(Nehem. 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Cor. 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21)
In this period between Christmas and Lent, it can perhaps seem odd that we have in today’s Gospel reading, Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’s ministry after his forty days spent in the wilderness. Would this not be better to hear after Lent? Would this not be more appropriate to hear in Eastertide? Yet the point may very well be its oddness. As we begin to look towards Lent, and what that means for our own journey as Christians, perhaps this Gospel is to remind us that this journey is not going to be easy. After all, we have here Jesus right at the very beginning of his ministry in Galilee. He has returned from the wilderness, filled with the power of the Spirit, and has begun to preach in the synagogues. Luke tells us how he has initially enjoyed great success, but then he returns to his hometown, and although we do not hear those passages today, we know what is to come – many of those who presumably knew him the best ultimately rejected him. Luke implies that Jesus had already shown that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him by what he had done in Galilee before his appearance in Nazareth; yet, for some reason, it was too much for the people of Nazareth to accept that the one they thought they knew, was the one who was to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind. That in the carpenter’s son, with whom presumably many of them had grown up, was to be found the One – the One who Israel was waiting for. The One in whom the Scriptures were to be fulfilled.
It is surely here that we have the far greater oddness of this passage. Jesus has begun to preach with power, he has made the God of Israel present in the lives of many, yet for those who knew him best it seemed to be absurd, ridiculous, that he really could be the Anointed One of God. After all, he was just somebody like themselves, how on earth could God be in him, and in him in such an unprecedented way, as Jesus seemed to be claiming? Can we really blame the people of Nazareth if they thought that they were hearing blasphemy? How do we really know when God is present? After all, the Church has now been trying, for nearly two thousand years, to find ways to communicate to the world what we mean when we say that this man is the One – the One who has bought the good news, and that in him the hopes of humanity, whether part of Israel or not, are fulfilled. It is not surprising that this message became, in Paul’s words, a stumbling block to his fellow Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles.
I have always had some sympathy for Tertullian, that grumpy, curmudgeonly Victor Meldrew of the Church Fathers. It seems Tertullian actually did not say that maxim so commonly attributed to him – ‘I believe because it is absurd’. What he actually said in his treatise, On the Flesh of Christ, was that he believed in the Incarnation, that God had really and truly become human, because when Jesus died, it was credible, because it was unfitting, and when Jesus was buried and rose again, it was certain because it was impossible. Tertullian is bluntly presenting the paradox at the heart of Christianity – that in the frail broken flesh of a seemingly obscure 1st century Jew, the Uncreated that lies behind all we know is really and truly present. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many would find this difficult to accept. But where does that leave us? Where does that leave us who have accepted this paradox, and are trying to live our lives by it?
I often seem to find it difficult to work out why the compilers of the Sunday lectionary included the passages that they did. Yet if today’s Gospel is about the immensity of Jesus’s claim about himself, then the words we have heard from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tell us something about the immense claim that God has made on us through our acceptance of Christ. We are the Body of Christ – every single one of us here and throughout the world, who accept that the Spirit of the Lord was upon the man from Nazareth, we also in a way have that Spirit upon us. Just as Jesus in his body in some way made God present, so we as far as we participate in that now transfigured body, have our own part to play in making God present to our world. Present in our lives, and present to those who we meet. Like Tertullian, we need to be prepared to say, we know it is difficult to believe that God was present in a human being in this unprecedented way; but we embrace that difficulty, because in it, we can unequivocally say that God gave himself for us on that cross, that God went down into the grave to show us that death is not the end. That there is nowhere that God cannot be with his people.
In its own way, what Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians about what we are as the Church is as absurd, from the world’s perspective, as what we say about Jesus himself. That we are Christ’s body, and every single one of us is a part of that body that has a role to play in making God present to our world. If this is so, then the membership of that Body has consequences – that for all of us who are a part of it, there should be no division that can truly divide us from one another. If the Church is to truly be the Church, then there can be neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, all of us should matter the same before God and before each other, because we have all drunk of the same Spirit. Yet we know personally and as an institution that we fail at that every day. As well as the blatant racism and discrimination that mars the Church’s body every day, there are the more subtle divisions.
In the Church of England today, the entire parish system is now being questioned as the right way for the Church to engage with English society as it has evolved around it. But it is noticeable that money can still be found to fund certain areas, certain resource churches, seemingly at the expense of their neighbours – churches that seem to cater mainly to white, middle-class people of a particularly theological persuasion, while parishes in poorer neighbourhoods can be seemingly abandoned. These parishes may only have congregations of dozens or scores of people, but who knows what might come of their witness if they were given the help and encouragement they need to continue. After all, have we not heard Paul remind us today that the weaker members of the Body are indispensable – those members of the Body who we think less honourable, we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members should be treated with greater respect.
Paul has also reminded us that not all members of the Body are called to be apostles or prophets or teachers or those gifted with deeds of power. Not all of us in the Church can be prophets or priests or teachers, not all of us can be high-powered evangelists, many of us are perhaps passengers on the ship of the Church, hopefully heading towards our salvation in Christ. But we can all be passengers who quietly or not so quietly witness to the presence of God to their neighbours. We can try to show the world that it does not have to be a place of fear and hatred and violence, we can all do our part to give people the hope that things do not have to be like that. Paul’s point about all the members having different gifts is surely that we do not know what these gifts may be until we begin to follow Christ in all its uncertainty and difficulty. That is why bureaucratic, top-down solutions may not be the best answer to the Church’s current problems. Now Paul does say that one of the gifts of the Spirit may be different forms of leadership, and there may well be a place in the Church for management consultants, but surely, they should not have the first or the final word?
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading Martin Buber’s The Tales of the Hasidim. It is a collection of anecdotes from the 18th century compiled by the Jewish philosopher about the rabbis who founded the last great flowering of mysticism in Judaism, the Hasidic movement. Those people you can occasionally catch glimpses of in New York or London in 18th century dress, who are mainly distinguished from their fellow Orthodox Jews by their large fur hats. Fur hats that may have been very useful in a Polish or Russian winter, but which one would think would be something of a burden in the summer in Jerusalem. Anyway, I mention this as it helped illuminate for me the passage we had this morning at Mattins from Nehemiah. There we heard how Ezra read the Book of the Law to the people – both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. When Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, all the people answered Amen, Amen. Nehemiah and Ezra taught the people that when they heard the Law, they should not mourn or weep, because when they hear the Law, they should realise that the day is holy, and that the joy of the Lord is their strength.
In the anecdotes Buber recounts, God’s Law is always a source of joy. For the Hasidim, the Law is the presence of God in our world, it is part of the Shekinah, the divine radiance – the radiance which increases the more devoutly you follow the Law, the radiance that will eventually transfigure all of creation. It is an impressive spectacle even today among Hasidic Jews to see them celebrate this joy of the Lord – to see hundreds joyfully dancing around their rebbe while he holds the scrolls of the Torah, while they sing and cry in gratitude for God being with them. Of course, it is noticeable that you don’t see many or any women at these gatherings, as Hasidic Jews do have rather conservative attitudes towards gender roles, but I’ll let that pass. My point is that according to the Apostle Paul, we, the Body of Christ, are no longer living under the Law, but under grace. For us, it is supposed to be the case that the Shekinah, the divine radiance, has become fully present in Jesus as the Messiah. If those still awaiting the Messiah, those still under the Law, can show such joy in God, then perhaps those who believe he has come, should be rather more joyful than we are?
I acknowledge that I am not always the best example at doing Christian joy, but surely if the Church is to survive, if we are to be the Body of Christ, then we should not mourn or weep. We should celebrate all who are in the Church, recognising that those supposedly less honourable or less respectable may be its glory, despite what the wisdom of the world may be telling us. After all, what we have to say is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, as we are claiming that in us, in our relations between ourselves and our neighbours, the God of Israel, the God of Jesus of Nazareth can be truly present, reconciling us and the world to himself. It is perhaps absurd, and many in good conscience may not be able to believe us, but surely we should still be able to communicate that good news with joy. We should all, as the Body of Christ, be able to do something to witness to the world that it can still be a place of hope, that the love revealed in the Cross is stronger than death, and that is why we should not mourn or weep, because God is with us.