Just before Christmas we had a wonderful gathering in St Luke’s, of many faiths and none. It was a time of remembrance and prayer for those who had been killed and traumatised by recent events, including the Sydney siege and the massacre of children in Pakistan. It was a time of reaffirmation and deepened solidarity as we renewed our city commitment to peace and harmony. It was a time which showed we have something very special here in Toowoomba. For so many places in the world would be amazed that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’is, and so many others, can not only live together peacefully but even appreciate one another and share their distinctive gifts. That should not seem unusual. Yet it is. We should therefore celebrate and build upon it. For, in a deep sense, as we hear today’s Epiphany Gospel, we are perhaps thereby 'a Church of the Magi’…
Now I know that not all Christians in Toowoomba, never mind elsewhere, really grasp this. For centuries, there has been so much distortion in Christian tradition and biblical interpretation which has encouraged Christians to be suspicious of people of other faith. Even mixing with certain other Christians has sometimes been regarded as a betrayal of Jesus. For centuries, many Christians have also persecuted, tortured and killed people of different faith: all in the name of the God of Love. Remember that, next time someone encourages us to condemn another Faith for the narrowness and violence of some of its followers. Religion has been used, horribly, by people of all the great Faiths. Islam indeed has some particularly serious problems in this regard today. Yet it is not alone, historically or today. Religion of various kinds has often led to murderers rather than magi. What should be the source of the deepest love and truth has often been perverted.
So, should we give religion up, as the secularists say? Should we agree that religious claims of truth lead to division, and worse? Yes and no. Our Christian Gospel, as we see in today’s reading, calls us to a different kind of religious life and awareness. It asks us to admit that claims for religious truth can indeed cause violence. Yet it offers us other ways to find eternal love and truth that are far more life-giving than we can imagine. For Christians, Jesus is our greatest model. He was clearly, deeply, grounded in the Faith of Israel. Yet, again and again, he affirmed love and truth wherever he found it: in people of other faith, like Samaritans and Romans, as well as in those of his own tradition. For Jesus sought to help us share the Love of God which works in mysterious ways, even through those whose beliefs and cultures can sometimes seem very strange and difficult to us. Being faithful to God in our own Faith is important. Sometimes, as followers of Jesus, we also have to stand up against aspects of the ideas and practices of others. Yet, following Jesus, this does not mean rejecting love and truth in others. And this is part of what the story of the Magi is about.
Why did Matthew, alone of all the four Gospels, include the Magi in his story of the good news of Jesus? Was he perhaps particularly keen to tell us about how the truth of Jesus relates to the truth of others? Let us remember, Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish Christian audience who would have been trying to work out how Jesus fitted in with their Jewish inheritance of truth. They would also have been meeting people of other faiths, whose religious ideas were much older than Christian ones. For, from the very beginning of our Faith, those who have followed Jesus have had to work out how Christian truth relates to other truths. It has never been an easy matter. There is always a creative balance to be struck. The story of the Magi is one contribution to this. Let me offer three insights from it…
Firstly, Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of the Magi to affirm that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of truth. In other words, the truth which humans have found in other places is, for Christians, found in its fulness in the God of Jesus. Most obviously, Jesus Christ is thus the fulfilment of the love and truth experienced in the story of Israel. Matthew’s story of the Magi indeed thus literally fulfils Hebrew prophecy. It also recognises however that there was amazing wisdom in other parts of the ancient world. Not least this was found in the ‘magi’, or wise ones, of the ancient east: in people like Zoroaster and other great sages of the area of what we today call Iran and Iraq. In bringing such magi to the birthplace of Jesus, Matthew is thus saying that the truth of Jesus is not wholly different to that of the greatest other wisdom traditions. Rather it is a way of fulfilling all that is good in them. Of course, sometimes there will be clashes. Yet ultimately, Matthew is saying, Christian truth is not in competition with other genuine aspects of love and truth. Instead of disregarding, never mind condemning, people of other faith, Christians might therefore be better to encourage them to be like the Magi. We might value what is good in others’ love and truth and invite them to visit Jesus also, to see what they can find there. Traveling together, we may then discover new things about Jesus which, like our Buddhist monks speaking to us in St Luke’s, only they can see and tell us about.
For the second striking aspect of Matthew’s story of the Magi is the astonishing humility of the visitors from the east. Like so many of our Buddhist, and other faith friends, in Toowoomba, the Magi come to Jesus with humbleness. The Magi do not come with arrogance, disparaging the local faith and culture they meet and telling everyone that they have to be exactly like them to know love and truth. No, they come to kneel, to learn, and to receive wisdom from others. Now, of course, Matthew’s intention may well be to show us that, ultimately, all will kneel at the feet of Jesus Christ: another traditional Christian affirmation which needs some unpacking! Yet he also shows us that the path to the feet of Jesus is not made by aggressive evangelism or putting down others. The path to the feet of Jesus is a path of humility, through the gentle acknowledgement of love and truth wherever it is to be found. Think about it for a moment. Who are the great heroes in the Christmas story? Are they the zealous people of Jesus’ own Faith, the ones who think they know all the religious answers? Or are they the humble ones, the lowly shepherds and the people of other faith, who are asking questions and seeking deeper answers? We cannot follow a star if we think we already possess God.
Matthew’s story of the Magi therefore encourages us to see the way of Jesus Christ as both a fulfilment of other pathways and as a journey of humility. And, thirdly, it encourages us, like the Magi, to share our different gifts with one another. Isn’t that, to return to what I said at the beginning, what we are called to do in today’s world? Isn’t that what seeking to be a ‘model city’ of peace and harmony is about? Our recent cross-community gathering in St Luke’s was a wondrous expression of that. Like the Magi, we shared myrrh: our particular and common sorrows. We shared frankincense: our hope and prayers for our world and future. And we shared gold: the richness of mutual love. In the place of Jesus we knelt together, seeking God’s grace.
May we all continue to walk together on Christ’s path of humility in this new year and share the peace and truth at the heart of all existence. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Jon Inkpin for Feast of the Epiphany 2015