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Sunday, 24 January 2016

Scrolls and Bodies



 For the children's talk, I told them Aesop's fable of the Belly and the Members:

"One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food.  So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to strike work till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work.  So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do." 

 at which point I stopped, and asked the children what they thought would happen in a day or so.  "I think," said a 10-year-old, "That the person would die!"  I said they certainly would if they persisted, but before that time:

But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest.  So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces."

I then added that no matter how young they were, they were still a very necessary part of the Church, and not to let anybody ever tell them different.  Nor, I said, addressing the whole church, are you ever too old!

Two interesting readings today, I thought. Firstly St Paul, talking about the Body of Christ, and then Jesus, reading the Scriptures in the synagogue in his home town.

So, St Paul. The story I told the children earlier is a very ancient one; it dates back to a fable by Aesop, Aesop is thought to have lived around 600 BC, and the story may be much older still. St Paul, who was an educated man, probably knew it, and thought of it when he drew the analogy about our being parts of the Body of Christ.

St Paul was, of course, writing to the Church in Corinth, and it looks as though the people there had got themselves into a bit of a muddle about who was the most important. Some people thought they really didn’t matter very much. Other people thought that everybody else should be just like them. Still others thought that people with smaller roles to play in the Church didn’t matter as much as they did. But there would have been educated people in the congregation, who would have known the story, and nodded wisely as they realised where Paul was going with this. Yes of course, all parts of the body are necessary. Yes, the stomach may appear to do nothing, but you see how far you get without any food! And Paul takes this and runs with it: the foot is just as much a part of the body as the hand is; the eye just as much part as the ear. If the whole body were just an ear, how would you smell? If the whole body was an eye, you wouldn't be able to hear! And so on. His point, of course, is that all parts of the body are equally necessary and important, and if we are the Body of Christ then we are all equally necessary and important.

Then we have this story of Jesus, fairly early in his ministry, going home for the weekend, and on the Sabbath Day, he goes to the synagogue with his family, and because he’s home visiting, they ask him to choose the reading from the prophets. So Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, the bit where it says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.” So far so good. But then he says “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Our reading ended there, but I expect you remember what happened next – the people were outraged. They knew this young man, they'd known him from a small child, ever since his family had settled there when he wasn't much more than a baby. “He’s only the Carpenter’s son, Mary’s lad. These are his brothers and sisters. He can’t be special.” And they were offended, so we are told. They even went so far as to try to kill him for blasphemy, but he escaped and went away.

Once upon a time, two men were talking in the pub, or their club or somewhere like that. One of them told how he had been lost in the Sahara desert. I don't know what he was doing in the Sahara desert in the first place – perhaps he was an aviator whose plane had come down, as so many did, or perhaps he was an explorer, or perhaps he just thought he knew better than anybody else. Well, anyway, he was lost, and dying of thirst, and he knew that, barring a miracle, he wouldn't make it home. So he prayed to God to save him.

“Oh,” said his hearer. “And what did God do? You obviously were saved, as you're here to tell me the story.”

“Actually, God didn't;” said the first man. “Just at that moment a caravan came past and helped me, so you see, God didn't need to save me.”

Now, we can see, can't we, what our hero couldn't – that it was God who sent the caravan at just that moment. But he didn't expect God to work in that way, so he didn't see it.

Similarly, the people of Corinth couldn't always see how God was working in and through other people in the church – people with, perhaps, different views on how things should be done. We know from later in the letter than some people were bothered about eating meat that had previously been offered to idols, and others reckoned that, as the idols had no power, it didn't matter. We know they argued about sex, whether within or outside of marriage. We know they argued about all sorts of things, but for Paul, what mattered was that they were all part of the church, and God could and did work in and through them.

The people of Nazareth had no idea that God was coming to earth in the person of the young man they'd seen grow up from a baby. Do we have definite ideas about how God works, I wonder? Do we expect to see God working in the ordinary, the every day? Or do we expect him always to come down with power and fire from Heaven? Do we expect Him to speak to us through other people, perhaps even through me, or do we expect Him to illuminate a verse of the Bible specially, or write His message in fiery letters in the sky?

We do sometimes, because we are human, long and long to see God at work in the spectacular, the kind of thing that Jesus used to do when he healed the sick and even raised the dead. And very occasionally God is gracious enough to give us such signs. But mostly, He heals through modern medicine, guiding scientists to develop medicine and surgical techniques that can do things our ancestors only dreamed about. And through complementary medical techniques which address the whole person, not just the illness. And through love and hugs and sympathy and support.

We do need to learn to recognise God at work. All too often, we walk blindly through our week, not noticing God – and yet God is there. God is there and going on micro-managing His creation, no matter how unaware of it we are. And God is there to speak to us through the words of a friend, or an acquaintance. If we need rescuing, God is a lot more likely to send a friend to do it than to come in person!

And conversely, we need to be open to God at work in us, so that we can be the friend who does the speaking, or the rescuing. Not that God can’t use people who don’t know him – of course He both can and does – but the more open we are to being His person, the more we allow Him to work in us, to help us grow into the sort of person He created us to be, then the more He can use us, with or without our knowledge, in His world. Who knows, maybe the supermarket cashier you smiled at yesterday really needed that smile to affirm her faith in people, after a bad day. Or the friend you telephoned just to have a catch-up with was badly needing to chat to someone – not necessarily a serious conversation, just a chat. You will never know – but God knows.

We are, of course, never told “what would have happened”, but I wonder what would have happened if the people of Nazareth had been open to Jesus. He could have certainly done more miracles there. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to have become an itinerant preacher, going round all the villages. Maybe he could have had a home. I think God may well have used the rejection to open up new areas of ministry for Jesus – after all, we do know that God works all things for good.

Another story: Once upon a time there was a big flood, and people had to climb up on to the roofs of their houses to escape. One guy thought this was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate, so he thought, God’s power, so he prayed “Dear Lord, please come and save me.”

Just then, someone came past in a rowing-boat and said “Climb in, we’ll take you to safety!”

“Oh, no thank you,” said our friend, “I’ve prayed for God to save me, so I’ll just wait for Him to do so.”

And he carried on praying, “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Then along came the police in a motor-launch, and called for him to jump in, but he sent them away, too, and continued to pray “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Finally, a Coastguard helicopter came and sent down someone on a rope to him, but he still refused, claiming that he was relying on God to save him.

And half an hour later, he was swept away and drowned.

So, because he was a Christian, as you can imagine, he ended up in Heaven, and the first thing he did when he got there was go to to the Throne of Grace, and say to God, “What do you mean by letting me down like this? I prayed and prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t!”

“My dear child,” said God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter – what more did you want?”

What more indeed? You, and I, and each and every one of us here is part of the Body of Christ. We cannot say that we have no need of each other. We cannot say that they have no need of me, and we most certainly can't say that we don't need you! But we also need to be aware of God at work in our world. Do you remember what happened to the people of Nazareth?

Nothing. That's what happened. Nothing at all. God could do no work there through Jesus. Okay, a few sick people were healed, but that was all. The good news of the Kingdom of God was not proclaimed. Miracles didn’t happen. Just. . . nothing.

We do know, of course, that in the end his family, at least, were able to get their heads round the idea of their lad being The One. His Mother was in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost. James, one of his brothers, was a leader in the early church. But were they the only ones? Did anybody else from Nazareth believe in Him, or were they all left, sadly, alone?

I think that’s an Awful Warning, isn’t it? If we decide we need to know best who God chooses to speak through, how God is to act, then God can do nothing. And God will do nothing. If he sends two boats and a helicopter and we reject them because we don’t see God’s hand at work in them, then we will be left to our own devices. As the people of Nazareth were. Amen.

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