You know what I love about the season of Christmas? That it only really starts on Christmas Eve. Of course, all around us you would think that the official beginning of Christmas was the day after Thanksgiving (or is it the day after Halloween these days?), and the end is about noon on Christmas day, but this is not the case. It will be Christmas until Epiphany, which is next Sunday, January the 6th.
Now the Christmas season is about a lot of things, really. You can focus in tight on the picture and say that it’s about the birth of a child. You can take a wider view and see an ancient nation crying out against injustice from within and injustice imposed from without, crying out for someone to come and stop the madness. You can take a still wider view and see that this is the celebration of a beginning of a life that would change the landscape of global history – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. You can take that wide angle view and call this individual God, some kind of manifestation of God, but then that opens the door for some serious splitting of hairs. God from God? Sort of God? Son of God? (Wait, aren’t all prophets ‘Sons of God’?) Mostly God, Slightly Human? Entirely God, Entirely Human? Created by God, but Created First? Uncreated and Eternal? A Completely Separate God, Bigger and Better and Nicer than that God of Moses?
And I have just named to you some of the major heresies and controversies of the Early Church. And when I say major, I mean major. People were fighting in the streets about this sort of thing, back then. …Oh wait, we still do that.
We still do that.
We still say that my god is better than your god.
We still say that something eternally horrific is going to happen to you if you don’t follow my god.
We still say that even though we follow the same god, you’re doing it all wrong, so you don’t count.
We still do this, or at least, a great number of us on the planet still do this. But there is an alternative – and I’m guessing more than one, but here’s the one that inspires me: (I like to call it, How To Be A Christian Without Tripping Over Yourself.)
I think of Jesus. (I know, this doesn’t shock you.) I think of how for Jesus, so very often, the proof was in the pudding. He cared less about what people believed, and what they purported to believe, and he cared more about what they actually did. Because what they did spoke volumes about where their heart was. You see this all throughout the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. It might not seem quite as sensational as a Fox News report to us, but believe me, for his time he was breaking social rule left and right. Let me give you a few examples.
The Pharisees and Saducees – remember them? Jesus, as a Rabbi and prophet could have been on good terms with them, but he typically said things that rocked the political and social and religious boat, so they had no great love for him. And he refused to be blinded by their so called piety as easily as he side-stepped the many times they tried to trap him in his own words. But the thing is, these were people who were supposed to be the good guys – these were the holy ones, but Jesus saw through what they seemed to be on the outside. In fact, one account has him calling them ‘whitewashed tombs’, meaning that they were pretty and presentable on the outside, but rotting on the inside.
Another example of Jesus not taking someone’s public face as the descriptor of who they were as a human being is the story of the Centurion and his daughter. Jarius, was his name. Now, in ancient Roman-occupied Israel you can imagine, perhaps just how very unpopular a Roman Centurion was. Oh yes, you’re very polite to them if you happen to meet one on the way because there are dire consequences if you’re not, but on the inside you’re seething with anger and resentment. You feel this way not because of something the Centurion has necessarily done, but because of what they represent. (Any Americans traveling abroad may have encountered this phenomena.) But this was not the reaction of Jesus. When the Centurion came to find this traveling preacher and healer so that his own daughter could be healed, Jesus saw through the armor plate of Rome to the man underneath who was suffering and who had reached out. And as the story goes, Jesus agreed to come. And then of course, Jarius stopped him, not wanting to unduly waste the master’s time, but rather told him to simply say the word, because as Jarius himself knew, as someone who had the management of many men, all Jesus would have to do is say the word, and his daughter would be healed. Jesus, as the story goes, was happily astounded, and rounded on his students and hangers on and told them all to be more like the Centurion, which I’m sure they did not enjoy. Why? Because this is one of the very few times in the Gospels where someone gets it, without having to have it explained to them. They get that it is what you do, even more than what you say.
And there are more examples all throughout the Gospels. They usually involve Jesus snubbing, or showing up someone who is in some way hypocritical, or Jesus being radically hospitable to someone who is on the margins – women, children, the sick and contagious, foreigners, prostitutes, people in typically corrupt jobs like tax collectors, people connected to the occupying force, like Jarius the Centurion.
And so, when I think, how do I be a Christian Without Tripping Over Myself, my answer is radical hospitality. Or put a different way, I consider this: I do not make my own belief a bludgeon with which to brutalize others, and I don’t respect those who do. Rather, I do pattern my life on a radical hope that peace is possible, justice can flow like a great river, and violence need not be the answer. Now, yes, these are very simple, general concepts, but they are applicable throughout all of life. In our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our nation, and in our world. And thing that inspires me toward this radical hope, and maybe it’s what inspires you as well, or maybe there’s some other facet that works for you, but what inspires me is this vision of God who loves like a parent (a functional parent mind, not a disfunctional one), this vision of God that so enraptured the man we call Jesus that he went out and lived for this God, right up until the point that he died.
And as for the controversy of who Jesus is, I take his cue there as well. In three out of the four gospel accounts of his life and ministry, (and I may say, the earliest three) Jesus was rather hesitant to put an title to himself, or a name to what he was doing, other than ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’. He frequently got irked when his students got uppity and tried to label him. Why did he do this? I can’t say. But in my imagination, it is because he knew, somehow, that when we label things, we tend to stop thinking about them, because if we label them, we know what they are, and we can more easily discount them, if not ignore them all together. After all, the ancient world didn’t need one more messiah. Messiahs were a dime a dozen – everybody and their brother was claiming to be the messiah. The world needed someone willing to roll up their sleeves and do some work.
The world still needs that.