An Epiphany People

An Epiphany People

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at St. Elisabeth and Christ the King on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 19, 2020.

St Elisabeth/Christ the King 2020       2 Epiphany – Year A        January 19

Today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany.  Now some high holy days on the Church calendar and some seasons of the Church Year are well-known, household words – even among the un-churched and people of other world religions. For example, everyone has heard of Christmas and Easter, and perhaps even Lent.

But Epiphany is a different story. The word “epiphany” – the word itself – probably falls into that category called “religious jargon” – insider language used by church insiders. I remember a college chaplain telling me that we can no longer assume that visitors know words like “gospel” – and certainly not “eucharist” or “episcopal” or “narthex.”  I suspect “epiphany” is in that category. For that matter, knowledge of the seasons of the church year is insider knowledge.

The word “epiphany” means manifest, show forth, reveal, make known. For example, Jesus is an epiphany of God, as He makes God known.  He reveals God. No less true, Jesus is an epiphany of humanity, as He reveals what it is to be fully human. Fully divine. Fully human. An epiphany of both.

We can look in the Book of Common Prayer and read that the mission and purpose of the Church is to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation – restoring humankind to union with God and one another.  The Church is an instrument of God’s purpose of reconciliation – of restoring communion. And the way we do that is by revealing God. We reveal the forgiveness, the mercy, the grace, the love of God. We strive to walk in the “Way of Love.”

In that sense, the Church is an epiphany of God, although we fall short of fully revealing God.  We are called to manifest God; to make God known; to be the living Body of Christ – the outward, visible sign of Christ to the world. As Christians, we are an epiphany people.

It’s an interesting moment on the timeline of history to be an Epiphany people – interesting, and depending on one’s circumstances and perspective, even exciting.

That may be a startling suggestion, given that nearly every Christian tradition which comes to mind has experienced the pain of conflict – if not division.  And furthermore, practically every tradition or denomination in America is in some level of numerical decline. And yet, I suggest these are interesting and exciting times, even as historians agree that we are in a place of deep sea change.

Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years the Church has a big rummage sale, and that every 500 years we see profound change. Five hundred years ago it was the Great Reformation.  Five hundred years before that it was the Great Schism between the East and the West, and so forth – back to the time of Jesus of Nazareth. She labels today’s challenging times as “the Great Emergence,” suggesting that the Church is emerging into a new manifestation as an epiphany people – an emerging Church.

Douglas John Hall (a Canadian theologian) claims that we are in the midst of a move from a Triumphant Church to a Cruciform Church – a servant church more inclined to follow the way of the cross, and more likely to encounter God among the outcasts of society – to encounter God on the margins.

Another theologian, Harvey Cox, claims that over time the Church has moved from “faith in” Jesus to “beliefs about” Jesus, and now is moving to something new.  He locates us now in what he calls the “Age of the Spirit,” as Christians hunger more for spirituality than for creeds.

Whatever we call this new period of history, it is largely agreed that we are living during a fundamental, if not tectonic, shift. We are shifting from seeing Christianity as a “system of beliefs” to seeing Christianity as a “way of life” – a path to the full life, the abundant life, which Jesus offers.

One of the early Church theologians (Irenaus) said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Christianity appears to be returning to its roots as a path to follow toward such a life, a path which awakens us to a full life. And I believe that’s exciting, even as the shifting ground causes some level of anxiety.

And further, I believe the Episcopal Church is well-positioned for this shift in perspective, as we have always been more inclined to follow a path than a system of beliefs.  In our very beginnings in England we chose a path, a way of prayer, a book of common prayer, rather than a doctrinal statement of beliefs (as did other reformers).

We chose common prayer over common doctrine. To this day we follow a rhythm of life, a practice of praying together: morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer, compline – marinating us in the Anglican way of life.

To this day we understand Christian Ethics to be more about character formation than about right answers to complicated questions. We are more inclined to ask, “who we are called to be?” in a given moment than “what are we called to do?”.

To this day we see Christianity as a path to know God, rather than doctrine about God. And that, I believe, is the world’s deepest hunger: encountering God, knowing God, being awake and aware of communion with God.

Today’s reading from John’s Gospel is a story of epiphanies. John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him, and declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And then John testifies as to what he witnessed at the baptism of Jesus, that the Spirit descended and remained on the Son of God. The Baptism of Jesus is an epiphany, as the dove descends and the voice proclaims that this is the Son of God. And then upon seeing Jesus, Andrew and Simon Peter have the epiphany that Jesus is the Messiah (the Anointed), and they follow him.

And as the story goes, a handful of people encounter Jesus, and are drawn to follow Jesus. Something about Jesus changes them, and compels them to follow him, and not only that, compels them to tell others.  And this following grows until it disappears at the crucifixion, but it gains new life with the resurrection as the community is raised from the dead – reborn, changed.  And on the Day of Pentecost it grows by the thousands.

From that day forward, people encountered the Risen Christ, their lives were changed, they were compelled to follow Jesus, and as an Epiphany People, they revealed God to one another and others. They gathered around bread and wine, and told the story of the liberating power of Christ, and the Living Christ was made known to them in the breaking of bread and in the storytelling – and lives were changed.

And, as this newly formed community told the story over and over, they began to write it down.  And in time they determined that their writings (their testimonies) were sacred holy scriptures – out of that community came the New Testament.

And over the years, as the community grew, it struggled with what it believed about Christ, and the God revealed in Christ. So, out of the community came the creeds and councils. And as the community grew in numbers, it took on a structure with a hierarchy of sorts. By the third century it looked different from the first century church, as it looks different now. All along, lives were changed, and all along the Church changed.

It all started when a few people dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus, to tell others the Good News of the liberating and reconciling work of Christ, and how he changed their lives.

It’s not part of our tradition, as Episcopalians, to give testimonies – not in any formal sense. We may be an Epiphany People, but the “share or die” climate of testimonies in not likely to be our way of sharing. We prefer the old saying from St Francis: “Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”

Having said that, a testimony is the story of a life changed. And we do see lives change. We see people grow in our tradition through a variety of means: the beautiful and transcendent worship, the practice of common prayer, the liberating theology, the broad interpretation of scripture, the freedom to question, the thirst for a just world.  We can go to our diocesan website, and click on to “God Loves All,” and see and hear the stories of people – many of whom had been wounded by the Church – who have found new life in our tradition.

And certainly, we are not perfect, and certainly there are people to whom our tradition does not speak, and they have found new life in another faith tradition. We celebrate changed lives.

We have a story to tell – and a way of life to offer – which leads to an encounter with God, and changed lives. Lives change here. Within this community of faith, gathered for God’s sacred meal, telling our story of God’s love. St Elisabeth’s and Christ the King in Fort Worth, Texas: an Epiphany People, revealing the love of God … all in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.