by Dr. John Franke The word “Epiphany” comes from Greek and in that context means “manifestation.” The Christian season of Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ to the world during the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. This manifestation is both the culmination of the unfolding mystery foretold by the prophets of Israel and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God proclaimed in the Gospels.
Many Protestant churches observe the season of Epiphany from January 6 until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. During this time, it is traditional to give thanks for the revelation of God in Jesus Christ so many years ago and to celebrate his work of proclaiming and teaching the Kingdom of God, a world where everyone has enough and no one needs to be afraid.
On the cross, Jesus declared that his reconciling work on earth was finished. Strikingly, he had prepared his follows for his departure by telling them that those who believed in him would not only do the works that he did, but that they would do even greater things (John 14:12). Later in John’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus commissions his followers with these words from John 20:21: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Think about these words for a moment in conjunction with Epiphany. Jesus is passing on to his disciples the task of continuing to manifest the Kingdom of God in the world. After giving this commission to his disciples, Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit” to empower them for the work he had given them to do. This means that the followers of Jesus are entrusted with the task of continuing Epiphany, of making the vision of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus ever more manifest in the midst of the world.
While it is certainly true that God is at work outside of the church, the New Testament characterization of the church (the gathered followers of Jesus) as the Body of Christ leads to the conclusion that it is intended to be a focal point of the mission of God in the world. As the Body of Christ, the church is sent into the world and called to continue the mission of Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, to make the Kingdom of God ever more manifest in the world. From this perspective the mission of the church should be shaped by the life, mission, and ministry of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.
Faithfulness to the way of Jesus means doing the things that Jesus taught us to do. It is perhaps one of the great tragedies in the history of the church that the gospel has often been turned into simply a question of right belief rather than a way of life. During this season of Epiphany, let us give thanks for the coming of Jesus and also remember our responsibility to continue his work of manifesting the Kingdom of God. We do this not merely by believing the gospel, but by becoming the gospel, the ongoing epiphany of God in the midst of an often dark world.
John R. Franke, DPhil, is Visiting Professor of Mission and Theology at HGST and Theologian in Residence, Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis