The Feast of the Epiphany

6 January 2008 at :00 am

Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The feast of the Epiphany derives its name from a Greek word meaning manifestation or revelation. So, today, as we hear Matthew’s account of the wise men from the east coming to worship Jesus with Mary his Mother and bringing gifts, we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. We hear the message that the birth of Jesus Christ is not just good news for God’s ancient people the Jews, but for people all over the world. Anyone and everyone can come and worship. Jesus is a gift from God for the whole of humanity. Accepting that Jesus is for everyone implies that everyone should hear and know about Jesus, everyone should come to Jesus. So what does this feast say about Christianity and evangelism, about relations between the faiths and about truth?

Our age is one of individualism, where perceptions of truth are seen as a matter of personal choice, about which there can be no argument or debate. People now refer to ‘the truth for me’ rather than trying to discover what is absolute or ultimate truth. We are also coming to the view that the task of over-riding importance for the 21st century is to develop mutual understanding and respect between different faith communities and take it for granted that we can only achieve that by minimising the differences between the communities and maximising the common ground. So there is certainly challenge in today’s feast if we are to see Jesus as someone for the whole community, for the whole of humanity, for the people of the east as well as for the people of the west.

It was by no means obvious to the early Church that Jesus was good news for people far as well as near. Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, was convinced first, but it took time for the message to become clear to Peter and a long time for it to be accepted by all Jewish Christians. Since then the message of the Gospel has been carried all over the world and throughout history. Conversion to Christianity has usually been a community process. We see in the Acts of the Apostles whole families becoming Christians together. We see in the history of the Church’s mission likewise whole communities, kingdoms and nations being converted to Christ. When Augustine, who was to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived from Rome in AD 596, his first task was the conversion of king Ethelbert of Kent to Christianity. With the king came his kingdom. We cannot know how conversion was achieved, whether with the pure word of the gospel or with some additional persuasive power. We do however look with distinct unease at the stories of Christian mission through the centuries following in the wake of imperial power.

If this alone does not leave us hesitant in Christian evangelism, in proclaiming aloud for all to hear that Jesus is a gift from God for the whole of humanity, we are likely to quail as we confront the intellectual difficulties posed by the coexistence of the great world faiths in Britain and in most of the world. At a time when we need to build community and cohesion, are we to tell Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, that their faith is deficient, that it can offer them no hope? Or are we on the other hand to compromise the uniqueness of the revelation in Jesus Christ? It is no surprise that people take refuge in the thought that everyone is entitled to believe what they like, with the implication that I should never try to explain to you why I believe what I do, still less to persuade you to accept what I believe, and that there really is no objective or absolute truth and every belief is as valid as every other belief.

What shall we say? Are we to be satisfied with an individualised and atomised world where it makes little difference what you believe as long as you’re sincere? If so, we would deny that Christ is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14: 6) and repudiate the Christian evangelism that has brought us the good news of God’s love in Christ. Are we content to abandon a key theme of Christianity that Jesus is a gift from God for the whole of humanity? If so, we would reject the key message celebrated in this great feast. Or is there some middle way between on the one hand indifferentism and relativism and on the other a militant Christian evangelism that sees all other faiths as little more than devil worship? Neither of these attitudes can be right. There must be a way. I think there is. I see four stepping stones across this torrent.

The first step is to acknowledge God as the one and only God, the creator of heaven and earth, the loving Father of all human beings, who are made in his image and likeness and who “will find no rest until they rest in [him].” (Confessions of St Augustine I.1.1.) All human beings have a natural inbuilt inclination to know and love God however obscured it might be by sin and ignorance. The second step is to recognise Jesus Christ as the Word of God, who “was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1: 2, 3) The Word was from the beginning and remains active throughout creation, active far beyond the confines of the Church. The third step is to acknowledge that the Word of God spoke to the people of Israel through Moses and the prophets before the birth of Christ. The Word that would be fully revealed in Christ was already speaking to those who would listen. The fourth step is to see therefore that the seeds of the Word of God can be found outside the Christian religion and can and do inform and develop the religious instincts of those who are attentive to him. We therefore who love the Word of God and know he speaks definitively in Christ, but long to hear him speak more clearly in our own lives, can hear him speaking to us through dialogue with other faith communities.

Where does this leave us? The Church’s calling is to spread the good news of God’s love, fully revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Spreading the good news implies demonstrating God’s love in action (mission) and proclaiming the word (evangelism) for all who have not heard or have only half-heard, including great numbers of nominal Christians. Spreading the good news also implies engaging in dialogue with those of other communities and other faiths, a dialogue of life (being and doing good together) and what we might call a dialogue of truth (engaging together with the Word of God).

May this feast re-energise our commitment to responding imaginatively to God’s wonderful love in the gift of Jesus for the whole of humanity.

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