Saturday, January 5, 2013

Sharers--an Epiphany

This mystery… has now been revealed to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become… sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3.5-6)


When I was a kid, Sunday mornings began at the breakfast table with “The Revivaltime Hour,” a weekly radio broadcast. The host, Dr. C.M. Ward, was my father’s favorite preacher and over the years, he’d befriended my parents. I never met him. To my young ears, he sounded like Walter Cronkite. Most of what he said got lost in the table talk and clatter of dishes. But I recall how soothing his tones were; there was mastery in his voice that deepened my sense that God had everything under control. Most of all, it was the music that stuck with me. The program opened with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” an 18th-century anthem full of coronation imagery that climaxed with “crown Him Lord of all.” Then, after Dr. Ward’s message, “Revivaltime” closed with a gentle rendition of the invitational hymn, “Room at the Cross”:

There’s room at the cross for you
Though millions have come, there’s still room for one
Yes, there’s room at the cross for you

Sometimes, despite the breakfast hubbub, the song would grip Dad’s heart. His eyes would cloud up and I could almost see what he must have seen in his mind's eye: a young man from small-town Alabama making his way to Calvary, finding his place beside millions who’d come to kneel before their newfound Lord and Savior.

My own favorite religious program came on the air at 9 PM. It was the live broadcast from Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church—an African-American congregation whose 100-voice choir rocked the airwaves with its signature opener, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”:

What a fellowship! What a joy divine!
Leaning on the everlasting arms
What a blessedness! What a peace is mine!
Leaning on the everlasting arms

This was great news to a young man steadily realizing his God-given identity would one day lead him away from his family’s faith tradition. To enter into fellowship with a God Whose love would never fail was a promise I could believe, a hope I could never surrender. While both broadcasts’ doctrines were nearly identical, I found Fellowship’s Jesus to be more than an omnipotent Sovereign. Their Christ was a Lord Who reached out with everlasting arms to enfold and protect me. The programs intersected in their final moments. Like “Revivaltime,” Fellowship left the air as the pastor, Rev. Clay Evans, led the congregation in “Room at the Cross”. Their version was much slower—less an invitation than a reassurance—and they crafted a second chorus to underscore the boundless, inclusive love of Christ:

You may be high, you may be low
Some are rich, some are poor
STILL, there’s room at the cross for you


This weekend’s texts—celebrating Epiphany—brought back the flood of emotions that coursed through the Sundays of my youth. Matthew’s Gospel gives us the Magi, who journey from the East in search of Israel’s promised Sovereign. They come fully prepared, bearing treasure to offer the Babe as they kneel at His cradle. Yet they really have no business being there. They aren’t Jews. They’re obviously not poor or lowly or oppressed. Still, they come. They’re drawn by the bright promise a new star that rises in the east to guide them. It is a light sent just for them—a light that assures them they’re welcome to worship the Incarnate God, a Lord of lords Who willingly exchanges royal robes for swaddling clothes, throne for crib, crown for the cradle of a teenaged mother’s hand. And this image, indelibly printed on our minds, delivers the Christmas message with stunning clarity. It is a promise that follows Jesus through His life, death, resurrection, even to this day: High, low, rich, poor, there’s room for you.

It’s unlikely the Magi grasp the import of their visit—a journey born of intellectual curiosity that will become the first testament of Christ’s all-inclusive love. In an age when personal, religious, ethnic, and national identities are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable, that God would raise a star to summon pagans to Jesus’s side boggles the mind. That the Creator would literally move heaven and earth to include people traditionally deemed unwelcome defies reason. And that the Spirit would move Matthew to record this moment—forever fixing the presence of outsiders in our Christmas iconography—confounds us. In Ephesians 3, Paul calls this phenomenon “the mystery of Christ.” He stresses the radical nature of God’s inclusion as something we can never comprehend yet nonetheless must believe. In verses 5-6, he writes, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Fellow heirs. Members of the same body. Sharers in the promise. Though millions have come, there's still room.


We’ve not made much progress in defeating the ancient notion that all the threads of our identity are so tightly woven together they’re all of piece. And to a large extent, that’s true. The concept falls apart, however, when we assume certain aspects of identity make us unacceptable to God. Such ideology is the illegitimate spawn of human tradition. It doesn’t square with what we see with the Magi or hear the Spirit say through the apostles and prophets. Who we are, where we come from, and whatever social and religious baggage is thrust upon us bear no relevance in terms of God’s lavish welcome. Every effort—all the powers in the world—attempting to shut us out cannot change the fact that we “have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

There’s room—that is the epiphany for today, tomorrow, and all time. It is the mystery made manifest in a Creator Who displays sovereign power by moving heaven and earth to summon the least likely of us to Christ's side. It is the promise made real by a Babe Whose tiny arms unfurl, inviting us to fellowship with a God Who loves us without measure. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Trust what your eyes see and the assurance the Spirit speaks to your heart. You cannot be crowded out. You will not be turned away. Bring your gifts. Ask your questions. Follow Christ’s star. It was sent just for you. Discover what the Magi found: there’s room for you.

God’s lavish inclusion is the mystery at the heart of Epiphany’s celebration.

Postscript: “Room at the Cross”

I found this clip of Rev. Clay Evans, now in his late 80s and pastor emeritus of Chicago’s Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, from those golden years when he led his congregation in “Room at the Cross”. It still brings joyful tears to my eyes. The hymn he segues into (“At the Cross”) says:

At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the Light
And the burdens of my heart rolled away
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day

The same Light that drew the Magi to Christ’s cradle radiates from Calvary’s cross, there for all who, by faith, receive their sight. May this Epiphany overwhelm you with the joy of discovering there is room for you!