A New Thing?

January 31, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
4th Sunday after Epiphany 
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

Although Lent hasn’t even started, it seems like today’s gospel has a Palm Sunday quality to it. passion-sundayWe begin Palm Sunday with a joyous entry, waving palm branches as we recall the Hosannas that welcomed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. Yet, by the end of the Palm Sunday service we endure the taunts of “Crucify him, Crucify him” in the Passion story.

In today’s lesson I can hear the Hosannas as Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. He goes into the synagogue, reads scripture, and asserts that it has been fulfilled. We’re told that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Yet, by the end of the reading we hear that:

…all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill… so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

Palm Sunday, indeed! So what did Jesus say that was so disturbing? What turned their amazement into mutiny?

Well, let’s go back to last week’s gospel reading, which is where this all began. Jesus had been baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit, tempted in the desert, and now “filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee.” He was teaching in synagogues and the buzz about Jesus had begun.

We’re then told that he went to Nazareth, his hometown. He went to the synagogue as was his custom. These folks who knew him well were now with him. They had surely heard about what Jesus had been doing in other places, so they were probably pretty excited to have him there. Hometown boy makes good!

He’s handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and finds the place where it was written:

Zefad - 2006-06-26 - 2006-06-28_311-3The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he sits, and with all eyes fixed on him, says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

He’s claiming authority as the anointed one of God. Jesus will bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. The hometown crowd is amazed and eager. They want these things that Jesus has to offer. Surely, as Joseph’s son, someone they know, they’ll get the goods. Surely Jesus will take care of his own people, bringing them good news and freeing them from their hard times.

But, instead Jesus recalls the work of two earlier prophets – Elijah and Elisha. First he reminds the people in the synagogue of a time when there had been a famine in Israel, and although there were many widows in that land, God sent Elijah to help a widow at Zarephath in Sidon – he helped an outsider, not an Israelite. hqdefault (2)Jesus’ then reminds the people of another time, when there were many lepers in Israel, yet God sent Elisha to none of the Hebrew lepers, but instead, he cleansed Naaman the Syrian.

So, here’s Jesus, with his hometown peeps. They’ve heard that he’s doing some great things, and expect to receive this for themselves. But instead Jesus is saying “Not so fast! Just like Elijah and Elisha before me, I’ve been sent by God to do something for other people – the boundaries are being opened up. God’s grace, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, is for all people, not just the chosen few.” So, the barriers between insiders and outsiders were going away, and for the insiders, that was very unsettling, and they became enraged.

And although Jesus escapes the angry crowd this time, this story’s placement in Luke’s gospel – at the outset of Jesus’ ministry – foreshadows what is to come at the end of his ministry – the Palm Sunday experience for Jesus in Jerusalem.

It certainly serves as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to do a new thing. It can be risky business!

We shouldn’t be too surprised. It’s human nature to gravitate toward what is familiar and to stick with things we know. Even the earliest Christian communities struggled with this.  We heard today the familiar passage about love from Paul’s first letter to the early Christian community in Corinth.

They are trying to get their footing in this new thing – this following Jesus thing. The opening of the letter reveals clearly that there is a struggle going on. There are quarrels among them, some aligning with Paul, others with Apollos, others with Cephas and others say Christ.

Here we see a very realistic thing that happens in community. Factions form around one thing or another; around one person or another. But Paul reminds them that this isn’t what the Christian community is meant to be. Instead, it is Christ who is the one, the ONLY one, they are to follow. Even so, they bring different gifts to the journey, and that becomes the other part of their struggle.

They were arguing about which gifts were more important. If one could speak in tongues, did that make them closer to God and more important than the one who was a teacher or a prophet? Addressing this dilemma, Paul explains that we each have spiritual gifts, and they aren’t all the same. He wrote:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Cor 12:4-7)

gift-listSo the point of all these varied gifts, and services, and activities, is so that we can reveal the Spirit, and when we do this, the WHOLE community is enriched by our participation in it.  We aren’t all prophets, or all teachers, or all healers, and if we were, it would be like a body that has all eyes, or all ears or all feet. How much use would that be?

Instead, the goal is to honor the various gifts, services and activities of one another. When we do this, we form the full BODY of Christ, whose purpose is to do God’s work in the world.

With this as the groundwork, Paul then provides his familiar passage about love. Although we hear it most often at weddings, Paul wasn’t talking about romantic love at all. Instead, he was explaining how to live in community. In community, we aren’t all the same, yet if we practice love, we can live into our gifts, and live into who Christ would have us be as a community.

It begins by reminding us that if love isn’t at the center of what we do, then what we do is of no value:

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:2-3) 

So I can have amazing faith, and give everything away, but if my intention is self-directed and not love-based, then I’ve missed the point.

Then, Paul gives us a prescription for love:

il_fullxfull.402363836_137cLove is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1 Cor 13:4-8a)

Now, this list may seem a bit overwhelming. Yet no more so than Jesus’ command that we are to love others as he loved us. It is this command to love that is at the heart of Jesus’ life, a life that broke open boundaries. God’s love shared with all people – the insiders AND the outsiders, making them all ONE body.

It is this love that empowers a community to do the ministries that will bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed – continuing the work Jesus began, the work we continue to be called to do.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Christ Church is beginning a collective discernment process to prayerfully consider what’s next in our ministry journey. In the weeks ahead we will gather together to stir our collective imagination in the hope of manifesting the Holy Spirit and revealing through it what God might be calling us to do at this time. Undertakings like this can be unsettling for some, yet inspiring, too. It is good and necessary work.a53b876f-6b9c-48d8-b33f-0d0d7edf110c

Just as all the parts of the body are important, your gifts are essential to this work. So, as we gather together for common good, we hope you will be present with us, adding your voice to the conversation and opening your heart to what the Spirit is guiding us to.

We pray that it will be Faith that informs us, Hope that inspires us, and Love that abides with us. And the greatest of these is Love.


When we lose the labels, love wins:

Gospel Text:

            In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Lk 4:21-30)

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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