We are not told how old Jesus was when Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt to live in Nazareth. However, Matthew is keen to help his Jewish audience see the connections between the prophetic tradition of Israel and biographical details about Jesus. The refugee family resettled in Nazareth—because Jesus was to “be called a Nazorean” (2:23).
Unlike Luke’s gospel, Matthew records not one snippet of information about Jesus’ life growing up in Nazareth. What is it like for the Word of the Father taking on flesh to go through the normal process of human development? Does Jesus have friends growing up? Do they come over to spend the night? Does he go fishing…play soccer…collect anything? Does the Son of God, Son of Mary (and Joseph) experience all the angst and turmoil of adolescence? Does he want to be accepted by others? Does he wonder what he is going to be when he grows up? What does he do as a young adult? Does he live at home until he is 30 or does he get his own place? Does he work for Joseph?
These questions are not answered in Matthew’s gospel. After chapter two, the story jumps several decades. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is preaching a message about the kingdom of heaven—calling for repentance. People from Jerusalem, Judea and all the region of the Jordan are going out to listen to his message and be baptized.
Prophets have a way of attracting crowds. Shane Claiborne spoke on Tuesday night at Lancaster Church of the Brethren. It was standing room only. The Lancaster Interchurch Peace Witness planned the event for a venue that holds about 700. Overflow rooms were needed.
What is it about the prophetic voice—willing to speak truth and live on the margins—that draws us? Why do I go to hear a message that will expose my own hypocrisy—the contradictions of my life? Contradictions about money, about community…
Perhaps I go because I’m drawn to a way of living that rings true against individualistic consumerism. I am drawn even as I struggle not to be conformed to this pattern of the world.
Perhaps I’m drawn to someone who is speaking from the authenticity of entering the struggle. The struggle of living in a neighborhood where not everyone has benefitted from the systems and structures of our market economy. Perhaps I am seeking a life that is more interdependent…less isolated in my own self-sufficiency and upward mobility. Perhaps I am being drawn by the same Spirit that drew folks to hear John the Baptist.
Jesus validates the prophetic ministry of John emerging beyond the structures and patterns of tradition. The baptism itself is an epiphany—a manifestation. The epiphany as he is baptized by the prophet who makes his own clothes is a foreshadowing of other signs. Signs that will be made manifest in the table fellowship of Jesus.
Jesus will eat with folks who are considered unclean. When it appears that there is not enough food to go around, Jesus will take the loaves and fish offered by a young boy and feed a hungry crowd. When sending the disciples out on a short-term mission trip he will instruct them to enter a house and eat whatever is set before them. The inclusive table fellowship of Jesus will manifest the kingdom of God.
When do epiphanies come? They come in the midst of ordinary life—as Peter is eating his lunch on a rooftop terrace in Joppa. As we wait for vision words God might give during a silent prayer time at Leadership Team meeting…as we gather with a small group of men for morning prayer and an Examen of life…as we are in the midst of a mid-life funk…when we wonder how we can make the transition from our life’s work to retirement…when we are in the midst of the struggle—epiphany comes. We see something new and we are dislodged from our stuckness—from our patterns of thinking that had become entrenched.
For Peter, the epiphany has to do with food and table fellowship. What is God doing and why is table fellowship such a big deal?
The rooftop vision was like the pre-test that the teacher gives out and then goes over the answers. The visit to Cornelius’ house was like the in-class lab—Peter is called to be open to evidence and experiences that do not fit with his presuppositions or hypotheses. Observing the movement of the Spirit in new ways—Peter is able to adapt. He eats what is set before him. He sits at table with the Gentile military officer. Through Peter God is manifesting a new way of eating with others which looks like Jesus.
Because Peter’s eyes are opened to a more inclusive way of eating, God’s kingdom is made manifest. He is able to tell the story of Jesus. The one that is about healing and hope…dying and being resurrected…forgiveness of sins…a community that eats together where all are invited to the table. Even Gentiles…
So what do these stories mean for us?
As far as I know the heavens didn’t open and a dove of peace did not descend upon the annual community hog roast in Parnell, Iowa. No rooftop visions of sheets filled with animals. But for the last 10 years there has been table fellowship which is a sign of God’s kingdom coming on earth.
When the hog market bottomed out in 1999 many Iowa farms took a devastating hit, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in net worth. As a congregation with about 20 farming families, West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell felt the impact itself, as well as among its neighbors.
In response the church gradually developed a rural ministry aimed at supporting hurting farm families as well as at strengthening connections between area residents. “We want to celebrate rural life, which is a rich life, and do what we can to create community,” says pastor David Boshart. “We are not all farmers but we are all impacted by the farming economy and farming practices. In 2000 West Union hosted its first annual community hog roast, and it’s been growing every year since.
When you live in a community with hog farms, sometimes farmers want to build large finishing buildings close to existing non-farming residences. Such a situation can develop into real animosity. At events like the community hog roast, the various groups can build relationships of trust and respect so that when those decisions are being made there is some relational capital to build on rather than seeing each other as potential adversaries. (Simply in Season, p. 248)
Sounds like an epiphany to me—a manifestation of feasting in the kingdom of God–which moves us beyond self-interest. This is a feel good story with a rural Mennonite congregation caste in the role of Peter. But what about other stories that turn our expectations upside down? What about a story where Muslims take up the mantel of Peter?
This last week was Christmas for Orthodox Christians—January 6. Many Egyptian Muslims did something Thursday they’d never done before—the celebrated Christmas. A week after a terrorist bombing killed 21 Christians in Alexandria, thousands of Muslims attended Coptic Christmas Eve services or stood at candlelight vigils outside churches in a (successful) effort to prevent further attacks on Christians. According to one source, at least two Muslim movie stars, a popular preacher, and two sons of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were among those who acted as human shields, saying they considered last week’s bombing an attack “on Egypt as a whole.” The organizer of the event, Mohamed El-Sawy, said: “Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent—the symbol of ‘Egypt for All.’ Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.” A manifestation of something other than hateful rhetoric and violence.
Perhaps we wonder what to do with a story where Muslims are in the role of peacemakers. Perhaps we wonder what to do with this vision which challenges our notions of what it means to relate to our Muslim neighbors.
What is the invitation?
In a world where gas is $3.11 a gallon…in a world where a congresswomen (and others) are shot in a senseless act of violence by a young white gunman–what is the invitation this morning? What kind of people are we being called to be? Peter’s epiphany is about a communal movement toward the surprising work of the Spirit in unexpected places. It is a movement of peace and inclusion toward the other. May we be open to epiphanies which lead us toward this manifestation of the Spirit in our table fellowship. AMEN.