Epiphany , Year C
Readings: (Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10); Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 2:12–16; Luke 4:14–21
Sermon time. Somebody at the front gets up and says some things. There might be something funny, something topical, some words explaining a bible reading or two. There might be a story, maybe even something that draws a few tears. It could be dry, it could be interesting. Or dry to some and interesting to others. Sermo is Latin for word. Is a sermon the word of God? For you? For anybody? Sometimes? Usually? Ever?
We have a great collection of readings about the word today. Glimpses into other times and places, and how people thought about teachings and sermons. No. Pause that. We have stories about other times and places, how people thought about teachings and sermons. The story tellers have agendas. They are people of deep faith, and they want to paint things in a certain light. A preacher talking about preaching has an agenda. He or she is likely to be a person of faith, and he or she might want you to come to certain conclusions about sermons.
How do you know if you have heard a word from God? Is it always personal, or can communities agree on when the Word is uttered in their midst? This second alternative seems to be trickier, because what might seem like profound insight to you might seem like trite banalities to someone else.
Let’s review these stories from scripture. We didn’t hear the passage from Nehemiah read out this morning. It concerns the re-introduction of the Word to the reunited community in Jerusalem at the end of the sixty year exile in Babylon. One Babyonian emperor ruled by dragging the leadership of his conquered states to his capital and keeping them as hostages. Three generations later, another emperor ruled by showing his mercy, and letting the descendants of the original captives go home.
Back in Judah and Israel is ruin. The walls of the capitol are still broken down from the original invasion, and the once-lively spiritual and social life of the nation is also in tatters. Nehemiah the governor gathers everyone in a public square. They bring the scripture to Ezra, the priest and scribe, and others, and they read, from early morning until midday. Not just read, actually. According to the book of Nehemiah, “they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” The people are tremendously moved. They raised their hands, and said, “Amen, amen.” They bowed down to the ground. They wept at the teaching or preaching they heard that day.
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ ...Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” (selections from Nehemiah 8:5–6, 8–10)
Quite a scene. Still moving twenty-seven centuries later. A word from God has been heard. We are to take it that the people were weeping with shame or embarrassment, not some other emotion. Hearing about what God wanted and expected from them and realizing how far from that they were. Don’t weep, though. Go home and feast. Make it a community dinner for those who have no food. “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Can you imagine anything similar happening these days? The weeping and falling down, I mean, not the community meal. That part is pretty easy to imagine. What, exactly, happened in that day? In a way, it doesn’t matter. This is the story later writers and editors wanted to tell. A devastated people hear the Word, take it to heart and are sent home to rejoice, party and share.
Seven hundred years after the end of the Exile, another story about the telling of the Word in the midst of the people. This time the foreign empire, Rome, has moved its emissaries in to the lands it controls, including Palestine, to rule them directly. Once again the Temple in Jerusualem was destroyed, but by Jesus’ day not only had it been rebuilt, but the giant reno Herod had begun was coming along nicely. The scene from Luke doesn’t take place anywhere near the Temple, though, not even in the capitol, but out in the boonies, in a synagogue. It doesn’t centre on a governor, or a chief priest, or scribe. Far from it. This guy just appears. No credentials except a powerful conviction about the Spirit of God, and a sense that the reign of God was oh-so-close. And he goes for it, quoting the radical mission for the people of God from late Isaiah–good news to the poor, release for captives, recovery of sight, the end of oppression. You know, heaven on earth. And then interpreting it: this day, Isaiah’s prophecy has come true, right here.
This story ends quite differently than the one in the book of Nehemiah. A word of God is not heard that day by the crowd. People don’t throw themselves on the ground or weep from shame. Kind of the opposite, actually. Someone disses Jesus after he teaches, and he manages to offend pretty well everyone with his comeback. You know what, he tells them, God can find people who do want to hear this if you don’t. This doesn’t win him friends or influence people, at least not in a good way. They want to throw him off a cliff, actually. Or so the story goes in Luke. Mark tells it quite differently. No cliff throwing, for example, just “offense” taken, and Jesus unable to do any “mighty work” there.
The story in Luke comes about fifty or sixty years after Jesus’ life. The story tellers have an agenda, of course. They are interpreting. They are trying to generate in a reader enthusiasm for Jesus like the enthusiasm people who heard him teach had during his life. Well, not these neighbours in Nazareth. Other people. The gospel writers are trying to fend off criticisms of Christianity, too, criticisms that had grown up over those intervening years. Does it still work for you all these generations later? Do the gospel stories evoke a sense of this person, and of the importance, the excitement of the message? Or does it take an interpreter, a preacher to bring it alive for you? It’s complicated, isn’t it?
We haven’t quite finished our review. Let’s check out what Paul is doing here, near the end of his long letter to the church at Corinth. This letter comes in the early 50s, maybe twenty years after Jesus’ life. The gospel of Mark is about twenty years in the future. Different context than the Nehemiah reading, different context than the synagogue in Nazareth. Corinth is not in Palestine, for one thing. It’s in Achaia, what we call southern Greece. Paul first of all gives his greeting. Then he calls on community members to knock off the internal spat about identity–“I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Christ.” “Is Christ divided?,” he asks them. He’s getting ready to deal with matters of doctrine and ethics, helping a very young Christian community figure out how to be Christian. But he opens with a preface about how we know what we know, a passage about the Spirit: the gifts of the Spirit, how the Spirit joins us all together. Important to hear for a congregation that was experiencing division.
How do we know what we know? Not human wisdom, he says. The Spirit of God which understands the thoughts of God. Finally he gets right down to it, “...we have the mind of Christ.” And when he says “we” here, I think he means “I.” “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)
“Interpreting spiritual things.” There it is again. I was hitch-hiking once, many years ago, when that kind of thing was still common, and I was much younger. I got a lift from a man a little younger than me, towing a trailer full of empty mink cages. I was a student for ministry at the time, and he was a fervent Christian and bible literalist. We were soon sparring over the bible. “It’s the inerrant Word of God. All we have to do is follow it.” “It needs to be interpreted. It was formed in one context, and we live in a different context.” “No.” “Yes.” Finally I pointed out that he had both hands and both eyes. I said, “I can’t believe you haven’t sinned with your eyes or your hands. Doesn’t Jesus say you have to get rid of the part that has sinned.” “Oh, he doesn’t mean actually cut off your hand, or pluck out your eye.” “No,” I said, “I don’t think so. We have to interpret that saying in the bible.” A little light seemed to go on for him. We all interpret, it’s just how we go about it, and whether we do it consciously.
Paul is trying to process the events and stories of Jesus’ life, and give them some kind of narrative, put them in some kind of context. Jesus was full of power, but then he was killed by Roman authorities. That’s not how the Messiah story is supposed to go. What to we make of this if we find the Christ event in Jesus? Paul is claiming authority to do this. It’s hard to get more authority than the mind of Christ. It just doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Wouldn’t we love to have the mind of Christ? Wouldn’t we love to have the capacity to know what others needed, and how to reassure them of their great worth in the world, their capacity to love others. Wouldn’t we love to be able to stand up to the people who are taking advantage of others, exploiting others, violating others and show them how their behaviour is costing everyone, even themselves?
You’ve heard many sermons before, most of you. You know this is the part where the preacher says, you do have the mind of the Christ. And you’re right. That’s what I’m going to say. You do have the mind of Christ. Sorry I couldn’t be more original, but it’s the kind of message that needs repeating and repeating. Where two of three of you are gathered together in my name, there am I also. You remember that saying. That doesn’t mean that when two or three people are gathered together there are actually three or four. No. It means when two or three people are gathered together in Christ’s name, they’re gathered. Together. Responding to the Christ event. They are in relationship, just like the three persons of the Trinity are in relationship. But a sermon about the Trinity will have to be another time.
A modern version of “where two or three are gathered together,” is “none of us is as smart as all of us.” Something new, something better happens when we put our minds together to ask Christ-like questions. Our gifts are added together. Different perspectives emerge. Sure it takes longer. We have trust to build, perspectives to share, differences to work out when we gather together. That all makes for better analysis, better decision making, and teaches patience to boot. This all makes for the mind of Christ. Paul can’t have had the mind of Christ by all himself. He never knew Jesus in person. He got his information about Jesus somewhere. He had teachers, mentors, preachers, colleagues; women and men who showed him a new depth of love that won him over completely.
If Council agrees, and we go to do mission redevelopment as a community this spring, we do it together. With the mind of Christ–the thing that happens when we gather in Christ’s name to listen and look and meditate deeply on, what does Paul call them: spiritual things. Things like fairness and kindness, sharing and creation and the great worth of each person.
And where does that lead us? John Chrysostom was a fourth century theologian and archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom is a nickname in Greek. So he was John the Golden Mouthed. Good preacher, apparently, and down on abuse of authority, both clerical and secular. Here’s John on the whole point of the church. “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good ¼ for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for neighbours.”
Caring for neighbours. You do that. The byproduct is that it makes you imitators of Christ. And that’s meant in a good way. Not imitation Christs. Heaven forbid. Imitators of Christ. Whole different ball of wax.
We started out talking about words and the Word in stories, old stories, from all around the eastern Mediterranean. About sermons and interpretation, and who gets to utter a Word of God. We’ve come around to action, the seeking of the common good, caring for neighbours. Who was it said, “Preach the gospel without ceasing. Use words if you must.” Francis of Assisi. Enough words, then, about not needing words. Follow the path you have been given. Remember to share your path, join your path with your sisters and brothers in the faith, because in the process of this act of intense humility, you will together have the mind you seek, the mind you, your neighbour and the world need today, tomorrow and always.