Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Celebrating the New Day of the Spirit
I have long enjoyed singing Brian Wren’s hymn “This is a Day of New Beginnings.” It serves as a call to embrace the opportunity of starting afresh. If you’ve experienced pain and suffering there is hope for tomorrow, but not only that, there’s an invitation laid out in the hymn’s third stanza that makes this clear: “Then let us, with the Spirit’s daring step from the past and leave behind our disappointment, guilt, and grieving, seeking new paths, and sure to find.” The journey we live isn’t always easy. It’s filled with occasional potholes and distractions, but there is still hope, because the Spirit is present with us, empowering, gifting, strengthening and rebuilding.
The reading from the Hebrew Bible emerges out of the post-exilic period, when the people of Judah returned to Jerusalem, found it had been destroyed, and wondered about its future. The Gospel looks back to Isaiah 61, it also being a text that emerges from the post-exilic period. It too speaks of a new beginning, a new awakening.
As I read the texts I thought again of the conversations many of us have been having regarding the future of the church and our message. Many churches face declines in numbers, finances, and energy. Many congregations are aging quickly and wonder if there will be a tomorrow. Those of us who serve these churches are only too aware of their fragility. Like Nehemiah’s Jerusalem, things don’t look that great. Still, there is hope. Whether it’s Harvey Cox’s “Age of the Spirit,” Phyllis Tickle’s “Great Emergence,” Diana Butler Bass’s “New Great Awakening,” or Doug Pagitt’s “Inventive Age,” there is the promise of a new day of the Spirit, and with the transformation of the people of God comes the transformation of the world. So rejoice, be glad, for as Ezra says to the people: “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10 NRSV).
We start our conversation with the reading from Nehemiah. Nehemiah had been appointed governor of the Persian province of Judah, and had received instructions that he could commence rebuilding the walls of the city. Ezra was numbered among the priests of Judah, and in this reading he responds to a request from the people that he read from the Torah – the book of the Law of Moses. The Common English Bible, interestingly, translates Torah as “the Instruction scroll,” a reminder of its purpose in the life of the people. So, on the first day of the seventh month of Tishrei, he gathers the people together – men and women -- and from early morning on into the middle of the day, he read from the scroll to everyone who would listen. As he opens the scroll, he blesses the Lord, the people shout Amen, raise their hands, and then bow down and worship the LORD with their faces to the ground. As I read this I’m reminded of how my Muslim friends pray so that their praises are fully embodied. Still, not only did he read from the scroll, but he explained it and interpreted it so the people could understand. Understanding is key, and thus the importance of interpretation.
The people’s reaction is interesting – as they hear these words, they begin to weep. Certainly they were hearing something that caused them distress, but Ezra, Nehemiah, and the rest of the Levites assured them that there was no reason to mourn – instead, they should rejoice. Yes, “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet.” Soon we’ll enter Lent and with it hear the call to fast (some of us will try this, while others of us will acknowledge the tradition with a passing nod – I shall not reveal which of these describes me), but now is not the time. Instead it is time to have a party, but it’s also a time to share with those who lack resources. Why? Because this is a day that is holy to the LORD, and therefore there is no place for sadness – for “the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Yes, this is a day of new beginnings, a day when the people of God can set out on new journeys, knowing that God’s Spirit is with them.
In the Gospel of Luke, after his sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus turns to Galilee and begins to preach in the synagogues – receiving much adulation from the people. Then, when he returns to his home synagogue at Nazareth, they invite him to read from the scroll, and the reading for the day apparently is Isaiah 61. It’s a text that also dates from the post-exilic period, and it speaks to a people experiencing some degree of freedom – the Persians are much more congenial to their lifestyle than the Babylonians had been – but who still don’t know complete freedom. The text speaks of deliverance – of an anointed one – who “brings good news to the oppressed” (Isaiah 61:1 NRSV). As Jesus reads from the scroll – and how far down the scroll Luke doesn’t tell us – he lifts up the good news, proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” But here’s the kicker, as he finishes reading from the Torah scroll – like Ezra had – he points to himself and says that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” I’m the one upon whom the Spirit’s mantle has fallen. I’m the anointed one, the Messiah. I bring word of God’s Jubilee – the good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and liberation of the oppressed. And it starts today. Truly this is a new day – a day of hope for all. But is it received that way? Jesus says to the people of his hometown – I’ve fulfilled this promise. Some of the people seem appreciative of his words, and are amazed that Joseph’s son was so erudite. But perhaps not everyone was feeling that way, because Jesus named the opposition that would come, when he didn’t perform the same miracles as elsewhere. He seems to have riled them up so much that they attempted to throw him off a cliff. He would have died there, had he not been emboldened to walk through the crowd and live another day. It’s almost like Obi Wan Kenobi! The lectionary doesn’t go there yet, but it’s good to be reminded that prophets are often not received well. People say nice things about Martin Luther King today, but during his lifetime he was reviled by many in the country. Proclaiming freedom from oppression is not always popular, and yet it’s part of the gospel – the good news of Jesus. It’s the message inspired by the Spirit of God. It is the message for Today.
If Jesus call to ministry involves proclaiming this good news of freedom from oppression and liberation from captivity, then surely those who receive the same Spirit, those who form the body of Christ in this time and place, have the same calling. Are we not the recipients of the Spirit’s mantle? Consider the word that Paul brings to the Corinthians that we are “all baptized by One Spirit into one body,” The coming of the Spirit brings gifts to the body – tools that enable ministry in the world. These are the resources that the body needs to fulfill its mission to live into and out of Jesus’ Messianic reign – that began then and continues now. Not everyone has the same gifts or the same calling, but all are part of the same body, committed to the same purpose, and that purpose is clearly defined by Luke’s Jesus in his acceptance of the Spirit’s mantle. Jesus offers a message of liberation and healing. Paul offers us a place in that work. We don’t all have the same gifts and calling, but we’re each important to the whole. After all, the foot is just as much a part of the body as the hand, the ear as the eye. Not only that, but the parts that we might deem unpresentable are given the greatest honor. This is the way of the God’s realm, the way of the Spirit.
May this truly be a day of new beginnings:
“In faith we gather round the table to taste and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new.” (Brian Wren).