A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany -- Fr Louis Tarsitano of Savannah GA.
"Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all [men] see what [is] the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly [places] might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:8-11).
This rather long quotation from St. Paul is necessary because Paul is attempting to express as a single complex thought the purposes of men, angels, the Church, and the world, as they all begin in the unified purpose or "intention" of Almighty God. All of the effort, all of the work, and all of the striving of every creature is rooted in the good will of God and in his wisdom, which St Paul calls "manifold" or "comprehensive and including all things."
All behavior on the part of any of God's creatures whatsoever is, thus, unavoidably connected to the will and wisdom of God. We can, however, without any effort at all, think immediately of all sorts of wicked, destructive behavior. We can see it all around us every day. This observation does not, nevertheless, disprove the derivative nature of all creaturely purposes from God's purpose. Rather, the evil behavior that we see confronts us with a hard fact-all behavior, including our own and that of those we love, is either undertaken in obedience to God's purpose or in rebellion against it.
There is not the least word, thought, or action that is "morally neutral," so that it can be regarded as separable from God's comprehensive purpose for creation. We both serve and praise God by every breath we take, or we fight against him. And if we fight against him, we will lose, and we will join Satan and every other rebellious creature in the abyss of hell. The irony of hell, of course, is that those who have insisted on their own loss and condemnation still praise God by their self-inflicted punishment. Their pain and their self-separation from everything good and decent still point to the grandeur and glory of God and demonstrate eternally that God's good will, his purpose, and his manifold wisdom cannot be changed or overcome. The damned still serve, despite themselves.
Now, St. Paul calls the fixed and changeless will of God, along with all of its workings out in his mighty acts and in the behavior of his creatures, a "mystery," but we have to understand that word as Paul meant it, and not in the careless way that we often use it today, as an excuse for not thinking about what we don't understand. In St. Paul's Greek, a "mystery" was a truth that could be known, but only if someone of greater wisdom revealed and taught it first. We find an echo of this old meaning of "mystery" in the modern "mystery story," where the detective is the person of superior wisdom who reveals the solution of a crime. The whole point of this sort of "mystery" is that the truth can be known, but only through wisdom and revelation.
St. Paul makes it very clear in his Epistle that the riches of Jesus Christ are "unsearchable" (Eph. 3:8). He means by this that no mere creature can discover on his own the glory of the Lord God in Jesus Christ. The purpose of God in Christ, which is the single, changeless eternal purpose of God in creation, cannot be discovered by any earthly means. Even in heaven, the greatest of the angels, which St. Paul calls "powers" and "principalities," as mere creatures, still do not possess the power to know the mind and purpose of God, since that common mind and singular purpose are the sole possession of the Blessed Trinity, of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, in eternal unity.
And so we come to the remarkable event that we celebrate today-the Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The "gentiles" are all of the peoples and nations of the world not directly descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And on the day we commemorate, the wise men received on behalf of their fellow Gentiles the revelation that God had first given the angels and the Israelite shepherds and villagers on Christmas night.
An "epiphany" is a "showing forth," and in the Epiphany of Jesus Christ, God revealed the mystery of his eternal purpose in the face of his only-begotten and eternal Son made man. God himself, from within his manifold wisdom, revealed in the blessed Person of Jesus Christ (true God and true man) the divine Truth that ratifies all truth. All creatures exist for God's glory, and that glory is expressed in God's love for his creatures and in his creatures' response to that love with love, in obedience, in duty, in worship, and in awe.
So great is the love from within the Blessed Trinity for creation, that the Second Person of the Trinity entered the realm of creation by being made man, by the will of the Father, and by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. God's purpose is to share the life, love, and unity of his own eternal existence with creatures, with mankind, made in his own image and likeness.
The revelation on the day of the Epiphany looks backwards and forwards. The life of Jesus Christ proves beyond a reasonable doubt that words and promises spoken by the Holy Ghost through the Prophets of the Old Testament are all true. The birth, life, preaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ prove that God's good will is towards all men in Jesus Christ, and that nothing in this world, nothing in our lives, is purposeless or random. God wills good for us, even if the whole world should hate us and inflict its worst cruelties upon us. We are secure in God made man for our salvation, come what may.
Moreover, what is coming is very good for those who love God by the grace made manifest at the Epiphany. Our Lord Jesus Christ is coming again to judge the quick and the dead on the Last Day, when all evil will be put down and shut away for ever. The earth and the heavens will be made new, and we will be resurrected from the dead as Jesus Christ rose again on Easter.
All of this splendor was in the face of the holy Child at the Epiphany, but God has made the now-revealed truth of his will even more explicit. He has revealed the details necessary to take us to the life of the world to come "unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3:5). The Old and the New Testaments of the Bible deliver to us, together, the ongoing Epiphany of God in his Son. Still today, those who open the Bible in grace and faith receive exactly what the shepherds and the wise men received-the Son of God made manifest in their lives for their salvation.
But the true Epiphany is never solitary or individualistic. Israelites and Gentiles alike received the Christ together, becoming one new people in God' s grace. We call that new people "the Church," from a word that means "those who serve in God's house." The New Testament generally calls this redeemed and recreated people in Jesus Christ "the ecclesia," those who have been called out of old lives for the new. And St. Paul uses a very special term today, when he calls the faithful united in Jesus Christ, sharing through him his fellowship with the Father and in the Holy Ghost, "the fellowship of the mystery" (Eph. 3:9).
We are a fellowship or communion of revealed truth, life, and purpose in Jesus Christ, or we are nothing-that is, we are still at war with God. If we live according to God's revealed truth, we will find that all our purposes have been replaced by God's purpose: "To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly [places] might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord." We are to teach angels and men by our love for God. We are to continue the work of the Epiphany by our own lives. And a life lived this way, whatever troubles we encounter, however we stumble in our weakness, is already the beginning of our eternal life, just as long as we maintain the fellowship of the mystery, and just as long as we continue to love God as he has loved us first.
The Revd. Dr. Peter Toon
Christ Church Rectory
Hot Lane, Biddulph Moor
Stoke-on-Trent ST8 7HP