Readings: Nehemiah 8, 1-3, 5-6,8-10; Ps 19, 1 Cor:12, 12-31a; Luke 4, 14-21.
Hymns: Let all the world in every corner sing; Take my life and let it be; With joy we meditate the grace; Crown him with many crowns.
In this time of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Conversion of Paul, and the Holocaust and other Genocide Memorial Week, let’s focus on faith. The texts of faith are the scriptures, liturgies and reflections arising from them, which express God’s work in the world: these also include the Church Fathers, some of whose misogynist views still strangle the people of God. The practice of faith through grace is expressed in prayer and sacramental action, study and service. But mouthing faith is not living faith. Faith which is uninterested in the pain, the needs, the gifts, of the neighbour is not living faith: living faith, however faint the heartbeat, feels impelled to witness and transform. Sadly, witness is too often seen as disrespectfully telling Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and those of no faith to shape up and follow Jesus, which naturally puts most people off. Which does not mean dismissing all who do not follow my or your way of faith as irrelevant rubbish, as did a pastor in Pune (he could have been from anywhere) when opposing my interest in spousal violence among Christians: ‘it doesn’t matter what Hindus and Muslims think if Christian men hit their wives, they are damned anyway.’ Horrible. Witnessing is quietly following the light of Christ, which may enlighten others. ‘Transform’ is too often seen as so total, so sudden, that apathy seems wiser. Yet cooking transforms sugar and butter beaten with eggs and firmed with flour into a cake; the opening of the third petal of an orchid transforms its shape; smiling transforms a set mouth into joy.
Like cooking, inner transformation for a life in Christ needs effort under God. As St John Chrysostom said: ‘Grace cannot do anything without human Will, not can Will do anything without Grace.’ Will and grace underlie Isaiah’s message, quoted by Jesus, liberation for the captive or vision for the actually or inwardly blind: will and grace underlie Esra’s positive encouragement to the returning exiles: and for Paul, church community, family, work-place, country are transformed by parts of the relevant body gracefully working together for the whole. So let’s look at Nehemiah and Paul on division and unity, fragmentation and transformation for action.
Nehemiah describes exiles returning from the East to Judah. After enduring exile, they were still subject to a sorting out on their return, for some were rejected as ‘unclean.’ Until a priest equipped to sort out their status had returned from exile, these poor people were marginalised and vulnerable. They met in that first autumn to hear the recital of the laws under which they should live, emotions high with joy and hope for an ordered tranquil future, filled with shame and grief over the many failures, the shambolic chaos, of their past.
Those who were or might be accepted were seen as equally responsible before the law and thus equally bound to follow it, and therefore the meeting was not held in the Temple, from whom all women and a number of men would have been excluded, but at the Water Gate on the edge of town, open to all. Ezra read texts from the Pentateuch for around six hours to the men and women, his words being translated into the everyday Aram of Judah, for after long exile, high Hebrew was not understood by all those returning to a near-forgotten home.
Ezra could have highlighted their neglect of God’s ordinances in exile: but he didn’t. He saw they regretted their irreligious behaviour, and therefore ordered them to feast and to enjoy the Sabbath of the Lord, sharing food and wine with those who had nothing, for ‘your joy in the Lord is your strength.’ In proclaiming transforming liberty under the law to former captives, Ezra mimicked the messianic text from Isaiah 61 Jesus read in Nazareth, and he also proclaimed good news to the poor, who lacked Sabbath food and, metaphorically, to all who lack knowledge of God, knowledge which the young Jesus also proclaimed in his home temple.
Paul in Corinthians also focused on faith transforming life and lives in his image of the equal and vital parts of the body, to which all members of the actual and the potential community can contribute. As he says, we are all baptised into the one Body, whatever rank or ethnicity and, in the parallel verse in Galatians, which ever gender, and all contribute our unique and vital gifts without which the whole cannot function. We extol brains: but what’s a massive brain with no body or legs? Ears may seem less vital than arms: but with unbalanced ears, the whole body falls down. We may think ‘the church’ is paid employees and office holders: but without the floor-cleaners, the singers, the money-givers, the Local Contact Persons, the loving faces in the pews, on the street and at home, church can become a theatre, performing texts for esoteric pleasure.
Paul is saying: all parts contribute to the whole, so live out that fact. Bits of a body, bits of a community, cannot be cut off or ignored, without damage to the whole. A church which manages to exclude individuals and groups based on class, gender, race, dress, wealth or any other divider looses integrity, its prophetic voice silenced.
The freely chosen practice of faith, framed as are Esra’s laws by scripture and liturgy, express God’s transforming work in the world through prayer and sacrament, study and service. Such little and big works of love are the responsibility of and within the capacity of every single person. Turning capacity and responsibility into that first action which sets the chain in motion: that’s the task, the risk, the goal for the immediate or the far distant future. Are our senses open to reap the harvest of listening and reading, praying and reflecting, or does the potential challenge to action close our frightened ears? Dare we risk living our faith? Dare we not?
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping Heidelberg 2016