3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 24, 2010
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

Today’s scriptures celebrate the dynamic order of the universe both in the macrocosm and the microcosm. Plato once noted that the orderly motions of the heavens were intended to inspire people to find order and balance in their own souls. The universe is not, from the perspective of Plato and the biblical writers, a series of random and accidental events; rather, creative wisdom guides the universe in all its dimensions and inspires the creativity and freedom of humans living in community with one another. Process theology shares this same vision of an interdependent orderly universe which dynamically emerges through the interplay of vision, freedom, creativity, and more than a little chaos at times.

Nehemiah 8 celebrates the power of the law to nourish and restore order to broken spirits and communities. Once in ruins, Jerusalem has been restored. Once in exile, the captives have returned home. The chaos of injustice that led to the nation’s destruction and the Babylonian captivity has found its healing in the interplay of divine order and human obedience. Now, the people have a second chance to align themselves with God’s vision for human life as reflected in the laws of Moses. This is a day of feasting and celebration for the gift of divine law brings order and wholeness to a once broken community.

Paul Tillich once described three approaches to authority and law: heteronomy, the rule of an outside force or imposed law; autonomy, individualistic self-rule; and theonomy, alignment with God’s vision for our lives and the law of our being. Theonomy is not imposed from without but reflects our deepest nature and what is truly good for us as persons. From this perspective, the law of God – here described in terms of the law of Moses – inspires us to joyful obedience as the foundation for the well-being of person and society. Put simply, even in an emerging and creative universe some things are simply good for us and our communal and planetary companions.

As I read Nehemiah’s celebration of divine law, I am reminded of the Rule of Benedict, a classic in monastic spirituality. In the Rule, there is guidance for virtually every activity from how we treat tools and greet strangers to shopping and paying the bills. While such guidance may become onerous and legalistic, it may also inspire us to see every encounter and activity as holy and reflective of divine inspiration. (Norvene Vest’s Preferring Christ is, perhaps, the best translation and commentary on Benedict’s Rule.) 

I believe that these passages point to a “deep obedience,” reflected in Parker Palmer’s recognition that the root of the word obedience is to “sound through” or “listen.” Accordingly, obedience to divine law is not a matter of always following external directions but experiencing the call to join God’s vision for this moment and for your live with your own highest (and divinely-inspired) aspirations.

Psalm 19 continues this celebration of divine order and law. “The heavens are telling the glory of God” and “the law of God is perfect, reviving the soul.” We are children of the universe and the same energy and wisdom that gave birth to the big bang and the emergence of galactic and planetary life inspires humankind to seek its dynamic wholeness. Within the chaos (see “chaos theory”) of an emerging and evolving universe, there is a pattern of grace and transformation that moves through both macro and micro, and planet and person.

I Corinthians 12:12-31 asserts that divine law relates to persons and their communities. All persons have gifts whose proper exercise brings health to the body of Christ. Yet, the body of Christ is not homogenous, but the result of the dynamic functioning of many diverse organs and bodily parts, all of which need one another for their full flourishing. Pluralism and unity are joined a “creative synthesis” that brings health to the whole. Within the healthy and interdependent body of Christ, each part’s creative self-affirmation is joined with the recognition of interdependence and loyalty to the whole. No part can exist alone, nor can whole flourish without the well-being of the parts. Altruism and relatedness, rather than individualism and self-interest, reflect the nature of reality. Indeed, our self-interest is contingent on the well-being of the other parts. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

The gospel reading describes Jesus’ first public sermon. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaims his mission as God’s messenger to humankind: God’s Spirit inspires Jesus to bring good news to the poor, set free the captives, heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, and proclaim God’s Jubilee year of Shalom. Jesus’ invocation of Isaiah describes the values necessary for healthy and dynamic human communities, which foster creativity, self-actualization, and mutual affirmation. Apart from the affirmation of the humblest as well as most powerful members of a community, interdependence is an illusion and the community ultimately becomes oppressive and dysfunctional.

Today’s readings give the preacher and her or his community an opportunity to see their individual lives as part of larger circles of graceful interdependence. We are not alone; God’s call and response lures us toward healthy personal and communal lives. We belong to a larger universe, in which our lives are part of larger story (the “universe story”) and a “holy adventure” of call and response, and order and novelty. In this holy adventure, we can do our part in mending the world and healing this good earth. (See Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living).

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.