12/25/2011 09:18 am ET Updated Feb 24, 2012

The Magi

The Sistine Chapel was, of course, stunning but the works of art most fascinating to me were scattered throughout the Vatican gallery. The paintings that intrigued me the most were nativity scenes but, standing there along with the familiar biblical characters, were saints and popes who lived hundreds of years later.

Standing with the holy family in the stable, for example, would be Saint Francis or some pope who lived 1500 years after Jesus was born.

My first reaction to these paintings was a kind of amused Protestant smugness. I turned to my wife, a product of Roman Catholic parochial schools, and said: "You Catholics! You have no sense of historicity."

But the more of these paintings I encountered and the more I thought about them, the more the art hooked my imagination. In a way, it is exactly right that Saint Francis should be at the manger. Why not others as well: Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Teresa?

I assume one of the reasons an artist included a saint or a pope in a nativity painting, even though everyone knew they were not literally there, was in order to include not just a person but a people in the biblical story.

Not a lot of Italians were likely present at the birth of Christ. But if, in the imagination of the artist, Saint Francis was there in the stable at Christ's birth and, if you lived in the Assisi region of Italy, then you are represented in the story as well.

This is precisely what the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was doing when he included the magi in his telling of the nativity account.

The Gospel of Matthew was written 40 or 50 years after the death of Jesus and the place of its composition was probably the city of Antioch, the capitol of Syria. If not Antioch, then another congregation in another city like it.

Antioch was one of the earliest Christian congregations where gentile members began to outnumber Jewish members. Anyone who has been part of a congregation experiencing a shift in the ethnic, cultural, economic, or age group that is in the majority knows the kind of discomfort and tension -- conscious and unconscious -- this change can unleash.

In the midst of tension between Jewish and gentile Christians, Matthew painted the gentiles into the very beginning of the New Testament story. He put the gentiles in the picture, at the very beginning of the story.

The magi, who in Matthew's account are the very first ones to worship Christ, were obviously gentiles. In fact, they were the most gentile of gentiles. Out of all the gentiles that Matthew might have chosen to include in the story, he picked astrologers and fortune-tellers, dream interpreters and magicians... the worst gentiles.

The Jewish scriptures disdained such gentiles (Jer. 10:2 and Isa. 47:13). The other magi mentioned in the New Testament, Simon Magus and Elymas Magus, are portrayed negatively. (Acts 8:9-24 and Acts 13:6-11)

Matthew's magi are not just any gentiles; they are flaming gentiles. They are hardcore. Any gentile who heard that the magi were part of the story would know that they, as gentiles, must surely be included in the story as well. Matthew's message to gentiles was that they were not only welcomed in Christ's church; they were always meant to be there. Their presence was intended from the very beginning.

Evangelism is crucial for the church not just because Christians have something to share but because the church needs those whose presence has always been intended but who have not yet found their way to where they have always belonged. Evangelism, I suspect, is more about taking down our roadblocks, barriers, and prejudices that keep people out than it is persuading people to come in. All throughout the church's history there have been gentiles whose presence -- or potential presence -- disturbs those of us who are already there. I expect this will be the case in the future as well. It is part of the nature of Christianity to always, as the songwriter Mark Miller puts it, draw the circle wider still. But expanding the circle can be uncomfortable and conflictual.

Including gentiles is uncomfortable because their presence keeps us from supposing that whatever the way it is that we are different from them is what saves us. When some variation within humanity is not present within the church, we run a high risk of beginning to think that whatever it is that makes us different from them is what makes us Christian or beloved by God. We are tempted to trust in our not being them for our salvation. Our difference from them becomes an idol. Taking down the barriers that prevent gentiles from being fully included is essential to the church's health and orthodoxy. Their inclusion is at least as important for the rest of us in the church as it is for them.

This dis-empowering of the idols happens in small ways in local congregations as well as in debates at national and global legislative assemblies where denominational policies and practices are voted on. Years ago I was pastor of a congregation that made a sincere and courageous decision to reach out to the new people moving into the neighborhood. We took down barriers and in time the new people began to attend and get involved and join and share leadership. A wonderful long-term member confessed to me that the transition had been harder for her than she had realized it would be. I reminded her that this was exactly what we had hoped and prayed for. She answered, "Yes, but it hadn't occurred to me that the women would wear so much make-up." Part of what made this woman wonderful is that she laughed at herself as she said it.

All of those throughout history who have felt weird, second-class, or suspect in the churches are the gentiles. The gentiles are all of those who have made their way into congregations and councils and pulpits when others have not believed they should be there. The story of the magi is Matthew's affirmation that they have always belonged here. They have been part of the picture from the very beginning.