Homily for Epiphany, December 31, 2017 – The Rev. Stephanie Shepard
St. John the Apostle, Port Moody
I speak as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God through the mercy of God. Amen.
Today we continue to celebrate the Christmas season with the conjunction of two festivals. One is the day dedicated to the patron saint of this parish church: St. John the Apostle. The other is the coming of Epiphany on January 6, when we remember the visit of the magi to Jesus. On the surface, the two don’t seem to have very much in common with each other or with our everyday lives. An excuse to keep the decorations up an extra week (in our house, January 6 is the signal to finally take the tree down). But wasn’t Christmas the big deal?
The entrance of God into time and place with the birth of Jesus is unique in history. In no other faith is the record of the Divine coming among us as a human being. There are narratives of divine beings who interact with humankind, and individuals who are raised to exalted levels of being, but Christianity is alone is affirming that in the person of Jesus we saw the fullness of God’s love for us lived out. Here is the crux: believers who have experienced this love testified to the good news. We have their testimony. This is the thread which links the events of the first century to today.
If nobody had witnessed what God was up to, we wouldn’t be gathered here this morning. The root of the Latin word “testamentum”, or testament, is “witness”. From it we get the words “testify”- to bear witness- and “testament”- a witnessed statement. The New Testament is the account of witnesses to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the impact of his existence on the early Church. Faithful people try to give voice to the hope that is in them because that is the only way others will hear. Each of the readings from Scripture we hear on a Sunday morning is part of the chorus of voices that collectively make the witness statement of humanity. Jews have Torah and Christians have the Bible. Moslems have the Koran. Other world religions bring teachings and reflections, and spiritual mystics and poets add colour and depth. But without those willing to testify to what they have seen and believe, nobody would know.
That is why the little story from Matthew chapter 2 is important. A few shepherds may have been at the stable and told their friends, according to the gospel of Luke. But here in Matthew, we have an account of a wider sharing of the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Magi, that is, learned astrologers or wise men, have learned of a new king from their study of the skies. They travel from far beyond the borders of the little occupied territory of Judea to its religious centre at Jerusalem, and make the mistake of asking the one person who really doesn’t want another contender to the throne. In spite of his machinations, the magi learn of Bethlehem, and visit the child Jesus. After giving him gifts that symbolize he will be high priest, king, and sacrifice, they journey home to their country by another road to share what they have experienced. Their testament to the nations of the coming of the true King is why we celebrate Epiphany as the “shining forth” or revelation of Christ as Lord of all the Nations, not just to the Jewish people.
And while we could be holding up Matthew today as the one who traditionally bears the name of the gospel we heard, let’s turn to another witness familiar to this community. John the Apostle is the saint that this building is named after. Now there are several “St. Johns” in the Lower Mainland. So the different parishes have added on identifiers. There is St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Beloved. Some scholars have differentiated amongst all these folk. The hand which wrote the gospel may not have been attached to the disciple who is named in the lists of the Twelve (although it may have been one or more of what is known as the Johannine community, believed to be based on that disciple’s teaching). There was also the one known as “the beloved disciple” who was nearest Jesus at the Last Supper, which may or may not have been a John. And that John could have been different again from the John Mark of the book of Acts. John was a common name then and now. But the aspect that is emphasized when we speak of St. John the Apostle is that of apostolic ministry. We commemorate the work of preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus, through word and action. To be an apostle is to bear testimony to the gospel truth, so that others may hear and receive it.
Your will is your last testament. It shouldn’t be your only one. Each of us is called as a follower of Jesus to give testimony- the personal story of our relationship with him as Lord and Saviour. When I was growing up I thought testimony was a rather suspect activity that born-again Christian friends wielded in order to make me feel guilty or inferior about my own Anglican roots. Nobody told me that my personal story, even if it didn’t involve so many drugs or as much rock and roll, was just as important. It isn’t drama that makes it testimony- it is owning it as true for you. Neither is it necessary to stand on street corners or accost strangers with the question “Have you been saved?” (You can ask me later about the youth encounter weekend when we were sent out two by two to testify and my partner and I ended up in a Christian Science reading room). Rather, testimony is sharing your spiritual history in a way that says why Christ is important in your life.
Some people are really good at this, and have exciting accounts of how we first became Christians and accepted the love of God as the cornerstone for our lives. Others of us have much quieter and less spectacular histories: an unfolding journey of trust and service. What I have found is that not many have ever had the opportunity or the courage to talk one on one with another about their faith journey. But you have heard testimonies when a parishioner expresses why stewardship is important to them, or someone has told you what brought him or her to this community of faith. Testimonies can be spoken. And testimonies can be written. Here is how you can start. Before this congregation right now is perhaps the most important collective testimony that you will have to write in the next ten years.
The canonical committee is putting together the first draft of what is called the “parish profile.” It is the document that will be circulated to attract a new priest to this parish of St. John the Apostle. The draft will be brought to the parish and your highest priority needs to be making yourself available to give feedback. This is because this parish profile is your testimony. It must say who you are as a church and what you believe about what God is doing through this community. It must give account of the hope that is in you. If you leave it in the hands of the canonical committee, however much you trust them (and I do, too), your voice will be missing from the chorus of witnesses. That will make the final document thinner and less able to convey the whole truth. Let’s work together to gather as an apostolic community that bears the good news. Make the time and the effort to join in this part of the process. In the next few weeks, the committee will be letting you know of the events when you can take part in this.
If you look closely in the Bible, in Matthew 2 it does not say how many magi there were. We traditionally think of three because of the three gifts that were brought, but nowhere does it say how many came and then went back to their own countries to testify to the Light. We are each called to testify. Not just to hear the good news, but to be bearers of the good news. Perhaps in this way we too can be wise. Amen.