As I write this it is evening on the third day of Christmas. Earlier today was family time—opening gifts and eating our traditional Christmas breakfast of eggs scrambled with cream cheese, little smokies, bacon, chocolate waxy donuts, and orange cinnamon rolls. Last night we had the best rib roast ever, courtesy of P.A., our son-in-law, along with Yorkshire pudding, and for dessert Brooke and P.A. made a Bouche de Noel that was to die for.
I love Christmas. All twelve days of it. I love the way the house is decorated. I love the music. I love the giving. I love the tree. Most of all, though, I love it that this is a time when our family comes together. We make time for each other, not out of obligation, but because we all genuinely like each other. We love each other, yes, but more than that, we really like each other. And I think the reason we have always liked each other so much is that we’ve always accepted each other just as we are.
So much of the joy we’ve experienced as a family has been around the table. There is something about eating together that makes the conversation flow.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book called After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements written by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig for The Westar Christianity Seminar. Westar is the same organization of scholars who brought us the controversial Jesus Seminar a few years ago, so I’m reading it …carefully. These scholars are highlighting the enormous diversity and variety among the various communities who called themselves Jesus followers—they rarely used the word Christian to describe themselves, and those who used it to talk about them often used it as a pejorative.
Despite significant differences in their practices and in how they understood Jesus and his teaching, most of these groups had a few central things in common. Most of them understood themselves to be engaged in a movement of resistance to the Roman Empire. Rome ran on violence from top to bottom, so these groups resisted with nonviolence. And humor. They resisted by seeing themselves not as subjects of the Roman Empire, but rather as citizens in the Empire of God. One of their chief acts of resistance—and almost all the groups did this—was to meet together every week for a meal. Some of the Jesus-follower groups, in fact, were basically supper clubs!
At these meals they could enjoy each other’s company freely. They were all equal in status—there was neither slave nor free, Jew nor gentile. They would sing. They would dance. Yes, they danced. The Empire believed that they existed solely in order to enrich the Empire one way or another. They themselves, on the other hand, believed that God had created them to enjoy life in all its fullness (John 10:10). So they would gather to share a meal, to share stories about Jesus, and to enjoy each other’s company. Gathering together, enjoying each other’s company, and encouraging each other were acts of resistance against an Empire that saw them as mere tools. In an empire that systematically disintegrated the families of the poor through slavery, these Jesus followers formed new families. In an empire that didn’t regard them as fully human, they found ways to be humane and reinforce each other’s sense of dignity and humanity.
It occurred to me that the worship of these early communities of the Anointed would have looked a lot more like our family’s Christmas feasting than what we typically do in church. And that got me to wondering…what would church be like if we were starting over from scratch? If we didn’t have liturgy and a building and hymnals, if all we had was a desire to be together, to share each other’s company and tell stories about Jesus, how would we do it? If we did find a space to meet in, how would we arrange it? What if we had tables and chairs instead of pews? What if there were no walls between the kitchen and the gathering place? What if all the furnishings were movable so that they could be put aside to make room for dancing?
What would it be like if we simply focused on following Jesus and loving and supporting each other and welcoming others to the feast? Wouldn’t that be a good way to resist all the forces of modern life that try to dehumanize us?
We are entering a new year and all indications are that the Church is entering a new era. No one knows what that’s going to look like. There’s an old saying: I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future. I wonder, though…maybe God in Christ isn’t so much holding the future as leading the way into it and inviting us to dance along. Maybe, as we have said in some of our songs, in Christ there is a table set for all.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year,
Pro Gloria Dei,