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Sunday’s readings >

Faith readings: 4th Sunday of Epiphany

Rosalind Brown

by Rosalind Brown

Posted: 18 Jan 2013 @ 12:12

Nehemiah 8.1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21

God our creator, who in the beginning commanded the light to shine out of darkness: we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, shine into the hearts of all your people, and reveal the knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the Early Church, sin was primarily sin against the community, and the goal of penance was reconciliation to the community. As time passed, sin became less a public and more an individual matter. We live with the tension between these two understandings, and scandals that are coming to light highlight forcefully that there are public implications of the ways in which we live privately.

On the whole, the world finds it more comfortable if the Church sticks to sin as private morality, but it is discovering that religious leaders have significant contributions to make in the face of current public ethical crises. The readings face us with these communal implications.

Ezra read the law to the returned exiles who, just a few days earlier (Ezra 6.15, 8.2), had completed the city walls. They lived more securely, but not righteously. The manifestation of this was that they oppressed their kin, charging them interest on loans (Nehemiah 5.3-11, Deuteronomy 23.19).

The Corinthians were keen on some spiritual gifts, but seemingly not on striving (a strong verb) for gifts such as "forms of assistance" (1 Corinthians 12.28) to aid the weaker and poorer members of the body (11.18-22). Jesus began his public ministry - in Luke by teaching, in contrast to Mark's beginning with miracles - by defining his ministry in Isaiah's words of healing, wholeness, and liberation for needy people.

The response of Ezra's hearers was penitence: they wept. That was a start, but Nehemiah wanted more of them than this; they had to learn not just to be sorry, but to live righteously, to be holy in their daily lives. At that moment, this meant worshipping God with joy, and ensuring that the poor whom they had previously exploited had food and wine with which to join the celebration. This was to be a radical, Scrooge-like conversion.

The Corinthians struggled, as we might in their shoes, to grasp the full implications of the grace that had grasped them. Jesus's hearers were excited initially by his preaching, but, oddly, the Gospel omits the opposition, once Jesus had spelt out the consequences. What really riled his former neighbours was his claim that God's track-record of favouring the Jewish people was not as pure as they liked to think: through two of their leading prophets, God acted outside religious boundaries to care for people they despised and knew as Gentiles (Luke 4.24-29).

In the sixth century, Gregory the Great described the joys of the contemplative vision of God, but also the constant need for the active life, with its discipline and service expressed in meeting the needs of the poor and caring for one's family.

Put another way, Jon Sobrino defines spirituality as "Kinship with God, it is walking at God's side. It is being and working in history as God is and works. It is our 'yes' to Jesus's basic demand. . . 'You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect'" (Spirituality of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1990).

As a liberation theologian, Sobrino argues that the means by which we know God, who is unfathomable Mystery, is the practice of right and justice towards the poor, with a goal of liberation. Jesus did this: when John's disciples asked whether he was the one sent from God, Luke has him returning to this theme of the blind seeing and the poor having good news preached to them (Luke 7.20-22). This is what revealed his identity.

Ultimately, public and private spirituality and morality are two sides of one coin: the way we live expresses and shapes who we are. Like Ezra's returned exiles, who were understandably focused on their security, and like the Corinthians, who were fascinated by the signs and wonders of their new faith, but less keen on its ethical implications, we, too, can miss encountering God through the poor in our midst.

This makes the petition in the collect so important. We ask God, who caused light to shine out of darkness - an act that scientific discoveries make more wonderful almost by the day - to shine the gospel in our hearts, dispelling our (not someone else's) ignorance and unbelief, and revealing the knowledge of God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ. We, together with the world that is watching the Church, may be surprised by how God answers.

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