Third Sunday: The One and the Many

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

NEH 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; PS 19: 8, 10, 15; 1 COR 12:12-30; LK 1:1-4, 4:14-21

We now begin Ordinary Time in earnest.

Ordinary Time is called that because we read through the Bible in order. This is the year of Luke, and so this week we get the opening of Luke’s Gospel (where he tells us his vocation as Gospel-writer) and then the opening of Jesus’s public ministry – skipping over his childhood and time in the desert to where he actually begins to preach. The Old Testament reading is chosen to harmonize with the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the Epistle, or second reading, is its own kind of semi-continuous “orderly” reading. Since the epistles are spread out over three years, we do not read straight through them. In fact, since 1 Corinthians is a little complicated, we read through one part of it at the beginning of each year.

In other words, the Epistle is chosen more to give us a sampling of the epistles than for its match with the Gospel. Nonetheless, the readings often illuminate each other in delightful ways.

***

This year, the third in the cycle, we begin late in 1 Corinthians, with its last section, beginning in chapter 12. 12 and 14 are about “one body, many members”; in the middle is chapter 13, about love. They go together: love holds the body together.

This week our reading is surprisingly insistent. Paul spends some thirteen verses on the metaphor of the body: “If an ear should say, ‘because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’” etc. Paul thinks this point needs to be driven home.

And so this week, let us try to drive it home. The Church has many parts. Most of us are not bishops. Most of us are not priests. Most of us are not theology professors. Some are mothers, some are fathers, some are neither. Some are more educated, some less.

More to the point: we all tend to think other vocations are treated better than ours. Priests and lay people are both tempted to think the other one has it easy – as are mothers and fathers, and all the rest.

We are tempted to inflate ourselves – but a funny aspect of that is that we tend to think other people have more influence. “If I were in that position, I would really fix things” – but where I am, what good can I do?

Paul insists: your position is important. Embrace your vocation. The Church needs you – just as a body without a gall bladder wouldn’t work very well, even though no one much cares about them. (I think – I don’t know anything about gall bladders!)

***

The Old Testament and Gospel are picked to match each other, and each adds an important commentary on 1 Corinthians 12.

The first reading is from Nehemiah. If you’ve never read Ezra and Nehemiah, do it sometime. They’re short, and inspiring.

The people have come back from the Babylonian exile. They are rebuilding. To make a long story short, they rediscover their religion – as if Ezra the priest has rediscovered the Bible in the basement of some musty old building. He reads it out loud to the people, and they gasp: what beauty! How much we have forgotten! How much we have to do!

Meanwhile, in the Gospel, Jesus pulls out a scribe of the Bible (Isaiah) in his home synagogue, and says, this is about me!

***

Each of these readings highlights both the oneness and the many-ness of the Church.

First, there are many vocations. All are not Ezra. All are not Jesus – or Luke, who at the beginning of our reading describes his vocation to be the one who, like Ezra, tells us the word of the Lord.

Sometimes we are in positions of authority – sometimes we are Ezra, or Luke, or somehow associated with Jesus. Usually we are not. But in each of these situations, it is glorious to be on the receiving end.

Ezra gets the limelight. But the people get to hear the Word of God! There’s no reason to be jealous because he gets to do the speaking. To the contrary, we should rejoice that we get to do the listening.

Only Jesus is savior. But we are the poor who hear good tidings, the captives who receive liberty, the blind who recover sight, the oppressed who go free. We should delight in our vocation, even if we’re not the one in charge.

We needn’t worry whether our leaders are doing a good job. We should worry about whether we’re doing a good job receiving what they give us. They may be less perfect at their job – but so are we, at ours. Let’s receive joyfully!

***

On the other hand, though we are many, we are also one. As we hear the word from Ezra and Luke, we are called to speak it – not, to be sure, from as exalted a pulpit as theirs, but in our little corners.

As Jesus heals and liberates us, so we ourselves become healers and liberators, carriers of his Gospel.

Though we are many, we are one in Christ.

Where could you be more joyful about your place in the Church?

eric.m.johnston

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