06 January 2016

A Benevolent Epiphany

Below is the sermon I gave at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship on January 3 when we celebrated the Epiphany.

Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany, which is fixed in the church calendar on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. Those of us who grew up near Amish communities may also know of January 6 as Old Christmas, when all the shops closed because their Amish employees took the day off as a holiday. Epiphany closes out the Advent/Christmas season and inaugurates a new season of variable length in its name. The exact length of the Epiphany season is determined by the placement of Easter, which varies from year to year. In days gone by, the season lasted only until Septuagesima, nine weeks before Easter, three before Lent, but in many traditions now stretches on through Transfiguration Sunday or Ash Wednesday. By its inconsistent length, it would appear that Epiphany has served somewhat of a functional role in church history, filling in the gap between the feast of Epiphany and countdown to Easter.
So what is it, exactly, that we should celebrate during this time of waiting for Lent, which waits for Easter? The Epiphany is exactly as it sounds: it is a time of revelation or sudden insight. That is, the revelation of Christ to the world, first experienced by the Magi who came from the east. These Magi feature prominently in the nativity scene and could represent a non-Jewish element being brought into the picture. The Magi are astrologers and outsiders, coming from the east for whatever reason. They are part of a different tradition, from an unnamed, far-off land, who have been guided to the young Jesus on their own. They said that they observed the star of a king rising and had come to pay homage.

The texts prescribed by the lectionary throughout the remainder of Epiphany all have to do with Christ being revealed to the people living in first-century Palestine, from Jesus’s Baptism, when God descended from heaven as a dove to bless the Messiah in the Jordan River, to the wedding where Jesus’s divine nature was revealed as the Christ turned water into wine, to Jesus’s own declaration that the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [the Lord] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [The Lord] 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 favor,” had been fulfilled at that moment. Stretching Epiphany through Transfiguration Sunday allows the season to climax with Jesus’s revelation to Peter, James, and John that he is the child of the divine.

What I would like to think about today is the significance to us of the story of the Magi, outsiders, guided by their own tradition, to whom the presence of God was revealed, and who subsequently returned to their homeland never to appear again in the gospels, in conjunction with the scripture from Ephesians, where Christians are encouraged to bring the “news of the boundless riches of Christ” to the gentiles.
Growing up in a conservative, evangelical church these texts and others like them were used as a means of encouraging parishioners to, essentially, try and convert everyone they came into contact with to a particular brand or Christianity. The modern equivalents to the gentiles were people who didn’t “believe” in Jesus: atheists, Jewish people, Buddhists, etc., and occasionally other Christian denominations. The revelation of Jesus was the revelation that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong, and it is our duty to show them that. According to this narrative, God brought the Magi to Bethlehem in order that they may meet Christ and be converted. In Ephesians, the “plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things,” that Paul writes was his charge to reveal to the world is the conversion of every person on earth to Christianity.

This interpretation does not sit well with me however. We live in a multi-faith world, and I find it hard to justify discounting the experiences of 69% of the world. Additionally, charging Christians with converting the entire world lest they face eternal torture, as was taught to me growing up, places a huge burden of guilt on Christians who care about others. For these people, every failed attempt to earn converts condemns those “others” to torment. When my great grandfather, not an active religious individual, died, I remember a family member saying that they hoped that he had said a prayer to Jesus before he suffered the stroke put him in a coma, otherwise he was going to suffer in hell. Not the most comforting sentiment I’ve ever heard.
I am convinced that these beliefs are rooted in a need to be right and to prove that others are wrong; in a need to control people through threats of punishment and promises of reward, rather than an attempt to change their attitudes. In a 2006 interview retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong explained his belief that the concept of a Heaven v. Hell afterlife served as a means of allowing the church to control the actions of the people, with the best of intentions, of course. Recognizing the ways that our religion has sought to manipulate people, consciously or not, is an essential first step to living into a Christian faith that can truly express love in this world.

The story of the Magi, however, does not necessarily indicate that these individuals were converted to some sort of proto-Christianity. They are but a few of many characters that are brought up in the bible once, are discussed only briefly, and subsequently disappear. The interpretation of characters and events that are sometimes only hinted at has been its own longstanding discipline. The Jewish tradition of interpreting the meaning of such appearances is known as Midrash.
When the Magi first appear in Jerusalem, they explain themselves by saying that they observed the star of a king at its rising. The Magi had come to pay homage to an individual whose coming was revealed by constellations or moving planets in the sky. They were guided by meaningful symbols in their own tradition to Jerusalem. As the gospel puts it, their appearance coincides with one of many seasons of unrest in the Jewish world, as rumors were flying about uprisings against Roman rulers. Theologian Brian McLaren writes that in light of the atmosphere of resistance, unrest, and revolt in Jerusalem, the Roman Empire was likely in a very intolerant mood, and Herod, named king of Judea by the Roman Senate, was anxious to keep the peace and thus preserve his position. The appearance of strange men asking about a king that had just risen to power or was rising to power soon, probably further fueled the rumors of rebellion, and thus brought the Magi to Herod’s attention.

As the story has it, the direction given to them compliments their own means of orienting themselves and taking directions, the study of the stars, and they continue on to Bethlehem. Perhaps upon hearing rumors that a woman claimed to have given birth while a virgin, an amazing feat perhaps worthy of a celestial event, they visit the young Jesus and present him with gifts. Then they are told not to return to Herod, and they continue on their merry way, never to be heard from again. The Magi do not even warn Mary and Joseph of coming danger, but rather allow the couple to be informed by their own tradition while the Magi continue to be true to their own.

In this reading, there is no conversion, but there is a certain respect. The Messiah is revealed to the Magi in a benevolent and unobtrusive way. There is no call for these individuals to repent, no need for them to perform certain tasks, and no rejection of them or their gifts based on “otherness.” Jesus is present alongside them, both the “other” and the familiar coexist and complement one another. When the encounter is finished, both continue on their own paths: Jesus towards his adult ministry and the Magi home to their own separate lives.

If we consider Christ’s revelation in this way: that Christ is revealed to the world in such a way that people belonging to various traditions are permitted and even encouraged to coexist with Christians while remaining independent, what is our role as Christians? Paul writes in Ephesians that “the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Retaining the interpretation of “Gentiles” from earlier, that they are the “other” to us, today, this means that those who live by other traditions are also recipients of God’s grace. Bringing what Paul calls “God’s plan” to the world as revealed to the Magi could be seen as acting for the good of all people without attempts at conversion or coercion, regardless of origin or tradition. Anabaptists, in particular, have a long history of seeing the good news of Christ as more than “salvation.” Christ’s gift to the world is a model for living peacefully with all of creation; Jesus demonstrated nonviolent resistance and love for all.

In the history of Anabaptism there have been some notable voices that have spoken out in favor of religious pluralism. Among them are Hans Reist, the 17th/18th century Mennonite elder who opposed Jakob Ammann’s reforms, eventually leading to a schism that resulted the creation of the Amish, and Hans Denck, a first-generation spiritualist Anabaptist leader active in the Southern Germany. Reist disagreed with Ammann’s assertion that the ban should be applied more liberally and that Anabaptists should practice social avoidance with all members of other religious groups. Reist also resisted the notion that only Anabaptists were true Christians and thus were the only people who would be admitted into heaven. Over a century and a half earlier, Denck, in his commentary on Micah, speaks of a world of religious tolerance where “…security will exist also in outward things, with the practice of the true gospel that each will let the other move and dwell in peace – be [they] Turk (Muslim) or heathen (pretty much any other religion), believing what [they] will – through and in [their] land… Everyone among all peoples may move around in the name of [their] God. That is to say, no one shall deprive another – whether heathen or Jew or Christian – but will allow everyone to move in all territories in the name of [their] God.” The idea of religious tolerance and acceptance is not new to our tradition.

More recently, Brian McLaren writes about a conversation between a Kenyan and an American regarding intertribal violence in Kenya. The American asks what tribe the Kenyan is from, and the Kenya responds in this way: “I could answer your question because I am not ashamed of my tribe. It is part of who I am, and I know who I am. But at the risk of sounding rue, I would rather not answer, and let me explain why. In reality, in every country there are only two tribes: the haves and the have-nots. It is enough to say that I am from the haves, and I want to use the advantages that have come to me by accident of birth on behalf of the have-nots, whatever their tribe. So although I am from one tribe, I exist to serve people of all tribes.” This is a way of revealing Christ to the world in a benevolent way. Today, we have the ability to work with people of all different faiths with common goals in mind. It is within our power to act in cooperation with others in ways that can improve the world around us.

The current refugee crisis and the response of many other residents of this country is a perfect example of where we need to act on behalf of the have-nots, regardless of geographic origin or religion. The Xenophobic and Islamophobic voices that have been given such large stages in recent months must be countered by Christians and their partners acting in the spirit of the Epiphany, in benevolent revelation and subsequent action.

May we move forward alongside the Magi of our time. May we seek to benevolently and unconditionally bless those around us. May we be a model of Christ-like peace in a world of hate, war, and intolerance.

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