3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 21, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 19
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Reading 4: 
Luke 4:14-21
By Bruce G. Epperly

How can the reading of the Law be a source of celebration? For most of us, the law is something that stifles, inspires fear of punishment, and limits our freedom. “Law and order” is often a code word for harassing the homeless, minorities, and undocumented workers. In church, law has often been used to stifle the voices of sexual minorities and innovative thinkers or to oppose to anything that might encourage creativity, pleasure, or happiness. Accordingly, the use of “law” in scripture, tradition, and sermon must be looked at carefully and critically. Still, I believe that today’s scriptures speak of a much deeper meaning of the law, most particularly, God’s law revealed in our lives.

We can get a clue into the positive meaning of the law from theologian Paul Tillich, who spoke three types of law – autonomous (self-rule in isolation from the community), heteronomy (the external law, given to us without our consent or input), and theonomous (the inner law of our being, the divine law reflected in our deepest desires). Only theonomy can heal and transform persons and communities because it arises from God’s presence and quest for healing and justice for all creation, parts and whole alike.

Although process-relational theology has not given a great deal of attention to the theological dimensions of law, I believe that law can be interpreted in dynamic, relational, and liberating fashions. Think a moment of the positive benefits of law in your personal or family life. Law provides a regularity and order essential for experiences of basic trust and security for adults as well as children. Too much chaos in the social order, in worship, in a family or small group, or in our personal lives, makes creative action a virtual impossibility. From this perspective, law supports and nurtures rather than constricts personal and social freedom. All creativity requires a certain degree of limitation and stability. These are the materials necessary for creativity in music, art work, worship, and writing.

Think of your church’s worship service as an example of the intersection of evolving divine law and human creativity. Too much ritual and order can stifle the creative movements of the spirit. On the other hand, too much chaos and novelty makes meaningful worship difficult. Worship, at its best, blends order and chaos, liturgical familiarity with extemporaneous prayer and praise, and predictability with surprise.

Nehemiah describes the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. After decades of captivity, the children and grandchildren of those who had been exiled to Babylon returned to Jerusalem and a new life. The reading of the law represented a restored world. The law provided a sense of security for the newcomers to Jerusalem in the same way that a fence or playpen or a hug can be a source of security for a young child. The disorder of captivity was now a thing of the past; they could rejoice in the divine order that liberates and transforms. Law symbolized the reality that healthy order had been returned to their lives, and that now they could plan for a radically different future.

Psalm 19 joins cosmology and ethics. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” The order of the universe is beautiful and predictable even amid constant transformation. Without God’s gentle cosmic care, revealed in each new day and in the orderly arising and perishing of life, we could not complain about life’s imperfections. Even aging and death, like the changing of the seasons, are part of an orderly and evolving universe. There is plenty of pain and evil in the world, and we must do all we can to bring healing to life’s brokenness, but day by day, God’s order and beauty spring forth.

Jewish theology describes the relationship between divine and creaturely creatively with the word zimzum. God “withdraws” from the world in order to give space for creaturely creativity. As a metaphor, zimzum affirms that God’s creativity, at both the micro and macro levels of life, is congruent with creaturely freedom. Order is neither absolute nor perfect. Divine order that serves as the basis for creaturely creativity is constantly being modified in light of ongoing divine-human creativity. God’s aim at order is mated with God’s call to novelty. New forms of order emerge, in the divine-partnership, only to be superseded by other forms of other, once their time has passed.

I Corinthians 12 describes God’s Spirit moving through the varieties of gifts within the Christian community and, I would add, the world. The body of Christ is a perfectly ordered whole, but its order is grounded in variety and diversity rather than homogeneity and uniformity, and dynamism rather than changelessness. Like the healthy human body, new forms of order are constantly emerging and evolving within healthy congregational and planetary life.

Within the divine body, everyone matters. Even the “inferior” parts of the body are essential to its survival and well-being. What is obvious and noticed may, in fact, be less essential to survival than what is often forgotten. For example, in the human body, the liver or immune system receive little adulation, but apart from their proper functioning we could not appreciate the external beauty of our own bodies or the bodies of others. The unsung heroes and heroines of every seminary, university, and congregation are the housekeeping, janitorial, and heating and cooling staff. Apart from their dedication and skills, professors could not teach and physicians and nurses could not treat patients, and worship could not be held. The congregation is challenged to ponder the question, “what important persons are forgotten in our community.” Looking at our own lives, we are also asked to ponder, “what gifts have we forgotten in our pursuit of affluence and security?”

Health of the community, like health of the body, requires the well-being of all its members. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it: if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” In the intricate garment of relatedness (Martin Luther King), we all need each other. There is no place to hide in an interdependent universe. While the actions of terrorists are reprehensible and deserve punishment, they are part of a larger planetary picture that includes imperialism, empire-building, and economic injustice. The congregation needs to be challenged again with a question, “where are we hurting others directly or indirectly in our community, and how is that shaping the health of our community?” Further, within the community, the image of the body of Christ invites us to another question, “whose gifts enable us to experience fullness in our own lives? Whom are we called to nurture?” Gratitude and care for the body of Christ, the dynamic interdependence of giving and receiving, are appropriate virtues for Christians in community.

Luke’s gospel describes Jesus’ first public message. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaims “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to proclaim good news.” John Cobb once asked, “Can Christ be good news?” Jesus is proclaiming the reality of God’s law that embraces and welcomes the least of these in every community. Tragically, the telling of the Christian message, in some quarters, has been “bad news” to many of marginalized and “unimportant” persons – undocumented workers; women seeking equality of opportunity and, in some denominations, ordination; gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender persons; and abused spouses.

How do we speak the good news to those who don’t expect to hear it from the church? How do we, like the heavens, “tell the glory of God” to the marginalized and oppressed, and to the silently hurting in an affluent congregation? Perhaps, one answer is to found in a word seldom employed by mainstream and progressive Christians, “anointed.” “Anointed” is a word invoked by Pentecostals and evangelicals to describe the heightening and focusing of God’s spirit in life transforming ways. When God’s spirit “anoints” someone, according to many Pentecostals, God touches that person in a special way, giving her or him a special gift of tongues, healing, discernment, etc.

 In light of I Corinthians 12, all Christians can awaken to God’s anointing power. Like the blood coursing through our body or the air we breathe, God is constantly inspiring, enlivening, and guiding us. We cannot escape God’s guidance, energy, or healing touch. But, sadly in many progressive and mainstream congregations, we seldom expect God’s presence to well up within us in surprising, energetic, and life-changing ways. Can we be “anointed” progressives, whose openness to God’s grace allows lively, healing, socially-transforming, energy to flow through us to heal the world?

There is another meaning of the word “anointed,” closely connected with healing and wholeness. As part of many liturgical healing services, persons come forward to be anointed with oil as a sign of God’s healing touch. Anointing soothes, comforts, welcomes, and transforms. Anointed touch restores us to the dynamic health that is the “law” of our body, mind, and spirit. While our churches may not evidence such gifts as speaking in tongues and ecstatic praise, our congregations can nurture other important gifts of God’s spirit – such as welcoming touch and liberating voice - as they become communities of anointing, called to touch our communities in the spirit of the healer Jesus.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.