Ne 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; LK 4:14-21
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Amen.
“Thank we those who toiled in thought…each a word from G*d repeating; till they came, who told the story of the Word, and showed his glory. Praise we G*d, who hath inspired those whose wisdom still directs us; praise G*d for the Word made flesh.” We’ve just sung that and it’s the Epiphany theme: “Jesus began to teach in Galilee’s synagogues, was praised by everyone, went on to Nazareth and there read from Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” and more, and then “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”That’s the Word made flesh, and those hearing Jesus then, recognized the Lord’s Spirit on him and in him. It was a turning point for Jesus in the public communities where he taught, and it was obvious to those around him right then. They knew who he was and that changed ways he was received and remembered.
The Nehemiah portion, Psalm 19, and the Gospel, emphasize the written word. “So they read from the book, from the law of G*d, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Then they taught the people that their day was made holy to their Lord; and not to be grieved, for the joy of the Lord would be their strength.” “The statutes of the Lord rejoice the heart” echoes that theme. “The statutes of the Lord are just; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.”
These readings report some ways the Lord has spoken to people throughout time to explain to them, to us, what to do, ways to live an upright life, to bring about the reign of G*d for all people. The written word has been a key to that teaching. From the Ten Commandments on, our tradition has valued the Word, written and interpreted by scholars and students of each writing through its own time, continuing to every successive generation. These teachers ranged from scribes, those verbally well educated in writing, to priests or people religiously trained, to interpreters (note it doesn’t say “reciters by rote” or “literalists”) to real teachers who’d explain the words and interpretations. They were to persuade and teach people that: “the joy of the Lord is their strength.”
The weight of these readings for Christians culminates in the understanding that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the embodiment of G*d’s will into action, G*d’s thoughts and hopes made human, able to demonstrate in person how to achieve the goals to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.
However, then there’s the Pauline reading. If we heard this reading in a different context, we might well hear it as near comedy. It talks about the different parts of the body, those lesser and those more important, those more covered up, those more exposed, and more. It always sounds a little like doing the hokey pokey, “You put your left foot in, you put your left foot out, you put your left foot in and you shake it all about,” and so on. Some people are uneasy with this extended body simile, because it sounds like people are being separated by race, religion, creed, or some other dividing, ranking feature. This isn’t what Paul was talking about.
Instead he was inviting people to recognize the communal necessity of having different kinds of people in every group for the success of the group’s life and work. Jesus was assuring each person that each was valued for his/her own characteristics. People were exactly not to be graded or ranked, for their differences or by their differences. He was not saying, for example, that Jews were inferior to others, or Romans, or shepherds, or, or, or. We often hear this imagery as it’s come to us, often through the Roman Catholic model of the Pope as head of the body of Christ, and that makes a hierarchical model of both Christ and Christ’s church. Looking directly at what Paul has written, “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And G*d has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers” Do all work miracles” Do all possess gifts of healing” Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.” Not only are the body parts not ordered by importance, neither are these numbered jobs. The point is all must work together for any kind of effectiveness.
All Christian communities are challenged by the tension between hierarchical managing and valuing equally all parts of the community. I’d bet virtually all communities have this struggle, but we are instructed to work together in unity, for unity, in order to achieve the instructed goal of being part of Christ’s body. It sounds comical to claim to be an ear, or an eye, a hand, or any part of the body, or the sole teacher, or prophet. It is together that the parts of the body make a working whole, and it’s the variety and differences that make the whole body strong and effective.
As today is our Annual Meeting, it’s timely to consider the value of our traditional books as well as our part in the body of Christ. We are a Christian community and it’s reasonable for what we do to be obviously and intellectually faith based and Christian. I don’t think it’s possible to be Christian and not be steeped and molded by Judaism, so we are shaped first by the religion of Jesus’s forebears and family. We are not well-informed Jews, so it is useful and prudent to know as much about Jewish thought and faith of the past, present, and continuing into the future. However, we do believe that the Church is the living embodiment of the Christian faith, unashamedly, unreservedly, and clearly for all to see and comprehend. We have been fortunate indeed to worship in a space that reads as a Christian one, in every aspect and from every angle. I’m not commenting on the quality of what’s around us, or whether we like it all. It is obvious that we’re here in a Christian space. We are also committed to our Prayerbook’s elucidation of that Christianity. “We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to love our neighbor as our selves; to continue in the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of G*d in Christ.”
While it is apparent in every detail of what we do together in liturgies that we are Christian, we understand that we are only one arm of the church. We are a genuinely fine arm, but there are more parts to the body than just our arm. That said, we are committed to being the most fit, strong, hard-working, graceful arm possible. Having a choir here this morning reminds us of part of the muscle and strength of our arm, to continue this drawn out image. Although we don’t really get to comment much on Baptist feet or Congregational ears, we are shaped in mission and faith to develop our gifts in community here and to proclaim by our study and proclamation of the Word, and by our own kind of liturgical and social action mission, the Good News of G*d in Christ.
How do we do that? We welcome all people here, both to participate in worship here and also to come to this Table for bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ, his hands and feet for G*d’s work to bring about G*d’s reign. When we say we welcome all people, we do virtual backflips to explain and demonstrate that by all, we mean everyone. It’s possible not to be comfortable from your place, but it is our deepest commitment and understanding that we can only be a whole body when everyone comes to this table for strength and corporate identity. While some traditions have restrictions at their Table, we believe that this is G*d’s table, and we are all part of its community of the Real Presence here together. It’s who we are. The collect asks the “Lord to give us grace to answer readily the call of our Savior, and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” Our work is to hear the Words of the readings and statutes for us, and to know in Christ those words made real, and then to proclaim Christ’s Word for the world, using the strong arm of faith that holds and nurtures us for him and around him. As we’ll sing, “Let us recall that in our midst dwells G*d’s begotten Son, as members of his Body joined we are in him made one.” “When in Christ we gather, loving one another, G*d is truly here.” Then we are charged to “publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.” Good News. Amen
© Katharine C. Black St. John’s Church, 27 January 2013