Interfaith Voices: Christmas is being a church in the world | Religion


There is a hand game I learned as a child: “This is the church, this is the steeple. Open the door and see everyone.” As cute as this finger game is, it gives kids the wrong message. The church is not a building, nor a place where Christians should spend most of their time.

Yes, I know standard usage and the first dictionary definition disagree with me. According to one of these dictionaries, the church is a building where Christians gather. Like the finger game, the implication is that the church is made of stone and carved in stone. In the decades following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, large buildings became less important in Judaism and early Christianity.

Writing at least 50 years after the crucifixion, Matthew attributed these words to Jesus: “And I say to you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” (Matthew 16:18a NRSV). He wasn’t talking about a building. Matthew was not referring to the great cathedrals of Europe or the white-sided buildings of New England, or the Temple on the Mountain. Instead, the word translated as church comes from the Greek ecclesia, which means a gathering of people who share common values ​​and beliefs.

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These shared values ​​and beliefs are (or should be) the teachings and life of Jesus. In this sense, the ecclesia, the church, is a verb. In other words, the church is a community of people living in the love of God and of neighbor (Mark 12: 30-31) and taking into account the expectation “to do justice, to embrace the faithful love and to walk humbly… ”(Micah 6: 8 CEB).

Of course, the disciples of Jesus live these values ​​imperfectly. Finger games like the one I was taught and too much emphasis on personal salvation and the desire for a wellness religion stumbles us every time. Human beings are masters of the art of rationalizing uncomfortable things. It is difficult to reject the values ​​of our culture.

This is especially true during the season leading up to Christmas Day. The myth that buying and over-buying is the path to happiness dominates our history. Commercialism distracts us from the radical nature of Jesus’ relational teachings and causes us to define our well-being and our worth with external things.

But our story turns the world upside down. Christmas is about a vulnerable baby born to poor parents living in a remote town. It is the story of a young woman – probably a teenage girl – who, despite the social challenges that her divine pregnancy brings, sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices! (Luke 1: 46-47 NRSV)

Our story is that of a father who had every rational reason to reject Mary. But, instead, he trusted her mystical explanation for her pregnancy. Our story is that of a frightened young woman supported by her older cousin Elizabeth as she awaited the birth of her first child. We learn that it is in relationships that hope lies.

When we focus on the birth story, we are compelled to nurture relationships with our neighbors, especially the poor and marginalized. The hand play I learned as a kid in which “everyone” is inside a building misses the point. Like Mary and Joseph and, of course, Jesus, our Christian lives are outside the walls of our buildings.

Christmas and being a church is not about building or buying gifts. Christmas is not about parties or cookies. Christmas is about being a church in the world, feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and standing with the marginalized. Christmas demands justice and kindness for all of God’s people. This is how we come to peace on earth.

Tim Graves is the Senior Pastor of First Christian Church in Albany (Disciples of Christ). He has been a runner, grandfather and husband for 40 years.


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