Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10;
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a;
Year C, Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
What kind of power is Jesus filled with? Just what is the power of the Spirit?
Apparently, it is power to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Last week we saw an example of a different kind of power. The Primates of the Anglican Communion gathered in London and a majority of them voted to sanction the Episcopal Church for the decision at General Convention in 2015 to authorize marriage rites that allow for the blessing of same-sex marriages. The primates specifically demand that the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, “no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
Let me give you a little background on this. The Episcopal Church, which we are a congregation of, is the Anglican Church in the United States and several other countries. That makes us a part of a huge collection of churches with historical roots in the Church of England and the British Empire.
Anglican Churches are found in 165 countries with 85 million people proclaiming the Gospel of Christ in more than 1000 languages. We are a family of autonomous Churches that understand ourselves to be “Formed by Scripture, Shaped by Worship, Ordered for Communion, and Directed by God’s Mission”. We are bound together by the long held principle of “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ.”[i]
That brings us back to the topic of power. Our first reading this morning from Nehemiah describes Ezra reading the holy scriptures. And Ezra … read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. [Ezra and the other priests] gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
Notice that Ezra and the other priests and scribes read from the book, but they also gave their interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
The Bible doesn’t just yield its meaning. You can’t just open it randomly to any page and find the answer to your questions. We don’t just shake the Bible and the meaning falls out. We have to engage in the work of interpretation.
This is important now. This is my point:
Interpreters have power, so you want to be careful who does interpretation, who has the power, and what checks and balances there are on that power.
In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus has power. He is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and he interprets Isaiah for the people in his home town.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When Jesus goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he is interpreting the scripture to say that God has anointed Jesus for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. You and I believe that this is good news, but the people listening to Jesus that morning were not so sure. They did not trust his interpretation. That’s one of the real challenges with interpretation. People disagree.
Interpretation is a sacred act. Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit. That’s important. We believe that the Holy Spirit guides us when we seek to learn from the scriptures.
When we interpret, we pray for the guidance of the Spirit. Before every one of our Wednesday morning Bible Study sessions, we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and we trust that the Spirit works through us.
One of us might have an insight and share it with the group. Another person might be reminded of something they learned or read and share that with the group. We don’t always agree, and sometimes one of us, or all of us, will change our mind in the course of the dialogue. Because that is what we have: a dialogue. We trust that when Christians faithfully gather in prayerful dialogue, studying the scriptures and listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will find God’s will. We will learn, debate, disagree, question, listen, pray, and come to the best understanding we can manage.
That is how the Episcopal Church operates. We have Bishops who call delegates, both lay and ordained, together annually in convention to vote and guide the decisions of the diocese. Every three years we hold a larger convention called the General Convention at which Bishops, priests, and lay people gather to listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. It was this process that led, over the course of more than a decade, to the adoption of two new marriage rites which allow for the blessing of marriages between same sex couples in addition to marriages between a man and a woman.
The structure of the Episcopal Church is unique. The Anglican Churches in Africa are hierarchical in their governance and tend to be more literalist in their interpretation of scripture. I don’t want to judge them, but I do want to point out the difference in our governance. The issue is power and who has the power to interpret the scriptures.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, addressed the gathered primates before they voted to sanction the Episcopal church with these words:
Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.
Curry went on to say:
While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
We Episcopalians may disagree with one another on sexuality. Some will celebrate same-sex marriage, while others see it as an unacceptable compromise, but we will continue to worship together, do God’s work together, and strive for understanding together, trusting that God will guide us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I am grateful for Bishop Curry’s words, and I am grateful for the words of the Apostle Paul:
In Christ we are one Body. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, rich or poor, old or young, black or white, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, low-church Evangelical or High-Church Episcopalian –and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Please pray with me: Loving God, please help us to see the presence of Christ in each person we meet. Please guide us to do your will with our lives, in our ministries, in our interpretation of scripture, in our worship, in our common prayer, and in our work together in your name. Please guide our leaders to find a common path forward, and help us to find ways to bless those in need right here in our local communities. In Christ’s name. Amen.
The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
January 24, 2016