“Ezra opened the book in the sight of the people, […] and when he opened it all the people stood up.” Our Old Testament reading this Sunday is one of the earliest accounts of the public reading of scripture. The practice that the people of God begin here is one that we continue today. We stand in reverence for the presence of God among us in his Word, and we continue the special relationship between the people and the “book.”
Each of us may read the scriptures in our personal devotions; we may read the scriptures with others in prayer or study groups; we may even have certain passages of scripture committed to memory that we carry with us in our hearts. All of these are good things that strengthen our faith, but none of them is the same as hearing God’s Word proclaimed publically among the gathered Body of Christ in God’s house. When that happens, we feel—in our bodies and our souls—that we are in God’s presence.
Paul, in his first letter to the Church in Corinth, elaborates on the ways in which the society of people in the Church function as a body. He emphasizes how the parts of the body exist in mutuality, with all being necessary to the well being and exercising of the whole entity. If we take Paul’s idea and add it to the ancient practice of reading scripture publically, then we take away the understanding that what we experience then is actually a different, greater and more strongly effective empowering by God’s Word than we ever can know on our own.
Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee by reading the scripture in synagogue worship, as we will hear this Sunday in our gospel lesson. His ministry of itinerate teaching and healing was grounded in public worship and the public reading of scripture. At the end of his reading, which proclaims what his ministry would accomplish, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Likewise, we may do many things in our daily lives that fulfill the promises made in our baptism: we may work for worthy causes; we may help the poor and visit the sick; we may bear witness to our faith in Christ in many ways. Certainly God is present in every moment and every place of our lives. But it is only when we gather as the Body of Christ to pray together, to receive the Body and Blood of our savior, and to hear God’s Word proclaimed publicly that we are drawn up out of our broken existence and lifted up to God’s presence.
I look forward to sharing that experience with you this Sunday.