Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of us are probably familiar with that now clichéd quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words. Hackneyed as it is, St. Francis’ admonition is still quite correct. Nevertheless, it seems—in my experience, anyhow—that those who repeat this admonition most forcefully are those who are most likely to give short shrift to one of the admonition’s implications: namely, that sometimes the Gospel may, indeed must, be proclaimed by words as well as deeds. We need only to turn to any of today’s three readings to see that this is so.

First, from the Old Testament, Ezra uses so many words to interpret the book of the Law, that is to express the Good News of God’s covenant with his people, that his sermon lasts from early morning to midday. Paul’s letter from which our Epistle is taken—all sixteen chapters of which would have been read aloud when the Corinthian Christians gathered for worship—uses a great many words to explain how the Good News of Christ’s resurrection should affect the life of the Church in Corinth. And finally, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives perhaps the shortest sermon in the history of the Church; yet, it is a sermon whose few words leave no doubt as to Jesus’ understanding of his own place in the history of salvation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And so, we are, as today’s collect put it, “to readily answer the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation” in both word and deed. Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words. And, yes, sometimes it is necessary to use words.

But what is the Gospel that we are proclaiming? What is the Good News that we are to preach both by word and deed? It took Paul the entirety of his letter to the Romans to answer this question, and I suspect none of us is as smart as Paul was. But I think we can start by ruling out what seem to me to be two prevalent ways of misunderstanding what the Good News is, each of which gives us an important part of the picture, but each of which oversimplifies the Gospel.

The first of these misunderstandings is that the Good News is entirely about social transformation. That is, the Gospel at its very core is really only about meeting the very physical needs of the marginalized—the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, and so forth—and nothing else. The Gospel is all about this world and how Christians can make it a better place. But this understanding of the Gospel doesn’t take account of our (or at least my) stubborn insistence on the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Nor does it account for the fact that we are more than just flesh and bones, but spiritual beings and, as the prayerbook puts it, sinners of Christ’s own saving.

Conversely, the second misunderstanding of the Gospel, is that Christ’s message was entirely other-worldly. This way of construing the Gospel holds that the Church is merely a lifeboat off a shipwrecked world. The Church need not interact with the world in which she finds herself except occasionally to beckon people aboard before they sink into sin for eternity. But this version of the gospel ignores that God himself deigned to come into the world, and while he was here he healed the sick, and fed the hungry, giving us a model for how to conduct our own lives.

And so it seems that the mission of the Church must be to proclaim a gospel which is both this-worldly and other-worldly. We are to proclaim a gospel that transcends this world while still being very much within it. We are in this world, but we are not of it. We preach the Good News of salvation in Christ which not only effects our eternal destination but speaks to our present state as well. We must both speak to the immediate, pressing Bad News of those we come across, giving them the Good News appropriate to them—if they are hungry the good news that they will be fed, if they are homeless the good news that they will find shelter, &c.—and also to the universal Bad News, that we were all once slaves to sin and death, we must proclaim the universal Good News of Christ crucified and raised from the dead, effecting for us the remission of sins and the promise of our own resurrection.

Turning back to today’s gospel reading we recall the passage Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
When we understand the mission of the Church as the proclamation of a Gospel which is both this-worldly and other-worldly, we may read this passage from Isaiah on both levels. We must support the one who is literally poor, while ourselves striving to be poor in spirit, not attached to the things of this world but to things heavenly. We must work to free those who are wrongfully imprisoned, while proclaiming that Christ has the power to free everyone from the bondage of sin. We must give help to those who are physically blind, while proclaiming Christ crucified to those who are blind to God’s love. We must strive to free those who are oppressed by the powers and principalities of this world, while proclaiming that Christ has freed us from the oppression of death.

The mission of the Church is both universal and comprehensive. That is to say that it is for the whole world and effects every aspect of humanity—body, mind, and spirit. Our mission is both to strive to effect the Kingdom of Heaven in the here-and-now, while always pointing to the world to come, ever cognizant of the fact that anything we accomplish pales in comparison to the Kingdom Christ himself will effect when we are risen up on the last day.

We have our work cut out for us. But thanks be to God that there is no shortage of workers in the field. Here’s a bit of trivia which today is very much to the point is that the full legal name of The Episcopal Church is “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” That’s a mouthful, but the important part is that we are members of a missionary society, which is to say that each of us is a missionary. But we’re not just missionaries by virtue of the Episcopal Church’s legal name. Each of us is a missionary by virtue of his or her own baptism. The task of proclamation is not particular to those who are ordained or licensed to preach. The task of proclaiming the Gospel is the responsibility of each and every one of us as baptized Christians

We are all members together of Christ’s own body. As Paul says in today’s Epistle, “For in the Spirit we were baptized into one body…and were all made to drink of one spirit…Now [we] are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We are intimately bound one to another (whether we like it or not) in that greatest and most holy of mysteries, Christ’s Church. Than this I can think neither of any greater reason to rejoice nor any greater reason to continue to proclaim the gospel with joy and unwavering resolve.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.