Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Epiphany 3 C – Sunday, January 27, 2013Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This homily is about two kinds of response to Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth. The first I call High-Voltage Dedication, the second Expedient Dedication. I believe we’re actually hard-wired for the high-voltage version, but when the circuitry includes resisters we end up with something less.
The appointed Gospel passage stops short of the complete congregational response to Jesus’ proclamation of the Isaiah passage which I’m taking a bit further to make the point.
The readings depict two basic responses to the proclamation of the Word of God. The returned exiles in Nehemiah weep when they hear the scripture; when the congregants of the Nazareth synagogue hear the scripture embodied in Jesus they do not weep. Luke’s story occurs in a section with the telltale title ‘The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth,’ and you’ll remember the rest: How, after his admirable reading of the Isaiah passage, Jesus’ challenge to his listeners’ cynicism turns everything ugly. It’s intended as an epiphany gospel, but we’ve come a long way from the gold and frankincense and myrrh to the edge of the cliff where they’d like to fling him over, though he slips from their grasp, passing through the crowd in a wondrous kind of way.
For the returned exiles, who for years had been living a life out of suitcases and developing a high-voltage Judaism, it’s as if they were hearing the Word of God for the first time; and so they weep. Their tears express love’s conviction that they had strayed far from that Word and they needed assurance that God’s love for them encompassed and accommodated their failures. They had returned from exile to the territory of Judea, but had not encountered an unambiguous welcome - portrayed as follows: In a town meeting there rose a disagreement between an exilic prophet and the town council concerning the accommodation of Judaism to the governing imperial policy. As they argued the prophet finally proposed: “If I’m right, let that stove in the corner collapse.” The stove collapsed and as the prophet looked meaningfully at the council they replied, “Yes, but that doesn’t matter anymore.” High-voltage Judaism encounters Expedient Judaism.
The congregants of the Nazareth synagogue, another kind of town council, despite their initial admiration of Jesus, could not conceal their disdain for the usurping hometown boy with whom they’d grown up, with whose warts they were all too familiar. This might verge on a sin against the Holy Spirit because the point of Luke’s narrative as an epiphany of the Christ is that Jesus is fresh and brimming from two major encounters with that Spirit - his baptism by John in the Jordan at which the Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and his period of the testing of that Spirit in the wilderness - a kind of shakedown cruise after its gift in the Jordan to perfect and confirm his possession by the Spirit. In conjunction with this, Luke says three times that the descent of the Spirit is God’s way of telling us that Jesus is God’s son. Initially at the baptism, then in the genealogy, and repeatedly during the wilderness testing. Can’t we just hear the synagogue congregants saying, “Yes, but that doesn’t matter anymore.” Expedient Judaism.
For a high-voltage response to the showing forth, or epiphany, of Jesus on this occasion the tears of the returned exiles symbolize what I see played out by the first disciples when they’re called by Jesus, described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “The call of Jesus goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith. But how could the call immediately evoke obedience?
The story of the call of the first disciples is a stumbling-block, and it is no wonder that attempts have been made to separate the call and its obedience. Somehow a bridge must be found between them. Something must have happened in between, some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the assertion: Surely they must have known Jesus before, and that previous acquaintance explains their readiness to hear the Master’s call. Scripture is silent on this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a person’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, they follow at once.
This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to require obedience to his word. Jesus summons us to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. (In the call of the disciples) Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to the world. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for the decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. There is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road -- only obedience to the call of Jesus.
And what does Scripture inform us about the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me. That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. It is not a cause which human calculation might deem worthy of devotion, even the devotion of ourselves. At the call the disciples leave everything that they have -- but not because they think they might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise they cannot follow in the steps of Jesus. The disciples burn their boats and go ahead. They are dragged out of their relative security into a life of absolute insecurity.
When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. Christ calls, we are to follow.”
On this score I relate a little tale of encouragement with which Alan Whittemore used to hearten postulants to the Order, a tale which some of you have heard before, and it goes something like this: Imagine our Lord standing before you, holding out his hand and inviting you to follow him. Will you follow him? He wants you to. Will you take his hand and follow him? He’s inviting you to do so . . . but be careful! There’s a wound in it.