Recently, I attended an ordination at Grace Church, Cortland, during announcements Fr. Williams asked his congregation, “who is invited to receive communion?” The congregation enthusiastically responded, “everyone.” It is one of the many ways Grace Church offers hospitality to all who enter their sanctuary. And it is one of the many ways the congregation expresses their inclusive nature.
Many of us can remember the days when churches were segregated along many lines. As a youth, I still remember being denied communion because I was too young and others because they had not been received into the Episcopal Church, all of these, now antiquated reasons for denying communion spoke to an attitude of exclusion. These exclusions subtly declared who was and was not worthy of the Gospel and flew in the face of St. Paul’s ministry.
This morning, St. Paul tells the Church at Ephesus that he is a prisoner of Rome for Christ Jesus for the sake of the Gentiles. Paul’s statement, “for the sake of you Gentiles,” is significant, because Paul understood Christianity to be for everyone. It is because of Paul that Christianity is the multi-cultural movement it is today as opposed to being a small sect it was within the context of Judaism. Based on the Book of Acts, it was not until after Paul’s conversion that any of the original disciples considered it to be remotely possible that the Good News of Christ should or could in anyway be made available to the Gentile world. Ancient Jews understood Yahweh to be the God of Abraham and his offspring. And Jesus, as the Messiah, came to lead the Children of Abraham out of bondage to the restored heavenly kingdom.
Paul, however, saw Christ’s message differently. Paul saw Christ as God’s restart button for the whole world and that through Christ’s death and resurrection all now had access to the grace and salvation of Yahweh. Paul’s key argument is, we no longer need to be born into the family of Abraham in order to be a child of God, because through Christ we all have been adopted as children of God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul articulates his argument with the following words.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”(Romans 8:14-17)
As with any type of change, Paul’s message of inclusion did not come easily to the church. In Acts, at what was possibly the first council of the Church, the followers of Peter and Paul struggled with what it meant to be a follower of Christ. The questions asked included; did one need to become Jewish first in order to become Christian. Did male converts need to be circumcised, did all converts need to keep the dietary laws of Moses.
Eventually, the early church came to realize that the externals of Jewish law and practice were not important. What was important, is how they understood the grace and love of Yahweh as conveyed through Torah and the writings of the Prophets.
Today, we too struggle with what it means to be Christian, and even more specifically, what it means to be an Episcopalian. No longer are the denominational lines as clear as they once were. As Baptism becomes more central to how we understand membership within the church, Confirmation as the gateway to full membership become less and less important. In a world where formal membership is more important to the state than the church, we are asking what it means to be a member of a specific congregation. Issues we worried about forty and fifty years ago, have become non-issues for us today and, in fact,are barriers to those who seek community.
In this morning’s Gospel we heard the familiar story of the wise men. One salient fact we often overlook is, the wise men were not from Palestine, and were not among the Children of Israel. They are the first recorded non-Jews to visit Jesus. What we actually do know about them is very little as tradition has created most of what we think we know today. A careful reading of Matthew only tells us how “wise men” from the East came seeking the new born king of the Jews. They didn’t really know for sure that a new king had been born, only that a new star had formed and based on their understanding of astrology, this meant a divine king had been born. . .a king who was significant enough to make it worth while to leave their homes and follow the star to wherever it led. Our passage tells us when they found the child they were not disappointed and knelt down to pay homage.
To pay homage means to give one’s whole self to another, to place one’s care or devotion in the hands of another. In some parts of the Episcopal Church, it is traditional for the ordinand to lay prostrate before the altar as an act of homage to God and as a symbol of giving ones whole life to Christ. The magi, upon entering the house, kneel before the infant Jesus and give themselves over to the sovereignty of Christ. It is only after paying homage to Christ that they give their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In recording the story of the magi, Matthew tells his readers that all who give their hearts to Christ have access to the reign of God. And so, when the people of Grace Church, Cortland declare that everyone is welcome to receive communion, they participate in an apostolic tradition of inclusion which worries less about the externals of the Law and more of what is in the heart of the recipient. For when we journey to kneel at the rail, we not only open our hearts, bodies and souls to Christ, we too join with the wise men and give our lives to God. And that is the only gift anyone ever needs to offer God to be worthy of God’s grace.