Third Sunday after Epiphany
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Last year,while visiting our dear friends,Sandie and Owen,and enjoying an evening of good food and even better conversation, Jill, my wife, said, only half in jest, “When I look at what other people accomplish, I can’t help thinking about all those other things I should be doing: working to stop the death penalty, saving starving children, reading the best books, having informed opinions.”
Sandie paused a moment to ponder Jill’s concerns, and said, “All those things are important, but we’re all part of the body of Christ, and we have a role, however small. So what if you’re the nose hair? You’re there for a purpose. You may not have any idea what good you’re doing, but that’s still your job: to be a nose hair in the body of Christ.”
In this week’s second reading, Paul’s too concerned with the interdependence of eyes, ears, hands, and feet to address the problem of nose hairs. Too bad. Nearly twenty centuries later, we still get his general metaphor, even the bit about more and less presentable parts, but often miss how Paul, in one short chapter, subverts some of our dearest American heresies. Among them are the varieties of “Jesus and me” theologies, denying the corporate nature of salvation. More damaging to the ego, though – perhaps even more so for self-styled theological sophisticates – is mistaking our role in the body as important, even irreplaceable. If we’re to take Paul’s image of the body seriously, then not only aren’t we the best judge of our own significance, we may not even understand what it is we do. Somebody, after all, has to be the appendix.
When God pauses to reveal a small portion of the narrative of salvation, humans rarely take what they hear kindly. Humans aren’t generally fond of limits and declarations of interdependence, even if they prove necessary for our survival. What’s more, if God’s in charge, that means we’re not. The Israelites in Exodus 20 were scared to death at receiving the Law. In today’s Old Testament text, Ezra, reading from the Law at the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, must recruit Nehemiah and the Levites to tell the people not to weep at what they’re hearing. When’s the last time you had to order folks to celebrate?
Paul’s reflections on the body come in the middle of an extended lecture to the fractious Corinthian church about their scandalous social, economic, and spiritual divisions during the Eucharist. Judging from Paul’s second letter to the same church, his instruction didn’t meet with universal approval. Luke’s Jesus seems to have an easier chore, announcing prophecies wondrously fulfilled to the residents of Nazareth. God’s salvation has come! Yet, in the text (and next week’s) continuation of the scene, the locals rapidly transform from a hometown boy’s fan club into a lynch mob.
Perhaps you, like me, occasionally find yourself wondering why the Israelites, the Corinthians, or Jesus’ neighbors could have been so stiff-necked and silly when the truth is so obvious. If you ever catch me falling for that old trap, please feel free to slap me. No matter how far you may be along the path of fear and trembling, no matter how clearly you understand the limits of human judgment and abilities, you – like me – may still cultivate seeds of rebellion in your heart, angry at a state of affairs in which God is God and you’re not. Perhaps you’re past that, content to be a nose hair. If so, please pray for those of us who haven’t yet arrived.
And beyond that, there still remain the bottomless mysteries of knowing who you are, who God is, and what God’s will might be for you in the body Christ gathers. There is so little we can ever know this side of the grave. Yet, if I am truly part of Christ’s body, there is, at least, the consoling knowledge that I never face such unknowable mysteries alone. So, when the humiliation of accepting I’m merely a nose hair gives way, if only momentarily, to something like humility, I pray these words of Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.