January 4, 2009
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
On this 10th day of Christmas, as we come near to the end of this season, our nativity story expands outward from the little manger in Bethlehem. Suddenly there appears on the scene wise men, exotic foreigners, and the story open up to the whole world.
Who were they? Well, they weren’t kings, the biblical story doesn’t tell us that there were three of them, and who knows how wise they were. What we are told is that they were Magi, from the east. Magi is a term that was used for the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. They were elite astrologers to the royal courts of Persia or Babylon.
So they were Arabs and aristocratic clergy. They followed the astrological guidance of the heavens, not Yahweh’s law. The Jews considered these Gentiles unclean, and couldn’t touch them or allow them into their homes. Furthermore, they were very possibly from the very country that had dragged them off into exile 600 years before. And as we know, grudges live long in the Middle East. What was a poor little Jewish boy from Nazareth doing with these guys?
This story is the most richly symbolic part of the Christmas narrative. It was intended to deliver a highly unusual message, a completely new teaching that was at the heart of the gospel. Until now, the chosen people of Israel were in relationship with God because they wre set apart by their obedience to a covenant. Their mission was to draw others into this same covenant, so that they, too, would be set apart from the unrighteous.
Early Christians believed, however, that as of this night in the manger, everything changed. This was the revelation: God has initiated an intervention upon all humankind. God broke in and took on a human life. And in that life God attempted to show everyone that there is no need to be afraid, no need to measure up through scrupulous obedience, no need to separate ourselves into mutually exclusive religions. There is no clean and unclean. There is only God’s passion that we be reconciled as children of God, all brothers and sisters of a common Creator.
Look at the Magi. They didn’t convert to Judaism; they weren’t circumcised in Bethlehem; they didn’t take upon themselves Moses’ covenant. They came as Zoroastrians, worshiped the Christ child, and left as Zoroastrians, back to their way of life in the east. By the way, they didn’t become Christians, either – no baptism, no creed, no acceptance of Christ as their savior, no preaching of the gospel when they got back home.
These were strangers, aliens, from a completely different social class than Joseph and Mary’s family. They were perhaps even enemies. And yet the story tells us that they were drawn by a magnetic force - a light in the sky - that brought them to Jesus. So the very first thing that this incarnate God did was to bring the covenanted people of Israel together with the religious leaders of another kingdom, so that together they would bathe in the light of their common Creator.
A half century later, Paul would write a letter to the church in Ephesus, trying to explain the implications of this powerful little story. He said to the Gentiles there that they were once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise...But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near…For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:12-14).
And Paul wrote to the church in Galatia that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). If the baby Jesus in the manger could have talked, he would have said “there is no Jew or Zoroastrian, clean or unclean, rich or poor, peasant or aristocrat.”
And this is how Jesus continued to live. He drew all kinds of people to himself, with no regard for their beliefs, nationality, gender, moral standing, or station in life. He initiated a relationship, talked to them about life, about God, and he invited them to be transformed, so that they could live in harmony with one another and with God.
When some of you say to me that you’re not sure if you’re a legitimate Christian, I give you some homework. I ask you to quickly read through one of the earliest gospels, Matthew, Mark or Luke. I ask you to read with new eyes and get a kind of first impression, a broad view that comes from looking for a general pattern, not getting stuck on the details, asking one simple question: what did Jesus ask of those who were attracted to him?
It turns out that he was not a prudish disciplinarian who demanded moral perfection. He didn’t really ask people to believe things about him. He invited them to examine their lives, their fear, their faith, their attitudes towards people that are different from them. He asked them to consider seriously those things that were an obstacle to love, to faith, and to be willing to be healed of them. His message was about living more harmoniously and generously with one another and our Creator. Everyone was included in his humanistic, spiritual vision.
But then the church, before too long, found ways of limiting the vision. Once again, it became about obedience, being set apart from the heathen, and right belief. Paul was the first to correct this all-too-human tendency, traveling to Jerusalem to explain to Jesus’ own brother James how they were missing the point. “There is no Jew or Greek, the dividing walls have all fallen, and it is only faith, hope, and love that matter in the end.” The leaders in Jerusalem realized that Paul had reconnected them with the essential spirit of Jesus, and Christianity was released from its narrow sectarian constraints, exploding upon the continent of Europe. But of course, others have constricted the message again and again, in different ways. We still do.
In November of last year, Armenian and Greek monks got into a brawl in the Church of the Holy Selpulchre, the supposed site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Something about who was supposed to be in a procession. Sadly, this is not uncommon there. God knows how many religions teach that heaven is a very small place. Today, Jewish and Muslim bombs kill and maim scores of innocent people, and humanitarian aid is cruelly cut off – to each, the others are expendable people, infidels, unclean, “animals.” We sometimes have the same view, using torture on our enemies – how can one torture another human being unless one thinks of them as subhuman? Or when we kill innocent civilians and call it “collateral damage.”
And of course, each of us must ask the question that really hits home: who is unclean to me? Who is someone I’d just as soon get rid of? Who do I not want to even try to understand? Who do I believe to be outside of God’s love, and therefore unworthy of my respect and love?
In the face of this, this continues to be the radical new message of the Incarnation: God took the initiative, uninvited, breaking down the dividing wall between human and divine, and lived as one of us, offering everyone unearned love “while we were yet sinners.” It was a unilateral disarmament. And God did this in the hope that we might learn from his example and do the same. This is, of course, the hardest thing we can ever do, for it requires of us a spiritual conversion, and that takes a lifetime.
In this spiritual conversion we let go of our sense of fairness. We love with no concern about whether that love is deserved or appreciated, whether it will be returned to us, or whether our love will accomplish the results we want in the other person.
In this spiritual conversion we then love just because love wants to come out of us, even if the cost to us for doing so is great. For God did this in Christ.
There is no longer Zoroastrian or Jew; clean or unclean; liberal or conservative; rich or poor; evildoers or champions of liberty. We are no longer aliens and strangers. The dividing wall of hostility has been broken down in Christ. God has shown us the way. It is our spiritual work in this life to be converted to this life-giving way of reconciliation. And as we are, the Word will become flesh and dwell among us anew.