Sermon: Mutual epiphanies

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Epiphany 2023

Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

‘In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’.

An ‘epiphany’ is an illuminating discovery; the sudden perception of an essential meaning; a new understanding that comes from a simple and striking event. The Epiphany, celebrated by the church after the twelve days of Christmas, commemorates the revelation of the Jewish Messiah to Gentiles from the East; the discovery by them that God is present in the child born King of the Jews; a new understanding of the mystery hidden in former generations. As God is revealed to the magi in the child they see with Mary his mother, so the magi, Gentiles, are revealed to be ‘fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise’ that this child’s life, death, and resurrection will bring to the world.

I have spoken before about the way the church over centuries enlarged upon Matthew’s description of the magi. Because there were three gifts theologians decided that there were three of them, except in Syria where the church said that there had been twelve to parallel the twelve apostles. Because of Isaiah’s prophesy that ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’ (Isaiah 60:3) the magi were transformed from wise men into kings. Because Saint Augustine argued that the magi represented the entire Gentile world the Venerable Bede said that one of them must have been Asian, one African, and one European. While none of that is in the biblical text (and so the carol ‘We three kings’ is not in Together in Song) all this embroidery does remind us of the astounding truth at the heart of the story, that Jesus’ birth was an event for Gentiles as well as Jews. The story of these visitors from the East demonstrates what today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians describes as ‘the boundless riches of Christ,’ the wisdom of God in its rich variety,’ the astounding abundance and inclusion of God’s love and grace.

Biblical scholars agree that the Gospel according to Matthew is a ‘Jewish’ gospel, written by a Jewish Christian for a community primarily made up of Jews. All the way through the gospel Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the Law. Matthew’s version of the Nativity echoes the stories of the Exodus: we have a Joseph who has prophetic dreams; an evil king killing babies; and a son who is called by God out of Egypt. When the magi come from the East they are looking for a ‘child who has been born king of the Jews’ and they seek him in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish power. Incidentally, this part of the story always confuses me. The magi have come because of their stargazing and, when they leave Jerusalem and travel to Bethlehem, ‘there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was’. Why could the star not have led them directly from the East to Bethlehem? Why the dangerous visit to Jerusalem that warns Herod he has a rival and that leads to the slaughter of the boy babies of Bethlehem? It is because for Matthew observation can never be enough. It is only when observation is united with the Scriptures that revelation occurs. So these strangers from the East need to help of ‘the chief priests and scribes of the people’ consulting the Scriptures to find Jesus’ location.

Despite the Jewishness of Matthew, and the importance of the Jewish Scriptures in the story, the only people who appropriately respond to the birth of the Messiah, according to Matthew, are Gentiles, outsiders, strangers from far away. Of course, Herod does say that he, too, wants to offer homage to the baby, but that is because he is an evil king with a cunning plan. The chief priests and scribes of the people, despite being asked for the Messiah’s location, do not then ask whether they can accompany the magi to it. It is only the outsiders who kneel down and pay the child homage.

Black, white and purple drawing of the three magi offering their gifts to Jesus. The three magi and Mary and Joseph are black silhouettes against a white background, with purple highlights. Mary, Jospeh and Jesus are in a wall-less shelter with Jesus in the manger and straw on the ground.

Incidentally, it is noticeable that the magi kneel first, and only later offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The word used for homage in Greek describes the act of prostrating oneself at the feet of a king. The magi offer Jesus themselves before they offer him their treasure. Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people do neither.

This story of Gentiles offering themselves to Jesus, and then leaving for their home ‘by another road’ than the one they followed to Jerusalem, foretells the development of the gospel as good news for Gentiles as well as Jews. The Letter to the Ephesians from which today’s second reading comes is written by a Jewish author, although probably not Paul himself, to Gentile Christians affirming that they have been adopted into the family of God through Jesus Christ. ‘In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory’. (Ephesians 1:13) We take this for granted now as heirs of a tradition in which Christianity is a Gentile religion. It is difficult for us to truly comprehend the radicalness of the revolution that occurred in the early church, when Gentiles were welcomed into the people of God, but to Jesus’ first Jewish followers it was an epiphany as remarkable as that the magi experienced.

The author of the Letter had earlier written about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between the Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14) and that wall was literal. There was an actual physical wall in the Temple in Jerusalem that separated the outermost Court of the Gentiles from the rest of the building. On the wall were notices, in both Greek and Latin, warning foreigners and uncircumcised men that crossing into one of the other courtyards was punishable by death. One of the (false) accusations made against the Apostle Paul was that ‘he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place’. (Acts 21:28) But Jesus created in himself one new humanity in place of two, reconciling both groups to God by proclaiming peace to the Gentiles who had been far off and peace to Jews who had been near, because it is through Jesus that both Jews and Gentiles have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:15-18)

This is a great epiphany: ‘in former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel’. This is not just good news for the Gentiles who are now able to be part of the church. Through this new community made up of both Jews and Gentiles, previously divided but now members of one family, ‘the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’. If the church lives as it should, as a community in which all that divides humanity, nationality and race and gender and class and sexuality, is overcome, then the whole cosmos will see the mystery of God revealed. God’s plan for the cosmos is unity in diversity; God’s intention is that the rich variety evident in God’s good creation might be a cause of rejoicing rather than hatred and fear. This is the call of the church: to live as such a community of love that the entire cosmos can see in us God’s intentions for the whole creation.

There is currently a lot of discussion about the status of Christianity in Australian society; there is literally a book being published at the moment with the title Silencing of the Lambs: Wokeism and Cancel Culture’s Attack on Christianity in Australia, ‘wokeism’ being the latest term for what used to be called wowserism, do-gooding, political correctness, or being a social justice warrior. As Christianity loses its place of privilege in Australia, there are some Christians who think the response should be to circle the wagons, to build walls between us and the rest of the world. But that is contrary to the mystery revealed to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, the mystery of absolute and utter inclusion. There can be no excuse for churches to re-establish walls between human beings when Jesus came to tear all those dividing walls down.

Today we celebrate the epiphany experienced by the magi, that God had come to earth in the baby they found in Bethlehem with Mary, his mother. And we celebrate the epiphany that Jesus’ first Jewish followers experienced, that he was not just the king of the Jews, but the Messiah born for all humanity. We, the Gentiles welcomed into the church by Jewish Christians, are called to imitate our Gentile ancestors, the magi, by offering Jesus our whole selves. One of the ways in which we can do this is by rejoicing in the boundless riches of Christ and seeing everyone as our fellow recipients of the gift of God’s grace, and treating them accordingly. Amen.

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