Third Sunday after the Epiphany 24th January 2010 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Epiphany 3C 24th January 2010 Textweek

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Today’s readings have much to say about us and about the community of St Paul’s. The second reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth is a metaphor for each and every Church, each and every community. It provides us with an analogy – a way of looking at ourselves as community. We are like the parts of the body, each has a place and a part to play; many members – one body. It’s a delightful sermon that one could leave there – why try and improve on that teaching of St Paul? And perhaps that’s a good thing to take away today – there is something there. Take it away, read it, reread it, play with it.

What happens when we extend the metaphor; what questions does it raise for us and for many? What happens when we mix metaphors or in fact merge metaphors, because the Bible and scriptures are full of them? Start with a simple question: who is the head of the church? The Archbishop... The Pope.... The Queen........? Jesus is always a good Sunday school answer, and that’s got to be right because I’m sure I read that in the Bible somewhere:
Ephesians 5:23 ‘For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour.’
Colossians 1:18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

And therein lies the danger of merging metaphors. Paul tells us that we are all members of one Body and also that all members are different.

Paul says: On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissention within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.

Now what does that say about Jesus – the head of the body? If God has given the greater honour to the inferior member, we, who proudly claim constantly that we are inferior to Jesus, surely receive greater honour from God than Christ does?

Somewhere this metaphor of community, Paul’s metaphor for the church, has got confused. It’s as if it has submerged or drowned itself in the hierarchical structures of the church. The head of the church, we are told over and over, is Christ, the all-important one, and has that not been paralleled by the top of the hierarchy - the papacy, the episcopate, the clergy? The letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians seem to have been cultivated much more than that wonderful sermon of St Paul to the Corinthians.

It’s quite a playful reflection, but there’s even more confusion, for do we not also claim Sunday-by-Sunday that ‘we are the body of Christ’? So then why does not each and every one of us see ourselves as the head of the church? It’s a worthwhile reflection to play with, for it asks and invites us to look at questions of identity. Who are we as the Church; what is this body of many members; who we are as members of the body; who we are as members of this church? And then push the reflection further: who we are in relation to Christ, who is Christ in relation to us?

I’ve just finished reading a book of nine different lives of people in India. One of the nine stories is called ‘The Lady Twilight’. It begins, “Before you drink from a skull” said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, “you must first find the right Corpse”. Manisha lives amid the smoking funeral pyres of the cremation ground of Tarapith, home of the great goddess Tara, who is most often depicted wearing a garland of freshly severed human heads.

As I read her story I found within myself that I share more in common with her and her energy than I do with my own Archbishop. Why? This is a very short paraphrase: ‘Her religious practices are in many ways opposed to the ideas and structures of the Vedas [the oldest scriptures of Hinduism], which emphasise social and religious hierarchies. Her practices, by way of contrast, oppose society’s conventions and encourage the individual, from whatever background, to develop a mystical relationship with the Divine within, placing desire in the service of liberation.’ She seems to parallel my understanding of Christ more fully that most of the organised church, which advertises itself as ‘the body of Christ’. Maybe somewhere we lost ourselves in the merging of metaphors from the Bible.

With Christ as the head and the hierarchy constructed to reflect the important and controlling qualities of the head, we have unthinkingly (and of course it’s unthinkingly – with Christ as the head, he does the thinking for us, we don’t have to think), we have unthinkingly relegated ourselves to inferior members, and even then all would not be lost, except we also forgot the teaching that Paul gave us in his sermon: But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior members.

In making up a community, a body, if we belittle the part that we play, then maybe we belittle the whole, and so fail to realise ourselves truly as the Body of Christ, our true calling.

St Paul’s is just a small church in Beaconsfield, inconsequential in the bigger picture, just one pixel on the screen of the world. And in one sense that is true; in another sense it completely negates the whole gospel narrative and denies that which Christ reveals.

In today’s gospel there’s a gem. In today’s gospel Luke seeks to tell us who Jesus is, and perhaps here we can seek an echo of ourselves: Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee .He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The 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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." What Luke reveals about the identity of Christ, he reveals about us, who claim to be ‘the Body of Christ’. He’s not trying to tell us that the Old Testament scriptures were fulfilled in Christ – it’s not a history lesson. He’s actually trying to open our eyes to what is being revealed. When Christ says, ‘Today this scriptures has been fulfilled in your hearing’, we are called to that same place of revelation and I think we know that; it’s just that the church has given us an unthinking part to play in the scheme of things. Claim it back. We are the Body of Christ, and there is no head that controls it. Read the sermon from Paul: it’s us - the eyes, the hands, the feet, the all. What Luke reveals is that we are called to find that same place, “To fulfil the scriptures in the hearing of others”. Each of us is called ‘to fulfil the scriptures in the hearing of others’. Not to walk round the streets like religious loonies saying that Jesus saves everybody, but rather to embody a fulfilment of scriptures that others may see and hear.

One of the delightful things is that that process is now unfolding. And I have a sense that it may overtake us, delightfully so. Two weddings here yesterday, and I seemed to spend all my time providing an exclamation of what is going on, because people can see something is being revealed here, and it stands out. They want to know; they have a feel that it is speaking something delightful; it says something about the body, the community that meets here. A number of them want to come back – they are drawn by what is slowly unfolding and being revealed. This is a reflection of us; it is of our creation and of our making. It is our building, our unfolding that is beginning to be seen in new ways.

We too as members of one body and as the Body of Christ, might reveal ourselves and be seen as the fulfilment of the scriptures.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris