The early church was not perfect
Rivalries and division in the church break down the unity of faith
January 27, 2002, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Richard Ver Bust
Sometimes we have the tendency to think that life in the early church was perfect. In fact this is the vision that Luke projects in the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts Luke says about the Jerusalem church that the "community of believers was of one heart and mind."(Acts 4:32)
Yet he shows that at times there were disagreements. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians tells us that there were real problems of division.
In our second reading today, Paul immediately gets to one of the problems. He urges them, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to agree in what they believe and have no divisions among them. It points out that there is pettiness and bitterness in the community. There were differences in the church in terms of social equality, education and culture but the church had now broken into groups in which there was rivalry and anger. Paul calls them all his brothers and sisters for he considers all united in Christ. He suggests that their rivalries will break down their unity of faith. Paul reports that he has heard of these divisions from the leader of a church household called Chloe. Members of her household have said that the church is divided, claiming that each group is following the teachings and leadership of different church leaders. This claim means that they believe that Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, that is Peter, has the more authentic message. Some even claim they follow Christ directly. This latter group may, as some scholars suggest, have wanted to accept the exalted Christ and not the crucified Christ as preached by Paul. I would also suspect that the actual persons, like Apollos or Peter, did not even know that they were being used to separate the church.
Paul disclaims having baptized anyone in his name. All, regardless of who baptized them, had been baptized in the name of Christ. Paul emphasizes that Christ cannot be divided nor can a community that is dedicated to him be divided. Paul insisted that it was not by his eloquence that many were brought to Christ. They believed because Christ had called them.
The gospel reading tells us how Christ began to preach after John the Baptist was imprisoned. He began to preach with a message that called upon people to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The expression "kingdom of heaven" is Matthew's way of speaking about what the other two synoptic writers call the "kingdom of God." It may be his way of respectfully not using the name of God so not to offend his Jewish Christian readers. It is important to note that while Jesus' theme is somewhat reminiscent of John, Matthew says that he was not just continuing what John had done but fulfilling what the prophets had said.
One of the first things Jesus did was to call specific individuals to accompany him on his mission. Unlike other rabbis or teachers whom students came and sought to follow, Jesus made the choice. It echo's what we heard from Paul in that each Christian comes to Jesus not on their own but because they have been called by Christ. The ministry of Jesus can be summarized by three activities: teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing those who were ill. The healing is therefore also a sign of the coming of the kingdom.
(Fr. Ver Bust holds the title of professor emeritus in religious studies at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)