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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: A Theology of Outsiderhood

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January 3rd, 2021: Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Reflection from John P. Falcone

This week we celebrate the feast of Epiphany – a Greek word that means “The Appearance.” Over the centuries, this feast has been associated with the birth of Jesus (when Christ first appeared in the flesh) and with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River (when Jesus first appeared in public ministry). For Catholics today, Epiphany marks the visit of the Magi – when Jesus first appeared to non-Judeans as an object of worship. (In Jesus’ time, “Jew” meant an ethnic Judean who lived in Palestine or in the Judean diaspora, while “Judaism” was the – oddly – monotheistic religion of this ethnic minority.)

The Magi “prostrated themselves and bent the knee” to baby Jesus (Mt 2:11), just as one would do when offering incense at an altar, or when venerating a statue of the great Goddess Rome. Matthew places a mirror-image of this scene at the end of his Gospel, where Jesus’ Jewish disciples “bend the knee” to the Risen Christ, who commissions them to “make disciples of all the Gentiles” (28:19).

This focus on Gentiles and Jews pervades today’s readings. In Isaiah 60, Judean refugees return to a rebuilt Jerusalem, while foreign nations find their way by her brilliance and foreign caravans bring her incense and gold. In the Letter to the Ephesians, the Gentiles are called “coheirs” and “copartners” with Judeans, because of our faith in Jesus the Jew.

For more than 1500 years, the theory of Supersessionism (the idea that the Christianity must replace Judaism) has skewed our understanding of the relationship between Christians and Jews. When the Gospel of John says that the disciples “locked the doors for fear of the Jews” (20:19), we forget that John was writing for a community of Judeans and Samaritans in conflict with other, non-Jesus-following Judeans. When the Gospel of Matthew calls the Pharisees “hypocrites,” we forget that – of all the factions of the day – Jesus’ message was closest to that of the Pharisees, the founders of modern-day Judaism. For Matthew, the Pharisees are not wrong to follow the Law (5:18); they are wrong to follow it not radically enough. In fact, one of the most compelling theories about Matthew’s identity, is that he himself was a Jesus-following Pharisee, writing to other Pharisaic Christians (see Acts 15:5).

As Vatican II underlined, the Jews remain God’s chosen people; God does not go back on God’s word (Nostra Aetate 4). We Gentiles have been invited late – though lovingly – to the party!

Willie James Jennings, Yale theologian, Professor of Africana Studies, and Baptist minister, explores this theology of outsiderhood more deeply. His focus is not on the poor and the outcast as outsiders, but on Christians as outsider Gentiles invited into God’s Jewish plan. To be a Christian is to be a humble outsider, the grateful recipient of a gift.

Thinking of ourselves as outsiders might seem like the last thing that queer Christians need to do. But Christian faith is about recognizing reality, not about ignoring what is broken. Many of us already know what it feels like to be outsiders: because of race, gender, sexual identity, lack of money, and more. If we hope to become better Christians, we need to remember that feeling.

The privileges that we can cling to so closely – our religion, or Whiteness, or middleclass lifestyle, or simply the privilege of living in a first world country – will retain a kind of mastery over our minds and spirits (Jennings tells us), until we understand that we are not entitled to them. We live on borrowed resources; we live on lands not our own. Whatever we have has either been gifted, or stolen, or taken without thinking to ask.

As Paul says, we Gentiles are “a wild olive shoot … grafted … contrary to nature” onto a rich and fruitful Jewish tree (Rom 11:17-24). God continually overturns our limited sense of what is “natural.” God joins Gentile to Judean, same-sex to same-sex, black to white, even straight to queer. God awakens in us the desire for unions that seem strange or distasteful to those not yet called; and these unions become testaments to God’s powerful love. God has chosen; God has included. Now God calls on us to do the same.

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John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End.

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