4th Sunday after Epiphany

January 29, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Reading 2: 
Psalm 111
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:21-28
By Rick Marshall

Discussion of the Texts:

What a seemingly unrelated grouping of texts! What could the lectionary selection committee have in mind here? One of the strengths of using the lectionary is that it forces the preacher to go more deeply into the texts, not to concoct connections that are not there, but to move to a deeper level where roots of the texts might feed off a common source. Ultimately, it is fair to say that most texts ultimately lead back to the reality of the God spoken of in the scriptures.

Let us begin with the Psalm text and also end there. It's crucial to begin and end with the community at worship. Psalm 111 is a song of praise. Verse one is an expression of praise coming out of the community. "I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation." The song goes on to become a statement that ultimate respect is due God as the true source of well-being. The awe-respect of God is the beginning of wisdom. This reminds me of Aristotle's observation that wonder is the beginning of philosophy, literally the love of wisdom. "Fear" is not a good word to describe an appropriate reaction to God; I think something more like "awed respect" is more accurate. The Psalm implies that this attitude toward God is the compass of life, the point to which we set our bearings. It is "awed respect" of the Creator-Redeemer God that is expressed in the midst of a worshipping community.

The Corinthian texts turns its focus on the worshipping community itself, delineating the delicate relationship between freedom in Christ and responsibility to the community. Paul believes that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. The issue of whether to eat meat offered to idols is an example of the principle of freedom and responsibility. The text begins with "'knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." This becomes a practical matter in the worshipping community. Paul agrees of course that what we eat makes no difference in our relationship with God, but some people are still torn in their conscience. There are issues today that are just as pertinent to us as eating meat that was offered to idols was for Paul's communities. Is it okay to display the American flag in the sanctuary? Are we bending our knee, or acknowledging the empire, if we allow its mere presence in a place of worship? Is it okay to celebrate Halloween? Or Christmas? both of which holidays are soaked in pagan ritual. Paul says it's not about the food or the observances, because there is no other God behind these practices. There is only one God after all. The issue is being aware of other worshippers' sensitivity to these matters. We might feel confident about such matters, but its another issue of we impose them on others, or flout our confidence in front of them in such a way as to disrespect them.

When Paul uses the word "love" or "agape" in verse 1, it has little to do with feelings, but with the way we treat others. The word "respect" is a better word than "love." Paul is pushing the worshipping community to treat one another with respect. We don't have to agree on many things, but we do have to treat one another with respect. He is echoing Jesus' reminder that all the commandments can be boiled down to two, which are so closely related that they are two sides of the same coin. Love God and love neighbor, the idea being, treat God with awe-respect and treat others with respect. Yes, you are free in Christ, Paul says, but that freedom in Christ requires that you treat others with respect. Jesus spun out the respect-ethic in the Sermon on the Mount; Paul applies it to the worshipping community.

The Mark text takes place in the midst of a worshipping community. It's the Sabbath, and Jesus and his disciples arrive in the synagogue in Capernaum and teach. A man with an "unclean spirit" interrupts. Jesus says, "Be silent, and come out of him!" Everybody was shocked, asking if this power comes from a new teaching or some other kind of authority. The shock goes to the heart of Jesus' teachings about the kingdom coming. The answer to their question depends upon who is asking it. If someone in the worshipping community is asking, the answer is no, this is not a new teach or authority; it has been available to the worshipping community all along. If asked from the perspective of empire, the powers that be, the answer is yes, it is a new teaching and a new kind of power, and it is meant to undermine the powers that be. The worshipping community will form around the kingdom and Jesus' teaching and power: this power will emerge from the community.

The Deuteronomy text talks about the word of the Lord emerging from the community. Again, the text affirms the importance of the community and the word of God making sense within the context of community, where it is tested and applied and spoken out as prophecy.

Process and the Texts:

A focus on worshipping community is to recognize the inherent relational aspect of the Gospel. Religion is not an isolated, private affair of simple inwardness, but is life lived out in a community. We are not strictly isolated individuals who then have external relations with the world. Community is not an option, but is the defining environment of the worshipper. Community is the soil out of which we grow. We are related to everything internally as well as externally. It is as affair of the heart. See Paul's use of the image of the body, especially in 1 Corinthians 12. Everything is connected to everything else.

We often hear people say that they don't belong to organized religion because they can worship God at the beach or in the mountains. This might be true, but it isn't enough to grow into a whole human being by being formed in dynamic relation to a worshipping community.

Preaching the Texts:

This would be a good set of texts to use to focus on the importance of the worshipping community and how it is different from any other community. It is a community that is organized around the respect ethic, a place where Jesus' teaching is put into practice. When it is a true worshipping community, there is transforming power and authority in its midst. The preacher could use the example of the community to which he or she is preaching to lay out the dynamics of struggling to evoke the kingdom coming.

God's kingdom is not some distant dream, but is urgently pulling to emerge in us, through us, now. Now is the time to confront the call to be a community of God's people.

The preacher could use the Psalm to bracket the sermon; it is an expression of what roots us as a community.

Children and the Texts:

It would be good to keep with the topic of the texts, defining the idea of love as respect. Begin by asking the children what they think love means. Of course it will mean most of what they say. Move the discussion to how the Bible uses the word "love." Does it mean we have to like everyone? Does it mean we have to feel good about someone who tries to hurt us? Of course not!

It means we treat others the way we want to be treated, with respect. What is respect? It's treating another person, whoever they are and however they act, the same way we would like to be treated. How do we like to be treated?

May the Creative Transforming power of God be with you in your preaching.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.