January 27, 2013
I. Each year’s observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday holds up the themes of justice and compassion. That many of the prominent voices in the civil rights movement arose from the church is no surprise. Since slave days, African-American and white abolitionist preachers have drawn on the imagery of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and the Hebrew Prophets’ crying for justice. In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus opened his ministry by claiming the call for justice in Isaiah 61:1-2 as his own manifesto. By looking at today’s other Scriptures through this lens, we see that a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.
A. Luke emphasized different details in the start of Jesus’ ministry than we saw in John last week, but they come in the same timeframe. The Holy Spirit dramatically came on Jesus at his baptism. Then the Spirit lead him into the wilderness to be tested by the devil for forty days, in which he overmastered the devil.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. 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,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And 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. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
B. The scheduled reading from the Prophets on the Sabbath when Jesus went to the Nazareth synagogue must have been from Isaiah, since that scroll was handed to him. But he unrolled the scroll to purposely skip the assigned reading to find the passage of the Spirit’s anointing to the ministry of justice. That passage from Isaiah 61 is also quoted in Psalm 146:7-8, which is call a “Hallel” Psalm that the Israelites sang in procession to the Jerusalem Temple on holy days. No wonder the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. He changed the order of worship. What was he going to say about this?
C. Jesus began to speak to them. As we shall see next week, what he said was so shocking that they interrupt him. By saying this scripture was fulfilled, he did not imply that justice had been permanently established. Rather, he claimed that the Spirit had authorized and empowered him for the ministry on which he was embarking.
II. We are so used to having books in print, radio, television and now electronic media that we may miss the power of hearing Scripture read aloud as Jesus did in the synagogue. As we read from Nehemiah, this same power is clear when Ezra read what quite possibly was part or all of Deuteronomy. Significantly, the people are gathered as a single body to hear from God. Men, women and even children who were old enough to understand. They responded as one body, much as today a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.
A. This was not a dull experience of sitting still in silence while Ezra read. The people were actively engaged with voice and body. When Ezra unrolled the scroll to read, in unison the people stood in respect, much as liturgical churches today stand for the reading of the Gospel. Ezra blessed the Lord, and the people lifted their hands and answered, “Amen! Amen!” At a pause in the reading, they bowed their faces to the ground to worship, perhaps somewhat like we might see in a mosque today. In these pauses, the reading was translated for those who could not speak Hebrew and then interpreted or explained so they could understand and have their questions answered.
B. The people responded emotionally to hearing Scripture read. They wept! They wept for joy to hear God’s Word after generations of exile in Babylon. And they wept in repentance, knowing that had not been living by Scripture. But Ezra thought the weeping defiled the Scripture, so sent them out for a festival that included the wine of joy, as I mentioned last week.
C. An essential part of the celebration of hearing Scripture read was to send festive food to those who couldn’t afford their own parties. Rich and poor alike were one single community of God’s people. Justice and compassion demanded that everyone share the joy.
III. The first half of 1 Corinthians 12 that we read last week emphasizes the diverse joy of the gifts of the Spirit. The second half that we read today focuses on the joy of our unity in Christ. Paul is showing us how a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.
A. We think of “members” as people who have joined a club, organization or other group with some common interest or purpose. But the word Paul is using for “member” means body parts: limbs and organs. Though ancient Greeks and Romans did speak of their ruling classes as “body politic,” Paul may have invented the use of the word “member” to mean people who belong to the Church, not a list of names but being so connected to Jesus that we are the limbs and organs of the Body of Christ: arms, legs, fingers, toes – eyes, ears, nose, mouth – liver, kidney, pancreas, intestines. We have radical unity by one Spirit in one Body. Our Disciples of Christ fore bearers got it! Thomas Campbell wrote in his 1809 Declaration and Address, “The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”
B. When Paul asserted that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free share one Body by one Spirit, he shattered every ethnic, national, social and economic barrier. The complete unity of the Body of Christ is God’s justice at work, not in some abstract, ethereal, theoretical, invisible Church but in the real daily life of real people in real congregations.
C. Practically, this unity is expressed when we suffer together when one of us is suffering and rejoice when one of us is rejoicing. Sometimes simultaneously. Just as we care for our physical bodies from grooming to health care, we care for each other in the church. This is justice in action. God intends the church to be a living alternative to the injustice and dissension in society, living proof that justice and compassion are preferable and possible.
IV. Paul’s approach here is not to criticize the Corinthian church for its disunity (though he made his concern clear in chapters 1 and 11). Instead, he affirmed the principles, attitudes and behaviors he wanted to nourish. Some of you into management literature may recognize that as “Appreciative Inquiry.” In this way, even with all of our flaws, Paul asserts that a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.
A. Start by thinking of your own spiritual gifts and resources. Thank God for entrusting you with something that contributes to the Body of Christ. Take seriously Paul’s word about honor for the seemingly weaker members.
B. Now think of someone who is different than you are in some way that you notice occasionally. It could be spiritual gifts or temperament or perspective or opinion. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what only they can contribute to the congregation by those differences. Pray to be able to accept those differences as God’s gifts to the congregation.
C. Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit when he started his ministry in Galilee. The power of the Spirit is essential to living in unity as the Body of Christ. Joy is not an individual emotion but the profound experience of the community of faith. I love the last line of our reading from Nehemiah today, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” It has just enough ambiguity to be fascinating and enough simplicity to be compelling.
1. We are strong when our joy comes from delighting to be with God’s people in God’s presence.
2. We are strong when our joy comes from delighting in the gifts the Holy Spirit has given others.
3. We are strong when we draw our joy from God’s vast reservoir of joy.
4. We are strong when we are overwhelmed with the realization that God receives joy when all of our gifts work together for unity in the Body of Christ.