Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sermon for Epiphany

Trinity, Jacksonville--Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12

Epiphany. Wise Men. Gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Camels, oxen, sheep, shepherds, angels. It evokes a memory of any number of children’s Christmas pageants, and it’s precisely the tableau that I bet is on more than one of the Christmas cards that you haven’t gotten around to throwing out yet … or perhaps you’ve been waiting for today, for Epiphany, to toss your 2018 Christmas cards around the same time you undecorate your tree and restore your home to its pre-holiday configuration. (That will be my job on Tuesday, as tomorrow I have to be at the funeral of my predecessor once-removed, Bishop Hultstrand).  Of course, any scene that includes both the shepherds and the Wise Men is taking some liberties, because Luke talks about the shepherds and Matthew tells us about the Wise Men, but no biblical text ever puts them in the same place at the same time. Just don’t tell the greeting card industry.

Sadly, though, that’s where we tend to get stuck: at the manger with baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary and St Joseph and the Wise Men and the shepherds and any number of four-footed creatures of various sorts, with the angels just having finished their singing. And, while it’s a beautiful scene, it’s not a very good place to linger. It’s not a fruitful place to hang around. It’s just a Christmas card image, and that’s it. It’s flat, two-dimensional. There’s no substance, nothing deep, nothing revealing.

Ah, revealing. That’s the actual meaning of the word “epiphany”—a revelation, a demonstration, exhibition, showing forth, a manifestation, to use our traditional Anglican language. An epiphany reveals. It makes known something that was previously unknown, previously a secret, previously a mystery. To understand Epiphany, we need to allow ourselves to think, not literally, but symbolically. What mystery does the two-dimensional but comfortably familiar Christmas card tableau lead us or call us into? What’s the “deeper place” that we are invited to explore?

Precisely this: The encounter between the Wise Men and the infant Jesus symbolizes the foundation of Christian mission. If you happen to serve here at Trinity on what is customarily referred to among Episcopalians as the Vestry, you probably know that, in the canons of the Diocese of Springfield, we have adopted the term Mission Leadership Team. I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole of why we did that here, except to make the further observation that members of the Mission Leadership Team, aka Vestry, are no doubt aware that one of its duties is to annually prepare and submit a document called a Mission Strategy Report, which lays out a definite plan for, in this case, Trinity Church in Jacksonville, to take its share in the grand missionary mandate of the church throughout the world, which is nothing other than Jesus’ Great Commission: “Go into all the world and make disciples.” That missionary mandate, including Trinity Church, Jacksonville’s missionary strategy, is symbolically revealed, manifested, shown forth, exhibited, demonstrated … in the encounter between the Wise Men and the infant Jesus.

How, precisely, can our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany assist in the pursuit of the mission God has given us? I will suggest three ways that this happens:

First, the encounter between the Wise Men and the infant Jesus establishes the scope of Christian mission, which is, that it is universal. Mission is directed toward all people in every place. Here we ought to remind ourselves of St Paul’s relentless work toward inclusion of Gentiles in Christian missionary efforts. All the first Christians, of course, were Jews, and some of them thought it should stay that way. Paul cashed in all his political chips in the cause of making the gospel available to non-Jews, for which most of us here, I would expect, should be duly grateful. This is indeed one of the marks of the “mystery” that Paul writes to the Ephesians about in our second reading this morning: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” It is precisely this “mystery” that allows us to read Matthew’s story of the Wise Men the way we do. It allows us to see significance in the fact that they were Gentiles, they came from unspecified foreign lands, and therefore figuratively represent all Gentiles, and bear witness to the universality of the Gospel. There is nobody anywhere for whom the Church’s proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” is not good news. We have no license to place restrictions on with whom this good news gets shared. Christian mission is universal.

Second, the encounter between the Wise Men and the infant Jesus defines the objective of Christian mission, which is what the Wise Men themselves were seeking; namely, an encounter with Jesus. In the free-church evangelical subculture in which I was raised in the 1950s and 60s, we spoke freely of the duty of all faithful Christians to “lead people to Christ.” Indeed, this is the fundamental movement of the activity we know as evangelism, which is the heart of mission. In a sense, the Star of Bethlehem was the first evangelist—it led the Wise Men from wherever in “the East” they were from, to their awkward meeting with King Herod, and then finally to “the place where the child lay.” The route to Jesus can be long and circuitous, but the objective of the Church’s missionary outreach must always point to Jesus, and broker an encounter with Jesus. It’s up to Jesus to close the deal, but he wants us to take responsibility for arranging the meeting. Mission has an objective, and that is to lead people to Christ.

Third, and finally, the encounter between the Wise Men and the infant Jesus identifies the fruit of Christian mission, which is, to use a slightly fancy term, oblation—that is, people giving themselves to Christ. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh may have their individual symbolic associations, which we sing about in that most famous of all Epiphany hymns—We Three Kings—but, generically, they were gifts. In this very celebration of the Eucharist we will explicitly make such a gift: we will offer “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to God the Father, through God the Son, in God the Holy Spirit. The Wise Men presented their gifts and left, never to be heard from again. But we give ourselves to Christ as one continuous lifelong movement, “that we may dwell in him, and he in us,” using the words that we will pray together in a few minutes, until we see him face to face. We take up where the Wise Men leave off, and don’t just bring gifts; we become gifts. We give ourselves. Self-giving is the essential fruit of mission.

Epiphany reminds us that the scope of our mission is universal, the objective of our mission is an encounter with Jesus, and the fruit of our mission is a continuous act of oblation, of self-giving. This is daunting. Fortunately, grace abounds, and we are never under-resourced for this work.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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