A good friend of mine has been a member of the Tea Party movement since its inception. He is a very conservative Republican. I used to joke with him that he was so Republican he made the two Presidents Bush look like socialists. He was dissatisfied with the direction the Republican party was taking a few years ago, and joined the Tea Party movement in protest of that direction.
This is a common phenomenon; it’s not limited to our country or to our century. It is common to start, or join, a faction when one is dissatisfied with the status quo. As the old saying goes, “There is strength in numbers.” Those who have a grievance find mutual support by forming a group, pooling their resources, and working together. Just as in our time, it was common in Jesus’ time for people to form, or join, a faction when they were dissatisfied about something. The ministry of John the Baptist had some of the character of a protest faction.
John preached a very harsh condemnation of his contemporary society, and invited people to turn away from the status quo. His followers were people who agreed with his assessment that the religious establishment was a “brood of vipers.” (Matthew 3:7) The disciples of the Baptist took to heart his challenge to “produce good fruit as evidence of repentance.” (Matthew 3:8)
Today’s Gospel reading picks up at the end of the ministry of the Baptist. John had been arrested by Herod, and would eventually be put to death. John’s arrest seems to have had a profound impact on Jesus. All of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, attest that it was the end of the Baptist’s ministry that led Jesus to begin his own public ministry of preaching and healing.
Jesus began his public life by forming his own faction. In today’s Gospel we read the story of the call of the first disciples. Jesus had left the area where John had been baptizing; he returned to Galilee where he had grown up. Capernaum was the closest thing to a city in the region of Galilee, and an ideal place to find and call disciples. In today’s Gospel he called Peter, Andrew, James and John to join his group.
Jesus’ group doesn’t seem to have been founded as a protest group; rather, it appears that Jesus intended to continue John the Baptist’s work. Jesus began his ministry by preaching the same message that the Baptist had preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) While Jesus’ new group seemed to be more about continuity (with the Baptist’s movement), than about a grievance, it did bear some of the same characteristics as John’s group. Jesus prized group unity above all else. When Jesus spoke to his disciples about having “faith” he was referring to being loyal to him and his group.
The centrality of group unity and mutual loyalty is also evident in the writings of Paul. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, from which our first reading is drawn, was written about twenty-five years after Jesus’ death. Paul had established the church at Corinth about five years earlier, and although they were a very young congregation, they were already having serious problems. Their church community had split into rival cliques. The various cliques identified themselves by the person whom they considered to be their leader. Paul wrote, “each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’.” (1 Cor 1:12)
Paul thought it was a scandal, and a denial of faith in Jesus, for the Corinthians to be divided among themselves. He commented, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:13) From the time of Jesus’ ministry, through the period of the apostolic preaching, and down through the centuries since then, group unity and mutual loyalty have remained hallmarks of faith in Jesus.
The Catholic Church puts so much value on group unity and mutual loyalty that it defines false teaching as something that threatens Church unity. Many Catholics think of heresy as being a teaching that is false, but the actual definition of heresy is much more nuanced. In the Catholic Church, heresy is false teaching promulgated for the purpose of destroying Church unity, and judged to be so by the college of Bishops.
Jesus knew that there is strength in numbers. For this reason, one of the highest values to be embraced by his followers is faithfulness to him and faithfulness to one another. Church community is not merely an artifact of human activity. The Church is not merely a distribution system for words or gifts from God. The Church, and its local communities, are an essential aspect of faith in Jesus.
The strength that we gain from Church membership is a strength that derives from numbers. Specifically, the Church is the historical community descended from the original group of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, the Church is chosen and called in the same way that the four disciples in today’s Gospel were chosen and called. It is not coincidence that the first disciples were called, not as individuals, but in pairs; the communal call of the first disciples emphasizes and highlights the communal call of the Church. The Church is also the group sent into the world to attract more citizens into God’s Kingdom. Jesus told his first disciples, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)
Hearing God’s call, believing the teaching of Jesus and continuing his mission are group endeavors. They aren’t the sort of activities that a single, lone individual can accomplish unassisted. Rather, they are world changing projects that can only be accomplished by large numbers of mutually loyal believers.
What we do here on Sundays, and the other activities and ministries of this parish, are too daunting for any one person, or even a small group, to tackle. The work of the Church: to respond to God’s call, to have faith in God’s Word and to give public witness to that Faith, are commitments that require the attention and energy of all of us. There is strength in numbers. This is a central truth of human existence. In Catholicism, that strength is called Faith; it is the living relationship with God that we received from someone else; it is nurtured in community with others, and meant to be shared with all of human society. Jesus calls us each by name to follow him; when he calls us by name, he calls us the Church.