Monday, December 14, 2015

The Jesus Problem

Bill O'Reilly's Faux News invention of the War on Christmas typifies the evangelical obsession with a Jesus narrative divorced from the doctrinal and ethical messages behind the Nativity. The greeting of 'Happy Holiday' in no way threatens the church, the Christian faith or Jesus himself because Advent borrows nothing from our cultural celebration of Christmas. Advent itself has meaning beyond the birth of Jesus.

I won't bore you with yet another reminder of the origins of, or fallacies surrounding, Christmas, simply to say that the church exploits the Christmas season as much as John Lewis and Coca Cola. However much we might deplore the nauseating commercialism engulfing Christmas, its a buyers market. By definition, consumerism is a consumer disease rather than a marketing epidemic. The church itself has had to learn that in order to engage with its potential pew dwellers it must speak the common language, much like New Testament writers who wrote in Koine [common] Greek rather than Aramaic or any other obscure language like Latin. Its a matter of supply and demand.

If Bill is going to criticise anyone for ignoring Christmas he should start with the Gospel writers Mark and John who made no mention of Jesus birth at all. John really doesn't care because it adds nothing to his message while Matthew and Luke tell different stories, neither of which tally with the beloved nativity scene that we are familiar with. Its hardly any surprise that a Fox presenter would not check his sources. More profoundly, though, he's probably oblivious to the real message of Jesus' incarnation which is that God desired to live among us and as one of us. 'Us' being the disenfranchised, despised, occupied and homeless as well as the comfortable.

The message of the incarnation is one of identity, not with a people group or a religion but with the human condition in all its glory and depravity. Muslims, on the whole, are more than happy to share in the Christmas celebrations. Even atheists quote Jesus when his words align with their ethos. In stark contrast are the Christians who insist on those with other beliefs paying lip service to a name they lazily curse the rest of the year round. You can't take Christ out of Christmas simply by supplanting another holiday greeting but you can take Jesus out of Christianity by replacing the Jesus of the Gospels with a misogynistic, gun possessing, Muslim hating parody.

Rather than Jesus being the answer (as we are told), Jesus is the moderator of the question. Read the Gospels and see how often Jesus attacks the validity of the question or leaves the enquirer with another question. He drove the authorities mad because he wouldn't give them the answer they wanted but left them with questions they dared not answer. If you're looking for a happy Christmas, Jesus isn't the solution - he's the problem. He was a problem for Herod, he was a problem for the Jewish authorities. He didn't exactly make Joseph and Mary's relationship simple or easy, being conceived out of wedlock.

Christmas is a problem. Its a marketplace that the church must compete in because it no longer has a monopoly. Its a time of family strife and marriage breakdown. Its a time of pressure to get into pointless debt, a time of guilt and peer pressure. Its a time that the lonely and heartbroken dread. Where is Christ in this Christmas? He's not on a card, in a carol or a cheery greeting. If you truly believe in the incarnation you'll know he's not in the sweet nativity scene, he's wherever humanity is most messy, destructive and dangerous. He's rotting in Calais, surviving in refugee camps, waiting in line for a bowl of soup.

When the Queen gives her dreary speech with the enthusiasm of a wino at a kids party, he's challenging her privileged lifestyle. When the kids get fractious because they are overwhelmed by the mountain of gifts, he's watching a family of refugees clinging to the gift of life. The problem isn't the guilt trip - no, that's a privilege in itself. The problem is much more universal. There's a story of a monk whose only possession was a pencil. His problem was that despite his vow of poverty he'd never dealt with his possessiveness. He guarded his pencil as if it were his life. Jesus told a rich young man to give up all he had. Not because he was rich but because he was possessive of his wealth. Jesus wants the heart of the monk and the rich man alike.

Jesus said that your heart is where your treasure is. So if your motivation is money you heart will be invested in the making of it. But its equally true that you will invest in your religion if that's where your heart is. But Jesus said that our hearts should be for the kingdom of heaven which is neither a religion, a place nor a destination, its a way of life that is summed up in Jesus' sermon on the mount. Its a life free from greed, hate and enmity, full of love, peace and honest self reflection. There is no room in this kingdom for the possession even of hearts and minds or the preservation of religious dogma.

The cares of this world are tied up with our possessions, material or otherwise. The greatest gifts we can receive are those we cannot hoard or barter with. When we invest everything in what we eat, drink, wear or drive, in our own selfish interests, in our prejudices and fears – we take Christ out of Christmas. When we strive to love, to care, to trust, to understand and to sacrifice we invite Jesus back. Jesus becomes a thorn when we choose convenience before truth, comfort before empathy and security before trust. He is no friend to the bigot and the war monger.

John tells us that Jesus became our neighbour. Jesus told us that the world is our neighbour.

John tells us that we cannot claim to love God and hate our brother. Jesus said that if you cannot forgive your brother then God cannot forgive you.

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."

On whom does God's favour rest?
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

I should add that Jesus claimed to be the "way the truth and the life" and promised eternal life to those who place their faith him. But he demanded that those who claimed to follow him must show the fruits of that faith. Faith without works is dead.