January 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Theme: No obvious ones this week. For some reason I can't get out of my mind those opening two verses from the Letter to the Hebrews ("In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways..."), so perhaps there's something here about "The Law, the Son and the Spirit", which would be a fair summary of this week's three readings. But not very jazzy, I concede: perhaps we could take a lead from the US this week and go with "The Inauguration", although "The Campaign Launch" might be more accurate.
Introduction. A common link between the three readings may also be the "religious collective" – the people of God and the Body of Christ. Great stress is placed in our Nehemiah reading on the inclusive nature of the great assembly "men, women and all who were able to understand". The second lesson follows immediately after last week's, in which St Paul emphasised the unity of the Holy Spirit whose work is manifested in the diversity of spiritual gifts. This week he emphasises the unity of all believers in the Body of Christ manifested in the diversity of individual functions or ministries. And in our gospel passage, Jesus, while drawing on the history of God's dealings with the people of Israel, makes his point (rather too well!) by recalling two specific instances where God acted for two individual Gentiles. To use the modern jargon, these readings are about unity and diversity.
Background. My latest treat, courtesy of Kindle, is "Field of Compassion" by Judy Cannato. In it she covers much ground, including an account of a psychology experiment (which I think I recall having read somewhere else some years ago) designed to test how much of what we see depends on our eyes, and how much on our brains. The "game" was set up like this.
There were two teams of 3 players separated by a small distance. One team was dressed in black, the other in white. Each team had a basketball, which the members passed to one another in their own team for 30 seconds. The test subjects were placed where they could see each team equally well, and their task was to count how many times each team passed the ball from one member to another during that 30 seconds. At some point during that period a man dressed in a gorilla suit walked into the gap between the two teams, paused, beat his chest three times, then walked off. At the end of the test period, the test subjects were asked three questions: how many times did the black team members pass the ball; how many times did the white team members pass the ball; and did they notice anything unusual while they were watching. This test was repeated many times with many different subjects to get a statistically significant result. The aggregated result showed almost a 50-50 split between those who noticed the gorilla and those who did not! In other words, about half the people did not see the gorilla at all!
What such tests seem to show is that, to a much greater degree than we might think, what we see (or fail to see) is governed by what we are looking for or expect to see. Presumably our eyes "report" what is actually there, but our brain dismisses or amends the report to accord with what it believes to be "out there" or "not out there".
Something similar seems to have happened in the synagogue that Sabbath day in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. We can picture the scene. Although this has all the hallmarks of "a campaign launch", complete with a manifesto borrowed from Isaiah, it is clear from St Luke's introduction (verses 14-15), and from Jesus' own words in verse 23, that Jesus has already done some preaching and teaching in other synagogues in Galilee. His reputation would have preceded him: perhaps the ruler of the synagogue had done some shameless advertising ahead of Jesus' visit (the sort we do when the Bishop's coming). So a larger than usual congregation may have assembled to see the "local boy made good". In other words, they expected to see the lad they had watched grow up – they had not expected to see a prophet, much less the Son of God. So all went well when Jesus appeared to be what they had expected to see: verse 22. If Jesus had stopped there, he could well have received a hearty round of applause, or even been mobbed by autograph hunters!
But, of course, he didn't stop there; he became something they were not able to see, being blinded by their preconceptions. The traditional approach to this story is also "to stop there"; to focus on the blindness of the people (and to pretend that we ourselves would not have been so blind had we been there). But a good question is, why did Jesus not stop there? Why did he suddenly become so provocative, even rude?
The first thing to note is that this story is a Luke exclusive; so it may be that we should use the same sort of approach I have been adopting in these Notes recently in respect of some of the "exclusives" in Mathew and John: is this another construct designed to show the truth of the general response to Jesus within the official faith communities (synagogues) of the time, whenever he tried to move them out of their comfort zone and into the riskier world of God's zone? There may be something of this, but I think there is another possible approach worth thinking about here.
Perhaps St Luke is right in recording this event as being very early on in Jesus' public ministry. Reading this story as a whole I get a very strong impression of an enthusiasm, and perhaps even a naivety, in Jesus' approach that suggests that he has still to learn just how much resistance any "reformer" will face from those who have no desire and see no need for reform (more Obama Inaugural Speech No.1 than No.2). Perhaps Jesus' initial sorties had been well-received; perhaps he was unduly heartened by the initial response of his hometown congregation to such an extent that he felt emboldened to start challenging them with some more difficult stuff.
There is no doubt that the whole tone and atmosphere changed dramatically from verse 23 onwards. Perhaps Jesus sensed that they were waiting for the spectacular stuff to start: yes, he's an impressive preacher alright, but when's he going to get to the miracles? That seems to be behind verse 23, and from then on it was downhill (almost literally) all the way. It's not that what Jesus said was wrong: it's just that it seems unnecessarily provocative at such an early stage of his ministry. Or was he simply trying to emphasise that he had cut the apron strings and was his own man now?
Nehemiah. The first lesson is also about a fresh start, an inauguration of sorts. Following Cyrus' conquest of Babylonia and his decree allowing the Jews to return home there had been a very mixed response. Not every Jewish exile found the lure of a ruined homeland more appealing than a reasonably comfortable life in Babylon. (It remains a curious fact of history that from the time of the Exile, a majority of Jews have always lived outside of Israel.) Probably not more than a third who were entitled to return ever did so. But some did, of course, and by many trials and errors they managed to re-build some sort of normalcy in their beloved Jerusalem. In particular the walls of the city and the all-important temple were re-built: the physical stuff was done (think Christchurch re-build here), and now attention was given to rebuilding the people themselves. That meant returning to God, rebuilding their nation on the rock of God's will for them. That in turn meant rediscovering the "Law", probably the whole Torah or at least the Book of Deuteronomy. Thus all the people were called to a great national assembly to hear the reading of the Law, and to have it explained by various teachers, a sort of mass Bible study lasting many hours. Notice that the people heard it and wept (at their sins?), but their leaders insisted this was a time for joy, feasting and celebration.
Taking It Personally.
· The challenges facing our Church post-Christchurch raise the sorts of issues dealt with in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Think about the issue in the context of the Christchurch Cathedral. Is it important to rebuild that sacred place come what may, or is this a time to get back to the roots of our faith and put our resources into teaching, prayer, listening, and generally re-building our relationship with God?
· Do you more often find the Scriptures challenging to the point of tears or uplifting and encouraging to the point of cheers? What about your experience of services in your local church? Do they seem more like times of feasting and celebration or times of mourning and grief?
· When the Scriptures are being read during a service do you listen attentively, or are you inclined to drift off? Do you truly attempt to "hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church"?
Corinthians. This is the core of St Paul's great teaching on the "Body of Christ". To me it had always been just an interesting metaphor used by St Paul as he battled against the rampant individualism he found in the faith community at Corinth (and elsewhere in the infant Church), until very recently when I read Teilhard de Chardin's "The Divine Milieu", and now I can't get his understanding of this teaching out of my mind. He says that the Body of Christ is evolving, growing as more and more of Creation is redeemed and incorporated into it. There is only one life – and that life is incarnated in the Body of Christ. The body that hung on the Cross at Golgotha was the Body of Christ in this sense – all creation was crucified in Christ. Big stuff – far too big for these Notes today, but well worth pondering. And to start the pondering here is a simple exercise.
Taking It Personally. Pick up a piece of paper in your hand. Hold it there. Now crunch it up. Now release your grip and look at the crumpled form. Now drop the paper on the floor, leave it there for a few moments, then pick it up again. Do all this slowly and with full attention. Now think about this. Did your hand do it all or did you do it? Did you do it with or through your hand? Was only your hand involved or were other parts of you involved – your brain, your eyes, your arm, and what about your cardio-vascular system, your metabolic system, your immune system, and so on? Then go inside your hand, to the muscles, the bones, sinews, ligaments, arteries, veins, and so on. Then go inside them, to the tissues and membranes, the cells of various kinds, and so on. A vast number of cells were all involved in doing a very simple exercise with a piece of paper: the "success" of the exercise resulted in each of those cells performing their function in co-operation with all the others. That, says St Paul, is equally true of the Body of Christ. Whatever we do, we do within and as part of the Body of Christ: put another way, through us the Body of Christ does it.
Luke. One or two other comments in addition to those already made above. Notice at the start of this passage that Jesus is ministering "in the power of the Spirit". Secondly, in verse 16 St Luke makes it clear that Jesus regularly attended synagogue services. Thirdly, Jesus did what these Notes have always tried to encourage us to do: he took the reading personally: verse 21. There is surely a lesson here for us. He read well, and the people loved it; he spoke well and they loved that, too. But then he took the reading personally – another way of saying that is that he took it seriously, not as something that sounds nice, but as something that demands a personal response.
Taking It Personally.
· Are you troubled by the suggestion that perhaps Jesus was "a bit green" when he began his preaching career? That he had to develop his preaching skills as he went along?
· Are you inclined to look for the spectacular (the miracle)? Or the "impressive" preacher, the one who brings comfort and reassurance, rather than challenge?
· What most offends you about Christ's teaching? Have you ever felt like "throwing him over the cliff" and have done with him?