A few years ago I went through a period of reading a lot Buddhist literature. I stopped, not because I didn’t find it valuable — indeed, if you ever need help surviving the experience of having a human mind, Buddhism is a great place to turn! — but because it got repetitive. No matter what lineage the teaching came from and no matter the specific topic the authors were addressing, everything seemed to be an interpretation and application of the “Four Noble Truths” (a distillation of the Buddha’s insights about the human experience) and the “Eightfold Path” (a list of eight specific areas in which these insights play out). Since that experience, I’ve often pondered how different the course of Christian history would have been had we had a similar simple, distilled expression of Jesus’ teaching — and, if we had it, what would have been included. If it were up to me, it would include Matthew 5.1-20 (the Beatitudes and the discourse on salt and light and the call to righteousness that follow them) and today’s Gospel reading from Luke 4. The Beatitudes are probably the clearest expression we have of Jesus’ ethic; but in Luke 4, we have the closest thing we have to Jesus’ Manifesto, his mission statement. And because of this, those of us who claim to be his followers, would do well to reflect on these words.
The words Jesus’ takes up in Luke 4 are from Isaiah 61:
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 captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
I have previously written about how these words express the heart of God, and therefore were appropriate for Jesus to take up as his own as he came into a greater understanding of his mission and vocation. And, how as those who are anointed with the same Holy Spirit he was, it must be our mission and vocation as Christians as well. If Jesus says that the truth of our ideas and actions is to be judged on the fruit that they produce, this passage demonstrates the type of fruit we’re looking for: Does our Gospel directly address the needs of the poor? Is our Gospel about freedom from captivity and oppression and about healing from injury and illness, both literal and figurative? If not, we should think twice about our Gospel, repent, and start to care about the things Jesus cared and cares about.
This is not an easy vocation. It challenges the comfortable out of our complacency and pits us against all the forces of the world that want to reinforce the status quo. But, as today’s Epistle reading reminds us, we are not alone in this calling. We are empowered for it by the Holy Spirit, who gives us gifts to help us promote this godly vision, each in our own way.
The relevant section of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is introduced a few verses before today’s lesson beings. He writes:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good:
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (12.4-11)
Today’s lesson ‘book ends’ the discussion about the working of the Spirit in the Church:
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. (12.28)
Elsewhere, in his letter to the Romans, Paul mentions gifts of prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, and mercy.
The differences among these lists suggests that they are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather representative of the kinds of activities the Spirit empowers. What this means for us practically is that there is no one-size-fits-all way we will live out the Jesus Manifesto, even as we are all called to do so in our own unique ways. Some will be hands on, others will be in supportive capacities. Some will be in the forefront, others in the background. And that’s okay. Understanding and appreciating our unique personalities, capacities, and gifts is built in to the system. There is no one way to do the right thing. All that’s important is that we do that right thing in our own way according to the gifts God has given us.
Today’s readings remind us of what was most important to Jesus: to stand up for justice and work for peace and healing in the world, in thought, word, and deed. They also remind us that as we seek to live this out, we are not alone, but have each been empowered to do so in our own unique ways. So, no matter what gifts we have been given, may we today and every day get on with the business and hand, and live out the Jesus Manifesto in the world.