Epiphany as a run-on sentence | 5 January 2014


Text: Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 1, 3

Sometimes, if you have something important you’d like to say, and you want to write it down so that others can look over it and study it and ponder it and maybe even share it with others, it’s possible to get into the rut of writing your sentences too long and drawn out, because you have a lot that you want to communicate and it’s right there at the front of your mind all bunched together, hard to sort out, so you just start writing and it just keeps coming and you’re not sure where to put the period and where to start a new thought because it’s all one big thought for you and so you keep writing, which is kind of like what is happening at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church of Ephesus where Paul is writing to the church about his belief that this love of Christ that they have experienced was not only special for them as a small group of people but also had significance, great significance, for all people and all things such that everything everywhere in every time is affected by the meaning of Jesus’ life which is something the apostle feels is so important that he begins his letter by writing one extremely long Greek sentence that extends from verses 3-14 of the opening chapter of Ephesians…which is a long sentence, don’t you think?

Why so long?  Why not chop it up into smaller bits, make it easier to digest?  Why not feed it to us a spoonful at a time instead of having us scarf the whole meal in one breath?

If you look at the first chapter of Ephesians in your English Bible this is what has been done for us.  Verses 3-14 are split into several sentences, with different translations inserting periods at different points where they think we should be allowed to come up for air.  The NRSV splits it up into six still rather long sentences.   Too bad.  We miss the effect.  It’s quite possible the writer of Ephesians was intending to plunge us into something that is supposed to overwhelm us, be too much to handle all at once, be so wide and deep and far that we can’t see the whole thing at the same time.  One big massive chunk of communication.

The words that are being used certainly fit with this idea.  This sentence on steroids begins by saying “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”  In case we don’t believe him, he starts to name every spiritual blessing, with all sorts of different metaphors.  We receive adoption, getting our official papers that we are indeed children of God.  We receive redemption, forgiveness of sins.  We receive an inheritance, salvation, the Holy Spirit.  But more than a laundry list of blessings we are supposedly receiving, there is a wider focus to what’s being said.  It’s first mentioned in verse 9.  “Christ has made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  This theme of all things is what gets carried through the entire introduction.  It reaches its climax in the last verses of chapter one.  “And God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

The natural question that we may ask would be When the writer says ‘all things’ does he really mean ‘all things?’  Things in heaven and things on earth – spiritual unseen things and physical, visible, things?  What does it mean for Christ to ‘fill all in all?’

This Sunday marks the end of the Advent and Christmas season, as we celebrate Epiphany.  On Epiphany Sunday we mark the coming of the light.  Just as the earth begins to turn toward light with the days getting longer and the nights getting shorter, we celebrate that Christ’s coming into the world is a light for all nations.  The light that shines in front of us in a small way, is a light that shines in all corners of the world, inviting all to come to the light and be transformed.

Epiphany is a time when that word ‘all’ keeps showing up.  All nations.  All things.  All in all.

When I think about “all” I think about the feeling I get just about every time I walk into a library.  I walk through the doors, happy to be picking up the book that I’ve ordered, and am very quickly confronted with all the other books on all the shelves.  Fiction, non-fiction, classics, newly published, periodicals.  Inevitably I’m struck with how much I haven’t read and never will read.  My one little book that I’m about to try and work through feels like a tiny slice out of this massive pie of literature.  It’s a feeling that is both overwhelming and humbling.  Of all these things, I’m familiar with so little.  I have to be content to start where I’m at and enjoy it for what it is.

How do we live in a way that starts to take into account the all and our place in it?  With apologies to English majors everywhere, I’d like to offer that one way of characterizing our experience of Epiphany, and more specifically, our experience of the love of Christ, is as a run-on sentence.  Something that can’t be summarized in a small, compact way, but keeps growing these extra phrases and extra clauses to try and better grasp just what is included in this “All.”

One of the standard texts for Epiphany comes from the Matthew 2 story of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus.  An important part of this story is that these visitors are foreigners – from the east.  Their being led to Bethlehem from their distant land is a sign that the light of Christ will extend out beyond the boundaries of Israel and be for all people.  They are the first Gentiles to witness this light.  The inclusion of the Gentiles, non-Jews, into the formation of the church is one of the major themes of the New Testament.  For those who believed that God’s grace extended only to a select group of people, Period, then this is a bit of a disruptive addition.

This is a theme that Paul moves toward in Ephesians.  In chapter three he calls it “the mystery hidden for ages,” but now “made known.”  There’s that word “mystery” that has kept showing up for us this season.  The All of Christ reached across the boundary that had separated Jew and Gentile and brought the two together.  The meeting place of these two is called the church.  And these Ephesians are a part of this new thing that was coming into being.  The church is given the task of being a sign that groups that were formerly hostile to each other are able to join together as one body.  Here’s how Paul puts it in Ephesians 3: “In former generations the mystery of Christ was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his 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 in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  Of this gospel I have become a servant… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

The idea that Gentiles, like us, are brought together in the church is a common enough happening now that we don’t think about it much.  In one of the tragic ironies of history, those Gentile outsiders quickly outnumbered the Jews in the church and redrew that same line of separation that was there before, only now they were on the inside and Jews and everybody else were excluded.

We who embrace religious and cultural pluralism can still manage to miss the point by splitting things up into Jew and Gentile type categories, with the Gentile things being those that are outside of what we consider to be the sacred.  We still let there be a wall between how we experience the holy things of the world and the secular, things supposedly having nothing to do with God.

Back in October Bill Moyers had the rare privilege of interviewing Wendell Berry.  Among the many wise things Wendell Berry said, he expressed again something that he says in different ways throughout his poetry and writings.  He said, “People of religious faith know that the world is maintained every day by the same force that created it. It’s an article of my faith and belief, that all creatures live by breathing God’s breath and participating in (God’s) spirit. And this means that the whole thing is holy. The whole shooting match. There are no sacred and unsacred places, there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

Full Show: Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet | Moyers & Company | BillMoyers.com.

This sounds to me like another way of wording what Paul is writing to the Ephesians, that the Christ spirit is not merely a one time manifestation in one particular man in one particular place, but that Christ is all and in all.  And like those Ephesians, we can barely believe it.  Functionally, at least, we don’t believe that the light shines in all places, in all aspects of our lives and all places of this earth.

It makes sense how this can happen if the church teaches that matters of faith have only to do issues of salvation, and certain beliefs about certain things, with the Bible being the only place where the Word of God shows up.  We develop fairly distinct categories of things that have to do with God and things that don’t.  Our life is made up of the holy and the Gentile, the sacred and the unsacred, with little or no crossover between them.  Which means that most of our life — our work, our play, our rest, ends up falling outside of what we experience as holy.  Or, this split can lead to a crisis of faith if we start to discover things that we truly love and find wonderful that are supposedly outside of the sacred.  Maybe one discovers that they are fascinated with science and the open ended exploration of the world that seems to challenge the teachings of faith and scripture.  If we are unable to see the light of God within something that gives us joy, or within something that doesn’t necessarily give us joy but is a significant part of what we do with our time, unable to recognize it as another place where Christ dwells, then we are missing something.  We miss the very thing that the apostle Paul so passionately committed his life to once he saw it to be true.  That nothing is outside of the love of God, that the light of God illuminates all things, shines from within all things, and that all things touch the holy in some way.  That creation is one big hunk of communication, a run-on sentence containing more than we’ll ever be able to take in at once.

Isaiah 60 is written as a testament to the light.  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you.”  The light is there.  Part of our mission as the church is to recognize this light in all aspects of our life and to perceive the sacred in the parts of the world that have been desecrated.  This is the light that draws others in.

A number of years ago the United Church of Christ, UCC, chose for its denominational theme “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” This was a quote from a note that entertainer Gracie Allen had written to her husband George Burns, which he found looking through her papers after she had died.  “Never place a period where God has placed a comma,”  In other words, God is Still Speaking, mid-sentence.  There’s still more to be heard, more to be found, more love to give and receive.  More parts of creation that we will come to experience as illuminated by God.  It may not be branded with the name of Christ.  The name, the tradition and culture out of which it comes isn’t the thing.  Light shows up in the most unexpected places.

So this is how we experience the whole thing.  We start out to write the sentence of God’s overwhelming love for the world, and of Christ’s presence in our lives, of Love’s grip on things, and we set out to write something that sums it up all nice and tidy.  Something that would pass as a well-shaped, concise sentence on an English exam.  Thinking we’ve completed the task, and happy with ourselves for having done so, we find later that there’s something we’ve forgotten, something we didn’t notice before, something that we now know has to be included, so we revise the sentence by adding another clause.  A little further down the road we realize that what we have still doesn’t do the trick, doesn’t say all that needs to be said, so we add more clauses that try and describe how wide and how long and how deep is this Great Love.  And eventually, we might realize that instead of trying to close this thing up with a period, we can be content to leave our rambling run-on sentence with an open ending, with the most recent comma humbly in place, ready to receive what we learn and experience next.

Because there’s no way that we can close this thing up, put a measuring line on it or a boundary to it and say that it stops here and goes no further.  We will keep adding to the sentence, letting it expand, watch it get all complicated and awkward and too much to be able to take in in one breath, as we recognize more of the all to be holy.  More people and sentient beings, more of our time, more of our work, more of our thoughts, more of life, more….