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3rd Sunday of Epiphany

14 January 2022

23 January, Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21

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IGNORANCE is bliss, the saying goes. But ignorance giving way to knowledge can be painful. Former opinions or actions may look shameful or ridiculous in retrospect. Just think of gender and racial stereotyping in classic books, films, and television series. Society and ethics move on, but the texts and images go on saying the same thing for ever.

If “bliss” is freedom from painful realities, then often what it really means is “lost bliss” — a state of being which is recognised only when it is no more. For Adam and Eve, Eden was not bliss until they were deprived of it: before their expulsion, they experienced discontent, temptation, and shame there.

The same irony applies to Christian unity. Unity seems to be the original bliss of the first Christians, before heretics and schismatics spoiled everything. When a group of Christians separates itself, it often claims to be the “true” Church. So the word “unity” might come to be applied to smaller and smaller subdivisions of the body of Christ.

If unity meant insisting that those who worshipped and thought differently from ourselves were not proper Christians, churches would soon vanish in a puff of self-righteousness. The fact that this has not happened — even after two millennia of splits and subdivisions — tells me that real unity is still present in our midst. When Paul wrote that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord” (1 Corinthians 12.4-5), I doubt that he had in mind ARCIC or the World Council of Churches. He was talking about small groups of Christians valuing one another.

Understanding Christians as members of one body is at the heart of the Church. It is an appeal to every member to make their contribution according to their God-given gifts. Paul’s explanation of how the body of Christ works challenges our fascination with status and hierarchy. “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,” he reminds us (v.22): people are needed to lay tables for a harvest supper, as well as for a eucharist; and to raise the parish share, as well as spend it. He wants to enable people to move beyond their social or intellectual comfort zones; so he urges them to believe that they may have more talents than they realise: “Strive for the greater gifts” (v.31).

Instead of making “unity” our sole ideal, we could look at the context of Paul’s exposition. Why raise it at all? We talk about unity because we fear that we may not possess it. Yet it is a mistake to idealise one half of the argument — unity (“one body”; in Greek, hen soma) — and downplay the other (“variety”, or “diversity”; in Greek, diaireses). There needs to be a positive value for diversity and difference, as well as for sameness. It helps that “one body” sounds more concrete and achievable than the abstract English word “unity”.

In the Gospel, Jesus was not the oldest or grandest person present. When he stood up to read, though, others saw that he was filled with the Holy Spirit (v.14), and that he was a young man of remarkable wisdom (v.15). Perhaps the person who handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah had heard that he had been teaching in other synagogues, and wanted to encourage him.

The names of the men who stood beside Ezra when he read the law, and the names of those whose calling it was to teach it to the people afterwards, have been cut from the Old Testament reading. This may be in kindness to the reader, who would otherwise have to pronounce those mouthful monikers in church. But mentioning Mattithiah, Maaseiah, Hash-baddanah, Akkub, and the rest by name could remind us that we, too, can bestow honour upon our own name simply by dedicating to God whatever job we are called to do.

We should value multiplicity. After all, it is not something that we can escape from. Our other task — learning to be one body — need not conflict with this. Think of today’s psalm, its final verse so often adapted by those whose gift is preaching: “Let the words of my mouth, and the thoughts of all our hearts [pluralising what was singular], be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer” (Psalm 19.14).

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