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Third Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10, 1 Corinthians 12:12–31 & Luke 4:14–21

At my ordination as a priest, during what is known as the ‘Exhortation’, the Archbishop said to myself and the others being ordained with me, “You are to encourage and build up the body of Christ, preaching the word of God”. He also said, “Be a teacher taught by the Lord in wisdom and holiness”. 

Those two aspects of being a priest, preaching the word of God and teaching, are among what I enjoy the most about ministry. I love teaching people about the Scriptures, whether that be through Bible Study, though my weekly spiritual reflections–both in the pew sheet and at the Spiritual Cafe–or through the weekly sermons. 

For me, preaching is an opportunity to teach. It’s an opportunity for me to provide each of you with an interpretation of the readings for the day, which hopefully make the readings a bit more relevant to your own personal faith. Which is what I experienced myself when I was a parishioner at Christ Church South Yarra. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and I was taught a very, literal interpretation of the Bible, which I think is one of the reasons why I struggled with attending church in my early teens. The readings and the teaching that I received in relation to them, didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

That’s why I am so thankful I attended worship at Christ Church South Yarra some fourteen years ago now, and heard explanations of the readings, in particular the historical and cultural context of the readings, which really enabled me to relate to the Scriptures, and to better understand my own relationship with God. 

And it also created in me a real desire to learn more about Scripture. So the notion of teaching, through the act of preaching, is something that I can really relate to personally. And it is something that features in each of our three readings this morning. 

Our first reading is from the slightly obscure Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was an Israelite, who became an official in the court of the Persian King Artaxerses, in the years after the Jewish exiles had returned from Babylon to Judah. 

In this passage, we hear a reference to Ezra, a priest and scribe, who is reading (with interpretation) from the book of the law of Moses. The book of the law of Moses is the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In his role as priest, Ezra is instructing the people of Jerusalem – that is he is teaching them – in the Torah. He is interpreting the Scripture for them. And based on his teaching, the people come to better understand God and what God expects of them.

In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, we hear that Jesus comes into the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. Being an adult Jew, he assumes his right to stand up and read, and he is handed a scroll containing the Book of Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll to the relevant place, and then begins reading.

 The section he reads, is that where the prophet Isaiah announces his ministry and message to the exiles who are returning from Babylon. Jesus concludes by telling those in the synagogue, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is announcing to them that he is the fulfilment of the Scriptures of Israel. In other words, he is the Messiah.

The Apostle Paul also preached that Jesus was the fulfilment of the ancient Scriptures. In today’s reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul is teaching the Church at Corinth about the Church in the world as the Body of Christ. Jesus is no longer in the world in body, so he relies on the Church to carry out the tasks he needs done. 

Paul tells them that each person in the Church has their own individual part to play. Each member has a specific responsibility to fulfil, and each one of them has been provided with a certain skill set which enables them to carry out their assigned task. He instructs them that the Church cannot function effectively, unless all of these different parts work together for the benefit of the whole. Paul stresses that above all else, UNITY in the church is what is important.

Which brings me to a quote I found while I was preparing for today’s sermon. The quote, which is from an Indian philosopher, speaker and writer named Jiddu Krishnamurti, is that, “Real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.” 

To me, that quote is consistent with what Paul was saying to the Corinthians about unity in the church. Paul told the Corinthians that in the case of a human body, there is no question of the relative importance of any particular organ or limb. Each member or part of the body has an important role to play. If any organ or limb ceases to function, then the whole body is thrown out of kilter – so too the church. The members of the body don’t compete with each other, they work together in unison, and the body functions effectively as a whole.

This is just as critical today as it was in Paul’s time. Paul argues there can be no such thing as isolation within the Church. There is no one part of the Church that is more important than any other. We ought to realise that we need each other, and we ought to respect each other, if the Church is in fact to be a healthy body that prospers and grows in the world today.

At the end of the passage, Paul speaks of the various forms of service within the Church. First and foremost are the apostles. They were those who were closest to Jesus, and they received their teaching and instruction directly from Jesus himself. They were responsible for going out and evangelising; converting non-believers to the Christian faith. Next are the prophets and teachers, whose role it was to build up and strengthen the faith of those converted by the apostles. Then it is the the helpers, who brought relief to the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Finally there are the administrators. These were the people who worked behind the scenes to carry out the administration of the Church. 

The point that Paul makes, is that just as there are parts of the body which are never seen, but which have a function more important than any other; there are those who serve the Church in ways that attract no attention or fanfare, but without whose service the Church could not go on. 

That is true of the Church in general today, and I think it is true of our own church here at St Andrew’s. We have wardens and parish councillors, we have a secretary and treasurer. We have people who serve as welcomers, readers, intercession and chalice assistants. There are others who serve as volunteers in the Mainly Music program, and as members of the Flower Guild. And the list goes on and on. Each of us serve the church in our own way, and without our own individual contribution, our church could not go on.

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