3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday 27 January
Nehemiah 8: 1-3,5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31
Luke 4: 14-21
Opening the Conversation ©Sue Wilton
It is a morning of beginnings, it seems. The passage we have heard from Luke’s Gospel is often heralded as the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry; the moment when he is brought into the public eye and declares his mission statement. And yet, on closer inspection, we know from the opening to this passage that Jesus is already renowned in the surrounding country and had been teaching in the synagogues. But the writer of Luke is using this moment to announce the ministry of Jesus as the dawning of a new day of justice and liberation. This, says the author, is what it is all going to be about. This is why Jesus has come. The slow detail of the text points to the drama of the moment- Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls the scroll, finds the place he wants and then proceeds to read from the words of the prophet Isaiah;
‘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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Of course, the passage quoted isn’t word for word from the Isaiah text we know. Luke has Jesus apparently making some notable edits. Omitted is the reference “to the day of vengeance of our God”- a judgemental tone very evident in John the Baptist’s preaching but absent in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom that has come. Like his mother before him, Jesus recognises that his ministry will be “good news to the poor.” Luke also includes an earlier reference from Isaiah and has Jesus proclaim that God will release the captives, setting the scene for a ministry that has at its heart, freedom from bondage of all forms- demonic, economic, social and political.
This articulation of the core of Jesus’ ministry sits rather uncomfortably with some presentations of what the Gospel is all about- particularly in modern Western Christianity. Jesus says nothing here about his mission being coming to earth to die for our sins so that we can go to heaven. If we want an individualistic religion that is our own private ticket to the afterlife, we need to find a different kind of saviour. The Jesus who comes proclaiming freedom not just from our personal sins but from all systems that oppress and keep human society enslaved in poverty and violence is not the kind of Messiah many people seek. Apparently, when they heard it, the good people of Nazareth also decided Jesus was not their kind of Saviour, since after the conversation that follows, they seek to drive Jesus off a cliff.
Some conversations are terribly difficult and confronting. Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll is just the beginning. The main act actually happens when he sits down to talk. The reading paints a big picture of the kingdom Jesus is inaugurating, and then what follows grounds the conversation in the lives of the born and bred Nazarenes. This, of course, is when it gets tricky. Anyone can inspire others with the big picture, but to lead a movement that involves real change in the particular and the local- that is something different entirely, and cannot be achieved by avoiding difficult conversations. If Jesus had confined his teaching to inspirational slogans about peace on earth and hadn’t challenged the systems and powers that were keeping people poor and oppressed, he would not have ended up on a cross. Once the conversation really gets going, the Nazarenes were offended that their hometown boy Jesus could begin challenging the exclusivity of their personal claims to be children of God. When the year of the Lord’s favour means setting everyone free from what binds them, this new Messiah apparently is no longer saying what they want to hear.
The challenge for us all sitting and receiving these words in a different place, thousands of years later, is to allow the scandalous particularity of the Gospel to speak to the systems of violence and oppression which hold us captive in 21st century Australia. Who are the poor who need the good news? What is holding people captive? Who are the oppressed who need our voices and our actions joined with their own if they are to be set free? How could this year, 2019, be a year of the Lord’s favour for us all in this nation? It is easy for the church to preach about justice and freedom in general terms, but as soon as we start applying it to our particular situation and seek to make a difference in our world in practical, local terms, then what is good news to some becomes inevitably repellent to others.
Australia Day, as we know, is not a day of celebration for all. Sometimes, opening the conversation can be the hardest thing in the world to do, but we are called into the ministry of being co-creators of God’s kingdom- which means being truth speakers, life givers, peace-seekers and liberators of all who struggle under the weight of oppression. Being co-creators of God’s kingdom also means we celebrate with joy and gratitude all that we have in this nation where so many people have worked hard for the common good; indigenous and non-indigenous, people who have been born in this land and those who have come from the far reaches of the globe. But celebrating does not mean we edit our history to make it fit a more pleasing narrative. The church who follows the liberating Jesus of the Gospels has a leading role to play in Australian society to open conversations that set people free to tell the truth and own our history. The church who truly believes that we are all part of one body, and that if one member suffers we all suffer with it- that church has a role to play in reminding our country of the over 300 nations of peoples whose home and country this was over a 65 thousand year history. Listening to one another and telling the truth about our history- including the violence of colonial history- is vital if there is to be healing and maturing into one people together. Where one member hurts, we all hurt. Where one member is silenced, we all lose our voice. We desperately need the gifts of all the parts of the body if we are to walk together.
So how do we open conversations that lead us further down a pathway to liberation? The answer lies of course in what St Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians as ‘a still more excellent way.’ We need to embrace all the social and political implications of the Gospel of Jesus, but if we do it without love, we are no more than a noisy and disruptive gong or irritatingly clanging cymbal. We are called not to be activists for activism’s sake, but lovers working for a vision of unity and peace. But we cannot just be so “nice” that our presence in the world makes not even a ripple. Gandhi once wrote that love is not merely a negative state of harmlessness… “but a positive state of doing good to the wrongdoer, while refusing to cooperate with the wrong.” Martin Luther King wrote, “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme, unifying principle of life.” What would it look like if, as followers of Christ in this country at this time, we could deepen our own experience of love and be agents of this kind of unifying power? Could we love enough that we would hold space for one another, including all the voices who disagree with us? Could we so honour all the parts of the body that there would always be a place of dignity at the table for all, and always enough to go around? And maybe around the table, we will be courageous enough- and tender enough- to listen to the truth, even in the most difficult of conversations.