‘A Christmas Church’
The people who came to his crib were members of the first church. A Christmas Church. What sort of church was it? Does it provide a vision of the church for today? By John Rackley
At its simplest a church is people gathering around Jesus. So in the opening stories of Luke and Matthew we see a Christmas Church. People gather around Jesus.
Some are faithful believers like Simeon and Anna who are longing for the day when God answers the prayers of his people. There is a priest and his wife. They have borne the sadness and religious shame of not having a child but continue faithfully doing what is required at the Temple.
Local workers come in from the hills when the baby arrives, followed later by travellers from the East.
At the heart of it all are a young couple and their child.
It is a small church but a church nonetheless. It is people gathering around Jesus. It is a Christmas Church.
Matthew and Luke start their gospels with an overture that explains what’s coming later. Jesus is always going to gather people around him. He creates churches down by on the beach. He calls a church together to listen to a sermon on a hillside. He gathers people around him from a boat and in the home of a hostile Pharisee. This has carried on beyond his lifetime right down to our times. Churches come and go. The Spirit of Jesus moves on and the gatherings wax and wane. The people who came to his crib were members of the first church. A Christmas Church. What sort of church was it? Does it provide a vision of the church for today?
Let’s notice how it was created:
- the arrival of Jesus made people read their bible. The scribes looked for prophecies when Herod asked what the Wise men had said. The songs of Mary and Zechariah are full of bible references. Matthew uses different quotations from the Old Testament to explain who Jesus is. His arrival made them explore their religious tradition. The faith of the past would help the needs of the present. Jesus creates a church based on the discoveries of faithful and the revelation of God.
- in this Christmas Church there was a lot of praise and prayer. The shepherds heard choirs of angels and went back to their work full of joy. The songs of Mary and Zechariah are full of delight and praise of God. This was a singing church; positive, voices raised in worship and thanksgiving.
- in the Christmas Church, as in any church worth the name there is trust. Trust in God. Joseph is a prototype of the trusting believer. He believes God is at work in a situation he cannot understand. Simeon welcomes the young family at the baby’s dedication with a delighted prayer of thanksgiving. His trust has its reward. He has been given enough years to see the outcome of his faith. Trust in God is at the heart of any church life. This is how Paul put it a few years later in his letter to the Galatians: my friends we have put our trust in Jesus. He loved me and gave his life for me. Jesus occupies my heart and mind. Jesus has brought us into the family of God through trust. All of you who have declared your trust in Jesus share his identity. Differences of origin, sex and class no longer matter. You all belong to one another because you belong to Jesus.
- at the heart of this church is mindfulness; the thoughtfulness of the mother of Jesus. She has welcomed him into her life. But she does more than carry her child. She ponders the meaning of it all. In Mary we can see a prototype disciple. She accepts him into her life and treasures all that now happens. She ponders its significance.
- it was made up of people who mostly did not know each other. They were a company of strangers. Jesus was who they had in common. Paul would stress this later as we heard in his letter to Ephesians: Jesus makes peace between different types of people. He’s broken down the barriers and made enemies into friends. We’re all one family now. Matthew comes back to this at the close of his gospel when the Risen Christ tells his disciples to go make other disciples from strangers – any community in the world. As the quotation from two North American theologians, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon says about the Church:
We are to serve the world by showing it what it is not;
namely a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.
- the gathering around Jesus challenged the old order and disturbed the status quo. Herod thought correctly that he was hearing of the birth of a rival. Zechariah did not follow the tradition of his culture when he chose the name ‘John’ for his son. Mary’s song reads like economic restructuring and political change. Human systems of power and arrogance would topple because of the birth of her child. When the Church is really being the Church of Christ its relationship with the society in which it is set will not be too comfortable. This feature gave Jesus his cross and has and will place a cross on the back of the Church:
- the Christmas church was made up of people who wanted to share what they had discovered with others. The shepherds became noisy evangelists. Old Anna couldn’t be silenced. The wise men returned home another way; which has always seemed to me to be a metaphor for conversion. They are recalled at the very end of Matthew’s gospel when his church is told to go into all the world to proclaim the eternal presence of Christ.
I have highlighted seven features of the Christmas Church; what made it what it was....
- people who explored the Bible
- people who delighted in what God had done
- people who trusted God for their life together
- people who were strangers to each other but had Jesus in common
- centred on prayerful thoughtfulness
- challenging godlessness and human abuse of power
- proclaiming the good news that God changes lives because he has changed the people of that church.
The Christmas Church soon dispersed. Its moment had come and gone. But it has been in the memory of the followers of Jesus ever since. And whenever people gather in the name of Jesus he is there in the midst and the Christmas Church is reformed.
The Revd John Rackley is minister of Manvers Street Baptist Church, Bath