By John Oakes

How Inclusive Is the Gospel?

"The Magi" by Henry Siddons Mowbray, 1915

“The Magi” by Henry Siddons Mowbray, 1915




Making Room for Everyone

If we were asked to make a list of moral values that are highly prized in modern-day Canada, we would probably place inclusivity pretty near the top. Most would accept the idea that everyone should have a place and no-one should be prejudicially excluded in our multicultural society.

The church has embraced it too. Especially in recent years, it has often gone out of its way to teach and show greater inclusiveness towards people of colour, for example, towards women in leadership, and most controversially recently, towards those of different sexual orientations. And while we may still disagree over some of the issues involved in such changes, we would surely all support the notion that the church should be a thoroughly inclusive body that welcomes everyone. We should not discriminate against anyone simply because of who they are.

But there is a big difference between being inclusive, of course, and welcoming all-comers, and showing indiscriminate compromise by effectively approving immoral conduct. I may welcome, I may even invite, everyone to church and I will hopefully accept them for who they are. But that does not mean that I must or should condone everything that they do.

There are some important distinctions here and they are often forgotten. What is more, the season of Epiphany, which arguably conveys one of the most inclusive messages in the church calendar, has some vital things to say about them. For when we truly explore the meaning of Epiphany, what we find is a thoroughly inclusive gospel that calls us all to exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ, as we give him every good gift that we have to share.

The Meaning of Epiphany

The word “epiphany” originally comes from a Greek term that meant appearance or manifestation. And the appearance in view is clearly what the Book of Common Prayer still calls “The Epiphany of our Lord or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” And which Gentiles do we especially recall in the events that we celebrate this Sunday? The obvious answer is the three “magi” or “wise men,” who are remembered as the first Gentiles to see Jesus and greet him in Bethlehem.

The story of the visit of the three magi in our gospel from Matthew 2 has attracted quite a lot of debate over the years. Scholars have argued about their identity and about the timing of their journey. Some have even doubted whether three such people ever visited Jesus at all.

Such concerns are nothing new. In the 18th century, the U.S. Congress issued a special edition of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. Jefferson cut out all references to the supernatural so that his version simply contained the moral teachings of Jesus. And what were its closing words? “There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the sepulchre and departed.”

As Paul Tan has noted, the trouble with such a Jeffersonian approach to Bible study is that we end up with a dead philosopher rather than a risen Lord. It is surely safer to assume that what is stated in the Bible actually happened, unless there are strong reasons in the text to believe otherwise. And in the case of the Epiphany story, I find no cause to question the basic facts, even though Matthew is the only Gospel to report it.[1]

The magi appear to have been what we would now call magicians or perhaps astrologers and they may have been followers of the Zoroastrian religion. Except for the fact that they came from the East, we cannot trace their place of origin. But their gifts of gold and incense and myrrh could have been Arabian and they may have travelled from Babylonia or Persia in the area of modern-day Iraq or Iran. As far as the timing of the magi’s visit is concerned, there have been numerous efforts to try to date it precisely by pinpointing the star that they are said to have followed in verses 2 and 9. But its appearance may well have been a miraculous occurrence in any case.

Matthew 2 seems to indicate that the magi arrived some time after Jesus’ birth, perhaps as much as 18 months, by which point he and his family were clearly living in a house, according to verse 11, not a stable. It is difficult to understand otherwise why King Herod should later have ordered the killing of all boys under two in the Bethlehem area. But we cannot know this for sure. All we can say with confidence is that the magi visited Jesus before he was two years old.

What we probably most remember the magi for, of course, is their selfless giving to the baby Jesus whom they recognized for who he really was, and I will expand on that in a moment. Yet the meaning of Epiphany also reminds us that this was the earliest sign in our Lord’s life on earth that he came for every kind of people. He was born for both Jew and Gentile, for rich and poor, for those of whatever race, colour, creed, gender, or background.

So when the magi were welcomed into the presence of the baby Jesus, this truly was “a manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” It was a living lesson of God’s grace and mercy to us all. It was the embodiment of the great good news which Paul announced to his readers as “the mystery of Christ” in verse 6 of Ephesians 3: “that through the gospel the Gentiles are [now] heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ.”

Models of Exclusivity

But the magi did not discover this mystery easily, of course. Nor did they do nothing, once they had. Two of the great lies of false spirituality down through the ages are that growth will come without sacrifice and that when we are doing the right thing or on the right track, we will not face opposition. And the story of the magi gives the lie to both of them.

Wherever they ultimately came from, the magi travelled miles, probably risking many dangers, to come and worship Christ and bring him gifts. According to verses 2 through 6 of our Gospel, they were led by an eastern star to Bethlehem. And verses 9 through 11 tell us that their faith was amply rewarded. “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed,” verse 10 following tells us. So “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary…they bowed down and worshipped him. They opened their treasures and presented him with gifts.”

But they did not reach that point without showing single-minded persistence and no doubt facing significant hardships along the way. Nor could they avoid the scheming machinations of murderous King Herod after he heard of a potential new king to threaten his own position in verse 2 and summoned Jewish leaders to enlighten him about Hebrew prophecy. In fact, it was only through a dream, verse 12 tells us, that God apparently intervened to prevent the magi from becoming Herod’s informers and thus betrayers of Jesus’ exact location.

So through their pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace, the magi provide us with a vivid example of what we already know to be true in our own experience – that nothing of real value tends to come easily in our spiritual lives, even if it is ultimately a gift of grace. Whether on our individual journeys of faith or in our communal life as a church, growth will meet obstacles and it will require perseverance, whatever we face. But we can be confident that we will achieve it and that it will be infinitely worthwhile, as long as we focus on its true source in our relationship with Jesus Christ, as we long as remain committed and devoted to him.

And what does true devotion mean? Again, the magi provide a powerful object lesson for us, because they not only travelled far and overcame much to meet him; they recognized Jesus for who he really was and they worshipped him. They not only bowed down before him. They brought him the best that they had.

In other words, the magi quite literally walked their talk – for miles and miles to Bethlehem. And they put their money where their mouths were in their rich and richly symbolic gifts of gold for a king, frankincense for a great high priest and myrrh for a Saviour who would die and rise again for the salvation of humankind.

Making a Good Entrance

So in the story of the magi from Matthew 2, the inclusive generosity of God’s grace and mercy to all is met by the exclusive devotion of the few who hail Jesus as he truly is. Through their inclusion in God’s plan of salvation, the magi show that Christ has come and that the Christian gospel is truly open to everyone. In that sense, there are no limits to God’s grace and mercy.

But while God meets us and accepts us exactly where we are, God does not leave us there. Instead, God calls us to enter the same pilgrimage of faith as the magi did, when we commit to Christ. This means giving him the best that we have to offer and leaving the worst behind. It entails laying our sins at the foot of the cross and forsaking false objects of worship. It requires nothing less than the exclusive devotion to Christ alone that we cannot offer if our loyalties remain divided or if we cling to the misleading, but sadly fashionable belief that God’s grace is so cheap, so indiscriminately inclusive, that it virtually requires nothing of us at all.

Just three days ago we began a new year and some of us probably feel pretty optimistic about it. Having seen images of hope and celebration from around the world, we may have been inspired by a sense of communal achievement and possibility. We may even have found a fresh vision of what the human family can do together.

But we all know that such things cannot last, because we are imperfect by our very nature. For every step that we take forwards, we tend to be dragged at least half a step backwards. So while God only knows what the future really holds, we can be pretty sure that we will experience bad, as well as good in the months and years ahead, and that our world will see both triumphs and catastrophes, great advances but equally significant reversals.

Yet as we live through such exciting, but troubled times, the good news of the Christian gospel remains that there is one place where we can find true and lasting hope and security, and that is with God in Christ. The message of Epiphany that Christ is there for everyone is always a very appropriate and compelling one, because it tells us that God loves us beyond measure. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has been uniquely revealed to the whole world. And God invites us to draw near through faith in Christ and to receive eternal life, hope, peace, joy and security, whatever may lie ahead for us.

The big question, as always, is how we will respond. As we enter 2009, will we make the kind of resolutions and decisions that will draw us nearer to or further from Christ? Will we trust God for the future or will we prefer our own purposes and priorities to God’s perfect plan for our lives and for our world?

To put this another way, will we follow the magi’s example of heartfelt and sacrificial commitment and devotion to Christ, or will we opt for easier, less exclusive and demanding options? The choice is up to us. But the consequences of what we choose will ultimately determine whether 2009 is truly a happy new year for us and for our community, or not.

[1] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, (1982),  669.

This is a slightly modified version of a sermon preached on January 4 at Holy Trinity, Vancouver. ©John Oakes, 2009. All rights reserved.