So to recap, in last week’s episode (as they say), Jesus had just come home to Nazareth right after his baptism. The setting is traditional in the Synagogue. Jesus is asked to read the 2nd Reading of the day. The first reading was always from the Torah, the first five books of Moses, in the Hebrew scriptures. And the second reading was from the Prophets, though Jesus doesn’t choose from the appointed lectionary of that time, but goes specifically to Isaiah 61, about how the Spirit of God has anointed the prophet for a mission to the poor: to proclaim release to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim a year of Jubilee. This is Jesus’ mission statement! “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
By the end of this passage, a clear picture begins to emerge of who Jesus is – not unlike what we have learned so far in the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany – which paint a picture of a poor child, born as a refugee, by the power of God’s Spirit, to a humble unwed mother, under the shadow of his more popular cousin John, who baptizes him we find out, on the eve of his arrest by King Herod. And then the Holy Spirit and God’s voice confirm that this Jesus, is God’s Son, the beloved one.
But the hometown folk in Nazareth – where last week we heard they had praised Jesus for his teaching, and his fame was spreading throughout the country side – now this week, take offense when Jesus begins to teach them what this means, that he is an anointed prophet, that is, a Messiah. “Is not this Joseph’s son” they say? And Jesus, holding little back, begins to reveal the kind of transformative message, the embodied gift and responsibility, he brings to us, in our world.
From Christmas birth, to Baptism, to Epiphany, the good news Jesus proclaimed, has been revealed. But the question is, where are we in it? And, do we welcome this good news, as good?
Sitting in his Rabbi pose, Jesus now interprets two more stories from the prophets. It is so easy for us to identify with the outsiders, the Gentiles that Elijah and Elisha minister to, that we can easily miss his point, that we are being challenged by Jesus to see ourselves, not as the Gentiles this time, but as the family and friends of Jesus from his hometown of Nazareth, those who reject Jesus. By the end of this passage in Luke 4, the people are so enraged that they are not included in the release of captivity from Roman rule, and the forgiveness of debts in the year of Jubilee – that much anticipated 50th year when the 99% were given a fresh start, literally a new credit card, past statements burned up, all their interest and fees owed wiped clean – that they turn on him to get rid of him, once and for all, to hurl him off the nearest cliff!
Their misunderstanding and rage can only remind us of the mobs shouting “crucify him, crucify him,” on Good Friday. And likewise, what happens next is best explained by the dawn of Easter Sunday, Jesus somehow passes through the midst of them and went on his way – to the next town, the next calling, the next synagogue and church, willing to hear him.
What grips me today is not how Jesus does that, but why? For what purpose? In other words, why does he not allow himself to die and rise again right then and there? Some have suggested that that is all we need to be saved, Jesus’ blood shed, and God raising him on the 3rd day. Believe in that and you will live. Amen, now let’s go out and celebrate for tomorrow we die too! This is, for example, basically the script of Mel Gibson’s 2003 film, The Passion of Christ, which is all about the bloody substitutionary death of Jesus. His interpretation opens with Jesus’ arrest, omitting his birth and baptism, his healing and teaching, everything that came before.
But what if the purpose of Jesus’ walking away from the angry crowd here at Nazareth, has a more fundamental purpose? What if it is tied to what comes next, the going on to other towns, especially Capernaum, which will be his new base of operation, where he calls 4 fishermen and a tax collector to be his disciples?
Remember that Jesus’ message is one of not curing the self, first and foremost, but revealing how God’s love and grace are for all, how he comes as a doctor, not for the well, but for those who are sick, to lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty, as his mother Mary’s song, the Magnificat, goes. And so, when Jesus quotes from the scroll of Isaiah, it’s indeed significant how he interprets it, by reading everything to the assembly except the one passage about revenge: Today, this scripture is not fulfilled by “the day of vengeance of our God.” For Jesus, it’s not about a bloody revenge, it’s not even about identifying the enemy, the other, to raise and lift up yourself, thus defining who’s in and who’s out. It’s about raising and building up the body in the world, a remembrance and reanimation of the body of Christ, by revealing to us, the violence within us all, and how that understanding releases a new transformative power.
We see the same thing, for example, in saints such as Gandhi and MLK, Jr. Gandhi taught the principles of non-violence, sometimes enlisted the many, and always made sure the media was a witness of his acts of justice and peace on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Dr. King, who borrowed in part from Gandhi, had his circle of disciples too, the Jesse Jackson’s and Andrew Young’s, who went on to be the next leaders, and necessary witnesses, in fulfilling his work.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, if I have all faith, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” said Paul.
When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, and then sat down in the traditional pose of the rabbi to teach, he began with, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And so, only to the extent that this Isaiah scripture is fulfilled in us, today, is the mission of Jesus fulfilled in the body of Christ, in the world. Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way, so that he could gather witnesses to his mission. The sacrificial death of Jesus, or passion of Christ, is nothing without witnesses and followers, in whom the Spirit of the Lord God continues to live and grow.
Jesus gathered a group of friends, 4 working class fishermen, a rejected tax collector, and others, that could be his witnesses. A group like you and I. The 12 disciples, of course, did not always understand what Jesus was teaching, and at the end they all fell away, betrayed and denied him, and their friendship. Instead of defending Jesus, they stood with, and became his ‘enemies’ in his hour of need. Only after his appearance to them in his wounded raised body, did the ‘scales fall from their eyes,’ and they could see themselves as ‘enemies’ in need of release from captivity, and again receive Jesus’ peace and Spirit, and be called, friends.
Today we celebrate RIC Sunday, an official moment in which we ‘come out’ as a congregation to lift up our belief in welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. You think it would go without saying by now, especially in this very accepting neighborhood. But, on the one hand, for those of us who are allies, those of us who do not identify as LGBT, we need to hear it and to pledge again to practice it. And, for those who are still struggling to get healthy about their sexual identity, whatever it is, we need to be clear as the church. Especially a church with a much longer history of being the enemy than friend. There is no barrier – all are welcome! “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, gay or straight.
Jesus was anointed with the Spirit of the Lord to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, a Jubilee year of forgiveness. We all need to hear that, and to take our part in it, today. We are all enemies of Jesus, at one time or another, but who have also been called to be washed clean in the waters of baptism, so that we can accept and embrace our sister- and brotherhood in the one body of Christ in the world.
“Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; The greatest of these is love.” Love even trumps faith, says Paul. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus gave us a love that is for all. Let this scripture be fulfilled in us, today, and every day.