Monday, January 24, 2022

A Faithful Jew Proclaims a New World

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 23, 2022, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21. 

You can listen to the sermon here.

          Let me try a summary statement of the story we just heard.

 A faithful Jew asserts his right not only to interpret the Scriptures but to fulfill them in a new world where old divisions and prejudices are overturned.

           The Gospel writer Luke places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This placement gives it critical importance. The story proclaims who Jesus is and what the good news is that he proclaims and lives.  It has three critical elements. Each one of these elements is just as important for us today as they were in the gospel writer’s day.

Jesus the Jew

          First of all, this story continues a theme begun in the birth story.  Jesus is a faithful Jew.  He was circumcised eight days after his birth, presented in the Temple on the fortieth day, attended the Temple for Passover as a boy, and now we find him returning to his hometown synagogue to begin his ministry.

          Jesus is a faithful Jew.  Christians through the ages, including in our own day, frequently suffer from amnesia about this fact.  And this amnesia has resulted in nearly two thousand years of antisemitism and anti- Judaism.  This continues to rear its ugly head.  In fact, it is on the rise in our day.

          So let us refresh our memory.  Jesus was born a Jew. He was raised a Jew. He lived as a Jew. He died a Jew. He was raised a Jew.  He is eternally a Jew.

          Was he critical of the religious authorities of his day? Absolutely.  Did he seek reformation of his religion? Yes.  Did he wish to expand his understanding of God’s chosen people to Gentiles?  It is clear that he did.

          Did he mean to start an entirely new religion that rejected the religious tradition of his people?  No, emphatically not.

          Antisemitism and anti-Judaism are sins,   full stop.  They are perhaps the original sin of the church. They began to appear among the followers of Jesus in the New Testament itself, and echo through the centuries with the cry of Jewish innocents who have been murdered in the name of Jesus.

Jesus our Interpreter of the Scriptures

          Second, Jesus the faithful Jew nevertheless does assert himself as the interpreter of Scripture for us.  Luke takes great pains to emphasize this truth.

          This fundamental understanding that Jesus is the interpreter of Scripture for us began back in that boy in the Temple story, where Jesus is found teaching the religious teachers.  It continues in our passage this morning, and several other passages in Luke, culminating in the great post-resurrection story of the road to Emmaus, when the disciples realized that their hearts had burned as the stranger—who turns out to be Jesus—opens the Scriptures for them.

          Again, we don’t remember this very well when we hear other Christians talking about the authority of the Bible, and perhaps even as us the question, “Does your church believe in the Bible?”

          The answer to that question is, “No.”  We believe in God; we believe in Jesus; we believe in the Holy Spirit.  We learn about this faith primarily through the Bible, yes.  But it is not the Bible that is central to us. It is Jesus.

          Jesus always gets the last word for us.  We cannot interpret or use any passage of Scripture, Old or New Testament, without asking, “What does Jesus say?  What does Jesus do?”  I use the present tense quite deliberately.  It is one of the reasons it is so important that we keep Jesus as the center of things.  The Bible is bound in time. Jesus is not.  Jesus continues to speak to us though the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ own first gift for those who believe (Book of Common Prayer, p. 374).

Jesus Who Calls Us to Live in a New World

          Third, the primary thing that Jesus does is to call us to live in a New World.  He called it the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.  But because the language of “kings” doesn’t resonate with us, I like the term, a New World.  And what is sure and certain about this New World?  It is the Great Reversal.

          The Great Reversal.  Jesus finds it in the prophet Isaiah today: the poor and outcast get good news for once; captives get freedom, the blind get sight; the oppressed get the yoke of their oppression cast off; and human beings are called to live in the Lord’s favor. Not earn it—live in it.

          This is also a significant theme of Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus’ mother sang of it before his birth:  the hungry fed, the mighty moved off their throne, the proud hoisted on their own petard, mercy promised by the Judge of all.

          So many of the parables exclusive to Luke are about this Great Reversal: a Samaritan called good, a son who rejected and squandered his inheritance welcomed home not to judgment but a grand party, the rich man and poor Lazarus get their places switched in heaven.

          And in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians get the reputation of “those people who turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

          The New World, an upside-down world.  It begins right here, when we gather, as Paul says, in one body, with a diversity of members who cannot say, “I have no need of you,” no matter how different they are, how “respectable” they are, how deserving by the old world’s standards they are.

          I love how a friend of mine, Sam Portaro, puts it:  The Table we gather around each Sunday is an “intentional violation of the customary boundaries that separate us.”[1]

          Perhaps we should post a warning at the door:  “Caution! An upside-down world awaits you within.”  Would that it be that we should have such a reputation.

          So, in this story of Jesus reading Scripture in the Nazareth synagogue, we have three take-aways that speak to us clearly across the centuries:

v Jesus was a faithful Jew, and antisemitism and anti-Judaism have no place among Christian people.

v Jesus is the interpreter of Scripture, it is he who is the Word of God through whom all things are understood, including the Bible.

v Jesus calls us to live in a New World and we should always look for ways to help it be formed among us, expecting that it will most often turn our old world upside down.

A faithful Jew asserts his right not only to interpret the Scriptures but to fulfill them in a new world where old divisions and prejudices are overturned.

[1] Sam Portaro, Crossing the Jordan: Meditations on Vocation (Boston, Cowley Publications, 1999), p 68.

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