Epiphany 3C: Outside the Water Gate--Seeing How Jesus Sees and Reading How Jesus Reads
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
3rd Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
In our passage from the prophet Nehemiah, we have this scene of Ezra reading the entire book of the law, which God had given to Moses, to the gathered people of Israel who have recently returned from exile. The first thing they do as a reconstituted people is listen to their story, to remind themselves of who and whose they are who they are called to be. The law is read outside the Water Gate—a place outside the Temple where everyone, even the ritually defiled, could be present. The story belongs to everyone. And rheir identity as a listening people, a people who discover who they are not by listening to the cocktail chatter of their own self-centered fears, desires, and petty grudges, but to how God has spoken is revealed. God speaks—in creation, in the calling of his people, in the giving of the law, in the liberation of his people, in the raising up prophets—and it is Israel’s job to listen, to receive, and, of course, respond.
But notice that when the law is read, Nehemiah tells us that, “they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Interpretation is baked in to the listening. There is no such thing as the so-called “plain sense”—biblical literalism is not just a heresy, it’s an impossibility that presumes we could somehow get plain, unvarnished, access to an interpretation-free reading.
So if interpretation is unavoidable, we have to be careful about the lens through which we read scripture. But my recommendation is that we read it the way Jesus’ reads it, that his hermeneutic should be ours. If we have the mind of Christ and are called to put on Christ, it’s our job as Christians to see how he sees and read as he reads. The birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection and ascension of Jesus are the lens through which read the scriptures.
If you take a look at how Jesus reads his own Jewish scriptures, you find some interesting things. He emphasizes some things and deemphasizes others. He breaks taboos. It puts people before abstract adherence to the laws of ritual purity. He’s a simplifier and focuser of the scriptures—the entire canon of 613 Levitical laws is reduced to just one: “Love the Lord thy God will all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.”
In our Gospel for today, we see much of how Jesus reads and interprets scripture on full display. Having just emerged from the forty days in the desert where he is tempted by Satan to substitute power, prestige, possessions for reliance on God and God alone, Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from the scroll. Remember, this is the first thing Jesus says in his public ministry and it serves as the guidepost, the benchmark, of everything that is to come. And what does he read? That beautiful passage from Isaiah, “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."
Of all the scriptures this is one that Jesus chooses to mark the beginning of his ministry. Interesting, isn’t it? But what’s more interesting is that Jesus is interpreting as he is reading. He actually leaves out the last part of the passage from Isaiah that speaks of the “day of vengeance of our God” and ends instead with the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus is reading with the eye of love letting everything that doesn’t accord with that vision be relativized or recognized as perhaps saying more about the human character and preoccupations of the divinely-inspired (but not dictated to!) authors of scripture than it does about God.
After Jesus reads, he sits down—a prophetic sign act that speaks much more than simply the desire to take a load off. To sit down is to take a position of authority, a teaching position. And Jesus tells them that, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All eyes are fixed on him, staring at him. Jesus is telling them that scripture is no longer a book, but a living person. If you want to know the meaning of scripture, don’t debate with the Scribes and Pharisees, but look at the shape of my life. How I live my life, and how that leads inevitably to my death at the hands of the authorities, is my interpretation of the scriptures. Who I break bread with, who I touch, who I heal, how I forgive on the way to the cross—that is my interpretation of the scriptures.
So if we are interpret the scriptures in the same way that Jesus does, we need to see how he see, live how he lives, love how he loves. That’s the whole purpose of Church and the two thousand years of tradition that have been handed over to us—to make us into “little Christs” as St. Augustine says, to become “partakers of divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Everything thing we do comes from having our eyes “fixed on him” that we might become more like that which we see. Our worship and liturgy, our daily prayer, our wrestling with the scriptures, our service to others in the spirit of sacrificial love, our work for freedom, justice, peace, and reconciliation—these are the appointed means by which our lives, right here and right now in this very place, become a little more like the one we behold, the one we worship, the One whose meaning is Love.
You’ve probably guessed already that when we come to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we can see that Paul, too, interprets scripture, Paul, too, has a lens through which he reads the tradition and the circumstances of his daily life. In 2:2 he proclaims, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Faced with all manner of shenanigans in the nascent church at Corinth, all manner of problems to which he could have tried to address, Paul shows a singularity of vision, a passionate focus, a centering of the entirety of his attention on Jesus Christ and him crucified. It’s striking that in a time when a managerial mindset plays such a prominent role in the church and you’re as likely to hear church leaders talk about “building capacity” or “operationalizing the Jesus Movement,” Paul provides a powerful counter-example. Paul chooses to “know nothing” but Jesus Christ in the faith and hope that everything he needs to know will be given to him through Christ, in the degree which he becomes more and more like Christ.
The explosive growth of the early Church suggests that Paul might just have been on to something: that it is in deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ, doing what he says, listening to him, keeping our eyes fixed on him, knowing nothing but him, that what we seek through management techniques and growth strategies, is given unto us—not as reward for implementing a program, but as the fruit of relationship with the source of all beauty, truth, and goodness.
As members of the Body of Christ we all have a single purpose in life—to become love for others. But how that manifests is gloriously, dizzingly, diverse. Our passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is concerned with addressing our apparent need to compare the unique way one member walks in love with how another member does it. Again, Paul looks to the Jesus Christ and him crucified as a way to show the Corinthians their error. Jesus in the one in whom there is Jew, nor Greek, slave, nor free, Paul reminds the Corinthians. The life and witness of Martin Luther King, whose holiday we celebrated on Monday, demonstrates the same Jesus-centered logic—that everything that gets in the way of love, every form of oppression that destroys or distorts the children of God must be lovingly, non-violently, but relentlessly dismantled. For Jesus is the one who could never utter the words, “I have no need of you,” to anyone—lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, centurions, patrons of the synagogue, women with issues of blood, even those who wanted to execute him. Living from belovedness, and seeing with the eye of love, Jesus’ life was one of terrifyingly undefended vulnerability, indiscriminate hospitality, and radical welcome. Following him, seeing with his eyes, means that the work for freedom and reconciliation, the naming of structures of previously invisible oppression goes on that those words we utter every day, “Your Kingdom come,” might become a reality.
When we look to him, how is it possible to think that a pancreas is better than a liver, a foot than a hand, and eye than a knee. The church finds its unity, its harmony, in looking not with the eye of comparison at each other, but by standing shoulder to shoulder with that person you’d never otherwise know and gazing at Jesus. Love, as Antoine de Saint Exupéry reminds us, come not from staring at each other, but by looking in the same direction. The bond between saints like Clare and Francis comes not from some erotic, proto-hippy free-love licentiousness as Franco Zeffirelli seems to suggest in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, but in shared turning to Jesus that each of their lives evinces.
As we gather, after our worship together for our annual meeting to hear from the various members of the body about where we’ve come from, where we are now, and who God might be calling us to be, keep Paul’s metaphor of the body in mind. Listen for how the ministers of the church—the laity—each in their own way, according to the various gifts they have been given have been working together for the building up of the body. Listen as well for the ways in which the Cathedral has been working to make this increasingly a place where fixing our eyes on Jesus, following him, listening to him and doing what he says, seeing how he sees and loving who and how he loves, is the most important thing. Listen for how your focus on him might be sharpened, deepened, but also how you, a beloved, indispensable member of the body of Christ might share the fruits of that turning to him with others, and with the world.