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Friday, January 20, 2017

Jesus vs. Paul

    Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
-Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV)



Who matters more to you: Jesus or Paul? Somebody asked me that recently.
    They didn’t mean to ask, of course, which person is more important. Millennia of Christian teaching, not to mention the witness of Scripture, is unambiguous about that. Paul didn’t die for our sins. He wasn’t raised from the dead. The Holy Spirit is not poured out through Paul. He doesn’t intercede for us with God.
    What’s actually meant by that question is something like this: “Which of the New Testament writings do you think is more important: the Gospels, or Paul’s letters?”
    Still, that kinda sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it? “Aren’t they both kind of important?” you might ask, and you’d be right. They are both kind of important. At first glance, it seems that you might as well ask, “Which do you like best: water or oxygen?” Might as well force a person to choose between shelter and clothing. For a believer, it seems obvious: there is no choosing between the Gospels and Paul’s letters.
    And yet…
    A lot of years ago now there was a gentleman who attended my church for a while. He was — how best to say it? — on the cantankerous side. And one of the things he liked to raise cain about was this very issue. To him, and he would come right out and say this, the only truly inspired parts of the New Testament were Paul’s letters. The Gospels, Acts, the other letters — they had all been tainted by other influences. He stopped coming, actually, when we wouldn’t forswear teaching and preaching from other parts of the New Testament. (And you didn’t even want to get him started on the Old Testament!)
    Actually, that point of view is more widespread than you might imagine. My Paul-only friend was the ideological descendent, whether he knew it or not, of a first- and second-century church leader named Marcion, who was one of the first church leaders to introduce a canon. His Scriptures were, you guessed it, Paul’s letters and a stripped-down version of Luke that fit his doctrinal assumptions.
    That’s often, if not always, the reason believers look for a “canon within the canon,” a subset of the Bible that for one reason or another becomes more authoritative for us than the rest. Martin Luther called James an “epistle of straw” for its seeming contradiction of his pet teaching, for example. It seemed easier for him to just dismiss James than to try to reconcile it with his beliefs about faith and works. When two texts of Scripture seem to contradict each other, or at least to exist uncomfortably together, some remove the conflict by removing one of the texts.
     In earlier generations, even my own spiritual tribe tended to emphasize Paul’s letters and Acts over the gospels. We had doctrinal assumptions of our own, and we found it easiest to say that anything that came before Acts 2 belonged to a different era. That, of course, included the Gospels. For us, it wasn’t that the Gospels weren’t Scripture. Our assumptions just rendered the Gospels less authoritative, at least in practice.
    These days, the pendulum has swung. If we have a canon within a canon now, it’s probably the Gospels. They fit newer preaching styles better. They work better with our preference for story over proposition. And, often, our preference for the Gospels is used to defend a particular doctrinal position. “We have to read Paul through Jesus, and not the other way around,” goes the argument, which lets us pit Jesus against Paul, and who wants to argue that Paul is right in that equation?
    Thing is, I tend to agree with that statement, but not for all of the reasons it’s sometimes made. It is a weakness of some of us, for instance, that we’ve made salvation a matter of understanding Pauline doctrine rather than trusting in Jesus. And so we think that understanding what Paul meant when said that we’re saved by grace through faith is the same thing as actually having faith. (It isn’t.) But the problem there isn’t Paul, and it isn’t remedied by relegating Paul to the bench like a reliever who’s having trouble finding the plate. The remedy is to read Paul better, to let him say what he wants to say without importing all of our assumptions.
    Dismissing Paul isn’t fair to him, because in all of the letters attributed to him but two he introduces himself as an apostle or servant or both of Jesus. All he did and wrote after he met Jesus was to get other people to meet Jesus as well. Any form of the argument that Paul’s letters, well-intentioned or not, didn’t represent Jesus accurately kind of rips the guts out of the New Testament as Scripture, doesn’t it? That’s not to say there aren’t things in Paul’s writing that don’t coexist comfortably with the Gospels. But we don’t get to resolve the problems by favoring our own interpretations of Jesus over Paul’s.
    It isn’t fair to Jesus either, because invariably we make him into the spokesmodel for whatever we wish Paul was saying. Think Paul sounds like a misogynist? No problem; preach on Jesus and Mary Magdalene or something instead. Don’t care for Paul’s “wrath of God” stuff in Romans? Easily solved, because Jesus said “Don’t judge” and he never said anything about God’s wrath or anything, did he? No, that’s too easy. There’s no check there on my own arrogant tendency to rewrite Christianity into a form that suits me better and then co-opt Jesus to teach it. Jesus will not be your spokesmodel. He did not come to make you comfortable, and if you find yourself comfortable with him it’s probably because  you’ve remade him in your image.
    I’m thinking about all of this because of a conversation with a friend who has changed his thinking on some things, and justifies it by an appeal to Jesus over Paul. I don’t necessarily disagree with his new position. But I’m wondering why he feels he has to set Jesus and Paul at odds to get there.
    I do think we should read Paul through the filter of Jesus. Paul wouldn’t have it any other way, I imagine. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, there are things we only know about Jesus because of Paul. Paul believed the Holy Spirit was acting through his writing. And there were some others who thought so too. I think it a little foolish to dismiss Paul when you think he doesn't agree with Jesus. Maybe it’s better to go back and look again at what you think both are saying. Forgive me for saying so, but you’re more likely wrong than either of them.
    It’s a bad habit to take the easy way out of our dilemmas with Scripture by ignoring the parts that don’t fit our preconceived notions. The Bible is supposed to confound us sometimes. Let it. Read it with others. Talk about it. Pray about it. Let it say what it wants to say — even the parts you don’t like. Especially the parts you don’t like. Sometimes you’ll come to an understanding with the text. Sometimes you won’t, at least not right away. You won’t always agree with the people with whom you read it, either. But God has never needed us to sit in judgment on the text. We were always supposed to fight with it.

    Even if you have to fight with Paul. Come on, he’s pretty old. How hard it could it be?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Revolutionary

    When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family of the house of Judah. But Jehosheba,  the daughter of King Jehoram, took Joash son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the royal princes who were about to be murdered and put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Because Jehosheba,  the daughter of King Jehoram and wife of the priest Jehoiada, was Ahaziah’s sister, she hid the child from Athaliah so she could not kill him. He remained hidden with them at the temple of God for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
-2 Chronicles 22:10-12 (NIV)


It’s real Game of Thrones stuff, full of violence and intrigue. Definitely needs a TV-MA rating.
    A king of Judah, Ahaziah, comes to power at the death of his father, Jehoram, a powerful monarch who had eliminated any potential rivals. His mother, Athaliah, is the matriarch of the dynastic family from another kingdom, Israel, and Ahaziah follows advice from her and her handpicked counselors. He encourages the worship of false gods. He gets entangled in a foreign war, and is assassinated within a year of his accession.
    Athaliah gets to work immediately. She starts killing potential claimants to the throne, until seemingly no one is left to take over the kingdom. Then, with no rivals, she seats herself on the throne. Things don't look too good for Judah, or the dynasty of King David, or the promise of God to build a royal house from David’s descendants.
    And that’s when our hero enters the picture.
    Her name is Jehosheba. What we know about her is that she’s the daughter of King Jehoram and sister of King Ahaziah. Athaliah, the new Queen, didn’t even consider her a threat, I guess. Or maybe, as she’s the wife of a priest, she doesn’t dare touch her. But Jehosheba has a secret. Her brother’s infant son, Joash, is alive. Jehosheba saved him at the last minute from Athaliah’s executioners and took him to the temple, where she and her husband keep him safe for seven years. Then they crown him and acclaim him king, launching a rebellion that ends in Athaliah’s death, the destruction of paganism in the kingdom, and the return of a descendant of David to the throne.
    In an improbable twist for the politics of the time, two women are at the center of the story.
    One is a woman who uses others to gain power for herself. The other is a woman who uses what power she has to be a part of God’s work in her world. Athaliah believes she can bend her world to her will if she just has a large enough scepter and secure enough footing. Jehosheba uses the degree of power she has, not to control her world, but so that God might have his way in it through her.
    In our world, as in Jehosheba’s, there are powerful people who want more power, who believe that politics is a zero-sum game and who go as far as they deem necessary to get stronger and make their rivals weaker. They may call it public service, but the real goal, to one degree or another, is to bend the world to their will. There’s very little service involved, received by a very small proportion of the public.
    We’ve really come to expect this. The problem is that it infects the rest of us too. The reasons for the division and struggle in our nation between races, genders, religions, ethnicities, classes, and so on are numerous and hard to trace out, but at the risk of being too reductionist it’s fair to say that the guiding narrative is the desire to control our worlds. If we can just gain a little more power, a little more influence, and silence or discredit those on the other side, then we can get our personal agendas pushed through. This drive for power is nothing new, and it’s found in every place where human beings are found.
    This story subverts the usual narrative. It’s those without power, the priest’s wife and her infant nephew, who end up making the most ripples. It’s those who eschew the easy power grab and take the long view of things who carry the day. Make no mistake, Jehosheba is no sweet, gentle, subservient, Ancient Near East version of June Cleaver. She knows when it’s time for the soldiers to swing the swords. But she also knows she doesn’t need to scorch the earth for God to show up and do his work. She knows that, however powerful Athaliah may be, she’s stronger if she pursues the will of God and gives him room to work.
    I’m reminded by this story that those who have power need to exercise it with discretion, compassion, and an eye for the work of God in the world. Power can be dangerous because we too easily see it as a blunt instrument we can use to control our worlds, instead of a way to care for the powerless and serve the purposes of God. I was reminded of this danger not too long ago by a woman who shook her head and said with sadness, “Men have all the power in the church.” And we have to confess, don’t we, that in comparison to the rest of society men do have a disproportionate amount of power in most churches. And that there are times that men have used that power in ways that hurt women. Yes, even in church.
    So it’s time for the church to recognize, if we haven’t, what has always been true. Frequently, it has been the women among us who have preserved the work of God, who have done the work that ensured the passing on of the faith. They’ve likely done it in your church in homes and children’s classrooms. (Who taught you your first Bible story, or first song about Jesus? Who first prayed with you?) Women have always taught in the church (even when they haven’t been allowed to on Sunday morning). They’ve always led in worship. (Even if they've had to do it from their seats.)  
    And maybe it’s time for those of us who have most of the power in the church, the men, to include women in every way we can. I know there are biblical texts that complicate the picture. But there are other ways to read those texts, and other texts to read alongside them that might give us a more complete perspective. At the very least, we must be as sure as we can that we aren’t restricting women because of the way those who came before us read the Bible. And, if we aren't sure, should we be rejecting from the gatherings of the church the contributions and gifts of more than 50% of the people of God? In his name?
    Well, in any case, may we acknowledge and thank God for the Jehoshebas in our midst, those who work quietly and outside the main channels of power so that God might have his way in the world through them, who know that the way to change the world is not to join the struggle for more power, but to nurse and raise to maturity the purposes of God.
    “The city was calm,” the text reports after Jehosheba’s work was finished.
    May we leave our communities quieter and calmer by being about God’s work in our worlds.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Memorials

   So Joshua called together the twelve men  he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan.  Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign  among you. In the future, when your children  ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off  before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial  to the people of Israel forever.”
-Joshua 4:4-7 (NIV)


Growing up in Tennessee, I was surrounded by memorials.
    Most of them were on Civil War battlefields, and the names are a vivid part of my childhood memories: Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Stones River. Almost everywhere you go around Chattanooga or Middle Tennessee, you see memorials: plaques, statues, even cannons. They commemorate battles and honor the soldiers who gave their lives there, both Union and Confederate. They’re witnesses to the past: testimonies to people generations gone whose courage and sacrifice helped to draw our nation back together. As a kid, I’d climb on the cannons and shoot down imaginary enemies. A little older, I’d read the plaques and the names and sometimes wonder what they were like, which of them went home and which were buried in the Tennessee clay under my feet, which had a life after the war and which left widows and orphans and grieving parents behind.
    The New Year is barreling down on us, so it’s a good time to consider memorials. But not so much those elaborate Civil War memorials of my childhood that are so good at bearing mute witness to the past. It’s a different kind of memorial that’s on my mind today, less elaborate, almost crude, but more vital and living: A pile of stones standing on a riverbank.
    When the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they brought those stones with them. The Jordan was the last obstacle, the one thing keeping a four-decade horde of wanderers from beginning to grow into a nation. Their leader, Joshua, the successor to Moses, knew a memorial was in order. So he tasked a representative from each of the twelve tribes that made up the fledgling nation with removing a large stone from the dry riverbed that God gave them to walk across. Once across, they were to use the stones to build a memorial. Kind of like those Civil War memorials.
    But not really, because this memorial was to serve a different function. It was less a memorial to the past than a marker for the future. Joshua imagine kids playing by the riverbank, or young men hunting, or young women washing clothes. He imagined a future when Israel was secure in the land, and imagined that future generation might need a history lesson. “What’s this pile of rocks here?” they might ask. And then those who knew the story could tell it: “You might have trouble believing this, but God stopped the flow of the Jordan so we could cross! This is who we are. We’re the people of the God who dammed a river for us.”
    A trailer was shown at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It contained no actual footage of the movie it promoted, because no one is allowed to see that movie yet. It’s called 100 Years, and it’s billed as “The Movie You will Never See.” It envisions life on earth in 100 years, and once it was completed it was placed in a bulletproof, time-locked vault set to open on Nov. 18, 2115. A thousand people from around the world, including star John Malkovich and director Robert Rodriguez, have received invitations to be passed down to their descendants.
    What the future holds for us, whether 100 years or a day from now, is locked. It’s inscrutable. This time of year is filled with predictions, and it’s filled with retrospectives, but rarely do the two inform one another. We memorialize the past with markers, and look toward the future with some mixture of hope, fear, uncertainty, dread, and anticipation. But rarely do we occupy the only ground we really can, the present, and let what our past tells us inform the future we know is coming.
    So here’s what our past tells us about the coming New Year. It tells us, for one, that we will face obstacles. We have to anticipate that there will be times in the next twelve months when taking a step forward will feel like wading out into a raging river. If you think being one of God’s people means that life should be easy and comfortable and free of conflict, well, then you just don’t know your history. There will be moments in 2017 where you find your way blocked and your fears mounting.
    But our past also reminds us, doesn’t it, that God goes with his people? Whatever you face between now and next January, you won’t face it without him. Where God’s people go, he goes with them, whether as a pillar of fire or an Ark of the Covenant or the Word made flesh. You know that’s true, because you remember what he’s already walked through with you. You will encounter no adversary, no obstacle, no snare or temptation or sickness or grief that he will not encounter with you.
    And where he goes, the dangers recede. Where he goes, rivers dry up and armies break and run and storms still and demons submit and grieving people find joy again. This year will bring nothing that he can't handle, that he hasn’t already handled. There is no hurt so deep, fear so powerful, obstacle so big, or enemy so strong that God is not deeper, more powerful, bigger or stronger still.
    The New Year seems like uncharted territory, and of course in some ways it is. But, look, there on the riverbank. Look at all those markers, all those memorials of how God has been with his people and helped them through and over and around the obstacles they’ve encountered on the way. Word and song and prayer remind us. Jesus assures us. The experiences of our family in Christ testify that we walk into this New Year’s inevitable mix of joys and sorrows, blessing and hardship, with the presence of God and in his power.
    So grab your rock as you cross. Make it part of the testimony of God’s people, so that when your children are scared and your friends are in doubt and even your own heart is weary, you’ll look ahead with hope and joy and anticipation.
    On New Year’s morning, we’ll gather around the table and share bread and cup in memory of Jesus. But  we won’t just look back on that awful past event. It will serve for us as a marker as we cross into 2017 to the future hope we have because of it.

    May all who need such hope this year see it. And may we tell that story well.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Celebrating Christmas

   When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem  those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
-Galatians 4:4-7 (NIV)



It happens most every year. Someone I know — at least one someone — will say it. This year it happened to be my doctor.
    “This must be a busy time of year for you.”
    She said it because she knows that I’m a minister, and because she’s a believer, and so she assumes that Christmas for me must be like tax season for accountants: lots of overtime, lots going on, lots to take care of. It’s an understandable assumption, and one I rarely bother to correct. What’s the point, really, in a setting like that to explain that not all churches celebrate Christmas with pageants and extra services and such? She was more or less just being polite, after all.
   I didn’t grow up with Christmas as a specifically religious holiday. That isn’t because I didn’t grow up going to church — I did. It isn’t because my parents weren’t explicit about their faith — they were, and are. I mean, I knew that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. A lot of people I knew went to churches that were decorated for Christmas and had those pageants. I went to more than one, in fact. Lots of people I knew, even some who didn’t grow up going to church every Sunday like I did, attended a Christmas Eve mass or service.
    Not me, though. The church I grew up a part of didn’t do any of that. We went to church on Christmas when it fell on a Sunday or Wednesday. (Sundays were tough; we had to interrupt or delay present-opening, which my sister and I hated. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good argument for taking your kids to church every Christmas!) Otherwise, nothing much changed at church around Christmastime. I was into my 20s before I understood Advent at all. (The “Advent Calendar” in our house just let you move a candy cane closer to December 25th.) I was never in a Christmas pageant. Our church never had a Christmas Eve service. Honestly, I’m not even sure that we sang Christmas songs around Christmastime.
    The reason for that, as simplistic as it sounds, is that the celebration of Christmas doesn’t come from the Bible. Neither Jesus nor the New Testament church seemed all that interested in the celebration of his birthday, and in fact we don't know that December 25th is his birthday at all. (That date came to be acknowledged through kind of a perfect storm of theology, church history, and existing pagan celebrations.) The gospel writers (two of them, anyway) describe his birth more out of interest in theology than history, and none of them ever bother to date it outside of a vague reference to historical people and events going on around it. The church didn't settle on December 25th until three or four centuries later, at the earliest.
    We weren’t anti-Christmas, you understand. We just wanted to be able to point to a very specific text to support what we did in church, and Christmas just didn’t have it. Christmas pageants and decorations and special services in church seemed to us a little too liturgical, a little too tangled up in human tradition, and so we just didn’t do it.
    Well, the church I’m a part of now doesn’t do much in the way of Christmas either, other than that the preaching and much of the singing during the Advent and Christmas seasons acknowledges the time of year. Some people I know still probably consider that too much. Others probably don’t think it’s enough.
    I get it. But I now believe the church should celebrate Christmas because it is about incarnation. It’s about the Word of God made flesh in all its power and holiness. But it’s also about the form that Word takes — not fire or angel armies or even a holy book, but humanity. “The Word became flesh,” John wrote in his version of the nativity story, “and made his dwelling among us.” Or, as Paul put it, he “did not consider equality with God  something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature  of a servant, being made in human likeness.” This is the Gospel, that in Jesus God has come to us as one of us, has in some way let go of what it means to be equal with God to be made in our likeness. To make his dwelling among us.
    And this is just me now, I speak for no one else, but I don’t need a text in the Bible telling me to celebrate that with other human beings created by God and in whose likeness Christ has come. With other human beings who because he came now bear his Spirit and call God Father and constitute the living body of Christ on earth.
    But we don’t leave that celebration to Sunday — even when that Sunday is Christmas. To celebrate incarnation is to not only look back with joy on what Christ has done, but to look ahead with anticipation to what Christ will do through us, through our hands and feet and mouths and hearts and eyes and ears and minds.
How beautiful the hands that served the wine and the bread and the sons of the earth.
How beautiful the feet that walked the long dusty road and the hill to the cross
Yes. But also:
How beautiful the feet that bring the sound of good news and the love of the King.How beautiful the hands that serve the wine and the bread and the sons of the earth.How beautiful…is the body of Christ.

   So I don’t want to leave Christmas to Santa Claus, retail insanity, or even the Spirit of Giving or peace on earth. I want to spend Christmas with the people Jesus loved so much and in whose likeness he came — so that we could be imprinted with his likeness. It’s the church who teaches me what it means to be the body of Christ, and who sends me out into the world to live with those with whom he lived.
    I know he may not have been born on December 25th, that there’s no biblical text to support Christmas.

    But it happened. And we must find some way to celebrate together.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Hush

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-28)


It seems like, every year, we hear something about what’s been called “The War on Christmas.”
    You know what I mean, I’m sure. Someone in some media outlet somewhere catches wind of a story about someone or another taking a nativity scene away from a town square. Or some coffee chain that changes out its regular cups for “Holiday Cups” with snowflakes or other non-specific winter imagery, so that we can’t sip $5 lattes out of cups adorned with baby Jesuses or Christmas trees, as the Lord intended. And this media outlet somewhere writes a headline that ominously intones that this is the latest skirmish in the War on Christmas, and that those who want to hang on to their right to prop up dead evergreens in their living rooms had better come to arms.
    And then we do what this media outlet somewhere knows we’ll do: we watch, we click, we read. We share on Facebook and Twitter and write blog posts and bulletin articles that link to their article or video or post or whatever. And they get paid.
    Can I confess to you a heresy? I’m a Christian. (That’s not the confession, though some might doubt that I am.) I’m a minister at a church, in fact. But at some point in my life, I developed the habit of wishing people I didn’t know well “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Oh, with family or at church I’m a “Merry Christmas” kind of guy, but when I’m with someone I don’t know very well I don’t assume. I doubt seriously that there are many people who would take a well-intentioned “Merry Christmas” and make something sinister of it. But I figure it doesn’t take all that much energy to be respectful of someone else’s background. We live in a very diverse city in a diverse country on a diverse planet. It’s not surprising, I guess, that we sometimes have to take a second look at the cards we send out.
    But here’s my heresy, maybe. It’s not “giving in to political correctness” (as someone once accused me of doing when I confessed my “Happy Holidays” leanings). It’s this: the holiday that Christians – and non-Christians alike – are getting ready to celebrate marks the moment in history in which God sent his Son into the world to unite all human beings, whoever they are and wherever they live, in him.
    The gospel writers drop little hints to remind us. Jesus was born, we’re told, at a time when Caesar had decreed “that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” (Luke 2:1) Wise men “from the east” – what we know as Iran, most likely – traveled to a small town in Judea to worship a little Jewish baby. Jesus spent the first few years of his life living as a resident alien in Egypt – Nazareth would have seemed pretty small and provincial in comparison, no doubt. While Matthew shows Jesus as a descendent of Abraham, Luke goes back generations earlier to remind us that Jesus, like every human being, is a son of Adam and a son of God.
    The herald angels on that night sang of peace on earth “to those on whom his favor rests” – not of just one ethnicity or race, but all. Maybe most eloquent was old Simeon, who spoke of Jesus as God’s salvation “prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”  
    Yes, it’s important to make sure that we select appropriate cards to send out. And it’s good for us to be sensitive to other people’s cultures and traditions. But along the way, I don’t want to make the mistake of perpetuating the myth that Christmas is a Western holiday for only some of the people on earth.
    Maybe part of the problem is the way we celebrate it. Most of our best-loved Christmas traditions and music and other trappings are very Western in orientation and origin. Certainly, the conspicuous consumption and rampant consumerism in which most of us indulge at Christmas time would be foreign to the majority of people in a good portion of the world. And that might just be part of the reason that so much of the world thinks that the story of Jesus is for us, not them.
    But of course Jesus lived in the Middle East, and was firmly a part of that culture. He didn’t ask that his birth be celebrated by exchanging expensive gifts or eating lots of food or putting lights over every square inch of our well-kept neighborhoods. And while all those things might be well and good, I think I’m safe in saying that it’s much more important that those of us who still remember what the story of Jesus is really all about let our memories inform our lives.
    The story has to do, of course, with what happens when the literal embodiment of God’s love and grace moves in down the block. It’s about the inevitable clash between the kingdom of God and the petty tyrants of the world’s power structures. That “silent night, holy night” was an illusion. What happened that night was subversion and revolution – not with weapons, but with love, sacrifice, and humility. Christmas is about what happens when God in all his glory, power, and pure, undiluted love gives himself to every one of us without regard to the language we speak, the color of our skin, the part of the world where we live, or whether or not we go to church on Sundays.
    “You are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote to churches in what we’d call Asia today. Sometimes I wonder if we believe that. There are times when anyone looking at my life might reasonably doubt that I do. Paul wasn’t saying that those differences of culture and social standing that divide human beings aren’t real, or that they get left at the bottom of the baptistery. He was reminding them that in Christ all of them were participating, along with believers everywhere, in the fulfillment of all God’s promises. And he reminds me that wherever there is a believer in Jesus, there I have a sister or a brother.
    We celebrate Christmas best when we share our lives with the people around us – not just the people like us, but those different from us as well. We celebrate it best when through our love of our neighbors, whoever and wherever they are, we join in the angels’ chorus of “peace on earth to those on whom is favor rests.”
Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong;
And men, at war with men, hear not The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife And hear the angels sing.
    As it strange as it seems to some, I grew up in a church that didn't really acknowledge Christmas. Oh, as individuals and families we did, but never in church, simply because Christmas wasn’t in the Bible. I think that might have been an overreaction, but I mention it to point out that saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t inherently better or more spiritual than “Happy Holidays.” Or worse, or less spiritual.
    But may we who believe in Jesus never forget that he did not just come for “us”. There is no War on Christmas, because Jesus chose not to fight. In Christ there is no Us vs. Them. There is only the good news of God’s love made flesh.


    Hush the noise, you people of strife. Hear the angels sing.

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