January 21, 2019
The Epiphany 3C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 4:14-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; Nehemiah 8:1-10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 19 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 25 (Lord’s Day 8)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suspense! If you stop at verse 21 as the Lectionary would have you to do and hold off on what happens in verses 22 and following next week, then a sermon on this text ends in some suspense as we wait to see how the people will react to what Jesus has just said and claimed.
Of course, most of us know what happens next. Initially, the people spoke well of Jesus. That in and of itself is a bit surprising since what Jesus seems to be claiming is rather remarkable. At first glance Jesus’ claim that this clarion prophecy from Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled in the hearing of those people seems startling, if not flat out over-blown. After all, that particular chapter in Isaiah is loaded with transformative imagery. If even half of the salvation and restoration Isaiah talked about there were to come to fulfillment, no one could possibly miss seeing it! This would be “Breaking News” for sure.
Imagine a similar prophecy applying to today: suppose someone wrote up a lyric poem or other treatise in which it was predicted that the day would come when every person in the country would have healthcare provided free and at no cost to them, when every unemployed person would find meaningful and fulfilling work, when every opioid addict would recover from his addiction and when every broken down inner-city tenement would get an “extreme makeover” such that every such hovel would shine and gleam like some multi-million-dollar New York City penthouse overlooking Central Park.
Now those are the kind of grand promises that, if ever they were fulfilled, no one could miss seeing it. If that prophecy were fulfilled, there would be no missing it.
Probably people had similar views of Isaiah 61. So how could Jesus sit down quietly and make the wild claim that it was fulfilled? Right then. Right there. Fulfilled. Really, Jesus? How? Where?
It’s a fair question. But maybe we need to look a little more closely at the verses Jesus actually quoted that day. Because what he quoted did not say that every prisoner was released or every blind person was healed. Instead what he said was that the coming of all that was being proclaimed to these people along with the message that the year of the Lord’s favor was upon them. They were seen by God. The lowest of the low, the ones so marginalized as to scarcely register on our human awareness were seen by and loved by God himself.
The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming and ushering in was not going to be flashy. That much had been proven in the first part of Luke 4 when Jesus again and again refused the devil’s temptations to do showy, big, flashy things. Jesus was not interested in parlor tricks and miracles-on-demand. He wasn’t interested in worldly authority and being hailed as the new Caesar. He wasn’t interested in making angels appear out of thin air. He was interested in the Word of God, in serving God quietly, in letting God’s slow-kingdom-coming remain a hidden phenomenon (but that kingdom was not for that reason any less real).
The hidden hand of God. It’s been God’s way of operating ever since he chose an obscure and childless couple of senior citizens to found a mighty nation way back in Genesis 12. For whatever the reason, the kingdom of God comes within us long before it comes into view under the spotlights and klieg lights of the wider world. It takes faith to believe that the quiet little man who sat down in the Nazareth synagogue that day was very God of very God, Light from Light and all that. It takes faith to believe that “Joseph’s son” was the cosmic Creator of all creatures great and small. And it takes faith to believe him when he says that something as soaring as Isaiah 61 is being fulfilled somehow in that outback region of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.
In fact, if it was hard for those people to believe Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled, we today now have a couple millennia more of hard data to deal with, most of which is more than enough to cause us to doubt the kingdom’s presence in the world. We’ve seen way too many wars, way too much persecution, way too much genocide, way too much corruption to believe easily that the kingdom has come in Christ Jesus or that the world is, even now, being ruled by the one who is King of kings and Lord of lords.
Yet the words of Jesus hang in there: it is all being fulfilled. It’s the agony, perhaps, of “the already and the not yet.” It’s that most startling of all theological developments that God inaugurates a hidden kingdom instead of a grandly visible one but that we get to participate in that kingdom’s renewal of all things even when the world around us seems calculated to knock the stuffing out of our hopes for that kingdom.
Give the people of Nazareth credit for knowing that it’s hard to believe all this. But thanks be to God we have the Holy Spirit to keep us close to the bosom of the Father even so, keeping alive in us all the hope that just is the gospel of Christ Jesus our Lord.
I noted at the outset that stopping this reading at verse 21 creates some suspense. This story doesn’t end there in verse 21. The ultimate reaction of the crowd is yet to come. But in another sense, there is also spiritual suspense at the end of verse 21: we are suspended between hearing Jesus’ promise that this goodness was going to be fulfilled and experiencing that fullness. It’s coming, Jesus says, the kingdom is near, you can proclaim it to those longing and thirsting the most to hear it. But it’s not quite here yet. Not completely. Still, in this suspenseful state, we keep looking for glimmers of the kingdom even as we do our best to let the Holy Spirit work in us to show forth the kingdom and its grace-laden ways.
We may be in a state of suspense. But it’s a good suspense, bristling as it is with the coming of so very many good things!
Luke tells us in verse 14 that Jesus returned to the region of Galilee “in the power of the Spirit.” Not long after that we will hear Jesus read the words of Isaiah 61:1 in which he claims “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” And indeed it is—we were told that already. Having come through his wilderness encounter with the Devil, Jesus is feeling the presence of his fellow member of the Trinity in new ways. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything will be easy. Things do go a bit sour, after all, before this part of Luke 4 is finished. But maybe that is a reminder to also us that even when we know we are doing the Pentecostal work of God’s Holy Spirit, there may still be outward events that can discourage us. But if Luke 4 is any indication, then we can take comfort in knowing that outside discouragements are by no means an indication we’re not cooperating with the Spirit after all!
Some years ago Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, began to have a lot of connections to Angola Prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Angola Prison transformed from the bloodiest prison in America to one of the safest after the New Orleans Baptist Seminary opened up a satellite campus inside the prison and began to graduate fully credentialed and then ordained pastors inside Angola. Those pastors and the presence of Jesus within them transformed the whole prison. They now hold 400 worship services per month. So folks at Calvin Seminary got the idea to try the same thing in Michigan.
Eventually the Seminary partnered with Calvin College and now Calvin College has its first-ever satellite campus inside the Handlon Correctional Facility near Ionia, Michigan. And this program that is graduating inmates with degrees in Ministry Leadership is already transforming Handlon Prison, as the warden will tell anyone who asks.
At one point these Calvin students behind bars decided they wanted to plant a big vegetable garden in the prison and they were given permission to do so. It’s a good garden. It generates a lot of produce. So the inmate students put their heads together and tried to decide what to do with all the cucumbers and beans and squash and such they were growing. As they talked, they hit on a common theme: almost every one of them, before they heard Jesus calling their name to follow him and become ministry leaders, almost every one of them had been guilty of abusing the women in their lives. Girlfriends, sometimes sisters, sometimes wives: they had verbally and very often physically abused women in ways they are now heartfelt sorry about.
Then they heard of this ministry in Grand Rapids called Safe Haven. It’s a shelter for battered and abused women and their children. It’s a safe house, a place to be protected, a place to heal, and place to begin to put shattered lives back together. So since these inmate Calvin students had once been guilty of abusing women, they decided to donate all their vegetables to Safe Haven Ministries as a concrete way to express their repentance and to quite literally show off the fruits of their newfound faith in Jesus.
Jesus read Isaiah 61 and claimed those words had been fulfilled. It reminds you also of all those times when Jesus proclaimed “The kingdom of God is at hand.” And you wonder: fulfilled? At hand? How? Where? But then you hear a story like this and you say, “Well what do you know: these words really ARE being fulfilled in our hearing; the kingdom of God really is at hand. Indeed, it has come upon us!”
Author: Stan Mast
This passage will deeply move every preacher who reads it, either to joy or to sorrow, to gratitude or to envy. I mean, what happens here is a preacher’s dream. The whole congregation– men, women (not typical in a Temple service), and children old enough to understand what was going on—spontaneously gathered for worship. They begged for the Word of the Lord to be read for them; they are unified in their desire to hear the Word. Even though the reading went on from dawn until noon, no one got bored, no one left, no one tuned out. They listened intently.
Indeed, when the reading began, all the people stood up in respect for the Book. Upon receiving the blessing of the “preacher,” they all raised their hands in worship, shouted “Amen, Amen,” and then fell on their faces in prostrate worship.
As they listened, their hearts were pierced by the Word and they began to weep, probably in sorrow over the sins they had not recognized until they heard the will of God in the reading. And when the priest and his associates announced the Good News, they responded by wiping away their tears, celebrating God’s goodness at lavish feasts, and sharing their bounty with those who had little.
Who wouldn’t love to lead a worship service like that? Contemporary preachers might rejoice that such a service could happen, or we might weep because such a thing doesn’t happen to us. So, we might be filled with gratitude for the power of the Word, along with just a bit of envy that our congregations don’t respond this way to us when we read and preach.
So, this is a great text for preachers, but what does it have to say to the average church goer? And what in the world does it have to do with this season of Epiphany?
We can begin to unpack the wider meaning of this text by asking why the people spontaneously gathered for worship. What was the occasion? Well, it was the first day of the seventh month, which was New Year’s Day on the civil calendar (later called Rosh Hashanah). In that month, Israel also celebrated Yom Kippur and the Feast of Booths, in which Israel remembered their wilderness wanderings. So this was a sacred time, a time of looking back and a time of new beginnings.
What’s more, the returned exiles had just finished building the walls of Jerusalem. It was near the middle of the fifth Century; Israel had been back from Exile for nearly a hundred years. When the first returnees arrived, they found their homes destroyed, their fields choked with weeds, Jerusalem in ruins and their Temple a charred mass of rubble. The people were glad to be home, but home was a mess. They were so disheartened that they didn’t make much progress in rebuilding their nation.
Because they settled in their villages and towns, Jerusalem remained largely uninhabited and in ruins for nearly 75 years. Yes, they had built a Temple, but it was a poor copy of the original. And God had not filled it with his glory as he had at the First Temple.
Israel was living in one of those “in between times.” Behind them were the mighty acts of God exhibited in the Exodus many years ago and in the return from Exile more recently. But God had not yet ushered in the magnificent revival of his Kingdom under a Davidic King as promised in Isaiah 40-66 and the other prophets. They were living between two comings of God, the past they dimly remembered and the future they had been promised. Now they were just average people living in a hostile environment, just aching for God to return in his glory and save them to the uttermost. It was not a glory time in Israel’s history. The people were disappointed, and they grew disillusioned, and that led to laxness toward the Law of God.
But then Nehemiah came from Persia and under his leadership, the people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Indeed, they finished the work in only 52 days. God had not shown up in all his glory, but at least the walls were up and the Temple was standing. It was a pregnant time– the beginning of a new year, and they were about to gather for one of their major festivals celebrating God’s past actions on their behalf. I suspect there was a sense of expectation in the air. Something was going to happen. Or so they hoped.
They couldn’t compel God to show up, but they could compel their leaders to read God’s Word. And that’s when God showed up, not in the glory of liturgy and sacrifice and architecture, but in the simple reading and explaining of God’s Word. That Word was an Epiphany of God’s glory—not a visual Epiphany, but an audible one.
The application to 21st century North America Christianity should be painfully obvious. We are living between the times of Christ’s first and second coming. This is not a time of great glory for the church. Indeed, rather than gradually rebuilding the shambles of “the Temple and the City,” we are experiencing the gradual deterioration of the church. Membership is down nearly everywhere in the West while the cultural environment is increasing intolerant of a Gospel that makes exclusive truth claims. The “None’s” and the “Spiritual But Not Religious” offer soft opposition, while the militant atheists in the West and totalitarian regimes in the Middle East and in the Communist bloc launch frontal assaults.
We need God to show up, if not for the world’s sake, then for ours. So, we work with liturgy and sacrifice and architecture, with new programs and changed worship and re-engineered models of ministry. We do everything we can to show ourselves and the world the glory of God and his Gospel. Many of our efforts are laudable and helpful, but this text urges us not to forget the central thing.
It is in the reading and explaining and applying of the Word of the Lord that we will receive an Epiphany of God’s glory. That and that alone will move people to genuine worship, to the raising of hand and the shouting of “amen” and the physical or spiritual prostration of our lives. That and that alone will move us to tears of sorrow for our sins and to shouts of joy for God’s salvation. That and that alone will lead the church to glad generosity to the poor and to exuberant celebrations of God’s goodness in the great feasts of the church year. The reading from the Psalms for today (especially the second half of Psalm 19) sings the power and beauty of God’s Word. When the Word is read and explained, the glory of the Lord will be manifest to all.
In this reading from Nehemiah, it was the Word of God that transformed that day into a day that was sacred to the Lord—not the calendar, not a set of rules, not an elaborate liturgy, not sitting in a building, but the simple act of reading and listening to, explaining and obeying the Word of the Lord as it is found in the Book. It is when people meet together, men and women and children, literally or figuratively stand at attention, and listen intently to the Word that an ordinary day becomes a sacred day.
In that communal activity centered on the Word, God’s people are strengthened for the struggle to promote and build the Kingdom of God on earth. As Ezra and his associates called the people to rejoice in response to the Word, they speak a lovely word that has helped and puzzled generations of Christians. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Note, they do not say, “The Lord is your strength.” That would be easy to understand. It sounds like Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”
But Nehemiah 8:10 focuses on the joy of the Lord; that’s what give strength. And that’s what makes this such a special text. It’s not the Lord’s strength that gives us strength. It is the Lord’s joy. What does that mean? Well, I think it means, first of all, the Lord’s joy in us, the kind of joy that a parent has over a child. That’s what gives us strength when everything is gloomy. The Lord of heaven and earth rejoices over us, clapping his hands in delight over us. What a glorious picture!
And the Lord gives us joy in himself. As his Word reminds us of God’s character and his acts on our behalf and his promises to us, we are filled with joy, even if we cannot see his glory in the world around us. Of all things we might rejoice over, our chief joy should be the Lord himself. “Rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4).” That joy in the Lord gives us strength to go on. And when we can’t find the joy because life is too tough, when the “in between time” lingers on for years and then centuries, God himself gives us the joy that is the fruit of the Spirit.
The Gospel reading for this Third Sunday of Epiphany pulls all of this together. In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus gives his first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth. Following the pattern established here in Nehemiah, Jesus reads a portion of Scripture (Isaiah 61) and then explains it to the assembled crowd. He explains that this ancient word about the anointed servant of the Lord, this word about preaching good news to the poor and the blind and the lame and the imprisoned, this Gospel word has been fulfilled in their hearing.
He means that he is the prophecy fulfilled. He is the anointed one. He is the One about whom the Word of the Lord has spoken for centuries now. He is the One sent by the God who rejoices over his sinful people. Jesus is the “Joy of the Lord” in person. Jesus is the one who will bring his own joy to all the people. The joy that is centered on Jesus is the strength of God’s people until he comes again.
Even as the glory of the Lord was revealed to the people as Jesus read and explained the Word that day, so the glory of the Lord is revealed to our people as we preachers explain that Jesus is our joy. Preach it, brothers and sisters, and give your people an Epiphany.
This illustration will date me, but as I read about the joy of Israel when the glory of the Lord was revealed in the Word, I thought about the “glory days” we used to enjoy in high school. When I was a freshman, the basketball team of our tiny Christian school went undefeated. They beat everyone, including major public high schools around the state of Colorado. It was an impossible feat that brought great glory to Denver Christian High School.
As a reward for that accomplishment, the school administration gave us all a “glory day,” a day filled with a celebration in the gym, a march around the school, refreshments for all, and then, best of all, the rest of the day off. From that day forward, we students pushed for a “glory day” whenever we had any small victory. The administration wisely refused. But the memory of that one glory day stays with me a half century later.
I’m sure those who were part of that glory day in ancient Israel never forgot either. Would that every Sunday were a glory day for all God’s people as the Word is read and we celebrate the victory of the Lord Jesus.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Almost 115 years ago an unknown patent clerk named Albert Einstein published a series of papers detailing what he called “special relativity.” At one fell swoop, Einstein shattered centuries’ worth of scientific theories about the fundamental nature of reality. The theories of Isaac Newton and his mechanical understanding of the universe’s functioning were swept away, getting replaced by a whole new way to view the cosmos: quantum physics. In the years that followed, Einstein’s disciples like Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger would further quantum theory in remarkable ways. By 1950 the scientific community saw the world in a whole new way.
And Albert Einstein was very unhappy about it all! The man who got the quantum ball rolling did not like the results. Because as it turns out, at the very tiniest level of atoms and electrons, the universe does not behave the way you might think. Particles of energy can move from here to there without going in between. Light acts like both a wave and a particle and it displays these opposite characteristics simultaneously. Two atoms that had been kept in close proximity to one another get entangled in one another, developing a kind of bond that defies the imagination. Even if you take one atom to a laboratory in Los Angeles and move the other one to a lab in New York, whatever you do to the atom in L.A. will instantly happen to the other atom in New York.
Say you had a pair of identical twins named Jill and Jane Smith. If Jill and Jane were like atoms, you could take Jill to Chicago and bring Jane to Denver. But if in Chicago you poke Jill in the arm with a needle, instantly in Denver Jane’s arm would start to bleed, too! This really happens with atoms. Einstein’s technical term for it was “spooky,” but he didn’t like this spookiness one bit.
Quantum mechanics revealed a universe that seems to have a lot of chance and randomness built into it. But the world we can see with our eyes isn’t jumpy like that. What we can see around us in the movement of the moon and the stars is more straightforward. Einstein believed that what we see with our eyes and what physicists see through their microscopes had to jive, had to go together. He couldn’t accept a universe that had any randomness in it. “Gott würfelt nicht,” he said: “God does not play dice.”
The author of Psalm 19 would agree. Psalm 19 is one of the Bible’s most elegant of poems. The psalmist moves from the majesty of the universe to the splendor of God’s law. At first glance, it looks like the writer really shifted gears between verses 6 and 7. After six verses devoted to the sun, moon, and stars, all of a sudden the law of God bursts onto the scene. It looks like a big shift but there is actually a tight linkage.
The connection has to do with both the beauty and the orderliness of the heavens. Everything we see throughout the physical creation is the glorious work of an ingenious Creator God. The stars that twinkle, the sun that shines, the clouds that scud through brilliantly blue noonday skies all bear witness to the grandeur of the God who fashioned each and every one of those remarkable things. To those with ears to hear, whole oratorios of praise to God are being sung constantly. The universe is like one giant opera house that features a never-ending production of lyric melodies, achingly beautiful arias, and soaring crescendos of joy to the Creator.
To the psalmist, the splendor of stars and sunshine point to a God who is very clever, exceedingly wise, and finally good. God has been so very generous in sharing this universe of wonders with the rest of us. God wants us to enjoy the variety of splendors he made. We should count ourselves as profoundly blessed just to have the ability to see it all. John Calvin once said that the reason God created us to walk on two feet instead of going around on all fours like an animal is precisely so that we can stand tall, lift up our heads, and see the stars above.
God didn’t want us to miss the glories of creation. So he gave us eyes to see creation’s glories and ears to hear its chorus of praise. He gave us taste buds and a sense of smell to enable us to enjoy wine and food. He gave us minds capable of taking note of all that we experience in the world. Humans made in God’s image are, so far as we know, the only beings who are able to reach beyond themselves to enjoy otherness. We take delight in paying attention to creatures unlike ourselves.
White-tail deer in a Michigan forest don’t keep a running list of the different birds they encounter. But we human beings keep such lists all the time. We fill whole libraries with books that catalogue every conceivable kind of prairie grass, bird, tropical fish, flower, tree, and star. We love taking note of beings that are not like us. We’re born curious, as the parent of any two- or three-year-old can tell you. “What’s that? Why is the sky blue and grass green? What do worms do down there in the dirt? Hey, Daddy, let’s stop to watch this ant hill for an hour or so!”
The heavens declare the glory of God in a universal language that needs no translation from German into Dutch, from Farsi into Japanese. It’s a universal tongue whose grammar and vocabulary are intelligible to anyone willing to listen. When you view the universe this way, then you start to trust any God capable of making such wonders. What’s more, you take joy in any God who so obviously wants the rest of us to enjoy the universe the same way he does. He cares for us. He’s invested in our lives.
Of course, there are always those who look through telescopes at distant wonders, who learn how outrageously vast the universe is, who look at our own Milky Way galaxy and its mind-boggling 100 billion stars and they then conclude, “Obviously, we human beings are nothing. We’re a galactic footnote so tiny, so insignificant, even if there is a God out there somewhere, he’d have to strain to see our puny little planet, much less take note of any individual person on this cosmic speck we call the earth!”
The psalmist will have none of that. The wonder of God is that he is at once the Creator of splendors that dwarf us and also the tender God who loves each person and calls each by name. God does know we exist and so has given laws, rules, commands, ordinances, statutes, and wise ideas to help us make our lives as comfortable and productive and safe and happy as possible. Any God who can create the universe can be trusted to give us the straight scoop when it comes to rules that will help us get along better in the very world God himself made.
So the psalmist is not changing the subject or shifting gears between verses 6 and 7. Instead he’s following a consistent line of thought: creation teaches us that we serve a great, good, and reliable God. This same God has given us a roadmap for life, and so we follow that map with the joyous assurance that he will not lead us down the wrong paths.
God’s ways are said to be perfect and soul-refreshing. They are reliable and can make even the simplest person as wise as a genius. What God recommends is flat out the right thing to do and you sense this when you find God’s ways bringing joy to your heart. God’s commands are radiant, they fairly shine with the splendor of truth and so provide illumination for the road ahead. God’s law helps you pick your way through a dark world the same way your car’s headlights enable you to drive on a highway after sunset.
Psalm 19 concludes with the hope that not just the words of our mouths but also the meditations of our hearts will be pleasing to our Creator and Redeemer God. The last word here is “Redeemer,” which clamps the whole psalm together. We began with creation and end with redemption. We began with a vision of the orderliness of God’s cosmos and now conclude with a vision of God’s having saved all that he made. We live in not just an elegant universe but in a redeemed one. Hope is everywhere.
Above we talked about Einstein’s dislike of a universe that seemed a little jumpy and unpredictable at the level of the very small. He wanted a grand unification theory, a theory of everything, that could unite the whole universe. Einstein never found his theory of everything before he died, and science still doesn’t understand what ties the universe together. We still have no clue why atoms in distant places can communicate with one another.
But I am convinced that Einstein was right: God doesn’t play dice. Whatever holds reality together, it does hold. It does make sense. It is our joy as believers in God to know this is so. He who is the Creator of a cosmos that still sings his praises has lately become the cosmic Redeemer through Jesus Christ the Lord. He has already given us so much and shown us how to live to enjoy those gifts to the fullest. The ways of our God are right and altogether precious. When you know that, you join the psalmist in calling God not just your Redeemer but your Rock. A rock is something on which you can rest, something you can lean upon and rely on. It’s an image of stability, peace, and satisfaction–the very satisfied peace and joy our God desires for every one of us.
One of the most stunning and now famous pictures ever snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope is this one of what some have dubbed “The Pillars of Creation”:
These gaseous structures are mammoth—they are over a light year in height (that’s 5,880,000,000,000 miles high). And what is wondrous about these structures is that they are nurseries for newborn stars. Although very distant from earth—and so we are looking very far into the past when we see such a picture—this is evidence, as astronomer Deborah Haarsma notes, that God’s act of creation was not something that was long ago over and done with. God is still making new stars today. Creation is ongoing.
And day after day it pours forth speech.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Author: Doug Bratt
When asked to define “church,” at least some people answer by talking about a place like a building, an event like a worship service, or even a kind of organization that people join. But when Paul defines “church,” he speaks of a living organism into which God’s children are born again, by God’s grace. He speaks of the church as a body into which God graciously grafts God’s adopted children, much like people graft skin onto skin.
But, frankly, it can hard to think of the church as one “body.” In some ways, it’s hard to think of just a local church as a “body.” At least some 21st century churches are, after all, made up of a widely scattered group of people who sometimes come together only once or twice a week. What’s more, members of local churches come in various shapes, sizes and skin hues with divergent interests and skills.
Yet if it’s difficult to think of the local church as a body, think of how even more difficult it can be to think of the worldwide church as one “body.” That body, after all, has splintered into thousands of denominations and millions of local churches. People of almost every language and tribe worship God in countless different ways and languages.
What’s more, it’s hard for God’s adopted children to think of the church as one body when we so often emphasize the differences among Christians. Christians sometimes so emphasize our own theological traditions’ understanding of things like the sacraments and the time of Christ’s return that it’s tempting to surmise that members of other theological traditions can’t be part of Christ’s body with us.
Against all of this, however, Paul insists in verse 27, we “are the body of Christ.” Among other things, that means that the church has one head, one “control center,” who is Jesus Christ our Lord. What’s more, because the church is one body, it also visibly shows the world the invisible Christ.
In a culture that glorifies the individual, members of Christ’s body that is the church work together to fulfill their functions and responsibilities. However, in a culture that also sometimes almost tries to enforce uniformity, the church also celebrates diversity in its membership as well as its gifts and tasks.
1 Corinthians 12:12ff. summons its hearers and readers to thank God for engrafting us into this body which is both God’s local and worldwide church. God’s beloved children thank God for making us, like God made hands and eyes, just as we are. We also thank God for giving us both tasks and abilities that contribute to the church’s well-being and ministry.
On this Sunday, however, 1 Corinthians 12 reminds all who read and hear it that we’re only one tiny part of the body that is Jesus Christ’s church. So it implies that we need to look for ways to make that profession concrete in the lives of those who hear us.
Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday will want to use examples that fit their own contexts. When I last preached on this text, I reminded members of the body that is our local church that we’re part of that body also that includes Christian Reformed churches in metropolitan Washington D.C. However, I pointed out that we’re also part of the body that is Christ’s church that includes area churches such as King Emmanuel Baptist Church, St. Andrew Apostle (Roman Catholic) Church and Northwood Presbyterian Church.
However, those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 12 also remember that we’re part of the body that is the worldwide church that includes Orthodox churches in Russia and Coptic churches in Egypt. We’re part of the body that includes Anglican churches in South Africa and Lutheran churches in Scandinavia.
However, we’re also part of the body of the Christ that is the church in places like Asia and the Middle East. We’re part of the body that includes Christians in places like India and Indonesia, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
Because we’re part of the same body, when, as Paul writes in verse 26, “one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” When, in other words, persecuted Christians throughout the world suffer, all Christians also suffer. In fact, all Christians suffer when even one part of the church suffers.
Think about how this works in the human body. If I have a headache, it can feel as if my feet, back and hands suffer with my head. Some of also know, in fact, how if you have surgery on one part of your body, it’s as if the rest of your body suffers right along with it.
Don’t we also feel some of that kind of pain in the body that is the local church? Those who proclaim this text will want to remind hearers of the pain they’ve felt or feel at the suffering of other members of their church. We may even want to name those with whom we weep and mourn.
This morning, however, we want to remember that we also suffer with Christians whom others persecute for their faith. Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 12:12ff. might consult websites such as International Christian Concern for current examples of such “body aches.”
However, those who mention examples of the persecution of Christians want to be careful. We don’t, after all, want to be too graphic in our descriptions of suffering and persecution. What’s more, those who proclaim this text also don’t want to weight examples so heavily toward, for example, Muslims’ persecution of Christians that we imply that all Muslims are bad, only Muslims persecute Christians and that Muslims never suffer at the hands of Christians.
Some members of the body of Christ that is the Church will come to the Lord’s Table this Sunday. We have deep theological differences with some of them. Others with whom we at least figuratively sit around the Table are suffering deeply for their faith. Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 12:12ff. will want to remind our hearers and ourselves that we sit at Table with all of them.
Yet it can be hard for perhaps especially North American Christians to suffer with persecuted Christians. They, after all, are often both literally and figuratively far from most of us. So those who proclaim this text will want to ask how we can let the Holy Spirit generate empathy for persecuted Christians. How do we learn more and more to suffer with those who suffer?
God’s adopted sons and daughters perhaps begin by taking the time to learn about persecuted Christians’ plights. We also read and watch various new media reports with global eyes. However, Jesus’ followers also pray for persecuted Christians. After all, even as we suffer with them, we remember that, as James writes, the prayer of God’s people is “powerful and effective.”
According to an August 24, 2018 America: The Jesuit Review article entitled, “Religious Freedom Around the World Under Siege”, “Religious freedom around the world has taken a beating over the last two years, according to a number of authoritative sources, including the U.S. Department of State and the Pew Research Center. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that the most severe repression based on religion includes genocide, enslavement, sexual assault, forced displacement and conversions, property destruction, the marginalization of women and bans on children participating in religious activities.
“The Pew Research Center’s ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion also contains distressing news. The share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2016, Pew reports. That percentage falls just below the 10-year peak of 29 percent in 2012, which coincided with the Arab Spring uprisings. Meanwhile, the share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of social hostilities involving religion—that is, acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society—remained at a historically high rate of 27 percent.
“Overall, 83 countries in 2016 had high or very high levels of restrictions on religion—whether from government or social hostilities. This was up from 58 in 2007, Pew’s baseline year for the continuing study.