Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/JGT9viJuyMg
Epiphany 4 C 16
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Well, here we are reading the end of the story we began last week. At the beginning of this incident, Jesus goes into the synagogue and reads from the Prophet Isaiah. Jesus proclaims his mission statement for all the world to hear, and not only his mission statement but his claim to be the fulfilment of God’s covenant with his people. He throws out a challenge to his hearers and it is a challenge to love, just as St Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians is a challenge to love. Radical love, in Jesus’ terms means good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed- in fact, the year of Jubilee will become a permanent state of being. These are words of grace, words of love because they care for people at the most basic level. We are all of us poor and oppressed even if it is just because we live in a broken world, and we all have need of God’s love.
When the people gathered in the synagogue heard Jesus they were impressed and amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. “Gracious”- that is words of grace, words of love. So far so good, they are amazed to hear him, but suddenly it all goes wrong. What exactly happens? Well, the key seems to be in the next remark, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”- I have always understood this as them being amazed that a boy they have known all his life could suddenly come out with this wonderful stuff. However, as I have thought about it and read about it I have realised that it is not that at all, but the fact that they think they own him. They are saying, this man is part of our community- we have this grace for ourselves, and this is why Jesus responds by saying that they are asking him to do also in his hometown the things that they have heard he did in Capernaum. They want to run him, own him. And that is why, in Luke’s account Jesus makes these two strange references to Elijah and Elisha. Both the widow and the leper were outsiders- they were not Israelites. Jesus is telling them in a coded way that he is there for everybody- his words of grace are not just for them. And this is what angers them so much that they decide to throw him off the cliff. They don’t want Jesus to be for the outsiders, they want him to stay there with them and be their pet prophet with whatever benefits they might accrue. However, God’s love wasn’t just for them, it was for everyone! Jews and Gentiles alike. This is a point that Luke, writing for a Gentile audience makes repeatedly.
So what happens? All that heard him in the synagogue were filled with rage! And they get up, drive him out of town and lead him to a cliff to hurl him off. Now this is a very interesting detail. People have wondered about this because outside of Galilee there is no cliff from which he could be hurled! Luke often has some very strange geography- is it just because he had never been to the Holy Land and seen the town of Galilee? I don’t think that is the reason. When you examine Luke’s gospel, any reference like this one is there for a theological reason. The mistake we make is reading this gospel as if it were a newspaper report. This is a constructed narrative that is making a theological point, and I am pretty sure that the point it is making is that Jesus is to become the scapegoat, who will carry the sins of the people right off the cliff. That is what happens in Leviticus 16. However, Jesus, at this moment, walks away. I think that is because it is not yet time for him to be the scapegoat for the people.
This challenge to love the outsider, to be inclusive rather than exclusive, offends them to the point where they would rather reject his gracious words, than hear them.
And the challenge is still there for us. Jesus challenges us to love unconditionally as he does. To love the outsiders just as we love the insiders- those who are like us. And often this still offends us, just as it did them, because we do not want to include others. That is one of our most primary responses- hostility to the person not in our group. It is somehow instinctive behaviour. I experienced it myself the other day. I was at the gym, early in the morning at the time I most like to go. When I arrived, there was just one other woman who I have known for a long time. I was using one of the machines and a woman came in who was someone I didn’t know and I immediately felt this rush of hostility. Was she thinking she was going to use the machine that I wanted next? She was an outsider as far as I was concerned. Now, this was a totally stupid reaction as the woman had just as much right to be in the gym as I had, and hadn’t done anything to offend me but because I didn’t know her, she wasn’t part of the early morning tribe, I felt hostility. You will be pleased to know that I didn’t get up and try to push her down the stairs, neither did I spit at her, or even call her names- I am much too civilised for any of that. When I recognised the feeling of hostility I made a conscious effort to behave like a person of love and smiled at her. She smiled back and the moment passed, but I was ashamed of my gut reaction. I think that most of us, if we are honest have tribal moments like that. And our tribe might be a group of white Anglo Saxons confronted by a person with brown skin, or a person wearing a burqua. Our tribe might be of heterosexual males who feel hostility towards an homosexual in our midst. We might be a group of male priests who still feel challenged by a female in her alb and stole or a mother’s group facing a lone father. We might be comfortable middle class people confronted with someone from a different socio-economic group, we might be English speakers confronted by a Frenchman. Left to ourselves many of us don’t want to include the stranger and it is part of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to be gracious, loving people who can include not exclude. In being the church we are faced by the challenge to love.
And that is Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians. We often read this beautiful passage out of context and it all sounds so lovely. But the reality is that Paul is giving the Corinthians a real serve. He is angry with them because of the way they have let themselves stop practising radical love. They have fallen back into the way of the world with all its divisions and small tribal behaviours. Paul says to them- it doesn’t matter how good you are at other things- it doesn’t matter if you are really full of knowledge or have wonderful spiritual gifts, or even if you are really generous, unless you have love for one another it is all a waste of time. The church, Christ’s body is to be characterised by love- that is how people will know us for who we are. And it is inclusive love, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free in God’s kingdom of love. He tells them to grow up, and to sort themselves out.
And it is not enough to give lip service to this kind of love. The radical love that he calls them to is active. Love shows patience, love acts with kindness, love bears all things, beloves all things, hopes all things and endures all things. This is the love to which we are still called in our community.
We are drawn into the love of God and remade so that we become lovers. And if this is what characterises our community we are truly the body of the great lover, Christ.
This is something that takes constant conversion by the Holy Spirit. And it is possible only through the work of the Spirit. You might think that this is an unachievable ideal. I think however that it is completely possible if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the love of God. And it is not that we will become uniform, all the same as one another. No indeed, radical love in the church is about the capacity for tension and disagreement without division. It is about acceptance and love in the face of difference.
This love is not a burden placed upon us, but rather a reflection of God’s love for us, poured out and spilling over, as Paul says in another place. Because we are fully known by God, and loved and accepted, we can love others. We can love because God first loved us.
Jesus came to proclaim that as a human being he could live out God’s radical love. We too, can be fully human, made in God’s image, people who love.
It is my prayer that as we begin this year we ask the Holy Spirit to transform us into people of radical love, and then act as if we have been transformed, living lives of love.