because at some level we have come with the hope that today we will know Jesus and God in such a way that will change our lives and our communities forevermore?

And today we do learn more about who Jesus is as we ponder the story of Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum. When we look at the Gospel of Mark, we see that Mark does not give a lot of preamble or explanation to set the stage for Jesus’ life. For that we can go to Matthew or Luke. No, right in the very first chapter of Mark, we encounter John the Baptist, then we hear of Jesus being tested by Satan in the desert, and then we see Jesus calls disciples to work with him as he embarks on his public ministry. With these disciples, the first place Jesus goes is Capernaum. That is where our reading began this morning. So, in the narrative that Mark presents, not much yet has been revealed about Jesus’ identity, his power and his effect on people.

So, we ask, what is revealed about Jesus here? We read that on the sabbath Jesus went to the synagogue and there he taught, and he taught with authority! This is important information Mark wants us to know; Jesus has an authority which was recognized right from the start of his ministry as astounding! Even more, he commands the unclean spirits who obey him. This Jesus is not any ordinary teacher or healer; there is an amazing authority that lives within him. What is this authority? As we read the Gospel of Mark, we are given this epiphany about Jesus as one who possesses an authority that seems unmatched, and we want to know more. This passage is like a movie trailer to the story of Jesus life; we are introduced to this phenomenal person and we get hooked, and we can’t wait to watch the whole movie! Part of our epiphany, then, is an awakening of our own yearning to know more in hopes that this will change us as it did those who were gathered at the synagogue in Capernaum.

Let’s move now to 1 Corinthians which was written by the Apostle Paul. Paul also had an epiphany of Jesus and this did change his life. Paul, a devout person in his own understanding of religious living, had an encounter with Jesus on his journey to Damascus. In a vision of blinding light, Paul heard Jesus asking him why he is persecuting those people who love Jesus, and Paul realized in that moment that God had also been revealed to those who think differently from him through the person of Jesus. This humbles Paul to the point of transformation and desire to proclaim his new understanding of God through Jesus Christ to people far and wide. Paul’s epiphany empowered him to be Jesus’ very first missionary, and he traveled to many places including Philippi, Thessaloniki, Ephesus, and Corinth where there were early Christian communities. Paul supports these communities even after he departs from them through his letters. 1 Corinthians, from which our scripture passage this morning comes, is one of these letters.

When we read 1 Corinthians, unfortunately we see that the church at Corinth was really quite messed up. The Corinthian church was plagued with lots of problems such as factionalizing behind rival leaders, incest, prostitution, celibacy within marriage, questions about Christians married to one another or Christians married to pagans asking about divorce, and questions about remarriage. The Corinthians were also talking about lawsuits and idolatry, and there was concern about women praying and prophesying in what was seen, at the time, as immodest ways. There was chaos in worship and inequality in the communal meal, and even the denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and of Christians.

At the beginning of chapter 8 in 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the community’s concerns about whether to eat the food that had been sacrificed to idols. We can imagine a self-righteous group looking down on another group within the Corinthian church saying, ‘ha, idols are nothing real anyway. We are so smart since we know this! There’s no problem in eating that food!’ But Paul responds that not everyone knows this about idols, and if the behavior of eating idols’ food upsets others and cause them to be weakened in their conscience then, it is not worth it! Paul is saying, ‘ what good is your knowledge if it is not used in a loving way that builds up the community, but instead breaks it down? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” Paul asserts. And in the famous love chapter, chapter 13, Paul enumerates all the ways this love is expressed. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. [Love] does not rejoice in wrong-doing. It rejoices in the truth”, and so this famous passage goes. Paul urges the Corinthians to examine if they are acting in this Christ-like loving way or if they are just squabbling over points of ritual ultimately for self-serving purposes. Christ’s love is the authority that can straighten out even this troubled Corinthian church.

Yet, how can we adequately describe in words the power and authority of love? Is this not an experience or a revelation given to us even more so than a piece of knowledge we achieve? As we think about why the people in the synagogue were astounded by Jesus’ authority, might it have been that they had an epiphany of the love of Jesus behind the words he spoke to them? When we think of why Jesus was able to command the unclean spirits, was it not his love, compassion and mercy for the suffering individual that gave him the power to do this? Is this not the authority of Jesus that the Gospel of Mark is revealing right from the start of the story of Jesus’ life? Certainly, it was this authority that Paul wanted the Corinthians to know for their church, torn apart as it was by arrogance, pride, and disrespect.

Like the Corinthians, we also live in an arrogant, prideful world, where people are disrespectful of others and say ugly things and act in ugly ways toward one another often simply because of skin color, or gender or age or ability or religious and cultural differences. We, too, live in a messed up world, the consequences of which are too often serious life and death matters. So, how are we, as people of faith supposed to act?

The juxtaposition of the Mark passage and the Corinthians passage seems to be saying that if we will also act with the authority of Jesus, who saw broken human reality and responded with compassionate restorative love, then what we do may be just as astounding! To see, to love, and to act boldly -- this is divine, this is authoritative.

During this month of January, I think particularly of Martin Luther King, Jr. who exercised his love in the effort to build a beloved community of dignity and equality in the middle of our very problematic world. I think of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, who lived in voluntary poverty with love for her companions who were suffering under a capitalist economy. I think of Bishop Romero and Desmund Tutu who spoke up against social and political injustices out of their love for their suffering neighbors. I think of you in this church who work tirelessly to find ways to feed the hungry and to console the lonely. These are authoritative acts of love, and we know they are needed! 

Just as Paul was called to be a follower of Christ to exercise a leadership of love that builds up community rather than breaking it down, so are we called to boldly exercise our leadership of love, knowing that the expression of this love is not always easy nor appreciated. But we are encouraged by the verses at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, where we read “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” God’s authority of love is with us in this work always! May our epiphany this morning be that our Christian lives should be authoritative, authoritative with love! So, let us not be timid about our faith; this is not the time nor the place for that! In our troubled world, torn apart as it is by puffed up arrogance, pride and disrespect, our leadership of discerning and courageous love is sorely needed. As people of faith willing to see humanity’s brokenness, we have been commanded to, and can do astounding things. Amen.

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