“Evangelism is local”
Sunday 6 January 2019
As Christians, we grow up hearing the Christmas story as if there is only one account of the details of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. In fact, there is no narrative of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Mark and John and the accounts given by the gospels of Matthew and Luke provide different components of the overall story we are familiar with today.
For example, while immediately after the account of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells of the shepherds’ visit to the baby Jesus who was still lying in the manger in the presence of Mary and Joseph, Matthew tells of the visit of the wise men from the East where they enter a house and see Jesus and his mother – no mention of Joseph who otherwise plays a prominent role in the nativity story in Matthew.
These differences appear in the detail and emphasis of the gospels because they were written originally for different audiences and the evangelists had particular points of emphasis for their immediate audience. The evangelist’s inspired writing was undertaken in relation to a specific faith community. So what might be the particular point of emphasis that the gospel writer was trying to make in the account of the visit of the wise men to the newborn Jesus to the faith community for which the gospel was originally written?
While we can never be entirely certain about the origins of the gospels, there is a significant amount of agreement amongst biblical scholars that the gospel of Matthew emanated from the city of Antioch in Syria, sometime after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70AD. If we take this as our starting point, there is some solid historical information that we can call upon to throw light upon the sort of world in which the Matthean Christian community lived.
We know that Antioch was a city established in 301BC on the Orontes River in Syria as part of the Hellenisation of the then known world which had been started by the conquests of Alexander the Great. The city was originally one square mile in size but grew to be four times that size over the centuries down to the time when Matthew’s community found itself residing there. So we’re talking about a significant population centre, in fact the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire.
The city came to be populated by retired Roman soldiers and their families. Now it was usual for the Romans to engage those they conquered into their military machine. So, the Roman army consisted of soldiers from a great variety of ethnic backgrounds from across the empire. So the retired legionnaires in Antioch came from a whole host of ethnic roots. The various religions of these ethnic groups subsisted below the outward observance of the Roman gods. So the religious environment of Antioch would have been characterized by a huge variety of gods and of forms of worship.
We also know that many Jews fled Jerusalem after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem to the Romans in 70AD and some made their way to Antioch, amongst other centres, throughout the Mediterranean world. Plainly, some of these Jews who settled in Antioch belonged to the group that had heard the message of Jesus of Nazareth and were now disciples and proclaimed him as the Christ. This was the community to whom the gospel of Matthew was originally addressed.
So the account of the visit of the wise men from the East to the baby Jesus was addressed to this small band of Christians living in a vast cosmopolitan city populated largely by Gentiles. They had fled Jerusalem and their Jewish beginnings and were now encountering this great ethnically-mixed religious and social environment.
The message that the Christian community would hear loud and clear from this incident in the gospel was that Jesus had come for all, Gentiles as well as Jews. At the very beginning of his life, Gentiles, in the persons of the wise men from the East, had come to pay homage to Jesus the Christ. So the Christians of Antioch were encouraged by this part of Matthew’s gospel to see their neighbours as potential fellow-believers.
When at the end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, the Christians of Antioch did not need to think of heading off to other parts of the world. The nations were all already around them in the Gentiles that lived across the road from them, who lived around the corner, who ran the shops and marketplaces in their cosmopolitan city.
Matthew’s gospel relates the details of the Epiphany to encourage the Christians of Antioch to see their Gentile neighbours as valuable to Christ and as people to whom they should be preaching the gospel.
And how similar are we to those early Christians in Antioch! Surely we live in an increasingly cosmopolitan environment with many people living around us, working with us, socializing with us, who have yet to encounter the enlivening word of God. The challenge for us presented by the account of the Epiphany in Matthew’s gospel is to avail ourselves of every occasion to provide them with positive opportunities to encounter Christ through the way we live and listen to the concerns of their hearts.
For us, just as for Matthew’s Christians in Antioch, the mission field need not be viewed as some place distant. We are the body of Christ in this complex and largely secular Australian society, and we are called to preach the gospel of Christ in this environment, “sometimes using words” as St Francis of Assissi would say. Let us pray for the courage to live out this mission.
Christ, whose insistent call
dirturbs our settled lives:
give us discernment to hear your word,
grace to relinquish our tasks,
and courage to follow empty-handed
wherever you may lead,
so that the voice of your gospel
may reach the ends of the earth. Amen.
Fr Allan Paulsen