Epiphany 3C. Trinity Cathedral.
An unaccustomed hush fell over the Nazarene synagogue as the young Jew rose from his place and made his way forward to read the Scriptures. Could this really be the son of Joseph? This mature man who been absent from their midst over these last years, whom they had last seen as a young adult working in the carpenter shop?
Yes, this was the one. No mistaking the confidence with which he unrolled the scroll and began to read. No mistaking the clarity with which he read about bringing good news to the poor…about releasing captives…and restoring sight to the blind…about freeing the oppressed…about being accepted and loved by the Lord.
But it was what happened after the reading that excited them. No…disturbed them! He rolled up the scroll, carefully and reverently, handed it to the one who responsibility it was to put it away, and returned to his place. But there was unfinished business here. Everyone could feel it.
Even though normally the Sabbath service would have continued at this point with prayers and singing, it was as though everyone was waiting for the other shoe to fall…as though something else needed to be said. And so, he said it. Slowly and carefully. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It’s hard to imagine just what Jesus’ neighbors and kinfolk would have made of that statement. Luke’s gospel tells us that at first they spoke well of him and found his words “gracious.” But that, after he explained himself still further, their acceptance turned into rejection and their pleasure to wrath. Which led Jesus to say, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Or, as one New Testament scholar translates it, “The truth is, no prophet is welcome on his home turf!”
Well, whatever his original hearers understood him to say, I think we know enough today to be quite certain what it meant. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” means that Jesus Christ was the enfleshment – the incarnation – of Isaiah’s prophecy. In Jesus Christ, the world was to see good news preached to poor people…those who were in bondage unshackled…the blind given sight…and those who were downtrodden given their freedom for the first time. Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation…the manifestation…the very epiphany of that long-hoped for prophecy!
And, whether you believe it or not, so are we to be! We are to bring good news to the poor and light to those in darkness. We are to liberate the bound ones and the crushed ones! Whether it’s in Haiti or right here in the Hilltop neighborhood. Oh no, not me, you say! I don’t have the power to do all that! No, not alone. But together, we are the inheritors of that prophetic tradition which goes back to Isaiah and beyond.
And we are members of a Church which is described in today’s Epistle as being the very Body of Christ! And “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed the Body does not consist of one member but of many.” (I Corinthians 12:12-14)
Yet, no matter how passionately St. Paul pleads for unity in the Body of Christ, the primary reason we have failed at our prophetic task of being a light to the nations, over the centuries, is that, almost from the beginning, we have been riddled with dis-unity!
From the factionalism of the church in Corinth to the political wranglings of the 11th century which split apart the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox to the explosion of the 16th century Reformation to the short-sighted breakaway groups weakening every denomination today (including The Episcopal Church) we have crippled the Body of Jesus Christ in this world, withholding our gifts from one another…and that is our great sin.
This week we are observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Every year, from January 18 until January 25, every major Christian communion in the world prays for the unity of the Church. I encourage you to join in those prayers.
Pray for our dialogues with the Roman Catholics which, however stressed they are today, have showed so much progress over the years. Pray for our full communion relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And for our interim Eucharistic sharing partners – the Moravian Church and the United Methodists. Pray for the seven downtown churches right here in our own neighborhood and our united efforts in the PUNCH program.
Pray for church unity, not only because it is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but because it was for the unity of the Church that Christ himself prayed – on the night before he died, according to John’s Gospel. He said, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…that they all may be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:11, 21).
That’s the reason for church unity. Not to create some mega-institution, but because it is only when we are “one in the Spirit” that we can ever hope to have a cogent and consistent message “that the world may believe.” I see glimpses of that unity today – in some of our ecumenical dialogues, in charismatic and liturgical renewal, in movements like Cursillo and Marriage Encounter where people draw closer to each other as they draw closer to God. Those glimpses show us that church unity is possible.
Many years ago now, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was then Michael Ramsey) was meeting with the Roman Catholic Cardinal Suenens of Brussels. Before beginning their conversation, they decided to pray together. They opened the Bible to John 20:26 and these were the words they found: “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”
The two bishops felt that this was an invitation from the Lord to continue their dialogue despite apparently closed doors! They knew in their hearts that God was being true to his Word and that Christ was present with them because they had come together in his name…and around his Word.
Well, Jesus is still true to his word. And when this crippled and broken Body of Christ is finally put back together again, perhaps we will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy of preaching Good News to the poor. Perhaps we will realize Paul’s dream of being one Body with many members.
Perhaps we will once again be able to say – and people believe – that “Today (the) Scripture has been fulfilled…in your hearing.”