Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- When we truly love someone we show this by our interest in the loved person, we want to find out all about them and we share ourselves with them. Truly loving relationships moreover are inclusive ones; one’s which make room for others, friends who also find a valued place in our lives. Surely the same must be said for our relationship with God, the most important being in the universe and in our daily lives, and to whom we will relate all our lives long. This necessity to engage with God, and to know him and share our lives with him, is not a new thing, as we witness throughout the Old and New Testaments. Pope Francis spoke recently of the need for us to love the scriptures and to be deeply involved in their study. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the second century, spoke of this as a process by which God and humanity become familiar or accustomed to each other. It saddens and surprises me that so many Christians know so little of their bibles, and there is an appalling ignorance of the scriptures today in general, as witnessed by many quiz programmes. Many people cheerfully ‘give-up’ religion, or indeed espouse another, with lamentable ignorance of what the faith is truly about, and this failure has other far reaching results, as any teacher of English literature knows to her cost. All three of our readings this week are concerned with precisely this matter, and stress its critical importance in our lives. Ignorance of scripture, Jerome opinioned, is ignorance of Christ. Not to be engaged in this life-long quest for God, in which we grow as believers, surely condemns the Christian to a narrow fundamentalism, and a life in which worship of God becomes confined to some statuary obligations performed from habit, but with little relevance to the rest of life, and will ultimately result in an increasingly empty faith, one unfitted to deal with the rigours life throws at us.
When Nehemiah (Neh 8:2-6.8-10) returned to Palestine from exile in Babylon under the Persians in the 6th century, as an official of the Persian court, he and other Jews had to grow in their understanding of the Law amidst all the demands and changes that life in Israel brought to them. As refugees they would have faced many challenges, not the least the need to settle down in a homeland now occupied by those never deported, or even foreigners placed there by the Babylonians. What we see then is not the simple reading of the scriptures, the law, but interpretation of it, application given by Ezra the priest as they came to appreciate its relevance in the changed circumstances of their lives. We are told that this was a very seminal moment for them, as they wept and worshipped, and took to heart the scriptures they already knew, but needed to reinterpret according to their changed circumstances.
Our Gospel (Luke 1:1-4.4:14-21) shows us Luke’s spreading of the vision of Jesus and his ministry out beyond Judaism to incorporate another important person with links to the pagan administration of his day who was just like Nehemiah. Theophilus was a former pagan Roman aristocrat and Luke’s patron and sponsor in his doctoring business. By way of introduction to his picture of Jesus, Luke tells Theophilus how Jesus began his ministry by teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth. Clearly, once again, Jesus was taking a passage of the scriptures and discussing it, interpreting it for the benefit of his hearers, and when he moved on to use part of Isaiah 61 we suddenly witness a moment in which such a passage of scripture takes off, leaps from the page as a description of the life and ministry of Jesus himself. Now no longer confined to words on a scroll, it becomes the leitmotif of a life lived wholly in God. Here the word of God has become human, and within that all the hopes and challenges of Israel come to the fore, as the people are faced with the Word incarnate who will alter forever their understanding of God and his relationship to his creation, and the invitation to each and every human being who heard those words.
It was just the same for St Paul. (1 Corinthians 12:12-30). Paul was dealing with a difficult collection of people in Corinth, people much given to competition and clawing their way to the top in the nouveau-riche world that was the Corinth of his day. By way of convincing them of the new and challenging Christian message, one of number of new faiths to hit the city from the East, and in competition with those like Isis; Christianity, unusually for paganism, had moral implications and right and wrong ways of living out one’s daily life, and Paul struggled to find the right language to convey its communal and caring demands. He did this by use of metaphors. Paul was at no time giving a lecture on anatomy, rather by use of this metaphor of the way the human body works he picked on an illustration everyone could understand to illuminate the radical Christian doctrine of the human community in Christ and in each other. The implications of Paul’s metaphor are very far reaching, as they were for the first Corinthian Christians, and as indeed they are for us now; for he suggests that as Christians we are utterly dependent upon each other, as the eye is to the hand. We together form this extraordinary thing called the Church, the body of Christ. Our individual human bodies are as interrelated to others bodies as are the organs of our own bodies. It goes far beyond ‘no man is an island’, and reaches into the depths of what it means to be human, indicating that without that critical conception of our mutual need and support we are less than fully human. Paul’s staggering metaphor on the community of the Church, and its implications in Christ-like self-giving, are issues for daily exploration and growth, and his work is redolent with meaning in our so dysfunctional modern world. So we have much to contribute and much to learn from our continual study of the Bible.