In the second century, Sant Irenaeus wrote one of my favourite books, a theological treatise called Against the Heresies. At the time he was Bishop of Lugdunum, the town we call Lyons, in the region of Gaul, which we know as France. Unfortunately for fans of Asterix and Obelix, his book makes no mention of Indomitable Gauls or magic potions, but the work of this cultured and sophisticated Greek theologian repays reading nonetheless. Today’s Gospel reading reminded me of a particular passage from that book, when he discusses the faith of people who cannot read the Scriptures in the original:
many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God,
Irenaeus goes on to praise these unlettered people, implicitly contrasting their faith with the disbelief and heresy he was criticising in others:
Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom.
How true, I thought when I first read Irenaeus’ work. It’s a very inspiring thought, isn’t it. These “barbarians”, as he calls them, these people on the edge of the cultured world, who don’t speak the ancient languages, so haven’t read the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek, but they have a strong, simple faith. they may not be as sophisticated as other Christians, and they may live on the fringes of our global world, but they are nonetheless good believers even though they…live in the barbarian lands in the West of Europe, next to France, and they don’t speak Greek, and they… HANG ON, HE’S TALKING ABOUT ME. THE ABSOLUTE LIBERTY!
Yes, it was quite a moment. I suddenly realized that when Bishop Irenaeus praised the simple faith of barbarians on the edge of the cultured world, he would have included me, and the peoples of the British Isles at the time. I suddenly saw myself not as the comfortable companion of this great theologian, but as the outlandish, ignorant but doughty peasant he was writing about. It was a salutary moment. I saw myself on the outside for a moment, through the eyes of a saint of the Church, who saw my part of Western Europe as an uncivilized place where they couldn’t even read the Bible properly. On the fringes of the Church, on the outside of the story.
I say it was a salutary moment, because it is worth being reminded that there are other ways in which we are not the centre of the story. I love this church, and I find it inspiring that people have worshipped around here for more than a thousand years. But it can be too easy to think of myself as the typical kind of Anglican, and at the centre of things. Beard, tweed, fondness for craft ale and detective novels. Statistically, that is not the average. Statistically speaking, the average Anglican is does not look much like me at all. She doesn’t have a beard, or speak English as her first language. The average Anglican in the world today is a woman in her twenties, she lives in sub-Sahara Africa, and she comes from a working class family. If we look at the Anglican communion of churches generally, people who look like me are outliers again. Once again, we’re an odd fringe on a rainy island on the northern edge, just as Irenaeus saw us.
This seems relevant to today’s Gospel reading, because the Feast of the Epiphany is the feast of the late arrivals. It’s no coincidence that this Feast is the last day of the Christmas season. In nativity plays we may see the shepherds and the wise men appear one after another, but in the Biblical story they are separate events. The long journey of the Magi ended in their arrival in the Christ child’s presence, after the others had gone. They asked to be directed to the “King of the Jews”, because they were from a different nation and country. They did not mention the prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures which appear so often in the nativity stories. They had watched the heavens and followed the signs they found there.
And this speaks to one of the deep paradoxes of this time of year. We are celebrating the Incarnation, the birth of the Christ who is called “Emmanuel”, God with us. The mystery of God who put on humanity, in order that we might participate in the divine life itself. God is revealed as very close to us, the God of the small town and the reasonably priced B ‘n’ B. God with us, abiding in our human life. At the same time, at Epiphany we are celebrating a God who is over there, who calls us by strange signs to set out on a journey. We know we are at the fringes of something, and that we will arrive late, after others have already met the God we seek. But that will not matter, because this story is not about us and our discovery, but about the God who calls us.
To lose this sense of God as other, as over there, is to risk becoming complacent. The Christian faith teaches that God is both with us, abiding amongst us – “immanent” in theological terms – and beyond us, over there, calling us out and calling us away – what the same terminology calls “transcendent”. To know God as transcendent is to know ourselves to be far away, on the fringes, far from the centre. To see ourselves as Zoroastrian priests, as the Magi may well have been, whose star-craft showed them a king’s birth in the skies, but who arrived to find a different kind of king reigning in a stable. To see ourselves as hairy barbarians on a rainy outpost of the Empire, not speaking the right languages, but nonetheless pious for that. To see ourselves as part of the northern edge of the great Anglican world communion, saying our services and our offices under different stars to the majority of our sisters in the south.
To know God as transcendent, as far above and far beyond, and to know ourselves as on the fringes, is not a very comfortable feeling. It is something akin to what the Hebrew Bible calls “the fear of God”, that sense of awed respect and adoration which recognises the ground of all being, the Creator and Judge, in the name of our Lord. But it is a hopeful thing, according to those scriptures. For it is written in the Book of Proverbs, that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. And Irenaeus said, in the passage I quoted above that
Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed
So to worship the transcendent God may be to listen for how we are being called from far above and far beyond. What familiar places and habits are we being called away from? Where can we hear God calling us out of our selfish, or inward, or complacent ways? What divine life is waiting for us, if we will begin that journey and trust that to do so is he way of the wise? Because the final words of today’s Gospel remark – and we’ve talked about this before in this church – that when the Magi had seen Jesus, they returned to their own lands “by another way”. The “Way” is the earliest name which the Bible mentions for the religion of Christ Jesus.
Those “who walk in the way” are the Christians. And once the wise men, the star-watchers, had seen the infant Christ, they returned to their own lands, by another way. If we can find that way, if we can attend to the signs from the God who is far away and far beyond, it may lead us to becoming, as Irenaeus says, very wise indeed. And there are worse things to be, than a wise barbarian on a rainy island.
This sermon was preached at Beeston parish church, on the the Feast of the Epiphany 2020.