Lambs walking and elephants swimming
A sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany
A woman in Queensland asked her parish priest “What do I need to do to become an Anglican?” “Well,” the parish priest replied, “you need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you need to have a 5 litre casserole dish.” Obviously it was a parish into pot-luck dinners and frequent eating together. I was reminded of this story when I saw this week’s readings.
The readings set for this Sunday provide a wonderfully succinct and accurate picture of how we should live both individually and together in our churches. I think we all long for our churches to be places where the good news is proclaimed and lived out, and where people can experience abundant life. But our congregations will never be like this until and unless our individual, personal lives are places where this happens as well.
How can we make this a reality? Today’s readings go a long way toward providing an answer. Firstly, we read, value, treasure, ponder and immerse ourselves in the scriptures (Nehemiah, Psalm 19). Secondly, we strive to follow Jesus as our Teacher and Master, the One in whom the Scriptures are fulfilled (Luke). Thirdly, we live out both of these things within the local community of believers (1 Corinthians).
The reading from Nehemiah describes a memorable event in Jewish history. In 586 BC the Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, and they carried away the ruling classes and the skilled artisans to Babylon where they remained in exile. It was a harrowing time for many of the exiles as their Jewish customs and culture were under threat, and almost lost. In 539 BC the Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus of Persia, and miraculously, as it seemed to the Jews, he allowed them to return to Judah and to rebuild the city and the temple. The incident describing the reading of the law happened shortly after the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem was completed.
Why was this reading so important to the Jews? Because their scriptures, particularly the Law of Moses defined the Jewish people as God’s beloved children; rediscovering those scriptures gave the people a renewed sense of identity. The reading of the law was experienced as an expression of God’s providence and care. It brought the people into a new relationship with their God, and so real was this experience that it was greeted with tears of joy. This was not just someone reading something to a passive audience. Considerable pains were taken so that the people should not only hear, but understand the message. In addition, it was for everyone. We are told that the audience included women (possibly unusual given the time and place) and even children who had reached an age when they could understand.
The Scriptures, and more particularly the Gospels and the New Testament writings, shape our identities as Christians too. We would do well to make them part of our lives, every day and not just on Sundays.
In a colourful phrase Saint Gregory the Great said that the Scriptures are waters where lambs may walk and elephants swim. I take this to mean that the simplest and most unlearned person can find in them all that is needed for salvation and everything necessary to feed and nourish their faith, while weighty and learned theologians (the elephants) can never completely plumb the depths of meaning or the riches contained in Holy Scripture.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once gave this piece of advice: The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyse the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation. Do not ask “How shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?” Then ponder this Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.
As well as studying the Scriptures, we follow our guide and teacher Jesus. He is also our healer, liberator, redeemer, friend, king and every one of about one hundred and thirty titles used of him in the New Testament. But Jesus is our teacher par excellence. It was a common form of address that people used in addressing Jesus: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Teacher, … is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Or in John’s gospel, it is Rabbi. Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Verse 15 of today’s gospel story states that: Jesus began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Jesus presents himself as the fulfilment of one of the most important prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. He proclaims himself as the Messiah, anointed by God to bring the good news to the poor. For Jesus, encounters with God and stories of salvation were not merely tales of past glory. Jesus expected the Scriptures to be alive to the situation of his day. Should we not expect the same? Their purpose is to expose the story of salvation in our time and history. Next week’s gospel reading, which follows on from that of today, will show that this is not always a safe and comfortable thing to do.
We need to beware of regarding the Bible as merely entertainment or information-gathering. It is meant to be transforming. It is meant to be something which moves us, the readers or hearers, beyond where we are. It is meant to be read intelligently, and not as a rigid book of rules and conduct. It is meant to be read not with a hardened heart, nor a pre-disposition to judgment, nor with an abject fear of God, nor with a need to prove oneself right, but with love. Loving people will always find loving verses to call them into an even greater love of life. If we look carefully at how Jesus selectively reads the passage from Isaiah, we will see this in action.
Finally Saint Paul calls us to live out the unity in diversity which is the church. I will not deal with his wonderful image of the church as an organic body for two reasons. One is that this must be the most, or one of the most preached passages in the Bible. The second is that sermons are like biscuits – both are much better with a little shortening!
Nevertheless, Saint Paul gives us valuable clues on how we are to live with one another in the church and more widely. In Christ, Saint Paul says, we see humanity as one body. Our differences are gifts, not threats. People are not different because they are trying to be difficult, or because they are wicked. They are different because God’s Holy Spirit has given each one different gifts. We need each other. The Spirit of God is a team spirit and together we experience a unity that is energised by diversity.
Regrettably even some of our churches do not seem to have grasped this message, and attempt to force people into a single mould, making clones rather than disciples. But unity is not the suppression of differences. We cannot embrace the good news, and experience abundant life if we are conforming to someone else’s notion of what makes a Christian. We are many, and each individual person has unique gifts and a unique vocation.
Saint Paul was remarkable in his perception of the Holy Spirit working in the church. He knew that the Holy Spirit transforms fear into love; prejudice into openness; inferiority into equality; supremacy into service; resentment into reconciliation; isolation into connection; and hostility into hospitality. As Helen said in her sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany:
And so here we are together – the ox and the ass, insider and outsider, rich and poor, wise and simple, male and female, many and various parts of the body of Christ. We are not them and us. We are all us. When we take the grace of God into the world, we are not taking it to a strange and different people but to those beloved by God, those for whom our Lord Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again.
Most of us spend a great deal of time, money and energy on the things that matter to us: our houses and their furnishings, our cars and their accessories, our pets, our gardens, fine dining and travel. Cultivating a rich spiritual life is just as important. It does not just happen if we are passive. Even church attendance once a week is not enough, by itself. Like all things in life, some effort is required if we are to do for our souls what exercise does for the body, or study for the mind. Do nothing, or merely do the minimum, and in the words of Brian McLaren:
In a wild world like ours, your character, left unattended, will become a stale room, an obnoxious child, a vacant lot filled with thorns, weeds, broken bottles, raggedy grocery bags and dog droppings. Your deepest channels will silt in, and you will feel yourself shallowing. You’ll become a presence neither you nor others will enjoy, and you and they will spend more and more time and energy trying to be anywhere else.
The New Year has begun, but it is not too late for some spiritual resolutions! They will certainly be individual resolutions tailored for you and the person you are, but I would suggest that they might revolve around a deeper engagement with Scripture this year, a more intentional following of Jesus as our teacher, and a renewed eagerness in exercising Paul’s “more excellent way” of love in our relations with others.