Many organizations have a mission statement that succinctly defines their purpose. The idea is to be able to state clearly to those on the outside what is the aim of the organization. A mission statement helps as well to keep those within the group focused on their purpose. Luke begins his Gospel with his own brief mission statement, telling Theophilus, probably his patron, that he intends to set forth for him an accurate account to give him assurance about the teaching he has received. Today’s Gospel then jumps ahead to Jesus’ declaration of his mission in his hometown synagogue.
Jesus begins by saying that the power of the Holy Spirit is upon him. The Spirit is actually God’s mission statement to the world, since prior to Jesus’ coming, God’s love in mission is first revealed by the Spirit’s activity in creation. We can only know the “inside” mystery of God through the “outside” manifestation of the action and presence of the holy in the world and in human experience.
My colleague Stephen Bevans has elaborated a missionary theology of the Spirit, naming it “God inside-out.” Today’s Gospel says that this Spirit now rests upon Jesus, who makes humanly visible and outwardly tangible the inner heart of God, who desires healing, wholeness and jubilee justice. Luke says that “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently” at Jesus when he read from the prophet Isaiah. Could they see “God inside-out” as he interpreted the Scripture passage as fulfilled in their hearing?
Similarly, in the first reading, Nehemiah stresses that all the people listened attentively as Ezra read forth the law and interpreted it for them. For our ancestors in the faith, it was through the law that the Spirit made known the inner heart of God. Nehemiah says that “all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.” He urges them not to be sad or weep, but does not explain what caused their weeping.
Were they tears of joy to have returned home from exile in Babylon to their own homeland, with their own temple being rebuilt and their own customs restored? Were they tears of grief over all that had been lost in the intervening years: those who had died or who had not returned with them, the land despoiled, the Temple in shambles? Maybe they were tears of repentance. Or were they tears of gratitude for the gift of the law from a God whose words of undeserved love and mercy rained down upon them from the mouth of Ezra?
Perhaps the tears were for all of the above. When God reveals outwardly the bounteous heart of divine love, our first response is often to be overwhelmed to the point of tears.
It is easy to imagine that as Jesus announced his embodiment of this divine mission there may have been a similar reaction, as those who felt exiled in body or spirit heard a new promise of restoration and release, a new time of jubilation.
Paul uses a vivid metaphor to describe the way the Christian community continues the mission of being “God inside-out.” The Spirit, as love in mission, creates unity and harmony within the very diverse body, where the many parts are all unique, precious and equally important. The mission is especially focused on attending to those members who are the most vulnerable. As within the divine being, so within the united community of believers: Every joy felt by one is shared by all, and every suffering is borne by all.