January 24, 2016
Third Sunday after Epiphany January 24, 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
“Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
Because of the long history of individualism in western culture, most of us don’t really understand how the scriptures see us. The Bible understands individuals only in relationship to their community. Abraham was called out for the express purpose of being the ancestor of a people. Moses was called for the express purpose of leading his people out of slavery into the Land of Promise. And for forty years, because of the stubbornness and wilfulness of these people, he had to struggle with them in the wilderness. Those years became a time when the people were forged into a nation.
Our reading today from Nehemiah tells of the re-establishment of the rule of the Law of God after the return of the exiles from Babylon. The Jews had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it under the leadership of Nehemiah as their governor. One of the first things that Ezra, their priest and scribe, had to do was to re-establish the pattern of worship that had been destroyed along with the temple, because the people’s service of God was incomplete unless and until their common worship was restored. This morning’s reading tells of how Ezra taught the people who had returned from exile what it meant to be God’s people living in God’s land. They had their faith, but they did not have their identity. Their understanding of themselves as the people of God had been lost during the years of exile. The reading tells us that the people wept when they heard the Law read in the assembly. I don’t think those were tears of guilt or remorse. I think they were tears of relief and joy.
What is clear here is that there is no such thing as an individual Jew separated from the people, the Law and the Prophets, and the worship centered in the Temple. Any promise of God was made to the whole people together, not to any single individual. The individual took his or her relationship with God from his or her place among the people. The Law of God was for all of them together, and individually only as part of God’s people. This is not easy for us to really grasp because of the long tradition of individualism in which we are steeped. With its roots in classical Greek and Roman thought, down through the Renaissance and Reformation to the present, we mostly see ourselves as separate, distinct individuals. Each of us is personally responsible for our actions, our faith, our relationship to God. And to some extent this is true. At some point, faith has to become personal. However, when I was taking courses in marriage and family therapy, I learned that you cannot understand an individual apart from that person’s relationship system. That includes looking at the family for at least three generations on each side. And it includes examining the systems in which the family is embedded, meaning such things as educational levels, work, economic class, ethnic background, any experience of migration, and religion.
In the same way, when the Bible looks at a person, even an Abraham or a Sara or a Moses, it is as part of the people of God. Each person is most clearly and completely himself or herself not alone, but in the context of the community. In the Hebrew Scriptures, this is expressed by being one of the “chosen people”; in the New Testament, it is expressed in terms of being part of the “Body of Christ”. And this does not come naturally to us, because we are used to looking at ourselves and others as being most completely ourselves when we stand alone. We need to relearn the biblical perspective. One of the clearest expressions of this understanding is the great lesson from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But let’s set that passage in the context of the whole letter.
Paul is writing to a congregation he founded himself. But it is now a congregation mired in conflict, and the conflict is not simple. Some of it revolves around people who misinterpret the forgiveness of sin they have found as an excuse for continued immorality. Some of the conflict revolves around people who claim to have a special, secret knowledge of God. Some of it involves a conflict between those who call themselves “charismatic” and those who are less enthusiastic about “speaking in tongues”. Paul has scolded them, promised – or threatened – to visit them and straighten them out, and called them to live in love with each other. Then he turns to their questions about various points of the teaching they have received. He says, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote...” and proceeds to clarify his instructions on marriage, on food sacrificed to idols, about the way in which the Lord’s Supper should be conducted, and about the resurrection of the dead. And in chapter 12 he writes, “Now concerning spiritual gifts...” First of all, he says, the gifts come through the Holy Spirit and are given by the Spirit as the Spirit chooses, for the benefit of the whole community. The gifts are not the possession of any individual. They come from God. The people did not make these gifts; they did not earn them. The people were given the gifts freely by God and they are stewards of those gifts who will be held accountable for how they have used what they were given.
Then Paul turns to the great description of the people as the body of Christ, using the analogy of the human body. Whatever our ethnic or social origins, “we were all baptized into one body”, into the risen and glorified Body of Christ, and we were empowered by the same Holy Spirit who continues to act in and through the church. So each of us is necessary for the health of the Body of Christ. Each of us. Everyone is needed – whether it’s the octogenarian with a lifetime of faithful discipleship or the three-year-old dancing in the aisle. Every person is essential to the life of the body. None of us has all the gifts of the Spirit. Each of us has the gift we have been given, and each of us is responsible as a steward for that gift.
Now, some of the gifts seem almost to be in conflict with each other. We need those with prophetic voices about the sins and failures of the church and society. But we also need the voices of those who build and maintain the structures that are a means of continuity. We need those who have the gift of tongues, not only to remind us of the ways in which the Holy Spirit breaks into our world, but also in terms of those who can translate the gospel into the myriad tongues of humanity and into the language and idiom of our day. We need those who have the gift of healing, for there are many who need to be healed and there is much to be healed. Some need healing of body, mind, and spirit. Some need healing from the ancient wounds of racism, bigotry and pride. Not all healers have the same gifts, but we need them all. Some are prophets speaking out against the injustices of society and the economy and the status quo. Some are prophets speaking to the failures of the church, its leaders and its members. And so on. All of them call us back to the knowledge that we have fallen short of what God intends for us and for his world. We need all of those voices. Yet we also need the voices of the reconcilers, the builders, the negotiators, the dreamers of dreams. All of these gifts have been and are given to the Body of Christ, and all of them are manifested in different people. None of us can say we don’t need the others. None of us has all the truth. None of us sees or can proclaim the totality of God’s love. None of us can completely comprehend all the gifts of God.
Like our bodies, the community of the faithful is a mixed bag of the necessary, the nice, and the occasionally good-looking. And also like our bodies, we in the Body of Christ need all our parts, and are dependent on one another for the fullness of our life together. Also like our bodies, not all of our parts in the Body of Christ are very polite or generally spoken about in public. The instinct of modesty reveals God’s plan, that by respecting our “less respectable members”, as Paul calls them, we make
them equally respectable. In this way, the natural body, as also the Body of Christ, is peaceable, without dissension; each part cares for all the other parts. The God who made us made all of us, loves and forgives all of us, and binds all of us into one Body.
And for me, at least, that is the most important thing. We don’t create the Body of Christ. God does. We don’t provide the gifts that keep the Body of Christ alive and functioning and doing God’s work in the world. God does. We don’t define who or what belongs in the Body of Christ. God does. And as he went to Nazareth “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”, so he calls us to do the same in our time and place. We are to use all of the gifts of the Body of Christ to do his work in the world. We are to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, doing our part, whatever that may be. Not as isolated individuals, not on our own strength, not with our own wisdom, but as among those whom he has bound into his body to show his love for all in our time and place. Amen.