Sermon: Epiphany, 3 January 2016

St.Aidan’s West Epping,3rd January 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver

“THE WONDER OF THE CHURCH” (Epiphany)

(Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12)

At Christmas we remember not only the birth of Jesus, but also the visit by the shepherds. At Epiphany we remember the Wise Men from the East who arrived too late! They didn’t see the baby in the manger: Jesus was probably months old by the time they arrived – perhaps he was already a toddler!

And they found about him in a very strange way. No angels trumpeting the good news from heaven for them! They were astrologers who believed that the positions and movements of the stars and planets were interconnected with events on earth. We don’t know exactly what they saw – something extraordinary, miraculous even, or perhaps simply two planets closely aligned, just in the ordinary course of things: something into which they read the message of the birth of a great king in Israel.

In any case, the Lord of heaven and earth spoke to them through their knowledge – or perhaps through their ignorance! He can get the stars and planets and comets and asteroids where he wants them, and he used astrology to speak to the wise men: even though the Jewish people knew that astrology and other superstitious practices were not the way to seek God’s guidance.

For one of the messages of Epiphany is that God is concerned with us where we are: he doesn’t wait until we get things sorted out before he will speak to us. The wise men were people with a good deal of knowledge: their astronomy was probably very advanced, but they were ignorant about the significance they saw in the normal movements of heavenly bodies. Nevertheless God came to where they were, because he wanted these people – these most unexpected people – to be witnesses to the infant Jesus.

And so they came with their gifts. The gifts seemed appropriate to the wealthy astrologers, but I think that Mary and Joseph would have been overwhelmed by the gold, and perhaps they would not have known what to do with the frankincense and the myrrh! Mind you, some gold would certainly have come in handy when they had to flee from Herod to the land of Egypt.

And if the wise men had any knowledge of Judean politics, they would have known that the last person to ask about the birth of a future king was King Herod: a paranoid murderer, suspicious of anyone who might be a threat to his continued power, ready to get rid of any possible claimant to his throne at whatever cost. Whether it was his wife or son, or the babies of Jerusalem, Herod would kill anyone who might get in his way.

However the big message of this story is that there were Gentile witnesses to the birth of Jesus. For Jesus had not just come to be the Jewish Messiah: he had come as King and Saviour of all people – he had come to be ruler of the nations. Epiphany points us to God’s plan not just for the Jews, not just for Israel, but for the whole world. We know that Jesus’ earthly ministry did not take him very actively in this direction. However, there were indications of a bigger picture in some of his words and actions, just as the Old Testament had its indications that God’s purposes reached beyond Israel to the whole world.

Right from the beginning of the Gospel stories, we see God in Jesus reaching out to unexpected people: not your normal conventional pious Jews, but shepherds, who lived on the edge of society; not your scholars of the scriptures, but superstitious Gentile students of the stars. And as the New Testament story unfolds, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Gospel message, the message of Jesus, is for people of all nations.

This is the central idea in our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Paul writes about “the mystery of Christ”. In the scriptures, a mystery is something that we wouldn’t know unless we were told. It is surprising, unexpected.

God’s way of salvation is a mystery in this sense. How can we be accepted by God? Normal thinking would be that we have to be good, we must do good deeds, we mustn’t do too many bad deeds. Perhaps we should be religious as well.

But the mystery of the Gospel is that we become God’s people not by being good, not by being religious, but simply by trusting in Jesus, by accepting in humble faith the forgiveness he offers us.

And here in Ephesians 3, Paul speaks about another side of the mystery of Christ. “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Jesus Christ through the Gospel.” The mystery is that Jews and Gentiles together are called to be members of God’s family in Christ. God’s purposes in Christ reach out not to just one nation, but to all nations.

Now that is so familiar to us 2000 years after Jesus that we might say “So what?” But in the first century it was revolutionary: offensive if not blasphemous. The idea turned Jewish listeners against Paul. And it caused controversy in the early church.

Most Jewish Christians assumed that Gentiles needed to embrace the Jewish religious and legal system if they were to be accepted as true Christians. Paul however insisted that Gentiles were accepted through Christ, not through the law. The Jewish system was not to be required of them. We are the beneficiaries of Paul’s clear understanding of the mystery of Christ.

This mystery is really about the nature of the church: one family with many different stories. And Paul says something extraordinary about the church, the family of God. He says that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

How strange! Most people who look at the church are far from impressed. The church doesn’t look like a testament to the wisdom of God! It is easy for people to look at the church today and say that its numbers are dwindling, its leadership is morally compromised, its ideas are out-of-date, it is failing. But this is a limited perspective: Paul tells us that the spiritual world is actually impressed!

Paul’s view of the church here is a big picture. His concern is not with clergy or church buildings or denominations; he is not focussing on individual congregations, where the life of the church is lived out in community.

Here Paul is focused on the church as a whole, the family of God in Christ – whoever they are, wherever they are. And Paul knows that God’s wonderful purposes for the church will come to pass. The church, the family of God’s people from all nations, is right at the heart of God’s plan for the world.

And all this points us to a vital truth: to be a Christian is not just about being an individual believer and follower of Christ: to be a Christian is to be a member of God’s family, the church. And therefore it means being a committed member of a particular church, a fellowship of Christian believers. The Christian who is disconnected from the church has missed the point of what God is on about.

As humans made in God’s image, we find our full humanity not just as individuals, but as individuals in relationship. As Christians, we express our faith not just in personal discipleship, but in our loving relationships with other members of God’s family. We hear people say: “Yes, I’m a Christian, but you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” And of course that is true, and of course there are many understandable reasons why genuine Christians may not belong to a church.

But spiritually healthy Christians will be regular members of a church, a church where they can show love to one another, where they can support and encourage one another, share in worship together, and learn more about their faith, and find ways of serving and reaching out together. Of course, every church is imperfect, but then so are we! Perfection is for the kingdom: right now, we support each other on the way to the kingdom!

Yes, the church really matters. It is right at the heart of God’s purposes, as he gathers his family together through Christ. And the church is made up of all kinds of people: they may be shepherds or other outsiders; they may be astrologers or people with other strange ideas; they may be orthodox in their understanding or even heretics; they may be our kind of people or very different from us.

But they are family, our family in Christ, God’s family in Christ. And we have our part in this great plan of God. As we keep journeying along the road of life, following Jesus our Lord and our Saviour, let us then keep walking together – encouraging each other, supporting each other, praying for each other, and loving each other, as God in Christ has loved us. Amen.

Paul Weaver