The Parliament of the World’s Religions is a massive, global, interfaith convention; it has been held in various locations all over the world since 1893. The 2015 Parliament of World Religions was held in Salt Lake City, UT, and I was lucky enough to get to go as part of a seminary class.
It was extraordinary. There were nearly 10,000 people in attendance, and they came from all all over the world and from all manner of different religions. As you might imagine, there were lots of different flavors of Christianity represented – alongside people from other major religions like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, and on and on. And I was surprised by how much representation there was from faiths and spiritualities that I guess I would maybe describe as “new age,” for lack of a better term. That was interesting. On the whole, it was an amazing and unusual and eye-opening experience. Every single day, we got to sit and learn and break bread side-by-side with people of different faiths from around the world.
One of the most fascinating conversations I got to be part of happened during a presentation given by a group of Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world; it predates Christianity by many centuries. But these priests shared that the two religions have at least one very interesting point of connection (among many) – which is the story of the Epiphany, the gospel story that we read today. The Epiphany story is also part of Zoroastrian tradition – and it’s because, to them, those “wise men” that we read about weren’t just any old wise men. As it’s written in the original Greek, they were magi, a word commonly used to describe – you guessed it – Zoroastrian priests! So their tradition holds that Zoroastrian priests were the ones who came to honor the Christ child and bring him gifts. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only Christian in the room whose head went 🤯 after learning that.
These wise Zoroastrian priests traveled to Bethlehem from the east. They would have come to Judea from Persia – from a region of the world that we now call Iran. I think it’s important to highlight this connection, especially in light of the events of the last few days. There has been tension between Iran and the US for decades, but this latest escalation of violence is pushing that tension toward its breaking point – and there’s a fair chance that it will end up leading to a whole lot more violence.
But that tension and violence stands in very stark contrast to the encounter that we read about today. To Jesus and his family, these magi traveling from the east were not a threat, but instead were honored guests who came to them bringing gifts. If you were here on Christmas Eve, you might remember how we talked about the way that Jesus draws people to himself in love. He is a magnet of love and peace – he is the Prince of Peace, the God of love made flesh.
Even as an infant, Jesus’ birth was surrounded by angels and shepherds and family and neighbors. And now even these strangers have come all the way from another country, following a star to seek him out – and Matthew writes that they are filled with overwhelming joy in his presence. Christ casts a net of love, and in this story, we get a glimpse of just how wide a net it truly is. In the drawing of the magi to Bethlehem, we see that Christ’s coming is not just for the people of Israel, but for people of all nations. Christ has come for the whole world, whether they are those who bear his name or not.
Because one of the most striking things about this gospel story is that it is not really a conversion story. These wise men or magi or Zoroastrian priests come and kneel and honor Jesus with gifts – but then they get up and go home, still very much wise men or magi or Zoroastrian priests like they were before. There’s no record of them converting to Judaism, and Christianity wasn’t a thing that even existed yet. And it’s notable that, to this day, there are people of many faiths – not just Zoroastrian, but Hindu, Muslim, Bahá’í, and others – that respect and even revere Jesus, without being Christian.
It’s one of the greatest mysteries that we, as Christians, wrestle with: how do we make sense of pluralism? Especially in the global world of the 21st century, how do we make sense of the fact that there are so many other faiths and religions and spiritualities out there that people belong to? Depending on how that question is answered, it can make it very hard for the church to coexist peacefully with people who are different from us. And our history bears that out.
And I certainly have struggled with this question in my own life. I hesitate to even raise it in a sermon, because I don’t have a nice, neat answer for you. Like many of you, I remember being taught that Jesus Christ is the narrow way, the only way. And yet, some of the dearest friendships in my life have been with wonderful people who happen to be Muslim and Neopagan and Jewish and atheist and spiritual-but-not-religious – with people who are good people, moral and upstanding and civic-minded, people who have even inspired me in my own faith, but who, nevertheless, are not Christian.
I don’t have a solid theological answer for why there are so many different religions. I wish I did. I tend to come back to something my Luther professor said in seminary. He compared drawing close to God through faith to climbing a mountain. There are many possible paths you could take on the mountain, he said, but I only know this one. I can’t tell you whether any of the other paths will get you to the top of the mountain – it may well be that many of them do – but I know for sure that this one does. And I will walk it the best that I can.
We too have to walk our path the best that we can. At the end of the day, it is not for us to work out everyone else’s salvation. It’s not even for us to work out our own salvation. Thanks be to God, that work has already been done by Christ on the cross – by Christ, who came for all the world. He has promised us that salvation is already ours through grace.
And so the best thing that we can do is to walk the path we know as well as we possibly can. We can continue to do our best to follow in the footsteps of Christ. And we can witness to him through our testimony and through our actions of active peace-making and hospitality and love for our neighbor. We can let Christ’s light shine out through us, and trust that Christ will continue to draw people to himself as he has always done.
There’s a line that keeps coming back to me from the eucharistic prayer we prayed during the Christmas season:
“In the wonder and mystery of the Word made flesh, you have opened the eyes of faith to a new and radiant vision of your glory, that beholding the God made visible, we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see.”
As the church, we are called to be the body of Christ, to be his hands and feet and mouth and heart. We are called to be visible signs pointing the way toward the invisible God. We are called to let our light shine, to be like the star that led the magi from their own country to the town of Bethlehem – the star that led them to Christ.
Or to put it in a way that’s maybe easier to understand, I received this wonderful little gift for Christmas, and it reads:
“Live in such a way that those who know you, but don’t know God, come to know God because they know you.”
During this season of Epiphany, remember that you are all stars – you are stars called to shine amidst the gloom of division and violence and fear that plagues this world. You are stars. So let your light shine.