Epiphany: Count Everyone In!
As a child I played a game in which some of us held hands in a circle while others ran from the outside and tried to break in. There was often a fierce intensity to the playing of the game. Part of it was the bodily energy of children involved in active play. But the concentration of those running to break in and of those holding hands to keep them out arose from something more: an unarticulated awareness that the game was about life, about the most basic issues of community and self-identity. It was about who is in and who is out, about how much energy we expend to break the circles formed against us, and how hard we work to keep intact the circles that make us secure against others.
Who is in and who is out is a pattern that is replayed again and again not only in our lives but in our religious communities. For Isaiah there was a vision that reversed the experience of the Exiles, who felt as if God had locked them out of the circle of acceptance and value. They had been hauled away from their homeland to Babylon, but now they were to return, and their home was to become a beacon to others: "Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (Isaiah 60:3). The boundaries of bitterness left from the Exile were to break down, not through the spontaneous generosity of the people, but through a shining forth of God's light (verse 1).
We encounter this light again in Matthew in the star that stirs the quest of the Magi. What an intriguing story for Matthew to put early in his gospel. Matthew, who often pictures the horror awaiting those failing to make it into the kingdom, shows an attractive openness to the stranger in this passage. It is as if Matthew were telling his community not to form a circle against strangers, not to hold them out but to welcome them in.
And Ephesians gives us yet another slant on this repeated pattern of breaking open the exclusive circle to allow everyone in: "Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Ephesians 3:6). Although Isaiah, Matthew, and the author of Ephesians were each writing to peculiar historical situations, the pattern of breaking the circle of religious exclusion is repeated in each of them. And it is a pattern that we seek to repeat in our own time. Just as we hope that each generation of children will grow up to open the circle and count everyone in, so too we work for a church that makes plain the inclusivity of the gospel: in Jesus Christ, all "have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him" (Ephesians 3:12).
Thomas H. Troeger Iliff School of Theology Denver, CO