By Jack R. Reese
Allow me to share a little Christmas story. I need to be honest, it doesn’t feel much like a Christmas text. It contains no wise men or shepherds, no inn or manger, no swaddling clothes or singing angels. In fact, the birth of Jesus is not mentioned at all. I’m pretty sure this text wouldn’t make a particularly good message for a Christmas card, all decked out in red and green with a festive “Merry Christmas” on the cover. No, I think you will find it an odd selection for a Christmas celebration.
But it’s a story about incarnation and scandal, two elements necessary for any Christmas tale worth its salt.
My Christmas story opens not in Bethlehem but in Jerusalem. There is no Mary or Elizabeth, no Herod or Simeon, but Barnabas is there, as are Paul and the apostle James. To tell you the truth, while all three men were undoubtedly wise, I don’t know a single carol sung about them. Nevertheless, they and other church leaders gathered in Jerusalem for a significant conversation. This so-called Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 was one of the most important gatherings in the history of the church. Decisions needed to be made concerning what to do with all the Gentiles who, in spite of many expressions of concern, just kept turning to Jesus.
I know, nothing yet in the story is likely to inspire a person to add an ornament to the tree or throw another log on the yuletide fire, but you’ll have to be patient. Christmas is still coming.
Not long before the opening gavel of this august conference, persecution had broken out in Judea. Christians had been forced to scatter into Gentile lands, into such places as Cyprus, Cyrene, and Antioch. Most of them had shared the message of Jesus wherever they went, a noteworthy activity to be sure. But, Luke says pointedly, they did so only to people like them. They talked only to fellow Jews (Acts 11:19).
Don’t judge them harshly. They had not lived with Gentiles before. They hadn’t been exposed to Gentiles much, hadn’t really thought of them. They shouldn’t be expected to spend a lot of time with Gentiles. They couldn’t be expected to invite them to their homes or sit down with them for a meal. Gentiles had grown up differently, you see. They had different customs and manners. They had different lifestyles and values. Most importantly, they hadn’t been taught like Jewish children.
It’s not like these Jewish Christians were prejudiced against Gentiles. Some of them probably had some Gentile friends. They just wanted to be with people like themselves, people who thought like, looked like, ate like, dressed like, voted like, acted like, and lived like them. You would understand that, I think. It’s only natural.
A few of them, however, talked also to Gentiles (Acts 11:20). I mean, they told Gentiles the good news about the Lord Jesus. And against all odds these Gentiles began to turn to the Lord, not just a few at a time but in droves.
This caused a lot of problems in the church, as you could imagine. The church could hardly carry on as it always had with all of these spiritual babies. These Gentiles didn’t even know the stories from the Bible. They barely knew the names of the patriarchs. It would be hard to talk to them about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendents when they hadn’t even been circumcised! But more and more of them kept turning to the Lord.
I wonder if now is the time to put the Gentile holly wreath on the front door? Perhaps we could think of a Christmas carol extolling mass Gentile conversions. The holiday season is upon us, but somehow it’s not feeling a lot like Christmas yet.
When word got back to the big churches in Jerusalem about all the Gentiles coming in, you can only imagine the tongues wagging. This would cause a disruption. This will change everything. They won’t respect our traditions, our way of life. Besides, their doctrines are questionable. Who ever heard of uncircumcised believers? So they called in Barnabas and Paul to defend what had been going on among the Gentiles.
And they did. But they didn’t talk a lot about Gentiles, really, but about the grace of God, about the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. That’s why these Gentiles were turning to the Lord, they said.
It was James who finally stepped to the stage (Acts 15:19). In response to the enthusiastic orations of Barnabas and Paul, in reaction to the hard questions and lingering concerns still burdening the conferees, James spoke confidently, spreading Christmas cheer throughout the hall: “It is my judgment that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Let earth receive her king!
We should not make it difficult for them, he said. God is already at work among these Gentiles. God is incarnate and, scandal of scandals, he didn’t come as we expected. He is working among people very different than we. They are already turning to the Lord, James said. It’s not what we are doing that is causing them to turn. It’s not that if we do all the right things, then they will be attracted to us. God is already among them. He is already turning them to himself. Joy to the world, the Lord has come.
But if we want to be part of it, we will need to have eyes to see. One way or another he will bring his work to glorious fruition. Our task is not to make it happen. That’s God’s job. But we should certainly not be making it difficult for those who even now are turning to God.
Here, then, is a message for this Christmas. Our Lord has come near. His birth is a sign of his great mission among us. That mission is not merely a set of instructions to understand, a list of principles to teach our pagan friends and neighbors so they will respond rightly and become like us. Rather, God has come into the world. His mission is unfolding all around us. He is opening eyes, challenging convictions, disturbing the comfortable, overturning the proud. He is calling surprising people. Our task is to join the work of God already unfolding in the world.
The birth of Christ is a witness to God’s mission. He has come among the lowly. His lot is with the poor. His coming is witnessed by simple shepherds. His ministry is to the weak. He has compassion for the blind. He eats with sinners. He opens the doors to the kingdom of God to outsiders . . . to Gentiles of all people.
In response, we do not work to expand his kingdom. That’s God’s responsibility. Our job at its root is not to create the best programs, hire the best preacher, build the best building, or design the best Web site. Our most important work, rather, is to receive the breaking-in of the kingdom. We welcome it. God is already at work. Our task is to join him.
I know of many churches with well-crafted mission statements. My own church has one, a very good one, in fact. But in the large scheme of things, we are not calculating some sort of mission for the church. In fact, I’m not so sure that God’s church has a mission. Rather, I think, God’s mission has a church!
God is at work. Hearts are turning toward him, if we only had eyes to see. So for Christmas this year, it’s James’s song I most want to hear: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to him.” Wonders, wonders of his love!
Jack Reese is dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University where he teaches worship and preaching. He is currently coauthoring a book with Stephen Johnson on worship as the church’s resource for community spiritual formation.