Doing religion

Epiphany 2B
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
17 January 2021

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Doing religion (not just supporting it)

In these weeks between Christmas and Ash Wednesday we are in a period called “Epiphany.” It starts on January 6—the fabled Twelfth Day of Christmas— and lasts until the Sunday before Lent.

We can think of Epiphany as a kind of liturgical “unders and overs” tin. 

With Christmas occurring on a fixed date but Easter occurring on the first Sunday after the full moon which occurs on or after March 21, the numbers of weeks between these two major Christian festivals varies from year to year. Easter Day is never earlier than March 22 or later than April 25.

The length of Epiphany depends on the number of Sundays occurring between January and the date of Easter that year.

This year Easter is reasonably early (April 4), so we have just six Sundays during the Epiphany season.

The God we can know

Whether Epiphany is longer or shorter, it has the same theme each year.

Epiphany is an ancient Greek word meaning “revelation” or “manifestation.”

So, we are invited to spend the weeks between Christmas and Ash Wednesdays reflecting on the ways in which we can know God. If you prefer, ways in which God makes herself known to us.

And, yes, it does feel a lot different depending which way we say that statement!

Epiphany

The big idea, of course, is that God is made known to us in the person of Jesus. How he lived his life, what he taught and how he died is the great epiphany, the supreme revelation. At least for those of us who are Christians.

We have no need to deny that God can be known through other historical characters or different sacred texts and religious practices. We simply affirm the truth which we know to be true for us: in Jesus we see  God, and in Jesus we see our better selves.

That is what we celebrated on Epiphany, the feast of the Three Kings. In that legend we recognize that people outside the biblical spiritual tradition can still understand and respond to God in their own way.

If the Christ Child accepted the adoration of the magi, who are we to say everyone must believe like us in order to know God’s blessing in their lives and beyond this life?

Baptism of Jesus

On the first Sunday after Epiphany we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, which in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is known as the Great Theophany, the revelation of God. That is their name for the sacred icon depicting the Baptism of Jesus: Theophany.

There are many ways to understand the significance of Jesus’ baptism. We see that as early as the New Testament, as each of the four Gospels seeks to solve the dilemma posed by Jesus submitting to baptism by the Jewish prophet, John.

You can also see that diversity by watching a selection of sermons from last Sunday. As more parishes live stream their services we can see what other clergy are saying about each Sunday’s texts, as well as looking back in the archives to see what our own clergy said on that day in previous years: for example, 2018 | 2019 | 2021. (It seems we have no recording of the sermon from 2020)

As we tease out the meaning of this Epiphany season for us, let me offer one brief observation about the Baptism of Jesus.

This is a rare moment in the Gospels where we observe a religious experience of Jesus, rather than seeing him interacting with other people. 

In his Baptism, Jesus was participating in a religious ritual being administered by someone else and he experienced a moment of revelation in which his own identity as a beloved Child of God was affirmed and renewed.

A friend of mine (John Beverley Butcher, An Uncommon Lectionary) has expressed it this way:

The evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Without Jesus’ baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history! The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently.

This is not a day for me to preach a sermon about the Baptism of Jesus, but let me draw your attention to one more element we may easily overlook: the theme of the voice from heaven. In the Jewish tradition this is known as the bat qol (“the voice of God”).

Was Jesus the only person to hear the bat qol? (Of course not!)

Do we hear the voice of God in our own lives? (If only we had time to go around the Cathedral and ask everyone to share a moment when they sensed God speaking to them!)

Does the way we practice our faith assist people to discern the voice of God? Are we people in a sacred conversation with God, or do we think that is only for “special” people?

Samuel and the voice of God

In the first reading this morning we have a classic story of someone hearing the bat qol, the voice of God.

Samuel is only a child. He has not yet been fully trained in the ways of a priest. Sleeping in a room nearby is the priest in charge of the Temple of God at Shiloh. While never called “High Priest,” that is the role held by Eli. He was someone well trained in the ways of religion.

The voice of God comes to Samuel, not to Eli.

But Eli is able to guide Samuel on how to respond to the voice of God.

In that simple dynamic is the essence of Epiphany.

The voice of God does not just come to the Dean or the Bishop. It can come to any of us at any time.

On the other hand, we all share the obligation of assisting each other in hearing that voice and knowing how best to respond.

In other words, Christianity is not a spectator event.

You do not gather in this Cathedral to observe the sanctity of the Dean and bask in my reflected holiness.

Rather, we gather around the Scriptures and around the table of Jesus to help each other hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, to explore how best we are to act in response to the voice of God, and to help each other be faithful in that response.

I am not your spiritual champion, but I am your coach. And even that is a role shared with other people. Indeed, we are community of spiritual coaches. And we are all on the team: playing coaches! I am blessed to have you as my coaches as well.

How we help each other listen to God will be the ultimate test of our success as the people of God in this Cathedral community.

We do not come to the Cathedral for the fine music, the beautiful liturgies or the thoughtful sermons. 

While we aspire to offer all of those things every week, that is only because they help us to be people who hear the voice of God and assist each other in developing “ears that hear,” as Jesus would say.

Nothing else matters. Nothing.

Nathaniel

Notice how this message of direct religious experience is reinforced in the Gospel passage today as well.

When Nathaniel is skeptical that anything good could ever come out of Nazareth (!!), Philip (“who was from Bethsaida”) says to him, “Come and see.”

And when Nathaniel does come and see, Jesus said to him: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Come and see … listen for the voice of God … know God in your own experience …

Just imagine .. if the word went around Grafton that people who come to the Cathedral learn how to hear God speaking to them!

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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