In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
For this sermon and the one next week, I plan to offer a two part series on the concept of fulfillment. The lectionary provides a great way to do this because both the New Testament epistle and the Gospel reading are continuous readings of chapters 12 and 13 of 1 Corinthians and chapter 4 of Luke. We’ll start today with the Gospel.
Last Sunday, we had the reading about the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana of Galilee. In John, that is Jesus’ first act of ministry. In Luke, this story is his first foray into public ministry. Jesus has just been baptized and spent 40 days in the wilderness. He then comes to Nazareth, to the synagogue and he participates in worship. Typically, someone would read a portion of Scripture and then offer a sermon or an interpretation. If you’re a lay reader today, you’re probably glad that you’re not expected to offer commentary after you’ve done the reading. And Jesus is handed a scroll that seems to be destined for his reading. He reads a portion of Isaiah 61. In a sense, what he reads is his mission. It is no coincidence that the passage that Jesus reads is a vision of the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to fulfill.
And it is worth spending a few brief moments on what Jesus reads. He begins by saying that he has been anointed for this task. The word anointed in related to the word “messiah” in Hebrew and “Christ” in Greek, so this reference should not be overlooked. And in the previous chapters of Luke, we are told that the Holy Spirit came down from heaven like a dove and filled Jesus. With this in mind, he begins- “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.” And then Jesus lists five tasks.
The first is to bring good news to the poor. We can interpret this literally to start. Jesus came with a message that focused on the least of these, as opposed to the establishment. Most people assumed that the Messiah would be a part of the ruling elite- that they’d find him sitting a places of honor. But instead, Jesus starts with the poor. Are the poor any more deserving of a messiah than the rich? Of course not. But the poor were invisible in Jesus’ time, just as they are today. In all of our discussions as a nation, whether it is on education, social security, or energy policy, when do we ever consider the poor? No one lobbies on Capitol Hill for the poor. There is no Super PAC that advocates for the poor. When we see a poor person on the street corner, what do we often assume? That they have spent time in jail, are addicted to something, or have a mental disability?
Poverty is a systemic problem. Our culture is designed with a series of oppression systems in place that are designed to keep those in power there. I know the American Dream is the idea of upward mobility, but for the most part, it is just that, a dream and not a reality. And the same was true in Jesus’ time. So he comes and acknowledges those who are invisible, and says that the good news is for them. How might we share this good news with the poor?
Next, Jesus says that he will proclaim release to the captives. Now Jesus was referring to situations of exile, something that doesn’t really translate well into our cultural context. But consider that in Galilee, the life expectancy was around 30. But in the hills, in the Roman city of Sepphoris, people were expected to live well into their 60s. They were not slaves, they had a sense of freedom, but they were captives. I know that we like to think that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, but slavery endures in our lives. According to an online slavery calculator, I have the equivalent of 58 slaves that work to sustain my lifestyle. It happens in a variety of ways, through precious minerals that are mined for use in microchips, to cotton and other clothing materials, to coffee beans, there are people who work under slave-like conditions around the world. Jesus came to offer the liberation, he came to offer them citizenship in the Kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of man which is full of captivity. How might we work to release the captives of our world?
Jesus then offers recovery of sight to the blind. And while Jesus did give sight to a blind beggar, he is proclaiming something larger than a few miracle stories. How many of us are blind to the grace of God which surrounds us? As I said last week, how many of us see distractions and challenges as just “damned events” in our lives instead as opportunities for ministries? Jesus comes to reorient our lives, that we might focus on God and see the things that truly matter. How might we pay better attention to God’s glory all around out, and then show it to others?
Jesus proclaims that the oppressed will go free. Oppression is something that is running rampant in our culture right now. We are in the midst of a fierce war of words where we dehumanize those whom we disagree with. Liberals bash conservatives and conservatives slam liberals. We have several billion dollar so-called news organizations whose sole purpose is to oppress and belittle the other side. We like to think of ourselves as being the greatest and most advanced nation on earth, the one nation that hasn’t succumbed to the atheism of Europe. Though perhaps we were founded on the ideas of liberty and justice for all, our society is a far cry from fulfilling that idea.
Women still only earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by a male worker. Minorities are incarcerated at rates nearly 10 times higher than whites. Education dropout rates are much higher among the poor and minorities. Same sex couples are oppressed by not being offered the same freedom of expression of their loving commitment to each other that heterosexual couples are allowed, despite the fact that heterosexual couples get divorced at a rate of nearly 50%, showing that there isn’t very much sanctity left in the institution. To all those that are oppressed, Jesus comes offering freedom. How might we unbind them of the stigmas and prejudices which our culture places on them?
And lastly, Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. In Biblical terms, this was the Jubilee year. Jubilee was based on the concept that every 50 years, we need to do a reset. Slaves and land that was occupied as a debt payment were released, all debts were forgiven. And this Jubilee was ordained by God in Leviticus. Poverty is not something that should be passed down from generation to generation. The sins of the father did not need to plague the sons and daughters. Jesus came pronouncing forgiveness, a fresh start, a new beginning. How might we let go of our resentments and the things that we hold over each other?
It is also worth pointing out that Jesus doesn’t fully quote Isaiah 61, as he leaves out a sentence. Jesus stops mid-sentence to omit “the day of vengeance of our God.” As Jesus says in John 3:17, the Son was not sent to condemn the world, but to liberate it. Jesus came to offer these pieces of good news, but he makes it clear that he did not come to bring vengeance or punishment. Yet our culture is a vindictive one, one full of lawsuits and an overcrowded prison system. We focus too much on punitive justice instead of restorative justice. We clutch onto our resentments as if they are the most valuable things we own. How might we, like Jesus, put away the need to be vengeful and instead focus on building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?
So those are the things that Jesus speaks of in his reading. And then he offers a sermon that is a bit shorter than this one- he says “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus did not simply interpret the prophecy of Isaiah, he boldly proclaims that he has fulfilled it. But in what sense? The moment Jesus uttered those words, the doors of jails didn’t fly open, the poor weren’t instantly fed, the blind didn’t all regain their sight. What sort of fulfillment is this?
What we see in Jesus is that fulfillment is a process, not a quick fix. Jesus came to live, die, and be resurrected in God’s process. In the same way that a house is not built all at once, but one brick at a time, so too the Kingdom of God is built over time. God is a God of process. Creation was a process. Israel became a nation through a process of liberation and journey. The very fact that we live in a universe built on linear time is evidence enough that God cares about process. There is a wonderful double meaning in the world fulfillment. On the one hand, Jesus came to fulfill this mission, in the sense of working towards a goal. But we also use fulfillment to mean a sense of purpose and happiness. When we are fulfilled, we are living into the core of our identity. And Jesus is fulfilled by his mission in that sense as well. And in both forms of fulfillment, it happens as a process.
St. Teresa of Avila realized that we work in continuing the fulfillment that Jesus began and famously wrote that “Christ has no body but yours / No hands, no feet on earth but yours / Yours are the eyes with which he looks / Compassion on this world / Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good / Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world / Christ has no body now but yours.” That is a good segue into the reading from 1 Corinthians today about the body.
St. Paul uses an often used metaphor, that of the body and its various parts. He says that we are all parts of the body, interconnected and interdependent on one another. In a sense, he is saying that our fulfillment is dependent upon one another. It really is a wonderful metaphor. It begs us to consider what part of the body we are. Later in this passage, St. Paul talks about different gifts, or as the original Greek puts it “graces,” that we each have. It is an invitation to consider what grace you bring to the Body of Christ.
What is your fulfillment? What are you working towards? What fulfills and satisfies you? Every part of the body is important and needed. I know we all would like to see ourselves as the brain, or the heart, or maybe the hands, something important. But the fact of the matter is that every part is important. St. Augustine once said that people often liked to see themselves as the important part of the body, and no one ever thought about being the hair on the body. But he reminded his audience that when we get a bad haircut, we suddenly realize how much value we place on the hair.
The body also shows us that it is important to be true to ourselves. If the foot is not content being a foot and would rather be an eye, then the whole body will stumble. How often though do we try to be something that we are not?
In the body, it is also important to remember that there is no belonging without participating in the body. If you are a part of the body and become dead weight, you will likely fall off or be cut off. Everyone that is in the Body of Christ has a task, there are no free rides in discipleship.
And there is humility in the body. We need each other. The eyes are really important, but if the feet neck doesn’t allow the head to turn, those eyes aren’t going to see very much. Independence has become an idol in our culture, and we too easily forget that our common life depends on each other’s toil. One theologian said that there are two things which we despise the most in life- the failure of others, and the success of others. We don’t tolerate failure because we don’t want to be brought down, we want to achieve our fulfillment. But we also don’t want others to become too successful, because we tend to view the world as a hierarchy, so if someone else is the winner, we must be the loser. But the metaphor of the body invites us to turn leave behind that hierarchy and instead realize that health is only found when all of the body is being fulfilled.
None of us are Jesus, none of us are the Messiah. None of us will be the salvation of the world. But as St. Teresa said, together, we are. Together, we continue in the fulfillment of Jesus. We are fulfilled when we function as the body, offering our different graces to fulfill the mission of Jesus. The things that were the fulfillment of Jesus mission are tall tasks- giving good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and Jubilee to the world. Jesus fulfilled his mission by starting the process of bringing fulfillment to these causes. Our fulfillment is to be found when come together, not for our own greater good, but for the greater good of Jesus. And when Jesus’ mission is fulfilled, so too will ours be.
Our readings today invite us to consider our own place in the body. What gifts do you bring to the table? Are you fulfilled? If not, we would do well to discern if we are functioning as the proper body part, or are we trying to be something we are not? Are we committed to a process that is larger than ourselves? What does the fulfillment of your mission look like?
But you might ask, “why bother?” I can be very happy by just focusing on my own life. And if everyone would just do the same, the world would be a better place. When so much of the body is determined to be selfish and greedy, why should I pay attention to them? Didn’t God create us to be individuals, so why should I join up with others? Why should I seek fulfillment outside of myself? Well, for the answer, we’ll need to turn the continuation of these readings next week.