January 27th, 2019: Peter Youngblood

All Gifts are Welcome

As we move through Epiphany, this man Jesus keeps revealing more about himself and his divine mission. Last week, he turned water into wine. This week’s sign that he is, in fact, the Christ, is a more rhetorical one. In the course of his preaching around Galilee, he finally returns to his hometown of Nazareth. When he steps up to preach in that synagogue, he comes across the beginning of Isaiah, Chapter 61:

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.

Now at this point Jesus is already pretty famous in Galilee, but you can imagine the breathless anticipation in the synagogue as, after he had read this one verse, he just silently handed back the scroll and sat down. They must have thought: What just happened? Why did he read that particular verse? More importantly, don’t we usually get a sermon or something after the Scripture reading? Where is his exegesis of the text? Where is the interpretation or commentary?

Then, just as they are thinking that, Jesus (from where he is sitting) simply says: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. That is his only comment.

In their confusion, they probably don’t realize it, but what those in the synagogue are witnessing is a miracle gradually unfolding. Slowly, but surely, this man Jesus is turning out to be something special, a person who is actually living up to the hype that the Hebrew prophecies set for him.

It is possible that Jesus’ remark that “Scripture has been fulfilled” wasn’t actually planned. Rather, I think when he sat down and saw the confused anticipation on everyone’s faces, he realized he’d better make it absolutely clear why he read that verse. It is Jesus’ way of saying, “It’s me guys…I’m talking about me.”

The congregation already knew Jesus was pretty famous, but it was time for the people of Ancient Judea to be confronted with a truth that they all already knew in their hearts, but were reluctant to say out loud. Jesus, by reading this verse, is confirming who He was and what He was there to do, and in doing so is asking his audience to say the same. But even when confronted with his holiness, the people remain stubborn to admit this man, Jesus, is who he says he is. I kind of wish I had included Luke 4:22 in today’s reading, which reveals the audience’s response to his message. While amazed by his words, all they admit is something like: “wow, this Jesus fellow sure is gracious and smart, are we sure he is son of Joseph, an uneducated carpenter?” And of course, if we keep reading the rest of Luke Chapter 4, we know that those in Nazareth refuse to admit that He is the Messiah, and eventually Jesus is run out of town (as he predicted).

Jesus Christ’s claim that the Scripture has been fulfilled is really a call and response. When He says something like that, we are to reply with something like “Oh yes, duh, You are the Christ!” Obviously—and unlike the audience in the Scripture—we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. We know that Jesus is, in fact talking about His own ministry, and not just the words of Isaiah. We know that He is the Messiah through whom God will finally free the captives and the oppressed and heal the blind and sick.

But even when we, today, hear this, and verbally respond with our own affirmations, creeds, and prayers, do we really know what we are talking about? Or are we just as hesitant as those in Nazareth? While as Christians we strive to respond affirmatively to Christ’s announcement that “Scripture has been fulfilled”, it is often a half-hearted and incomplete response. But this tentativeness is a fact of our finite existence. The painfully gradual way in which we accept Christ into our lives is sort of how discerning reality—or more simply, discovering what is good and true—works. We spend so much of our lives trying and failing to understand or to succeed at life, to know what is right. Good and evil, right and wrong, true and false are things that are not immediately clear to us at birth, and only at certain moments over the course of our lives do we figure out the answers to these questions. And even when we do, this is often just temporary, as we are always confronted with more questions. But when we do have an “epiphany”, it seems sudden, even though the reality has been sinking in for a long time. The truth is written on our hearts from the very moment of our creation, but it is in a constant cycle of being revealed and obscured, such as when we suddenly we love a friend or family member whom we so often take for granted.

Today’s epistle adds a further wrinkle to this “truth about the Truth”. That is, all of us are involved in this fulfilment of prophecy, this gradual revealing of truth. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians implies that the Gospel of Christ is not just about its title character, Jesus, but all human beings and even the rest of creation. He uses the human body as a metaphor for this. Even though we tend to value certain parts of our body, like the head, over others—everything, from head to toe is important. Our brains, up here [points to head] allow us to think, but our lowly feet, the things that touch the dirty ground, are what keep us moving. Sure, we can live without parts of our body if we have to, as many people must do, due to illness or injury. But in any case, all of the components we have work together to maintain our overall health (I am not sure what to say about the appendix though, since all that does is seem to cause people problems).

But more importantly, all of the parts of the body have their own particular purpose. This is what Paul means when he talks about individual gifts in the Body of Christ. Some people are prophets and some are interpreters. Some are healers and some are scholars. Understanding our individual gifts is one part of discerning the truth about ourselves and our place in creation.

Last Sunday, I, along with a lot of other people, had my own moment of discernment. While I was not here at Christ Temple, when you heard the story in John about the wedding at Cana, I was, in fact, at a wedding. And while not at Cana, I was at Cama—that is Cama Beach State Park in Washington State. This was wedding the wedding of my best friend and his long-time girlfriend, and I privileged to both officiate the ceremony and be his best man. Now, in spirit, I think we can say that these two had already been “married” for many years, but the wedding ceremony was concrete affirmation of a truth that they had long already known. That truth was that they truly loved one another and were ready to spend their lives together. Not only that, it was a moment to recognize their own individual gifts, and how these gifts became amplified through the union of their two lives. To give an example, at the end of the wedding reception the newly-married couple got out their instruments—an accordion and a flute—and played some English folk tunes so that the wedding guests could do Morris dancing. Why two Americans would have a hobby like that would take too long for me to explain, but to make a long story short, I wasn’t any good at the dancing. But if we are on the subject of gifts, I do think I gave the two of them a pretty good wedding toast (but that’s neither here nor there).

The discerning of our gifts and our purpose in creation is part of the Gospel message and can take inspiration from Jesus Christ’s own life and ministry. As he was fully human, Jesus also goes through a similar process of discerning his gift—that is, the gift that He was the Christ, the Son of God, and tasked with a mission of peace, love, and justice. Now, as with all human beings, I doubt the full extent of this mission was clear to Jesus at the very beginning, but over the course of his earthly life he came to more fully understand it. A striking instance of this development is in Matthew chapter 15, when Jesus is confronted by the Syro-Phoenician women seeking help for her daughter. As she is not Jewish, Jesus first refuses her request, but the woman persists, calling out his bigotry and challenging him to change his mind (and he does).

This brings us to a final, and critical point on Paul’s message to the Corinthians, regarding the Truth revealed through Jesus Christ. Our individual gifts are connected to our individual identities, and our belonging to different communities. These communities are our families, our ethnicities, and our religions. But whether Jew or Greek, West European or Hong Kong Chinese, none of us—or our gifts—are excluded from the work of the Gospel. Each, in our own way, work both with and in Christ to fulfill His mission. And that mission’s goal is an even greater gift—not just an individual one but a corporate, universal gift of love and liberation for all creation from pain, suffering, and any other form of sin. The Gospel is a story of Christ’s own discovery and proclamation of who He is, through which we discover and proclaim who we are. Amen.