Sermon: Life and Love as Epiphany
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; 1 Corinthian 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30
Thus far in this series we have considered several epiphanies: the visit of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism accompanied by a voice from heaven, the miracle of turning water into wine, and scripture – the word of God. Our readings for today focus on Jeremiah’s call, Jesus’ continued interaction with the congregation of the synagogue in Nazareth, the refuge one finds in God, and love’s place among the spiritual gifts. Is there some unifying theme which runs throughout these readings?
The book of Jeremiah opens by setting forth the historical context of his life and ministry. Then Jeremiah wrote: “The word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations’” (Jeremiah 1.4-5; NRSV). The birth of Jeremiah was part of God’s plan; even before his birth, God set Jeremiah apart to be holy and to serve as a prophet, not only to Israel, but to the nations. After Jeremiah’s objection to the effect he was only a boy, the Lord stretched forth his hand, touched Jeremiah’s mouth, and told him, “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1.9b; NRSV). Jeremiah not only experienced an epiphany; he was given an epiphany (God’s words) for the nations.
Our reading from Luke continues the story of Jesus’ interaction with the members of the synagogue in Nazareth. We picked up where we left off last week: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21; NRSV). As you may recall, Jesus was referring to the prophecy from Isaiah which promised good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom from oppression, and proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor – a new jubilee. Indeed, Jesus ministry to date throughout Galilee had accomplished many of these very things. Would he do these things in Nazareth? Could he do these things in Nazareth?
Luke tells us, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4.22; NRSV). In the parallel accounts, Matthew and Mark tell us the people were astounded. Both Matthew and Mark note the people wondered where Jesus got his wisdom and deeds of power. In Matthew they asked, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (13.55); in Mark, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6.3; NRSV) Luke tells us they asked, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (4.22; NRSV) In Middle Eastern culture the expectation was that the son would take over the father’s business; by custom, Jesus was supposed to have been a carpenter. The townspeople viewed his failure to do as dishonoring Joseph. They likely thought, “Jesus is putting on airs; does he actually think he is better than us?” Matthew and Mark tell us the people took offense at him. In both accounts, Jesus similarly replies, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Matthew 13.57; Mark 6.4; NRSV). Now the townspeople must have thought, “Now he is claiming to be a prophet!” Matthew closes this account by noting, “And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief” (13.58; NRSV). Mark closes by noting, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief” (6.5-6; NRSV).
Luke’s account is more complete: Jesus initially responds by saying, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’” (4.23; NRSV). Then Jesus added, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (4.24; NRSV). Jesus further reminded them the prophet Elijah, during years of famine, was sent to a widow in Sidon, a foreigner, rather than a widow in Israel. And furthermore, although there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner. If they were not insulted before this, they were now! They led Jesus out to a cliff where they would have thrown him over, but he passed among them and left the town. Here the words of the psalmist are relevant, “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free” (Psalm 71.1-2a; NRSV).
Jeremiah’s message was not only for Israel, it was for the nations. Similarly, Jesus reminded his townsmen and kinfolk that God’s grace extends to foreigners. Jesus was clearly indicating that his message was for all – not just the Galileans or the people of Nazareth. Given the nature of Jesus’ love, given the nature of his mission, it is only natural to wonder why no miraculous works were performed at Nazareth. After all, isn’t it reasonable to expect that Jesus would show more consideration to his own town-folk and kinfolk? Jesus words appear to be rather harsh – they hurt, for the people were ready to kill him. Perhaps Mark’s point is a telling one – Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. How else was Jesus to address their unbelief in a way that would cause considerable reflection and introspection? Perhaps some later found their belief significantly increased. I would hope so.
So how does this relate to Paul’s immortal words on the nature of love? I have read these words so many times, yet they never fail to speak. I cannot help but wonder if these words may not be one of the most inspired passages of scripture ever written. Although Paul was addressing problems related to spiritual pride in the Church of Corinth, these prophetic words – words which call us back to God and to a real understanding of the love that God longs for us to live – speak to all Christians:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13.1-3; NRSV).
I suspect that many of you have encountered “noisy-gong-and-clanging-cymbal” Christians lacking in love! Similarly, it is one thing to experience Christians with prophetic powers – powers which are to call people back into a right relationship with God – when they are clothed in arrogance and judgment; it is a very different experience to encounter prophetic powers when they are clothed in humility and love.
After having set forth the importance of love, Paul then employs sixteen (16) verbs, one after the other, which depict love as an activity. As Brian Peterson observes, many of these are translated as “static adjectives,” e.g., “love is patient, love is kind” as opposed to “shows patience,” or “acts with kindness” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/profile/default.aspx?uid=2-peterson_brian). Peterson says, “love is a busy, active thing that never ceases to work. It is always finding ways to express itself for the good of others. The point is not a flowery description of what love “is” in some abstract and theoretical sense, but of what love does, and especially what love does to one’s brother or sister in the church” (Ibid.). When we truly love someone, we seek ways to make his or her life more complete, more fulfilled. Such love runs counter to the cultural values and norms of this world. It may come with consequences – in Jesus’ case, it led to the cross.
As Christians we are called to demonstrate this active love to others – to people of all nations and all races – even those on our southern border. Some might say this is impossible. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that Paul’s description of love is only meant to characterize God’s love for us – that it is not meant to suggest that we should aspire to this kind of love. Given the context of Paul’s message of loving admonition to the Church of Corinth, I fail to see how they arrive at this conclusion.
Sometimes when we read this description of love, we are beset by guilt. I encourage you to think of such love as a goal, an aspiration. Acting out of such love is impossible on our own – we can only do so as we accept God’s grace and live into this love. God’s very gifts enable us to give this love as a gift. This does not happen overnight – it may take years, but it is the ideal relationship which God desires for us. In this mode of love, the prophetic words by which we call others into relationship with God will more likely be perceived as an act of love as opposed to an act of judgment. When we grow into this love, our love is more than “noisy-gong-and-clanging-cymbal” love – indeed, our love and our life become an epiphany. May St. Paul’s be an epiphany. Amen