THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 23, 2022
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
This assertion by Jesus is the capping statement, the climax of our scripture readings this morning. It is also the first teaching that the adult Jesus gives as recorded in Luke’s gospel. He gives this teaching in his hometown of Nazareth. He goes there after two signal events: his baptism by his cousin, John, and, after the baptism, a 40-day solitary retreat in the desert. On that retreat, he is confronted with the temptations of material comfort, worldly power, and pride. He answers and withstands these temptations by proclaiming passages of scripture.
Luke tells us that, after his desert trials, Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and…began to teach in their synagogues, reportedly to much acclaim. Now, in his home synagogue, the stage is set for his first teaching that Luke fully describes as a dramatic scene. As Jesus did in the desert, the core of his teaching is a quotation from the Hebrew scriptures. He is, after all, a good, faithful Jew, which Luke makes clear by having him attend the synagogue on the Sabbath, and read from the prophet Isaiah. He then sits down to offer his reflections on what he has read. Biblical scholars tell us that the standard practice was for the teacher to sit down to deliver his message. That’s why The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. They were waiting to hear his interpretation of what he had just read. These are people who have known Jesus since his childhood. They have heard about the good news of his teaching in the surrounding towns, and are eager to have it for themselves. I imagine his old friends and relatives sitting on the edges of their seats, looking to him with great anticipation. This is the prophetic moment, the moment of the charismatic breakthrough, when the prophet says, “It is written, but I say unto you…” And Jesus accepts the call. He gives a simple, one sentence sermon…you, my friends, should be so lucky! Jesus tells them that the scripture is fulfilled, here, now, in their hearing. This morning, I want to reflect on this “here, now”. I want to emphasize that this is our “here, now”–today, in our hearing, is the fulfillment. I will be so bold as to offer my own single sentence: To realize that the Reign of God is here, is now, is the beginning, the path, and the end of our Christian life. It’s the whole deal. As we might say in Wisconsin, it’s the whole fish fry.
That’s it. ‘Nuff said. I could stop right here. But, well, I’m not gonna. And that could get me in trouble. It certainly got Jesus into trouble. Our gospel reading today ends before the Nazareth synagogue story reaches its familiar conclusion. Jesus continued interpreting his initial insight and, as a result, ended up being run out of town and nearly killed by his hometown neighbors. So, I’m going to take the risk and try to unpack Jesus’s simple yet powerful sentence…and hope I’m not sentenced for it! I want to explore some of the insights and paradoxes that are packed into this simple, powerful message, in the hope of shedding some light on our lives together as a Christian community.
Today is the Sunday in our Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Whenever I think of the topic of Christian unity, I remember another gospel passage. I don’t recall the exact chapter and verse, but it goes: Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, that’s when everything starts to go south. I was going to say that this is sad but true. Instead, I’ll just say that it is true. It is what it is, as we like to say these days. The Christian church is a human institution like any other human institution: it is human, with all the promises and glories, vanity and venality that inhere in our humanness. Christian disunity has been the case from the very beginning. It’s right there in the gospel accounts of the wrangling among the apostles for position and favor. It’s there in Paul’s letters, our earliest Christian writings. Our reading today from the 12th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Christian community in Corinth is a wonderful meditation on the unity-in-diversity of the Body of Christ: a beautiful metaphor for the ideal church. This, of course, comes after chapter 11, in which Paul berates the Corinthians for their reported abuses of the eucharistic meal, at which there are “divisions” and “factions”, where “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” So it goes. The history of the church from the beginning to the present day is a history of conflict and disunity; conflict over doctrine, authority, land, money…you name it, we’ve been at each other’s throats over it…just like any other human group. We had no Golden Age. There was no Christian Arcadia. The history of Christianity has been, by turns, tragic, comic, and absurd. If the best predictor of a person’s future behavior is their past behavior–and it usually is–what, then, is the most likely future of the church? Well, that goes without saying.
So, where does this leave us? Can we expect a future of continuing conflict and disunity? Yes. Is there anything we can do to prevent it? I don’t think so. Do we just give up, plop down, and do nothing? Well, I’m not going to answer that question because I think it’s the wrong question. It’s not a matter of whether or not there will be conflict and disunity. There is and always will be. I think the important questions are, How are we going to be with it? and How are we going to respond to it? To find some semblance of answers to these questions, let’s return to Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue.
The text that Luke has Jesus read does not appear as a continuous passage anywhere in the book of Isaiah. It is a pastiche of different passages that Luke has fitted together to paint a picture of the Reign of God. This is Jesus’s adult teaching debut in Luke’s account and the author wants him to present the essence of his teaching from the outset. He wants to describe the Reign of God, which Jesus continued to preach throughout his ministry. Luke also wants to show that the man and his teachings are continuous with Jewish belief and practice. Finally, he wants Jesus to present his own understanding of the fulfillment of the Reign of God: his insight that today, here, now, it is fulfilled. It is common to interpret this as Jesus referring to himself as the Messiah; that he is the one God has anointed…to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor. I’m not going to get into a long talk about christology; about who Jesus was, and who he thought he was…well, maybe a little bit. The thing is, it’s hard to imagine Jesus giving such things much thought. He was someone who realized, in the depth of his being, that he was a manifestation of God’s being. That was his life. He realized that, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing tells us, “…God’s being is our being, though our being is not God’s being.” To realize that God’s being is our being is to realize our Christhood, our eternal identity as God’s being. Jesus is a model for us as someone who recognized his Christhood as his essential nature, and who lived out of that Christhood every moment of his life. One might go so far as to echo Paul in Galatians and say that Jesus realized that he no longer lived, but Christ lived in him. He realized that he was already and eternally living in the Reign of God. Jesus the temporal man was ultimately no longer there. That man was already crucified and resurrected as the Christ; as what the English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, called the “immortal diamond” of the resurrection; the eternal wedding of the Creator with the Creation, the Word made flesh from the beginning. The stories of Jesus’s life and the words of his teaching offer us the message that this is our life also; you, me, all of us. Today, here, now, we are living in the Reign of God. Today, here, now, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Colosians, we have died and our lives are hidden with Christ in God.
So, you ask, what about Christian unity, disunity, and conflict? How are we going to be with it? How are we going to respond to it? Well, from one angle, from the point of view of our eternal Christhood, there is no conflict. The dualities, the differences, the battles within, between, and among us are not ultimately there. In Christ, we are not separate. We are already and always One, though we mistakenly think we are not. Our finite self or ego, of course, has other ideas. So, it is critical for each of us to enter deeply into ourselves, to cut through that false self and let go of its misconceptions of separateness. It is critical for each of us, by whatever skillful means we use, to make contact with the inner truth of our union with God, and to realize it over and over again in our lives. But that’s not the whole story.
From another angle, the inner and outer conflicts in our lives are real, they are in our faces and there is no escaping them. It is a fact of our living in this finite world of time. We can’t be in the human family and get out of having to sit by surly Uncle Clarence at Thanksgiving dinner. Life just keeps coming at us, whether from the inside or the outside; from within ourselves and from the other. To quote Hopkins again, life is “a Heraclitean fire.” It is ever-changing, uncontrollable, and, against our wills, despite our best efforts, it burns us all. How do we respond to this fire that we are helpless to quench? After all the high-falutin verbiage I’ve subjected you to this morning, in the end, I take refuge in St. Benedict’s simple injunction in Chapter 53 of the Rule: All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. It’s simple, right? Just welcome the other as Christ. Yes, it is simple, but like so many simple things, it is also very hard. Such welcoming doesn’t come naturally to our creaturely self, our ego; the self that makes distinctions and judgements. The self that lives separate from and in conflict with our true self that is hidden in Christ. To truly, to deeply, greet the other as Christ, to bridge the imagined conflictual gap, we must do the hard work of greeting the Christ in ourselves, the Christ who is our true self. Then, in those moments, we can stand up as the Christ we are and greet others as the Christs they are. And so, through us, here, now, God is all in all.