Theory and Practice (Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:23-31a; Luke 4:14-21)
One of the pieces of curriculum that Maxine and I designed nearly a quarter century ago now for students studying to become ministers, involved putting the required courses that they were taking in a particular term and integrating them together into a context of ministry, including preaching, teaching, counseling, administration etc., that ministers do every week. We also kept track of problems they had in non-academic ways, which more frequently put ministries off track than do simple academic issues. We tried to help them with strategies to work on these matters while they were still with us, when we and other community members could help, rather than waiting to spring them on unsuspecting congregations. It was a lot of work.
One of the most common recipients of input from those of us on the faculty were sermons that the students preached, to make sure that they were both sound theoretically and practically workable in a congregational environment. Of course, we were more successful with some than with others.
Anyway, Jesus, sermon in Nazareth in our Gospel Lesson reminded me of one of those sermons that he would have had to preach at our seminary: theoretically sound and practically workable. Unfortunately he preached it in a very difficult venue, his home synagogue in Nazareth. There he would be judged not only for competence and “fair-sounding” words, but whether it was believable that little Jeshua who had grown up amidst these folk could bring it off, being that they “knew him back when.”
The other two lessons also come out of the practical life of communities of faith, and give us some insights into the way two of these communities worked a long time ago. All three of these are examples of theory being put to the test in practical settings. Perhaps we can learn something from them, because if even good theory doesn’t work, it’s a problem.
The Old Testament Lesson is a story put into the 400’s before the Common Era. It is about Ezra the Scribe who is reading God’s teaching (or Torah) to the People of God, providing an interpretation of it for people in his day, and they are responding. What he and the people were doing together was something that was not a new thing even then, but may have originated at least a century before, not in the Persian Province of Yehud, which is what Judah was called in Ezra’s day, but in Babylon, where the people of Judah had been taken after being defeated in war. In Babylon they had no temple, no sacrifice, none of the things that had made their worship distinct, so they “invented” the Synagogue (literally “a gathering”), which was a group of people who did just that, they gathered, not around the temple, of course, since there wasn’t one, but around the scriptures. Now the language of the scriptures was Hebrew, but the language of the people had pretty much become Aramaic by then. So the practice they developed was to read a passage in Hebrew, and then to paraphrase it in Aramaic so that the people could understand the reading, with further comments by a teacher. Most of the teachers were laypeople, since priests were scarce at this time. Even when the people came back to their homes and rebuilt the Jerusalem temple about 515 BCE, the Synagogue remained the most distinctive feature of Jewish life. It could be duplicated anywhere. There was only one temple, there were many synagogues. By the way, it is only at about this time that it correct to call God’s people Jewish, since Judaism developed out of the synagogue as did the constituent documents of Judaism. The community to which Ezra was reading that day was, more or less, recognizable as the synagogue, and here we see that this “gathering” listened, understood and covenanted to do what the scripture said, but not just “read out” in an ancient language, but interpreted for today. That becomes an important pattern for the community of faith. The community gathers around the scriptures interpreted as the meaningful guidance of God for today not yesterday. In the synagogue we begin to see a pattern that became formative for some of the earliest Christian house churches in the New Testament. And it became a most worthy pattern for putting theory into practice.
When we come to our Gospel, there is much that’s similar to the text in Nehemiah. Jesus is there reading, interpreting, and commenting on a text from scripture to a synagogue of people in Nazareth, his home. Jesus was firmly embedded in the traditions of his people. He began reading from a synagogue scroll words that begin in Isaiah 61, thus following the tradition of the public reading of the scriptures, but in an interesting way that parallels or follows the practice of what we found Ezra doing in our Old Testament lesson. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” Jesus read. The one who wrote those words centuries before claimed to be one who was in communion with God’s own spirit, but when Jesus read that word “me,” he was taking on the ancient prophet’s mantle. Jesus read on, “For God has anointed me…”The word “anointed” carried with it the meaning that God had appointed this one to a particular work and mission in the world, namely, to bring good news to poor. The category of poor people is expanded to include a couple of examples of good news to the poor: to bring inward and outward sight to blind people, and to let inwardly and outwardly oppressed people go free. And, again, by “me” Jesus meant himself. He was carrying the prophet’s word forward to today.
Right in the centre of Jesus’ recitation, he departed from the text of Isaiah 61 and provided a line from Isaiah 58:6: “to bring release to captives,” so that this anointed one’s central mission is release to captives. Luke elsewhere uses this word “release” to mean “forgiveness” in a whole range of ways: forgiveness of wrongs done to others as well as forgiveness of actual, real financial debts. As I said last week, there is no biblical spirituality that remains wholly inner and religious without a social shape. Jesus also eliminated the end of Isaiah 61:2, which talks about God’s vengeance. To Jesus, God’s program was about release not vengeance. So this, you see, isn’t just scripture reading, it’s interpretation. It’s reimagining.
When Jesus was finished with his reading and interpreting by reading, he sat down, which is what a rabbi did to teach. There was expectation all through the house to see what the local kid would say, who he would quote, how brilliant he would be. Jesus, then uttered his very short homily. He begins with a key word, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” When the Bible speaks of fulfillment it usually means “filling something old full of new and exciting meaning.” These words of the Bible were not simply words to be venerated because they are old or even holy. Jesus took those words of centuries before to have a meaning and relevance in his own life and work today. “Today this scripture is filled full right here in your midst.” Jesus becomes the one anointed to take up the mission of release to captives. It is interesting that Luke and most of the other New Testament authors take up this same perspective. The Old words are filled with contemporary relevance again and again. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. I think that this, too, is a good example of putting good theory into practice. Today, the community of faith is invited to provide the living ways and means through which God in Christ actually does bring good news, release, sight, and freedom to those in spiritual and physical captivity. It is urgent that the goal of what we do together here today, should be, in some way contained in the words” “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
We end with the Epistle Lesson from 1 Corinthians 12. What if we look at the folk in this text in the light of the Gospel Lesson, using them to interpret not only Jesus’ mission but theirs and ours, today? The first half of the chapter, which we looked at last week proposes that each congregation has in it sufficient resources (or gifts) to carry out God’s mission in the place it is. We, with differing gifts, are still one through God in Christ who, by a wide mercy and grace, gives us as gifts to one another, and the work of God in Christ goes forward through the diversity of all our gifts. As the missionary E Stanley Jones once wrote: “Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ.”
Today Paul, in essence, raised the question of whether this is a good picture of the church? Is being diverse is a good thing? Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have different gifts, abilities, opinions, and passions for ministry? Wouldn’t there be fewer problems with feeling inferior to others and, so, less vying for power if we all were just exactly the same, believed just the same, wanted just the same thing? Enforced creedal and doctrinal uniformity? As interesting as the question may be, it’s not very practical because we’re not that way, and the only way to make a church “all the same” is to eliminate the ones with the gifts, abilities, opinions, and passions the stronger group in the church doesn’t like, or finds inconvenient or embarrassing. Knowing what we know about Corinth, it’s probable that this congregation had conducted some of these quests for uniformity. And, unfortunately, too many congregations I know and for which former students have tried to provide pastoral leadership, have followed the Corinthians in some sort of quest for imaginary “purity.”
Today, as then, such quests almost always lead to disaster not more successful Christian mission, because we don’t choose the gifts in our community, God does. That’s because only God knows the resources it takes to fulfill the mission mandate of Christ. In this passage Paul wrote that we actually need all our differences to fulfill it. If we were all the same we’d have less chaos, but also less mission and less true community, which depends on working through chaos to honour and love those who are truly different. The energy for mission comes from differences working in unity. Paul wrote, “It’s nonsense for the foot to say to the hand, that because I’m not a hand, I do not belong to the body.” Bodies need all their different parts to function together. So does the body of Christ. This kind of community puts the message of Jesus in practical, people-oriented form.
It’s my view that we can learn a good deal about the community of faith from looking at these lessons. In the end of the day, however, we do not live in Ezra’s time, or Jesus’ time, or Paul’s. We do not live at the time of the Protestant Reformation or the formation of the first Baptist church in the Netherlands, nor the time of Roger Williams who founded the first Baptist church in the USA. We do not live in January, 1852, when First Baptist Church of La Crosse was born. Dare I say it, we do not even live in May of 2003 when Maxine and I came to be with you. We are living today, and what we are about must be about today. We are like the saints of God in Corinth, we all need one another, even when we don’t say it out loud. No one has everything we need to be the agent of liberating good news made real in Jesus. Even those of us who are feeling like we don’t have much left to give can say a word of encouragement and pray for folk in the church. Those who minister through encouragement are very important parts of the body! Paul talks about the vital role played by the parts of body that nobody sees. Think of the liver or the pancreas. Out of sight, but vital.
Jesus said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Those with ears to hear, let them hear.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.