But in the latter time [God] has made glorious the way of the sea… Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (vv. 1, 2).
At the beginning of his ministry Jesus moved to Capernaum on the north shore of the Galilean Sea, a region known as “the way of the sea”, a culturally diverse crossroads close to Gentile Decapolis across the nearby Jordan.
Galilee was formerly a part of the northern tribes of Israel, including Zebulun and Naphtali, the first to be the “ten lost tribes”, experiencing God’s abandon to Assyrian devastation and deportation; but Isaiah would later prophesy that in the end times “Galilee of the nations” would be first to behold God’s promise of Immanuel (Isa. 7:14; 9:1, 2, 6, 7).
Galilee was populated by an Israeli-Assyrian half race known as Samaritans, despised as racially inferior by southern Jews, holding an heretical religion in the midst of marginal Jews and heathens.
Into this milieu Jesus arrived as the prophesied “great light”: preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; teaching Torah in synagogues; healing ravaged bodies and souls in this corner of a bedeviled creation; and calling to himself apostles and disciples.
People in spiritual darkness can do nothing for their restoration to God. In darkness the condition degrades; men become numb to circumstances, even the need for enlightenment. The blind and dim sighted compensate for their ignorance by making craven comparisons, as the temple Pharisee, “God I thank you that I am not like other men… even like this tax collector” (Lk. 18:11).
The irony of Light is that those most despised for enmeshment in sin are the one’s inclined to receive grace and sight from outside; while self-righteous see only by “light” from within for belittling comparisons.
It is no accident, other than Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ apostles were all from Galilee. The further south Jesus’ ministry inserted toward the center of Judea’s “orthodoxy”, the more intense the resistance encountered; until arriving in Jerusalem “violent men” plotted to extinguish the Light (Mt. 11:12).
Complacent men, like the praying Pharisee garner little insight of our common plight; all have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). They are seemly destined to remain in ignorance, that before God, no one is superior to another.
Idolatry is man’s natural religion that evaluates others by our own “light”. If Peter, Andrew, James, and John lived among Capernaum’s Samaritans, heathen Gentiles, and marginal Jews; but called into Jesus’s orbit, then we are given pause to reflect on our environment.
As confessed self-idolaters we approach the light of Scripture, in humility, discarding man’s tendency to rule over it by self-servicing “lights”. Without humility (Sola Scriptura) before God’s word, divisions as at Corinth, threaten.
In the matter of division, some align with a “Jesus” possessing Apollos’ eloquence; associate with Cephas, assigning him unmerited titles and authority; extol Paul, the man of theological letters; or worse, inwardly adopt a judgmental attitude to others appropriate to Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:12).
Against our sinful tendency to lionize men magnifying self-perceptions, Paul commends, unity in the “name of Jesus” (v. 10); for no one but Christ was crucified for us (v. 13). Even within orthodox congregations the peculiar sin of factionalism “crouch[es] at the door” (Gen. 4:7) to blunt the power of the cross among us.
Jesus is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The first casualty of congregational factions is loss of love; and the second is an inward turning from the church’s scriptural Light to human “wisdom” that rules over the Word (2 Cor. 11:4).
Factions promote a “Jesus” who looks like us; an early warning St. Paul would nip in the bud. To paraphrase, we can be as faithful and prophetic as the Missouri Synod is orthodox and catholic; but without the love of our crucified Lord in our hearing and exercised in or life, we are but clanging cymbals (1 Cor. 13:1, 2) at risk of turning from the Light to dark denominationalism; by which everyone does “ what [is] right in their own eyes” (judges 17:6).
Jesus called Apostles out of “the way of the sea”; today through the water of Baptism he calls to discipleship. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were uniquely “fishers of men”, describing their office. Christians are called to discipleship as well; if not “fishers of men”, we are caught out of “the way of the sea” by Jesus’ preached and taught word, and sacramental healing in his apostolic church.
Some watch over church doctrine; some provide the even keel of catholic practice; others insist on Scripture’s law-gospel orientation to cross and resurrection; some (as Zebedee) care for the vessels of God’s word, washed free of accretions, in good repair and order; others evangelize; some cast, but it is always God who does the catching; some draw the catch into the boat; and others apply the sacramental salt for savor in the world.
More fundamentally, by the light of Christ we are empowered for new kinship, communally hearing the same Jesus; sacramentally comprehending our singular King in “God with us”.
As we “behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, we know our Father captured by the wounds of his Son, who bears the mantle of universal governance, that does not admit to self-enlightenment, loveless factions, or belittling comparisons against brother or sister.
God’s ways are not man’s, certainly not “the way of the sea” out of which we have been gospel gathered. Instead, by Baptism’s water we are washed and drawn ashore for a roasting with our Lord (Jn. 21:9-12), “the way of the cross” by which Christ reverses every human value to reflect the Light of his own sacrifice.
Baptism calls and inaugurates a new begetting into the kingdom of preaching, teaching, and healing; a new family that awaits God’s new Creation coming into being. Amen.