As we’re still in the season of Epiphany, I thought I might try to uncover an epiphany from today’s reading. It’s not as obvious in this reading as it was in the story of the wise men following the bright star that led to Jesus. It isn’t as clear as it was at the Baptism of Christ, when the Father’s voice from heaven declared Jesus to be his beloved Son, with the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove. Today’s passage is more subtle than that - but the result of what happens in this passage certainly wasn’t meant to be ‘subtle’. The ‘epiphany’ sign that I found in this passage is the Church: the Church is to reveal Christ to the world; the Church is to be a sign of the glory of God.
From the first half of the reading, in verses 7-12, we can tell that word has spread far and wide about Jesus, because now the crowds have become very big, to the point where it was probably getting dangerous. People had heard that this Jesus could heal the sick. They came from all over the place. They were jostling and pushing to reach him. But this was not just a healing mission. The people in the crowd had a hunch that this Jesus movement was something very big and powerful; something extraordinary and new.
This half of the reading shows us the kind of world Jesus came to save: it’s a world in which people are searching for wholeness and well-being; but it’s also a world in which evil exists. And we see in this passage that even the ‘evil’, unclean spirits knew that Jesus was powerful on a magnitude way beyond their power. They recognised his authority over them. As Jesus could only move forward according to God’s will and timing for what he planned to do at the cross, he orders the evil spirits to keep quiet – it was not yet the time to draw that kind of attention to himself.
In the second half of the reading, verses 13-19, Jesus calls together his disciples ‘up on a mountainside’, which is reminiscent of Exodus 19 when the Lord calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, where he revealed the nation of Israel to be his holy nation and his treasured possession. Could this be a sign, then, of what Jesus intended to do up on the mountain in our passage?
Jesus appoints 12 disciples to ‘be with him’, to learn from him, and to be sent out, with his authority. The number 12 isn’t simply a random number or a conveniently sized small group. The number of disciples who are called is a statement about the Christian Church, because the disciples are the continuation of Israel, which from the very beginning had 12 tribes. This was a sign of what Jesus intended the Church to be.
Jesus has a concern in the Gospels to grow the community of disciples into the new Israel, which is the Church. And Jesus calls his disciples to share in his mission. This community has a high purpose in the building of the kingdom of God: to be salt and light, to witness to God’s grace, to make more disciples who will live out and pass on his message from one generation to another, and to seek to be a blessing to the wider world.
And so the Church is brought into being by Jesus who calls people into this new community to be with Jesus and to be sent out, with the purpose of building the kingdom. This rhythm of drawing together and being sent out can be seen throughout the Gospels as the disciples gather around Jesus and are sent out again. And on several occasions in the Gospels Jesus reminds his disciples that to follow him is costly: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (from Matthew 16). This is the way to find life in all its fullness: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
It’s important for us as Christians to come together in worship and fellowship. It’s also essential for our own life and health that we go out and join up with God’s mission in the world. To be church is to live in a rhythm of worship, fellowship and mission: coming together and being sent out; gathering together as an expression of our love for Jesus, to learn more about him, followed by going out into the world to share his love with others. If we don’t live in this rhythm of worship, fellowship and mission then we are not actually being church!
I can remember a long time ago in my previous job at the University, I was telling one of my co-workers about my faith, and her response really struck me: she said, ‘well that’s ok if you enjoy it, but don’t let it take over your whole life’. But I wondered, what is the point of Christianity if it doesn’t affect my whole life? None of us are perfect at this, and we all have to work out where we ‘fit in’ within the overall mission of God, but this calling is not only addressed to us as individuals - it’s to the Church as a whole: to build itself up, and to go out to where God is already active and present in the world, as his witnesses.
In our Growth Action Plans, which you’ll be hearing more about very soon, we’re trying to take into account this double vocation - to be with Jesus and to be sent out into the world on his behalf - because it would be wrong to focus on one at the expense of the other. And so we’ll focus on both the inward and the outward expressions of our faith. And different people will connect in different ways. God knows we’re all different, with different gifts and abilities, and in that regard the 12 disciples Jesus chose were the same. Often temperamental, they must have been pretty hardy, but their faith sometimes wavered, and they didn’t always understand what was going on. Yet they persevered through it all, and were willing to follow Jesus in spite of the risks involved.
By their example, we’re given a pattern for our discipleship: of spending time with Jesus and learning from him as a community, and going out into the world to bring his hope and his healing to others. What Jesus accomplished through those first 12 disciples was revolutionary. And what he can accomplish through us can be equally revolutionary, when we share in God’s mission as whole-life disciples, through which the glory of God can be revealed.
When we think of the word Epiphany as meaning ‘to show’ or ‘to reveal’ we can find Epiphany signs all through the bible. Perhaps the events we mark at particular points on the Christian calendar should really be celebrated all year long. At all times we are called to watch for the coming of our Lord, such as we do in Advent. At all times we are called to be Christ to others as his incarnate body, which we celebrate at Christmas. And of course at all times we’re called to be resurrection people, not just at Easter. But now, as we are still in Epiphany, it is good to remember that as the Church, we are called all year round to look for signs of God’s glory wherever it is revealed, and to be a sign of God’s love for the world.
A prayer: Draw your Church together, O God, into one great company of disciples, together following our Lord Jesus Christ into every walk of life, together serving him in his mission to the world, as a revolutionary sign witnessing to his love. Lord, make your Church into the people you want us to be, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.