The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s010e08 Epiphany 6/1/2008
'grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ' Ephesians 3.8
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the last of the twelve days of Christmass, so this always falls on January the 6th, this year on a Sunday. The story of the visit of the wise men from the East is so bound up in the Christmass story, that to celebrate it by itself is perhaps superfluous.
Many, many years ago, I recall a conversation with a lady who came to church regularly, but never received the sacrament of Holy Communion. One day when I visited her she volunteered the reason, which was because the words of institution made it clear that the body and blood were given 'for the forgiveness of sins'. This particular person felt that while she had done things in her life of the nature of sin, at the time she was given little choice. In a similar vein, I recall a colleague saying that, given the opportunity, they would live their life in the same manner as they had before despite their mistakes and sins. And while both these question the traditional interpretation of repentance, both point us to the important fact that the Christian mission is not just about me being forgiven my sins, negligences and ignorances.
One of the things I struggle with is how easy it is to pronounce the absolution over other people, and yet how difficult it is for me to forgive myself for my misdoings. Of course any spiritual advisor worth his or her salt would immediately say: what makes me so special and unique that the atonement wrought for all of humanity by Jesus on the Cross was effective for everyone except me!
But if this is true for me, it is equally true for everyone else. There is no one so special, no one whose sins are so heinous, that the atonement wrought for all of humanity by Jesus on the Cross was effective for everyone except them.
The feast of the Epiphany proclaims the truth that God accepts the offerings of other people; specifically in this case the heretical wise men of the east. They were clearly not circumcised Jews so they could well have worshipped another god, or none at all. They could well have been magicians, students of esoteric knowledge 'hidden' from the likes of you and I. They were ritually unclean and doctrinally suspect. And yet their offering is accepted. Their ritual impurity and their suspect doctrine were forgiven without question. Indeed it is not made explicit, but it is clear that this story is retold suggesting that God led these wise men to Bethlehem.
So right at the beginning of Matthew's gospel, the fact that God works through the unclean and the unorthodox is made plain. God doesn't just work through Herod, the chief priests and the scribes. The fact that God seeks out and accepts the offerings of the unclean and the unorthodox is put right up front. Put alongside the condemnations Jesus' uttered against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, we begin to appreciate the importance this has.
God accepts my offerings, without reference to my need for forgiveness. God accepts everyone's offerings, without reference to their need for forgiveness. The one time when God asks us to delay our offering, is when we know that we need someone else's forgiveness. (Matthew 5.23-24) God's acceptance of our offerings comes, part and parcel, with forgiveness. The one implies and includes the other.
This is the message that St Paul had come to realize, that God wanted the Gentiles to become fully heirs with the Jewish people. Indeed of course the whole history of grace towards the ancient people of God was that this was not for themselves but for all other people. So too the blessings of Christ are not for 'christians' alone, but through us, for all other people.
But this starts with our acceptance of other people and the gifts they would offer, not other people's acceptance of us and our teachings. So often 'christian' evangelism has been all about the second of these.
We can make 'christianity' all about my forgiveness and atonement, or about 'christians' forgiveness and atonement, whereas the feast of the Epiphany lifts our eyes to recognise the mission of Christ is the forgiveness and atonement of all people and the God who seeks out and accepts the offerings of all.
I always find that well known saying of Jesus curious: 'whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20.27-28) It was precisely because Jesus accepted the offerings of all, rather than just some, that he was killed. Jesus served by accepting others' offerings.
In his essay: 'Dangers of National Repentance' C S Lewis, in another era, wrote these true words: 'The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it turns from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing .. the conduct of others.' Of course he goes on immediately to write about charity, but that phrase: 'the bitter task of repenting' seems so negative and far from Jesus' definition: 'rejoice with me' - someone else has been found and so far from the glory and joy of this feast of the Epiphany.
God's acceptance comes part and parcel with forgiveness, but of course it is conditional on our acceptance and forgiveness of other people. It is here we are lifted from the morbid preoccupation with our own failings to the glory and joy of acceptance of others.
Do we accept others, those who do not follow our perceptions of 'christianity'? Is God less forgiving of heresy than we? Is our faith one of morbid preoccupation with our own salvation or a joyful celebration that God includes all people into the kingdom? The choice remains ours, but I know which one has more appeal to me!
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