January 6, 2013
Today we pass out of the Christmas season, beyond the simplicity of Luke’s story of a humble birth with angels and shepherds, and beyond John’s exquisite message of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.
Today we begin the Epiphany season – shifting from rejoicing at God’s coming among us to reflecting on what it means – to us and to the life of the world.
Christmas is a traditional time for unity. Even during world wars, combatants often stopped fighting and sang to their enemies or even walked across the battle line to share gifts with them. Christmas ceasefires also became common during the Korean, Vietnamese and Gulf Wars. At the local level, rarely is conflict tolerated at Christmas, a time when everyone seems to be able to focus primarily on peace.
But Christmas has passed. And if we are honest, we understand that also any temporary spirit of peace has passed away. If we are honest, we will admit that no assessment of the current world and national culture is clearer than the realization that people everywhere seem willingly to tolerate a deep ideological divide. We live in a time when compromise is often seen as a negative – as a weakness. We live in a time of party and tribal purity, in which the classic “us” verses “them” dominates.
“We” are the good people, the ones with the right way of thinking and acting. “They” are the bad people, the ones with a wrong way of thinking and acting. “They” constitute a threat and everything about “them” is suspect.
This is a time of asserting that every social ill is “their” failure. Emotionalism, blaming and scapegoating take precedence over reason and accepting responsibility. This is a time of believing that if you are not like us, you must be against us. If you do not agree with us, you must be wrong. Only “we” have the right answer or access to God.
This is a time when the list of “us” verses “them” seems almost endless: whites against people of color; pro-life advocates against pro-choice supporters; liberals against conservatives; Westerners against Middle Easterners; Muslims against Christians; rich against poor; male against female; native against foreign; whoever against someone else. “Us” against “them.”
The early biblical story is instructive in this regard. It presents an account of ancient Hebrew people developing a strong ethic of internal unity against all who were “other.” In part, this resulted from an understanding that God set them apart as an example to the nations. It also served as a form of self-defense, as they sought to acquire or protect land their considered God-given. And in part, it came from an attempt to maintain the purity of their faith; the intrusion of outsiders into their realm threatened the integrity of what they saw as God’s demand. Therefore, they divided the world into “us” and “them” – the people of Israel on the one hand verses all others, whom they termed “gentiles.”
They felt forced into a distinction common among human beings and similar to the opening lines of “Outwitted,” a poem by Edwin Markham:
“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”
Israel, out of a perceived necessity, drew a circle around itself, seeing its particular people as a race specially chosen by God. Gentiles, foreigners, were anathema.
Nevertheless, there were other faint voices in Israel’s literature that envisioned a more universal reality. That view finally found fulfillment in Christian expression. Today’s classic gospel story opens the door for a new understanding. Jesus, born in a small town in a totally Jewish environment, was visited by wise men from another world. These foreigners came into the midst of the chosen people and claimed it for their own. And in so doing, they claimed it for all people.
The story of wise men paying homage to the Christ child marks the beginning of the new understanding. It is the story of a God of all people, a God of unity, a God who moves his people beyond the trap of “us” against “them.” It is like the final two lines of Markham’s poem:
“But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”
Wise men, bringing gifts, highlight the fact that the ultimate gift is that God loves all people, in all times, in all places – a gift for every contentious “us” against “them,” empowering movement toward a spirit of fundamental unity.
The Epiphany gospel story is a powerful symbol of something critically important in the development of our faith – in the understanding of who and what God is. The transition from “us” versus “them” to a clearer view of the unity of all people does not come easily, however. The early church struggled mightily to understand what God was doing in Christ. One of its earliest conflicts centered on whether Christians had to be Jews first, whether the new faith would be only a reformation of Judaism or a whole new and expanded one. Ultimately, the Spirit moved first-century followers of Christ to accept a broader understanding.
Today’s epistle reading provides an insightful view of this new reality. The writer of Ephesians, speaking in Paul’s name, clarifies the truth that beneficiaries of Christ include not only Jews who followed him, but also gentiles, like the wise men. He spoke of a mystery being revealed by which “the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
The meaning of today’s readings reminds us of the challenge for all people to live in a spirit of unity. The Body of Christ is a unifying image that can draw us toward the challenge of eliminating the current divisiveness of our national and global environments. Clearly, this also applies even among Christians today, because an uncompromising spirit of “us” against “them” continues to divide and damage.
The three foreigners of today’s gospel remind us once more that our task is to embrace and teach the view that no one is so different that we dare treat them with less love or less respect than we would show those whom we know as brothers and sisters. The epistle reminds us that there is no gentile, no “other” who exists beyond the circle of God’s love. It reminds us that divisiveness like we experience so often is not consistent with the values of God.
Both lessons remind us of the Godly reality of the unity of all people – Jew and gentile, Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, rich and poor, male and female, black and white and red and brown, brave and cowardly, married and single, gay and straight, young and old – “us” and “them.”
Through a unifying God, we are related to all people – not just related like the kinship of a common humanity, but related in a much more profound way – through the Christ honored by the wise men and acknowledged as Lord of both Jew and gentile.
Today’s lessons help us paraphrase Markham’s poem into a useful watchword in a divisive environment:
They drew a circle that shut “us” out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love of God had the wit to win:
Christ drew a circle and took all in!
— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.