Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
As I first read today’s scriptures and also mulled over the fact that this is the Week of Christian Unity, the one thing that kept pushing itself to the front of my mind was a Bible study group I attended at this Cathedral starting in the early 80s. We met right after work, which meant we didn’t have kids. We were mostly single. In later years we would attend Evening Prayer at 5:15 if we could, and then gather in the old Parish House with our bibles and commentaries to work through one chapter of the chosen book, and after often go for pizza on Phillips Square.
What I learned from that group was that the group—what we now call the “hive mind”—is smarter than any one of us individually.
One of the members is now a United Church minister, sheep farmer and writer of fantasy fiction on the Bruce peninsula in Ontario. She and I could read the identical scripture, and her takeway was always towards the imperative for social justice, while for me the same scripture called for inner clarity and personal transformation. Every time. I think we despaired of each other while also learning to laugh at our respective strong propensities… passion, really… to understand the scriptures each according to our own characteristic mindset.
And yet. That was a couple decades ago. I think, today, we would laugh more lovingly. Because weren’t we each grabbing onto only part of the story? After all, the same Jesus who drove the money changers out of the temple was the teacher who told Nicodemus he needed to be born again.
It seems to me that while Christian unity as it is promulgated today addresses the question of the institutions we have built our churches into, we would do well to consider the unity we have as believers with one another, first, and then as members of what we call the Body of Christ. Bonhoeffer makes this exact point in his book “Life Together.”
Our epistle [1 Cor. 12:12-31] this morning speaks to the fact that unity is not uniformity. That each part of the human body, each human being, and, indeed, each part of the now fractured church carries a particular function… a unique role… a charism… without which we would be less than whole. Verse 22 states it like this: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
Among the weaker members of the family of churches we would surely include the Christian churches in the Middle East, who were responsible for this year’s theme (“We have seen his star in the East”) and especially in Palestine, Arab Christians are struggling to find ways for their children to obtain education and the means to support themselves, while facing massive political injustice together with all the people of Palestine.
And among the “less honoured” members of society, we would certainly include both Nehemiah—who as cup bearer to the king, played a role in Persian society for which he would have surely been ostracised in his own culture—and Jesus, born in a stable to parents who were not only poor, but in disgrace. (Remember, they came up for the census when he was born, but evidently their families wouldn’t welcome them under their own roof.)
Nevertheless, in this morning’s readings, both Nehemiah and Jesus, are shown bringing the gathered community together and moving them forward, through the proclamation of Holy Scripture.
It seems to me that for those of us who are less and less gathered right now… me preaching from home, you listening to me in your kitchen or your home office or at your dining table, or on your phone, on Sunday morning in real time, or later on… for all of us, the proclaimed word is more precious than ever. Remember what it was like to be together, being stirred by something we heard. Hearing the word fresh, as if had never before made as much sense as it does at this moment.
When Nehemiah has rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and they have been dedicated… in fact, before the city has houses for the people who are returning, he has Ezra bring out the Torah scroll and stand on a high platform to read it to the people. This episode is reminiscent of the original giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Verse 8 is a little obscure. Here’s the translation in the Tanach:
“The Levites read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense, so they understood the reading.” This seems to indicate that at this time… the period of the Second Temple, around 450 or so before the Common Era, the people do not understand the Hebrew. The words are translated into Aramaic for them and the meaning is expounded.
The synagogue Jesus comes into, four and a half centuries later, after he has been baptised by John and endured his temptations in the wilderness, is far from Jerusalem. The Galileans inhabit a real backwater and have a recognizably different sort of hillbilly accent. And Nazareth isn’t even on the shore of the lake, but ‘way up in the hills of the interior. They do have a synagogue, and that is where Jesus “stood up to read, and the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was given to him.”
If I let myself stop here, I could get dizzy trying to understand how the Word of God that was with God before the creation of anything, can become a human and reach out human hands to take God’s words into those hands and say them with his mouth… I could get lost right here. Something is happening that is both mind blowing, and unquestionably real. I’m sure that, without needing to have the theology to explain it, everyone who encountered Jesus then and everyone who comes to him today experiences this authenticity. In fact I think that the theology of the Trinity evolved as a way to talk not about an idea but about an experiential phenomenon. The Holy Spirit is working here, big time… Our scripture confirms this twice: in verse 14, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit, returned to Galilee.” and again, in verse 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.”
If you had been there, had seen Jesus with your eyes and heard his voice saying these words, imagine how your world would have changed! Can you hear this proclamation today?
So yes there is homework for this week of Christian Unity. One question and one response. (1) Where are you experiencing oppression and captivity, blindness and poverty? Whether it’s inside or outside, this is exactly where you are invited to hear the Good News being proclaimed. So (2) Hear that proclamation. Dare to name the grace you desire to receive. And then let yourself desire it!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Lectionary Readings for today—EPIPHANY 3 (January 23, 2022)
(Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a