Epiphany 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 30th January 2022

Jeremiah 1.4-10; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30

Often on this Sunday close to February 2nd, we would be celebrating the Feast of Candlemas, of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and his acclamation there by Simeon and Anna, as the light for all people. Candlemas is the Feast that marks the end of the Season of Epiphany – the last of the signs, epiphanies, of who this person, Jesus, is, of the light that has come into the world. We will celebrate Candlemas, with the traditional Blessing of the Light this afternoon, within Evensong. But this morning, we are marking the 4th Sunday in Epiphany, not least because this is the one Sunday in our 3 year cycle of readings when we have the opportunity to hear and ponder the 13th chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. If we had the Candlemas readings, we would not hear it on a Sunday for another 3 years.

No doubt Paul’s great hymn to love, is familiar, perhaps over-familiar to you, from weddings and other great occasions. But hearing it in a different context is an opportunity to engage afresh with its challenge as well as its comfort. For the first thing to note is that it follows on from Paul’s reflections that we heard last week about the church being one body with diverse members. The hymn to love addresses the challenge that that diversity in the Body brings: how do we relate to those who are different to us, who rub us up the wrong way, or articulate different priorities or sense of what faith demands? 1Corinthians 13 is a tough-minded view of love – it is not a sentimental pean to warm fuzzy feelings, but is rooted in Paul’s passion to create communities of disciples, seeking to follow the crucified and risen one in the outworking of their lives. And this outworking of love is ultimately rooted in the nature of the universe itself: ‘Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’

In our culture seemingly saturated with references to love, it can be difficult to grasp the extraordinary nature of that claim: that love, not power; love, not the strong or the beautiful; love, not what we own; love, is what abides, is the enduring key to what matters. Wouldn’t we live a little differently if we really believed that? If we really believed that it is the love we encounter, the love we bring to birth, the love in which we live, that will abide, endure, be of lasting significance?

But I’m aware that I’m in danger of getting all misty-eyed about love, in precisely the way I think Paul is trying to avoid! Our Gospel reading, however, provides a salutary lesson in the perils of love masquerading as something else, and what love might actually ask of us.

Our Gospel follows on from last week’s proclamation by Jesus, using the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that God ‘has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ An announcement he brings joltingly into the present of his hearers at the start of today’s Gospel: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Last week, Colin Sinclair, the minister of our brothers and sisters in Palmerston Place Church, spelt out the ways in which that announcement is then enacted in Jesus’ ministry: in the release from sin and illness seen in his ministry of forgiveness and healing. It is crucial to understand the extent, in Jesus’ time, to which sin and illness (and they were often seen as synonymous) were that which cut you off from society, from others. To be released from sin and illness was about restoring someone to community, into relationship that had been broken and cut off. So the release Jesus speaks of is not simply the inner bonds that prevent an individual from flourishing (we tend to think about illness or sin in those terms). In Jesus’ day sin and illness are defined by the community in ways that prevent a person being accepted. So alongside particular afflictions, people are being released by Jesus from the social forces that exclude them.

And that is why Jesus’ announcement, and his ministry which lives it out, is good news for the poor. Not just the economically poor, but those excluded on other grounds too. His ministry enacts an acceptance and welcome into communion with God: the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, the leper, the maimed, the lame. It is not just that individuals are healed of their afflictions – but the social order is being overturned thereby. Your gender, family heritage, financial position, health or lack of it, religious purity, these no longer determine whether you are in or out. The grace of God extends to all. Jesus is bringing release.

No wonder there is a palpable sense of excitement in that synagogue in Nazareth – ‘the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him’ we are told. And all speak well of him, and are amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth. ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ they ask. He’s one of us, we’re onto a winner here. But it’s precisely that kind of thinking Jesus is trying to overturn – he has no desire to be captured; to proclaim release and then be commandeered by the Nazareth Home Rule Brigade. And so he reminds his hearers that there is a long history of prophets not being accepted in their own country; and of God seeking to save those well beyond the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable. There is a restlessness to the release that Jesus proclaims, and the ministry he seeks to enact, that drives him out from the cosy and familiar surroundings of home.

And I think that is where our Gospel intersects with Paul’s hymn to love. For is love about primarily looking after you own, taking care of family and friends? Or is love also that which reaches out beyond the inner circle, the familiar, and creates relationship where there was none, helps release the previously constricted and bound. Is love a boundary marker or a boundary breaker? Love is often thought as that which I offer to those within my (tight) circle, but not beyond. But to hear the force of Paul and Jesus’ words is to recognise that love is the surprising drive which helps us overcome our fear of the unknown, the stranger, the person beyond the pale, all those beyond our tight circle.

For Jesus, for Paul, if love is at the heart of God, is that which abides, then love is that which brings release by including the excluded. Of course we learn to love often in the most intense and primary relationships of family. But Paul draws out the strength of love because it is that which enables, in the church, the inclusion of the unloved; it will enable that diversity of the Body with many different members. And that primacy of love is what we proclaim to the world, as what finally matters: the inclusion into society of refugees, of the poor, of the disabled, is crucial because it is a marker of the presence of love, or lack of it, in our social order. God’s grace and love welcome all; overturning our social markers and divisions, our parochialism and our narrow concern for me and mine. That’s as challenging now as it was to those members of Nazareth synagogue.

But love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Amen.

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