Here we are on the third Sunday of Epiphany, in a very short Epiphany season. After having heard the big epiphany stories of The Adoration of the Magi, The Baptism of Jesus and The Wedding Feast at Cana, we now hear this story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. This story, though, seems out of sync with the seasonal theme of the epiphanies of Jesus being revealed as the Messiah and Son of God. After hearing about those enormous stone jars filled with water being turned into fine Bordeaux wine; after the drama of the heavens opening and a dove descending on the newly baptized Jesus with God’s booming voice proclaiming him “my Son;” and after the exotic visit by those three Persian kings presenting opulent gifts at the manger, why do we now get this rather unassuming story? Why is it important to hear about Jesus worshipping at his home synagogue, the one where he probably had his Bar Mitzvah?
Part of this bafflement was created when the lectionary’s editors decided to split one story into two. Yet the integrity of keeping them as one story is essential to understand the scripture’s profound message and to understand it as another big epiphany story.
So, what are the full story and backstory?
The newly-baptized Jesus is recently back from his 40-day wilderness experience (and those three temptations by the devil to deny God and honor him). He’s begun his ministry, preaching and teaching and to great acclaim in synagogues throughout Galilee. He’s come home – to show the hometown folks just how much he’s grown into a successful prophet.
He goes to the local synagogue to worship. Recognizing him as “the local boy made good,” the verger gives him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolls the scroll, intent to find a specific passage – because it will reveal something important about him (an epiphany) to the gathered congregation. Finding the passage he reads,
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
19 He 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 favor."
Everyone who had known Jesus since he was knee-high to a grasshopper (and working with Joseph in the local carpentry shop) had their eyes riveted on him, waiting for the words of wisdom that this “local boy made good” would preach about this sacred text. “Boy, the reviews about Jesus have been good all over Galilee,” they are thinking, “…surely he has saved his best message for us, his local kith and kin.”
Jesus sits down to deliver what has to be the shortest sermon ever. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.” Its brevity is the envy of every Episcopalian who ever sat in a pew. “Oh, that my priest would be so pithy when they preach,” they think.
But the Nazareth congregation’s response to his sermon is not so positive, because Jesus proclaimed that Isaiah’s prophecy about the long-awaited Messiah had now been fulfilled in him. He claimed title to that sacred position.
… Say what?!?
To the people, this is a preposterous claim. Looking around at each other, some are initially amazed – but others start to question him.
What did he just say?
He’s the Messiah?
Isn’t this Joseph’s son – that little kid who used to play with our kids and run around the village?
Now look at him, he’s calling himself the Messiah. Oy, can you believe it! What a little Lord Fauntleroy he’s become.
Sensing their growing doubt, Jesus looks at them and says, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum. Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.”
Jesus resists the temptation to perform some miracle, despite the crowd’s demands for a sign. His powers of healing are for those truly in need, and to witness God’s glory. They are not for entertainment or to be done on demand as proof that he is the Messiah.
Jesus is disappointed by their disbelief. To call them up short, he cites two stories involving Elijah and Elisha, two of Israel’s greatest prophets, to prove a point about himself. In other words, he uses good Biblical scholarship to make the point.
The first example refers to a time when a great famine struck the land during a drought. Jesus notes that God did not send the prophet Elijah to the Hebrews to deal with the hunger that arose from the drought because they dishonored and disbelieved God. He instead sent Elijah to the widow of Zarapeth in Sidon, who shared her meager rations with Elijah. Her reward for believing God would help her was that her food store would not run out until the rains returned and crops were harvested.
The second example involved Elisha and the Syrian general Namaan, who was afflicted with leprosy. Jesus said that God sent Elisha not to Hebrews who were suffering with leprosy to cure them, because they had not believed and obeyed God, but rather he sent Elisha to Namaan, to cure him and make him whole, because Namaan believed that Elisha was a man of God and had the power to make him whole.
When Jesus told these two stories about whom God favored when they believed in him (to prove his own claim of being God’s Son), “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They are steaming!
Why? Well, the widow at Zarapeth in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian general were Gentiles. To the Jewish congregation, these stories to are an outrage, because they believe that the Messiah is to come to liberate them, and them only. They believe (scripture not withstanding) that God’s salvation is exclusive to the Jewish people, and not to other nations. In their rage they rise (a riotous crowd) and drive Jesus out of town, pushing him toward the brow of a hill, in order to hurl him off a cliff and kill him for his perceived blasphemy.
Since Jesus was of God, he had a message of hope to deliver to all people. At this most dire moment, the text notes that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
A commentary I read on this passage states: “the basis of [the congregation’s] hostility toward Jesus was a difference in the way they read the Scriptures. The people of his hometown read them as a promise of God’s exclusive covenant with them, a covenant that involved promises of deliverance from their oppressors. Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance but God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race. When the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ announcement became clear to those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, their commitment to their own community boundaries took precedence over their joy that God had sent a prophet among them. In the end, because they were not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves were unable to receive it.” 
Two weeks ago, the primates leading the national churches of the Anglican Communion met at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral. These meetings occur every three years and are one of the so-called “instruments of unity” that loosely hold together the national churches of the Anglican Communion (who each find common roots in the mother Church of England). The primates discuss numerous topics concerning our faith at these triennial meetings, but this year’s had a pressing agenda item that many of the Archbishops wanted to see addressed. That item was last year’s approval by the Episcopal Church at our General Convention of a resolution allowing clergy to perform and bless marriages between same-sex couples.
Because of our perceived blasphemy and lack of adherence to Biblical orthodoxy, the primates wanted some punitive action to be taken by them against the Episcopal Church: They wanted to teach us a lesson about our proclamation that all God’s children are included in God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ and are worthy of the Church’s blessing on their marriages. Many of the primates feel this understanding deviates from Christian teaching – or at least their interpretation of it. Actually, some of those gathered wanted to throw us off a cliff entirely at this recent meeting by removing us from the Communion altogether, and make the schismatic, conservative Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) the official representative church for the geographic area the Episcopal Church now represents.
In the end that did not happen, but it was held out as the stick that would beat us if in three years’ time we did not repent and repeal that resolution allowing same-sex marriage. In the meantime, we the Episcopal Church have been disciplined. We have not been suspended as much of the popular media reported, but rather disciplined. We have been given a slap on the fanny and told to go have a time out in our room, with no supper until we see the error of our ways and repent.
This discipline states we can no longer participate in the main Anglican Communion instruments of unity, which are:
- The primates’ meetings.
- The Lambeth Conference, which is an every ten year gathering of all the Bishops in the Communion.
- The Anglican Consultative Council, which is an advisory body comprised of all three orders of ordained ministry and the laity.
- The Archbishop of Canterbury is a fourth instrument of unity, but as he is one person and not a group, he doesn’t figure in. On the plus side, he hasn’t indicated he wouldn’t engage with us Episcopalians for three years, so I think we’re good here.
I will not get into the details of how the Communion is organized (or what Canon law says about all this), other than to say that the primates have no authority to engage in such a discipline, never mind remove a national church from participation in any of these bodies and replace it with some schismatic group. That is not how we are organized. We are not an Anglican version of the Roman Catholic model of how ecclesial authority operates, despite some of our primates’ clear desires to become so.
I want to point out the parallels between what has happened with the primates’ action in disciplining our Church, and the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
The Episcopal Church, echoing Isaiah and Jesus, proclaims to the Anglican Communion in the marriage resolution, a universal salvation for all people: For all the poor, the poor in spirit, the disenfranchised and all who are oppressed. It does so based on the witness of a great prophet of God and more importantly, on the witness of God’s Son, who, I would remind all of us, is our Savior.
The majority of the gathered Anglican primates gathered as a congregation, react adversely to hearing this interpretation of scripture – because like the Jews of first century Palestine, the radical inclusivity of the Episcopal Church’s actions flies in the face of their interpretation of the scripture. Their commitment to their own community boundaries have taken precedence over what should be joy that God had sent a prophet to proclaim the good news of the Gospel among them.
In the end, because they are not open to the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance, they themselves are unable to receive it. This is very sad. I know that there are numerous factors that play into why the primates voted as they did, and this is a situation with many complexities and a whole lot of behind-the-scenes politics. But nonetheless, it is very sad.
As the hymn proclaims, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” The message of the story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth holds out the light of hope – of God’s truth – for us Episcopalians during these times. It also reminds us that when we strive to be authentic followers of Jesus, God is with us in all we do – but maybe, most especially – when we are compelled to make difficult decisions that are often not popular with others.
Deciding to follow Jesus isn’t easy. But when we commit to doing so with all our heart, mind, soul and strength to be members of the Jesus movement, God allows us to pass safely through the murderous crowd so we may continue to bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of God’s favor. For followers of Jesus, there is no more Godly work than that. And you know what? I think we are really, really good here.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX, Luke, John. Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995, p.108.