January 6, 2008

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

The story of the magi’s visit to the young boy Jesus in Bethlehem is the classic Epiphany story. We often sneak the wise men into the Christmas story in December, but its proper place is here: after the birth of the child, after the shepherds have returned home, after the angels have receded into the sky. Once again, of course, I should remind you that the shepherds and the angels belong to Luke’s story, and the magi are Matthew’s. The birth narratives should not be read as historical accounts of factual events. So we don’t have to worry about why the Holy Family who had travelled to Bethlehem for a census (in Luke’s account) are still there a few years later (in Matthew’s account) and living in a house.

Chances are that Jesus was really born in Nazareth, the Galilean town where he grew up and began his ministry. But both Matthew and Luke come up with reasons for his birth to take place in Bethlehem, the city of David. It’s a great way to show that Jesus is the predicted Messiah, in the family line of David, born in David’s town. Likewise, there is no historical reason to believe that Gentile astrologers came looking for Jesus to worship him as a little child in Bethlehem. My guess is that no one knew that there was anything particularly special about Jesus until he began his ministry as a young man.

But the story of the magi’s visit, and the other birth narratives were not made up to fool the gullible reader. Instead, they were written to express the magnitude of the impact that Jesus’ life and ministry made in our world. Luke’s story pointed out that Jesus’ life made a difference to the ordinary, and even the lowly people of the world. The shepherds who came to visit the newborn child were a perfect representation of those kind of people. Matthew doesn’t mention shepherds, but he does include this story about astrologers following a travelling star to the place where they expected to find a new king and ruler.

Although Matthew’s first readers were Jewish Christians who would have appreciated all his references to the Hebrew scriptures and how Jesus’ birth fulfilled the Messianic promises of their own tradition, still Matthew includes this story about Gentiles (foreigners) who are the first to recognise the Christ, to bring him gifts, and to worship him.

One of the biggest issues in the early church surrounded the fact that both Jews and Gentiles had come to believe in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. Many of the letters in the latter part of the New Testament, as well as the Book of Acts, struggle with how both Jews and Gentiles can be followers of the way. Should Gentiles be required to follow the dietary and other laws that God gave to the People of Israel? Should Jews break from their religious traditions to follow a completely new way in Jesus? The letters speak openly about these issues as Paul and other Christian leaders tried to counsel and advise the fledgling Christian churches.

But remember, the Gospel stories were written even later than most of those letters, towards the end of the first century. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was composed, ideas around the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church had already started to get sorted out. And the author clearly wanted to emphasise and promote that new understanding.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is for the Jews. As we learned last week, he is portrayed as the new Moses who will be both the leader and saviour of the People of Israel. But the narrative also makes it clear that Jesus is for the Gentiles too. Jesus’ ministry doesn’t only take place among the Jews. He wanders into Gentile territory, and on several occasions he heals and helps people who aren’t Jewish.

Whether Jesus really did interact with non-Jewish people, or whether the stories are there to make the Gospel writer’s point, I do not know. But by the time the Gospels were written, those who were following the way of Jesus had started to realise that their cultural and religious background was less important than they once thought. All kinds of people could look at Jesus and his life and ministry, and they could all see God in him. This was a radical change from the religion of the past. But it was the same God that they had always known. It was the same God that their Hebrew ancestors had worshipped. But now this God was being made known to Jews and to non-Jews alike.

By the end of Matthew’s story, the point is made perfectly clear. Jesus’ disciples are commissioned to “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” “Go… and make disciples of all nations…”

But even at the beginning of the story, there is a pretty strong hint of what is to come. The author is saying that you don’t have to be a Jew or know the scriptures to recognise that God is in Jesus. The first people to worship the Christ were Gentile astrologers. Everything in creation, even the movements of the stars, was pointing to Jesus, and those who were wise would follow the signs and come to worship him.

The Jew vs. Gentile issue that the first century church struggled with colours almost everything that we read in the New Testament, whether letters or Gospel narratives. And sometimes I think, “Oh no, not again! What does all this Jew-Gentile stuff have to do with our faith today?” It’s not really an issue in Canadian Christian churches, except perhaps in terms of how we relate to our Jewish brothers and sisters, or how we deal with modern anti-Semitism, or how we reflect on the continuing conflicts in Israel and Palestine.

But within the church, we don’t have Jewish and non-Jewish groups. We don’t have different cultural and religious practices to reconcile. We don’t have internal conflict over what to eat and how to worship or who’s accepted as an authentic Christian and who’s not. Oh wait! Maybe we do.

Our conflicts aren’t about Jews and Gentiles. Sometimes they’re about worship music and candles. Sometimes they’re about how to celebrate the sacraments and the furnishings in our sanctuaries. Sometimes they’re about gender and sexuality. Sometimes they’re about biblical interpretation and theological emphases. Sometimes they’re about language and culture, or about education and class.

But imagine what the church would be like today if those early Christian communities didn’t figure out early on — in that first century — that Jesus is the revelation of God for all people. Imagine if those first Jewish people who followed the way of Jesus had decided not to tell the good news to those who were so different from them in language, and culture, and way of life.

The church, over the last 2000 years, has tried to tell the Gospel to all people. But so often, unfortunately, the good news about Jesus Christ has been confused with or entangled with Western European culture and values. Christians, in attempts to share Jesus with their neighbours, have convinced other groups that in order to be saved, you must be like us.

The New Testament books make it clear that it wasn’t easy for Jewish and Gentile Christians to be the church together. In many ways, it was the Jews, the ones who were there first, who needed to make accommodations for their new Christian friends. “No, you don’t have to be circumcised. No, you don’t have to eat our traditional foods and avoid eating others. Yes, you are welcome among us because you have chosen to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth, to love the one God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. That’s what being a Christian is about, so you don’t have to do anything else to be accepted here.”

Of course, all of this has implications for how we relate to other Christians, whether Presbyterians from different cultures or countries, or Christians from different denominations. Our unity in Christ is much more important than many of the details. But I think it also has implications for how we welcome people with little or no church background into our community of faith. How can we invite all people to come and worship Christ, to recognise that in his life and ministry God is with us, and to make their lives about following his way, while not imposing other superfluous cultural and religious practices on them?

The magi remind me of the fact that many different kinds of people will be able to recognise that God is with us in Jesus. They may not know the scriptures. They may not be familiar with church practices. They may not know the songs we sing or the words of our prayers. But God’s light is so bright that it could lead Gentile astrologers to worship the new king of the Jews — the new saviour of all people. The magi make me think of all the people today who are unimpressed by the institutional church. And yet, they still long for a relationship with God. They still recognise that there is something special about Jesus.

The sign on the outside wall of our church building says, “Come and worship with friendly Presbyterians,” and certainly we have to work pretty hard to live up to that invitation each Sunday morning. But really, we have a responsibility to be more than just friendly. We have the challenge of welcoming and truly accepting each person who comes through our doors. That acceptance does not hinge on their ability or willingness to be “like us” or to conform to typical Canadian Presbyterian norms of belief and practice. In fact, I think that we’ll miss out on some amazing things if we fail to welcome our neighbours with all the gifts and insights that they bring to our community of faith.

Today, my hope is that every one of us will know “You are welcome here, just as you are. We give thanks to God for your gifts and contributions to this Christian community.” And may God help us to grow in love and welcome to all people, until all nations and all peoples have come to experience God-with-us in Jesus, until God’s reign is complete, and we are all one in Christ. Amen.