Epiphany 3: Nehemiah 8, 1 Corinthians 12.12&ff, Luke 4.14-21
This is still the season of Epiphany. An Epiphany is a moment of revelation. It is either used to describe the moment when Jesus was revealed to the whole world, through the visiting Wise Men. Or it is sometimes used to describe a moment of revelation in the human mind. St Paul, for example, is said to have had an epiphany on the road to Damascus. When Archimedes stepped out of his bath shouting ‘Eureka!’, he is said to have had an epiphany of science…when he realised that the volume of displaced water in his bath was equal to the volume of his body.
For the people of Israel, the reading of the Law by Ezra was another ‘epiphany’. The Law had been neglected for generations. It had not been heard or properly understood for perhaps 100 years. But now, as Ezra read them God’s laws for living, they had a collective revelation – and corporate understanding that they needed to start living in an entirely new way. This was an epiphany that resulted in great weeping and wailing, as the people truly realised how far from God’s standards they had slipped.
St Paul, who wrote our second reading, was very good at epiphanies! His big one was, of course, on the Damascus road – when he came to the stunning realisation that the Jesus he had been persecuted was in fact the Christ. But his writing tells us that mini-epiphanies continued for him, as he continued to search the Scriptures for understanding. By the light of the Scriptures, he developed whole new understandings – which then flowed out of him through his writings. In today’s reading, we are witnesses to a revelation he has received about the interconnectedness of Christians. “For 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.”
Until now, in common with most people of his time, St Paul had no doubt perceived human society as distinctly stratified. There was the Emperor, then the Governors , then the military, then the free men, and then the slaves. In the religious world too there were layers and stratas – high priests, and junior priests, scribes and Pharisees. Men could enter certain parts of the temple where women were not allowed. Strata upon strata, layer upon layer. Privilege and status were at the heart of the way that society arranged itself.
But Paul’s epiphany on this topic was that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. For Christ binds all together, in equality, as one body. Oh, sure, there are different aspects of that body – different people have different skills, different abilities. A foot is not the same as a hand – they have fundamentally different purposes. So it is with the followers of Jesus. We each have different abilities, different gifts – but we are all called together, to contribute our distinctiveness to the health of the whole body. An organist is not the same as a treasurer. A church warden is not the same as a priest. Further still, in this week of prayer for Christian Unity we are asked to reflect on other pairings. A liberal is not an evangelical. A catholic is not a methodist. An Anglican is not an Orthodox worshipper. But they each contribute to the life of the whole body. Each one is essential, and precious.
And then, finally, in our Gospel reading, Jesus continues to unfold his own identity and purpose to the world – he continues his epiphany. He is first revealed to the wise men, while still a baby. Then through his baptism his status as God’s son is confirmed. Then through the changing of water into wine, his overflowing love for the world is revealed. And now, today, Jesus’ self-revelation to the world continues. He picks up a scroll of the law, and he reads out what we might today call his ‘mission statement’.
“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
Here, Jesus draws from the ancient Scriptures – just as Ezra did, and just as Paul will frequently do after him - to reveal the heart of God for his children. The very heart of Jesus self-declared mission – the mission of the body of Christ – is to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind.
Of course, Christians have argued for centuries about how literally we are supposed to take these words. Is Jesus speaking spiritually – about good news for the spiritually poor and the spiritually blind? Or is he declaring God’s economic priority for the literally poor, and healing for the literally blind?
The truth is, of course, that both meanings are equally valid. The body of Christ is called in all its fullness, with all its talents and abilities, to reach out to both the spiritually and the literally poor. There are enough of us, with our different talents and abilities, to do both. It doesn't have to be either/or. It can be both/and - within the generosity of God.
May you discover anew, this year, the joy of belonging to the body of Christ. May you know the fulfilment of adding your distinctive gifts to the whole. May you see the Kingdom of God advancing, and the Scriptures of the Lord being fulfilled in your lifetime. May we all joyfully proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favour.