United as One.
Nehemiah 8: 1 – 10; Luke 4: 14 – 21; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31a
The grand themes of community and God’s blessing are presented in our texts this Sunday. They remind us of the importance of community and how community works. They contain rich veins of golden truths. I hope you will see these truths afresh today and be blessed. In being blessed we will be a blessing to others.
We’ll start with Jesus in his home synagogue. Luke tells us that Jesus filled with the power of the Spirit returned home to Nazareth. Jesus must have been on a high. His ministry had started well. People had come to hear him in the synagogue, market place and hillside. Many had been healed. Demons had been cast out. People had been amazed at his authority. Naturally he attended his home synagogue where he read from the Isaiah scroll. The Isaiah writings were as important then as now. Jesus chose to read what we know as Isaiah chapter 61. Our chapter and verses are a modern invention established about 600 years ago. Whether Jesus chose this text specifically or whether it was set for the day we don’t know. The point is that the book of Isaiah is filled with prophetic pictures of God’s future. The section Jesus read describes the day of the Lord when the Christ / Messiah will bring the Goodnews that God will restore justice and peace to the earth. The people longed for God’s restoration of Israel and the establishment of justice and peace for all. Jesus read this text and by his manner and action claimed to be the prophetic Messiah / Christ figure by saying that this word was being fulfilled in him.
I am not going to focus on the theme that God’s time of blessing and restoration includes justice, which emerges in many places in the Bible. I am going to focus on what is implied by Jesus attending the synagogue. Jesus’ attendance affirmed the importance of God’s people gathering together. We often glide over these references to Jesus in the synagogue without considering the implication. Yes, it would have been practical to go to the synagogue because that is where the people went on the Sabbath, but Jesus also went to worship God. To worship God is our duty. It is our duty to worship God and our duty to be with each other. We come here not for ourselves and hopefully not out of pure habit, but we come to worship God and be here with each other, because God looks forward to our collective praise and worship.
Turning to the Corinthian reading we read one of Paul’s famous passages on the gifts of the Spirit and also about the importance of the Church as a community. Corinthians chapters 12 – 14 are crucial to understanding the nature of the Church – God’s community. Incidentally I did my masters on these chapters. They’re very special to me. They are special to all of us
Last Sunday you focused on the first few verses of chapter 12 with its emphasis on diversity and the gifts of the Spirit. The diversity we have in the Church then and now is part of God’s creative order. But diversity to be a blessing requires unity. The gifts of the Spirit are given to individuals, but not for the individual’s benefit. The gifts and talents we have are not what we have earned or created – they are gifts. Our gifts and talents are given for the benefit of others. We aren’t given all the gifts. We each have a few gifts, which are different. For us to truly benefit we need access to all the gifts. The only way we can benefit from all gifts God provides is through the fellowship of the Church. To put it simply my gifts bless you and yours bless me. Inherent in our humanity is the need for others. We are the person we become because of the contributions of others to us and vice versa.
Our reading of Corinthians ends with an enticement of a more excellent way [1 Cor 12:31]. Paul goes to explain that love is the most excellent way and all we do should be done in love. We find that in chapter 13. That’s the chapter that every bride and groom thinks was written for them. We call it the ‘hymn of love’. Sorry to disillusion you, but it wasn’t written for your wedding; it was written for the Church universal. Our gifts are to be used lovingly for the whole of Christ’s body. Paul moves from talking about the community’s diversity, unity and God’s gifts to exercising the gifts in love. This flow of theological thought indicates that Paul didn’t write in chapters and verses. He just wrote a letter.
Corinthian chapter 12 uses the metaphor of a human body to describe the nature of the Church and its unity. We are one body – the body of Christ. We are one body and each individual is a part of the one body. Paul used a Greek word, which we translate as member, which really means ‘a part of’. We should not confuse this meaning with our common use of member to describe our belonging to a club or organisation. Membership of a club or organisation is something we choose to exercise at our whim and fancy. Membership in the church is about being a part of one Christ’s body. The parts of my body form the whole of me. Each part plays and important part of who I am. When one part malfunctions it affects the whole body. So when one part of the Church is in pain we all suffer – just like our physical bodies. I don’t know about you but when I stub my little toe it makes an awfully big noise for its insignificant size. Do you pay much attention to your little toe? However that little toe is important to you. Medical science tells us – even though the pinkie toe itself has no functional value, removing the metatarsal (linked to the little toe) would make running, walking and skipping nearly impossible. Therefore, just as all parts of my body are important to my well-being, so too are all parts / members of the Church are important to our well-being. So when one member is in pain the whole body feels it. When one member is joyful the whole membership shares in the joy. That’s the reason for sharing our ‘joys and concerns’. Paul reminds us of two important truths here. Firstly, we are one body. Secondly we have many parts to the Church. There lies a deep spiritual lesson for us.
It is our duty to worship God and it is duty to do so together, because we are one and God looks to the one body not the individual part or members of the body of Christ. God wants us to be united as a community. That’s our blessing and strength.
Finally we turn to our Old Testament story, which is part of the Jewish Scriptures too. The people have returned from Babylon where they have been in exile. The returning refugees have recently been given permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and Temple. The great majority of the first returnees to Jerusalem under Nehemiah and Ezra had been born in Babylon. Returning to Jerusalem was completely new experience. Their new found freedom in their homeland was not easy. As we would expect the returning exiles didn’t always see eye to eye and they were not all focussed on the same things. Their leaders, Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest, knew that they needed to hold the people together. They realised the community could so easily disintegrate with everything in a state of flux. There’s nothing new in that truth. Uncertainty, differences, change all contribute to anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear strain our relationships. Something needed to be done.
Nehemiah and Ezra knew the basics. In the seventh month of their arrival they gathered the people. Is that symbolic of the Seventh Day being a day of rest and worship? Whatever, they do the following.
- They gather all the returning Jews together.
- They teach and interpret the Law of God.
- They do so with the help of 26 named persons and some Levites – a sharing of gifts.
- They tell them to celebrate – have good food and drink.
- They tell them to share their food and drink with those who don’t have enough. (I suspect those still living in the land – a few had been left behind – were very poor.)
- The tell them that the joy of the Lord is their strength
Nehemiah and Ezra knew that the people needed to be grounded in the Scriptures, celebrate their community and worship God with praise and thanksgiving. In being a united community of God’s they worshipped. There lay their true joy.
The Scriptures today remind us of the simple steps of our faith in Christ Jesus. We are a community that belongs together, to serve each other, to share God’s blessing with those outside our fellowship, and worship in the joy of God. In each of our texts set for today these elements are present. What we have here is a focus on the essence of our Faith, the community, our fellowship, and the joy of our celebrations of God’s blessings. In these simple things – our Faith, our Community and God – are the essence of our well-being. In that well-being we serve our families, one another and all we encounter.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 27/01/2019