January 8, 2017, Opening the Door – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Epiphany is the last chapter in what we think of as the “Christmas story” – kind of an epilog, really, because it happened quite a bit later: a year or maybe two years after the night of Jesus’ birth in the stable, with the Shepherds and Angels and all the rest. The day is called Epiphany, which means “appearance” or “revelation,” for at least two reasons. First, because of the star that appeared in the sky, and that the Wise Men followed all the way from their homeland in Persia to Jerusalem and then to the little town of Bethlehem, where they found the child, Jesus, and his mother.
But the other, and even more important reason that this day is called the Epiphany is that the coming of the strangers from the East was the revealing of a major plot twist in God’s plan to save us. It’s interesting that unlike the Shepherds in the Christmas story, a whole mythology has grown up around the Wise Men that we see represented in our nativity scenes and on Christmas cards: three men in robes and turbans, with the requisite camels and fancy packages. There are always three, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar; and generally one is pictured as white, one black, and one Asian. There’s nothing Biblical about any of that, really; it doesn’t say anywhere how many Wise Men there were, and there’s no reason really that they would have been mulitracial. And we don’t really know their names.
But as a symbol, that mythology is actually very helpful, because it points to the real Epiphany of the Epiphany, God’s big Tadaaa! moment – that with the birth of the Child the door was suddenly flung open wide to welcome all those who had been outsiders for century upon century.
For two thousand years, God had called Israel to be a nation set apart from the rest of the world, to be his own people, chosen and beloved. He chose to make himself known in the world first by setting his presence in little Israel. And he gave them a law and a whole way of life that made them unique among all the surrounding nations. It was only natural, then, that Israel had come to define themselves by moral and racial standards. A true Israelite was a biological descendant of Abraham. A true Israelite was a person who kept the whole law of Moses: obeyed all the dietary rules, observed all the ritual sacrifices, and lived up to all the codes of behavior.
The problem, of course, was that not a single person, not one man, woman or child, had ever lived up to that definition. When Jesus was born, he was the first and last person ever who could be called a perfectly true Israelite. God’s really big plot twist was the moment these strangers came from the far East, men of a different race entirely from God’s chosen people, born and raised with a completely different set of moral and religious standards for living: absolute outsiders in every way. With the help of the Star they found their way to the home of tne one and only perfect Jew. They showed up at his house in Bethlehem, and the Child, with his mother, Mary, opened the door and welcomed them in.
That moment was the revealing of the great mystery that Paul was writing about in his letter to the Ephesians: that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs with the Jews, that in Jesus Christ God made the Gentiles members of the same body [as his chosen people].
This was utterly earth-shaking when Paul wrote these words. For Jews, it was shocking to think that Gentiles could be adopted into the family of God, not by becoming Jews, but by a free invitation from God. That was almost unthinkable, for a people who had been brought up to believe that only the Jews belonged to the one true God. In those days, a faithful Jew would never eat with or touch – certainly never worship with – a Gentile, or they would be made unclean. A good Pharisee would wash up when he came home from the marketplace, just in case he might have accidentally rubbed shoulders with a Gentile in the streets. The barrier of racial and moral purity stood between Jews and Gentiles like the Berlin Wall in the days of the Cold War. The idea that God was welcoming these outsiders into his family was absolutely scandalous. It was an offense to faithful Jews – and a joyful astonishment to Gentiles.
But here, today, look around, we’re just Christians, right? I mean, we know we’re Gentiles technically, because we aren’t Jewish. But we’re Christians, and we’re Americans, and it’s the 21st century, and when we hear Paul reveal the great mystery “…that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” it doesn’t shock us at all. And only rarely, if at all, does it even fill us with joyful astonishment. Because of course we’re members of the Body of Christ – we’re Episcopalians.
But today we are reminded that when three foreigners (or four or five or however many there were) knocked on the door of that little house in Bethlehem the mother and her Child opened the door and welcomed them in. God chose those men, who were outsiders in every way, to be welcomed into that house. Now, we may not think of ourselves as Gentiles, particularly. But we do know very well what it means to be an outsider.
When God was born into the world as a homeless child he was opening the door to every outsider – everyone who just doesn’t belong – the stranger, the misfit, the unwanted, the untouchable, everybody who just never measured up, everybody whose life is a total mess. We are all welcomed to be fellow heirs with the Son of God, and members of his body – not because of of anything we did or anything we know, not because of our family tree, but purely as a free gift. That is the great mystery.
We, who have been Christians for a long time, maybe our whole lives, all too often forget that if we belong at all, it is only by the mercy of God, and that if we have been welcomed as members of his household it is not by any virtue or right of our own. We forget that but by the grace of God we are all outsiders, hopeless and helpless slaves of our own foolishness and weakness. And the real problem with that is that when we fail to have the humility to remember that our faith and our hope and our belonging is a gift, we also fail to have the compassion to extend that gift to others.
Instead of joyfully welcoming outsiders, how often do we define the outsider right out of the Church? How would you define a Christian? To millions and millions of Americans who have grown up outside the walls of any church, the face of the American Church is white, and middle-class, and straight, and self-righteous. Racially, as Martin Luther King said fifty years ago, Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. And an article I read this week said that only 4% of millenials are Bible-based believers – that means 96% of the young adults in our communities never darken the door of a church. The popular definition of Christianity leaves so many “outsiders”: the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, people who struggle with substance abuse, refugees and immigrants, people who are gay or transgender. So many people, millions and millions of them, have been defined right out the doors of the Church. Is it any wonder that Church attendance is steadily declining? Is it any wonder that so many of our neighbors don’t think going to church would be worthwhile for them? They’d just feel like outsiders, wouldn’t they?
But the joyful welcoming of the outsider is the very essence of our gospel. We should know this, because we ourselves, every one of us, have been welcomed by God when we were outsiders ourselves, when we had absolutely no right to his love at all. We, all of us in this room, are Christians, which is to say we are adopted children of God, not because we are white or hard-working or nice or respectable, not because we have good theology, not because we do good works, but purely for no other reason than that the Father chose to give us his love as a gift, and the Son chose to give us his life as a gift, and the Spirit chose to give us his presence as a gift – a gift, undeserved, unearned and much, much more precious than the gifts the Wise Men brought to the Christ Child.
The truth is, the shock and wonder of breaking down the dividing wall between human beings is no less wonderful, no less shocking, no less hard to accept today, than it was in Paul’s time. Close your eyes a moment and think: who is the last person you can imagine joyfully welcoming into the household of God? We all have somebody, right – someone who is so outside the bounds of our definition of Christianity that their salvation is more than our human mind and heart can grasp; maybe even more than we can hope for within the limits of our human grace? That person is as worthy of the free gift of God’s grace as you or I – or to put it another way, we are no more worthy of the free gift of God’s grace than they are. There just is no earning the welcome we have been offered; no matter how good a person we might be, no matter how many good deeds we might do.
We are all of us, every member of the human race, at the mercy of a perfectly righteous and infinitely loving God. We Christians are not better or nicer than anyone else; we are all only happy debtors. That is both the glory and the offense of the gospel. That is our Epiphany. We should be astonished to find ourselves joyfully welcomed into the family of God, to find that we are heirs of the riches that belong by right to the Son of God. And in our joyful amazement we should extend to every member of our human family that same grace with which the Child and his mother welcomed the strangers from the East, that same grace with which we ourselves were welcomed into God’s household.