John begins his creation narrative by casting a sharp contrast between darkness and light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:5&9)
The church has traditionally used the season of Epiphany to delve deeper into an understanding of Jesus as the light of the world. Possibly, this may be due to the desire to help the world wrestle with the long dark winter nights. Light satisfies our human need for warmth and comfort. John uses a unique narrative of the incarnation as light to express God’s love and his wonderful act of salvation for all in a metaphysical realm.
Thus, when we set out on January sixth of this year to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, we were totally unprepared for what the day’s events will reveal about the depth of darkness that has overshadowed this nation. The Christian ideals of goodness and love collided with the evils of greed, bigotry, and brokenness.
The horrible killings and insurrection that we witnessed on January sixth was a carnival of bigotry beyond what any of us has witnessed in recent history. Confederate flags waving in the Capitol building! A noose attached to a wooden beam erected on the front of the Capitol building!
Note well, bigotry has always been part of the very fabric of this nation. Bigotry is tightly interwoven into the white American narrative of democracy and theocracy.
As the great and mighty advocate and fugitive slave Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845, when the nation was only about 70 years old, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked.”
So, from the very creation of this nation, white theocracy was actively involved in the sin of systemic racism. It created a theological vacuum by denying the humanity and soul of our people. But the black Christian rejected the hypocrisy and iniquity of the white church. The white church continues today to be complicit in systemic racism in the evangelical cry to take back America. There was even a Bible toting insurrectionist!
The black church today continues to be the light and the voice crying out for justice and real-life salvation from the hell of social injustice emanating from every institution in the nation … including the church. This all comes to the forefront as we prepare to celebrate the life work and witness of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s teachings of love and peaceful resistance clashed last week with the dark words of President Trump that incited violence and death in the capitol of democracy … all in the full glaring light of the world on the Feast of The Epiphany 2021!
My friends, in today’s Gospel reading, John introduces to us a Jewish bigot. It is fascinating and revealing to witness the conversion of Nathanael. His bigoted question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is probably often applied also to the people of Elizabeth, NJ, and every other place where large populations of people of color live … anywhere in the world including the very ghettos of Palestine today.
We encounter Nathanael possibly wrestling with his bigotry while mulling under a fig tree when Philip calls him. We witness the conversion of Nathanael in his realization that without Nazarenes there will be no Christianity. My friends, the work of Phillip was to usher Nathanael to Jesus and away from bigotry. This was pivotal to the survival of early Christianity. Without Phillip there may not have been an orthodox Jew willing to embark on intentional discipleship. Phillip’s baptism of the African Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) shows us that without Gentiles, there will be no church. It also reveals the early presence of the African in God’s work of reconciliation of His world.
And guess what, my friends? Just like without black labor there will be no prosperous USA, without black people there will be no authentic Christianity in America. These truths bring us to a truer understanding of what Epiphany is at its heart – it’s a day and period of reckoning that ushers in a new era of spirituality, reconciliation, and renewal.
For many years we have sought through many arenas to call the wider society through the church to the work of reconciliation. At the heart of Christianity is the call of reconciliation “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor.5:19) Anything otherwise is sinful. Yet the church persisted in sustaining the brokenness rather than urging its members to surrender their white privilege and work towards the healing that was needed.
Now, we find ourselves at another dark point in our history and we are being asked to help dismantle a system that has victimized us and that we had no part in creating. Epiphany of January 6, 2021, revealed that the light has once again broken through the darkness and a deafening call is being made for all to work to defeat the evil of racism. How do we walk forward into the light?
By revealing Nathanael’s bigotry against the Nazarene community, John’s gospel today also makes us witness the manner in which Jesus dismantles this deep-seated human sin. Jesus tells Nathanael, “I saw you before Philip.” In other words I knew you when you were struggling with your bigotry. In other words, Jesus made it clear to Nathanael that he knew him as an individual not by his heritage or whatever he sought to lay claim to for his legitimacy. It seems that Jesus’ approach to conversion was not a bold upfront demand but a guarded engagement.
Similarly, for too long we have invited the church to see the urban community not as a community to look down on and to pity, but as Christian brothers and sisters who are actively participating in the redemption of the world. Too often, the church has refused to look at us in this way. The black church learnt the fine art of cautious engagement. Any reading of W.E.B Du Bois, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes M.L.K, Fredrick Douglas or Ta-Nehisi Coates one can discover the theme of cautious engagement.
As urban communities we are well aware of the lack of social power that we marginalized people of color experience in every sphere of our lives. From a very early age, we have been taught to be extremely cautious and guarded in engaging with the wider society and to avoid confrontation. Our experiences have taught us that we are often wrongly perceived as threatening and engagement with the other can sometimes cost us our lives. Thus, we see recognize Jesus’s cautious engagement with Nathanael is totally different from his call to Peter, John, and James with whom he was certainly more comfortable.
Jesus had to save Nathanael from his bigotry. He had to retool him to use his passion not to protect a collapsing heritage but to help build a new world built for the glory of God. And this is the work we, too, are being given to do: save the church from the sin of racism and bigotry for the glory of God. This may place us in the darkness of uncertainty much like a fig tree. But Christianity demands a level of powerlessness to engage with the world. As St. Paul declares, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. (6:14)”. Our power will be God-given.
Power of God to confront the evils of the world seems to be more open in his demands. Its like training a wild animal we do so with cautious engagement! No different than the dynamics of Samuel as the only one to confront Eli on the evils of his heritage. (1 Sam.3:18) Jesus needed Phillip!
Let us like Phillip call the nation forward to the light of Christ which brings judgement along with hope and new pathways forward. We are called to be like Samuel and Phillip calling Eli and Nathanael out of the comforts of their bigotry to begin the difficult work of discipleship. WE do this remembering the words of Jesus Christ “be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” Cautious engagement !