Sunday January 15, 2017
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Daniels
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
One does not have to have the keenest powers of observation to notice that Christians are a quarrelsome bunch. We argue over everything there is to argue about, from the profoundly serious to the embarrassingly trivial; we argue about things speculative and things prosaic; the sacred and the profane. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, Of the making of quarrels there is no end.
I don’t know whether it should make us feel better or worse that it has been this way from the very earliest days of the Church. One of the first things that the Church did, as a Church, was to gather everyone together in what we now call the Council of Jerusalem, but they probably thought of it as everybody getting together and talking things through (Acts 15). What they needed to talk through was the status of the Gentiles—that is, the non-Jews—in this new movement of Jesus followers.
There were those at the meeting who said that in order to be a true blue follower of Jesus, a real member of the New Israel, Gentiles needed to go through the customary rites of integration into the Jewish faith, including observation of the Mosaic law. Others said, no, the law had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, so Gentiles can be full members of the New Israel by virtue of Jesus, full stop.
This was an important matter for them to get straight, because the evangelists were now spreading out from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, and they needed to know what to say to the Persians and the Ethiopians and all the rest. As you probably know, the decision they made was that Jews and Gentiles both are full members of the New Israel, not by law-keeping but by baptism. This was the great innovation of Saint Paul, who insisted that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek … neither bond nor free … neither male nor female: for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
We should not let the familiarity of this result blind us to how radical it was for them to say. This was an entirely new way of looking at what the covenant with the God of Israel consisted of. Whatever else they quarreled about, all of the people at the council agreed that the original covenant had been made with “Abraham and his seed forever,” and not with Persians or Ethiopians or whomever. But the claim that came out of the Council was that in Jesus everybody in the world was adopted into that family, in Jesus everyone became an adopted child of God. I’m adopted; you’re adopted; the Persians are adopted. To be part of the New Israel is not a matter of keeping the 613 commandments of the law of Moses. It is a matter of being baptized. That is the mark of the New Covenant; it is the spiritual mark that indicates God’s claim on you, whether you are Jew or Greek, slave or free.
The practical consequence of this was that the apostles went out, hither and yon, to everybody they could find, and preached baptism in the name of Jesus, and the reception of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of eternal life with God. And so it is to this very day, all over the world: the rite of initiation for everyone is baptism in the name of the Trinity and being sealed by Holy Spirit; it is the universal sacrament that draws unrelated people into a single family; and that family is one that waits in expectation for the grand banquet of heaven, where all of the quarrelsome Christians are reconciled, and there is great rejoicing.
Here endeth the history lesson.
I mention all of this this afternoon because this arc of integration, initiation, and salvation is what is prefigured in the music and readings from our Epiphany procession tonight. In choral song and holy scripture, we have seen how that sequence played out in Jesus’ own life, as the divine plan for the world was revealed.
In our first reading from the gospel of Matthew, the three Wise Men, Gentiles all, are led to the infant Jesus, and fall down and worship him. In the second reading, from Luke, Jesus himself undergoes baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. And in the third, John tells us about the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle and demonstration of divine power, which signifies the great hope of all Christians: that we participate in the heavenly banquet on the other side of death. These are some of the events we celebrate during Epiphany, events which reveal the presence of God with his people in Jesus, the presence of God with all people because of the one who is savior of the world.
So it is not unimportant that the three Magi were some of the very first people in history to ever gaze upon the face of God, to see the Word made flesh with their own eyes. These Gentiles were some of the very first people to see that the light had come, and that the glory of the Lord was risen. It is not unimportant that Jesus undergoes baptism, just as he will allow himself to undergo the pain of death. It is not unimportant that when the banquet-goers find themselves in need, it is Jesus who provides.
In these Epiphany stories we see how the glory of God is manifested in unexpected places, to unexpected people. In Bethlehem, a provincial backwater, to Gentiles; in the Jordan River, among the crowds looking to be baptized; in Cana, at a wedding, making the ordinary extraordinary. Who would have expected to find the Son of God in any of those places? It would be no more likely than finding him 2,000 years later in the city of New York, in the midst of the gathered people of God, quarreling as ever; it would be no more likely than finding him in the bread and wine of the Eucharist that we share.
In these Epiphany stories the promises made at Christmas come to fruition. God is with his people. His love has come among us.
Arise, shine O Jerusalem. For thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.