“Without Jesus, there is no Christmas. It’s some other celebration, but it isn’t Christmas…. in the name of false respect for those who are not Christian, Christmas is being stripped of its true nature.”Pope Francis, Dec. 27, 2017
(Photo credit: harmony-hill.org)
Imagine, as a first-generation Palestinian Jewish disciple of Yeshua in the First Century CE, being sent to India. You are the Apostle Thomas (“Doubting Thomas” Didymus – the Twin). Imagine the total newness and perplexity of such a mission, having to learn multiple unknown languages (the gift of tongues would be so useful!) and adjusting to a very alien culture, totally foreign to his own. Imagine being alone (or perhaps with a few trusted companions, like the Apostle Paul travelled) in the midst of all that.
For the early disciples, things were much more difficult than anything we face here in the post-Christian West where the name of Jesus still has significant recognition. The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness many western believers have are the result of centuries of holding a privileged position in society and a preponderance of cultural influence for over a millennium. Now that is largely gone and we don’t know how to cope. We’ve forgotten how to begin again.
The truth is that the only doors that have closed to Western Christians are those they have closed themselves. No laws in Europe (perhaps Russia is an exception for Protestants and Catholics), Canada, or the USA have yet been made restricting Christians from accessing any profession, pursuing any career they choose, or engaging in any social activity or program. Our courts and constitutions still guarantee freedom of conscience (religion), expression (speech), and mobility (the right to go and live anywhere within our borders without restriction). There are some hindrances in some areas, such as belonging to some organizations or the ability to publicly express some views, but this is not persecution. Not even all Christians agree on certain contentious issues.
Real oppression and persecution look like what happened to the Christians under Rome before Constantine, or what we see today in China and North Korea, and some Islamic countries.
Real persecution looks like what happened to Jews and, to a much lesser degree, Christians in Nazi Germany after January 30, 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor. Jews were barred from public life, from many professions and occupations, from economic life, and from citizenship. These measures were ramped up over several years as the Nazis tested the waters of public response. Eventually, persecution and oppression warped into full-blown mass extermination.
The Nazis went after many other groups too – Communists, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and eventually any other political organization but their own. Trade Unions were abolished early on. The Nazis created a State Protestant Church called the German Christians.
The mass of Christian adherents stood meekly by in fear or, in many cases, silent consent as the other groups were brought under the hammer. As Confessing Church Pastor Martin Niemöller put it:
“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Christians have always faced the choice to conform, to fit in to the prevailing culture and ethos, or to accept that belonging to Christ’s family, His ekklesia – the community and assembly of those called out of “the world” to be witnesses to God’s establishment of a new and different kind of Kingdom in the very midst of the Kosmos (the whole existing system of the broken creation) – means having different goals, different values, and a fundamentally different mission. The Christians of the West have been immersed for long generations in a system that sought somehow to marry the new with the old. Most believers sought to continue to fully enjoy and benefit from the comforts and pleasures of the system that declares “Caesar is Lord” while having the guarantee of God’s acceptance and His promise of eternal salvation from declaring that “Jesus is Lord”.
I suspect that this mindset still very largely applies to the vast majority of Jesus-followers in the West. Most of us never even think about it as we carry on our daily lives.
After all, historically most of our leaders have modelled this flawed and compromised model, and this told ordinary folks that they could too. This regime was called “Christendom”. Formally, Christ was recognized as “King of kings and Lord of lords” through doctrine and ceremonial while the religious, political, social, and economic leaders carried on business as usual, applying for God’s pardon after doing what they wanted or believed they were compelled to do.
Power is quite possibly the most potent intoxicant and addictive experience most people ever taste. Even in small doses, it is deadly. Basic physical drives (thirst, hunger, sex, need for shelter) always return once sated, but excesses stemming from them can be tamed by determined self-control and self-discipline. They are straight-up kinds of things and not subtle. Power is a far more serpentine force, subtly disguised in all sorts of devious permutations. It lurks as a potential motive in almost all human interactions and relationships and lies beneath almost every conflict at every level of social intercourse, from family, to commerce, to government. Even churches find themselves with often bitter internal politics, almost always based on disputes over control of who does what.
It is therefore no surprise at all to find the temptation of power very quickly raising its venomous serpent’s head from the very first moment of history in the Garden of Eden. It landed even among Jesus’ most intimate group of first disciples. Even there, when He was still physically walking among them, we find observations such as “As they walked along the road, they fell into arguing among themselves about who among them was the greatest.” On their last long walk to Jerusalem before Jesus was crucified, James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, sidled up to Jesus to apply for the two best seats at the table – on His right and left hands – at the great Feast celebrating the inauguration of Messiah’s rulership over the whole world. The others voiced their indignance in no uncertain terms!
Yeshua continually rebukes the disciples (and via them, us) for their (our) obsession with gaining greater position and recognition – greater power! – in the coming Kingdom of God. He is sometimes very direct and sometimes more subtle. He says that to be great in God’s Kingdom requires being the servant of all. He says that rather than seeking to lord it over one another and outsiders and imitating the “rulers of this age”, we must have the same attitude and posture as a little child. He tells us that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”. Finally, the day before he dies, he strips down to his undergarments and does the work of a slave, going to each of them with a basin of water and a towel to wash and dry their dirty feet. He had to shame them to wake them up! I suspect that we need the same wake-up call!
Jesus knew full well that his followers would still fail repeatedly at servant-leadership. He knows that we still fail miserably at it most of the time. The allure of power, the allure of Caesarian salvation through worldly political, military, and economic control and manipulation, is the most basic of all humanity’s hamartia (the Greek word usually translated as “sin”, which means “missing the mark, not measuring up”). It was the original siren-song hissed by Satan to Eve and Adam (who stood by and listened but said nothing): “[If you eat that fruit] you most certainly won’t die! You will become like God Himself [get ultimate power if you taste of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil].”
Given all this, the whole 1600-year misadventure of Christendom, from 312 CE (Constantine’s Edict of Milan) to 1914 CE (the outbreak of World War One) is no surprise. It was an enormous blunder of monumental proportion, but no surprise.
The Apostles still quarrelled even as they went out to carry out “the Great Commission” after Jesus’ ascension in or around the year 33-34 CE. Peter quarreled with the elders in Jerusalem after he visited Cornelius’ (totally Gentile) household in Caesarea and launched the Gospel among the Gentiles. Paul had a huge public spat with Peter in Antioch as Peter backtracked on what he had done in Caesarea. Paul rebuked Barnabas over Barnabas’ nephew Mark’s abandonment of their mission in Galatia. They parted ways for years thereafter. Paul had innumerable difficulties with jealous rivals as he did his work among the new Gentile congregations. The Corinthian church was torn apart by ugly factional quarrels over which of the various leaders was greatest.
Christians in Canada and the USA today have much to be thankful for! To waste our time and energy lamenting the decline of Christmas and the Church’s influence totally misses the real point. Seeking to regain lost power and prestige in politics and social agendas is also chasing a phantom, a “ghost of Christmas past”. Such quests are doomed to fail. It is good to know history and learn from it, but folly to try to recover it and repeat it. This scheme failed all through 1600 years of Christendom. Today it remains a ghost-trail in seeking how the Kingdom of Jesus will come just as it was all through those many centuries.
The priority is and always has been, “The Kingdom of God is at hand/right here/among you now! Metanoeite – (Turn around! Repent!) and believe (trust in) the good news!” Live as if it’s true now, today, with all the impact that will have in how you do life each day.
“If you seek to save your life [live it the way the “present age” says leads to success} you will lose it. But if you lose [give] your life for My sake, you will find [really discover] it.”Yeshua/Jesus.