revealing the mystery

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6,9

Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

It’s a shame that most of the language of the restoration of Jerusalem’s glory also involves langauge of political ascendancy. When God brings God’s people back to Jerusalem, God will re-establish the Empire as it existed in David’s time. Camels will come from all over bringing political tribute to the restored city. All the nations will worship Israel’s God. The images of peace and glory are truly attractive, but the cost is high: camels from Midian, Ephah and Sheba will bring gold and frankincense (political and religious tribute — taxes and worship); ships from Tarshish will bring gold and silver.

Third Isaiah’s images of restoration look back longingly to the glorious days of Empire. Second Isaiah’s language of the servant as a light to the Gentiles has a somewhat different emphasis. God’s uniting activity will cost God’s servant, not those to be united to God’s worship.

Matthew clearly alludes to the restoration language in Third Isaiah in his account of the eastern magicians’ homage of Jesus. In line with Matthew’s overall plan of Jesus replacing every institution of Jewish identity (Torah, food, Temple, priesthood, monarchy, etc.), here Jesus replaces the royal city. Tribute is brought to Jesus. The magicians depart to their own country by another “road” (hodos in Greek), a common nickname for the early christian movement: they have been converted.

I like Ephesians vision of things a little better. The unification of humanity into one, as co-heirs of God’s grace, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise has been God’s plan from the beginning. That mystery was hidden from prior ages, but has now been revealed through the church’s apostles and prophets, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” At the time Ephesians was written, probably in Asia Minor, Caesar was widely praised as having unified the inhabited world, having brought an end to (civil) war, and having brought the “pax Augustana.” Caesar had been elevated to the heavenly places in the Imperial Cult.

According to the author of the letter to the Ephesians, the Imperial Cult had it wrong. The church, a cosmic reality, was the mode of revelation of God’s plan for unity. This network of little groups meeting in houses all over the Mediterranean world, with little or no access to the public sphere, was what unified all people in one Body. Its importance went far beyond those locally gathered groups, even as far as the cosmic sphere. Caesar could learn a thing or two from this little church.

As our worship at our local altars links us with Christians around the world in their worship at the same altar, so we could teach Caesar a thing or two today. It’s a shame when our own internal strife prevents us from incarnating that unity. The author of the letter to the Ephesians knew full well that the church of his day wasn’t perfect, but it had a cosmic purpose. It has yet “to grow in every way into him who is [its] head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper function of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (4:15-16). That would provide the basis for all his ethical teaching. We would do well to hear that again and remember that our cosmic purpose is nothing short of the unity of humankind, not under political constraint, but in the freedom of faithfulness.

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