Why Christmas is good news

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Savior, Messiah, and Lord.”]

TDC Christmas

I think Luke 2:10-12 captures the message of Christmas pretty perfectly:

Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Christmas is good news, right? Jesus being born is good news, right? That’s what the angel said to the shepherds, that’s what Christians believe. But as I was praying over this passage in preparation to preach yesterday, I had to ask myself again: Why is the birth of this child, over 2,000 years ago, good news? What does that have to do with us today?”

In these verses, we see that Jesus fulfills three roles—savior, messiah, and lord—and over the years, these terms have all become staples of “Christianese,” easy for believers to throw around without actually thinking about what they mean and just jargon to people who don’t follow Jesus or who are new to this stuff. And I think it’s as we unpack these terms—unwrap them, so to speak—that we’ll find and understand the good news.

Savior. In Greek, the word is soter, which simply means “one who saves” or “one who rescues” from a desperate situation. “Savior” was also a term in the Hebrew Scriptures that was commonly, and almost exclusively, used for God. In Isaiah 43:11, God says, “I am Yahweh, and besides me there is no savior.” Most clearly for the people of Israel, God had been their savior—he had demonstrated his saving power—when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt through the leadership of Moses. And at the time of Jesus’ birth, the people were again being oppressed: this time, they were living under Roman occupation, and they were again crying out to God to rescue them, crying out for a savior.

Messiah. This word comes from the Hebrew mashiach, meaning “anointed” or “anointed one,” and this referred to the practice of anointing a person with oil, a symbol of God’s presence and blessing, usually to fulfill a certain mission or task on God’s behalf. For instance, even before David killed Goliath, when he was still just a shepherd boy, he was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel. And by the time of Jesus, the term ‘messiah’ had come to hold in itself all of the expectations of the people of Israel for someone who would usher in the kingdom of God, someone who would inaugurate the reign of God: that time when everything would be set right, when injustice and oppression would be ended, when the wicked would be judged and the righteous vindicated. This is from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

                        because the LORD has anointed me;

            he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

                        to bind up the brokenhearted,

            to proclaim liberty to the captives,

                        and release to the prisoners;

            to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

                        and the day of vengeance of our God;

                        to comfort all who mourn …

The people of Israel were waiting for the one anointed to carry out God’s mission; they longed for the one who would come and set things right.

Lord. We don’t live in the Middle Ages any more, but this was a deferential title for someone in authority over you, someone of higher status than you, someone you would obey, someone who was your master. When you called someone, “Lord,” you were communicating that that person was worthy of your loyalty, your obedience, and your trust. So when we refer to God as “Lord,” what we are communicating—whether or not we back this up with our attitudes and actions—is that God is worthy of our loyalty, our obedience, and our trust. As the great missionary Hudson Taylor said:

Christ is either Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all.

But the thing is, God was not the only “Lord” around at the time of Jesus’ birth. The story begins, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus …” Caesar Augustus was the first emperor of Rome, and there was a common saying among Romans at the time, a sort of pledge of allegiance, that said, “Caesar is Lord.” There’s also a fascinating Greek inscription from the year 9BC, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, found in the city of Priene, in modern-day Turkey:

Since providence … has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior both for us and for those after us [this word ‘savior’ is the same one that is used in Luke’s gospel to refer to Jesus], him who would end war and order all things [Prince of peace, anyone? The Messiah who would set all things right, perhaps?], and since Caesar by his appearance surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings, not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the good tidings [gospel, good news!] through him … (emphasis added)

This inscription is referring not to Jesus, but to Caesar. See, his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was deified after his death, which began the practice of recognizing all Roman rulers as gods. In fact, one of Caesar Augustus’s titles was Divi filius, which means ‘Son of God,’ or ‘son of the divine.’

Even two thousand years ago, people were desperate for help that would come from beyond themselves and they were looking for it. The inscription tells us how loyal citizens of the Roman Empire would see Caesar as a rescuer, a savior, a god, who would end war and set all things right. And you know what? A couple thousand years later, not much has changed—at our core, we’re desperate for a rescuer and a savior, for God to end war and set all things right, even if we don’t admit it.

Because we don’t often think of our need to be rescued, do we? That’s not a common cultural assumption. Once upon a time, maybe—fairy tales would tell of damsels in distress who needed to be rescued—but for the most part in Western society, we’ve left behind many of those patriarchal frameworks. Now, it’s a case of us all being self-sufficient, do-it-yourself kind of people: I don’t need to be saved from anything, and if I did, I’d do it myself! And yet, understanding the reality of our situation can be the key to determining whether we see Christmas as just another tradition or, as the angel described it, “good news of great joy.”

unapologeticThe reality is that you cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to. Because of sin: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin is something that gets in the way of our relationship with God and with each other; it’s destructive like that. English writer Francis Spufford describes sin as “the human tendency to [screw] things up.” He continues:

what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s … (Unapologetic, 27; emphasis added)

Imagine the closest relationship you’ve ever had or could ever have, and now imagine tearing that in two. That’s what sin does, because the closest, most intimate, most wonderful relationship that you were created for was the one with God, your Creator, your heavenly Father, your Sustainer, the one who knows you inside and out, the one who loves you no matter what, the one who desires your good even more than you do. And sin inserts itself between you and God, between you and other people, and it causes a rift, a chasm.

And that’s what we do all the time and all over the place—screw things up—intentionally and unintentionally, with God and with other people:

  • when we’re having an argument and we refuse to give up the fact that we’re right even though it’s destroying the relationship;
  • when we choose our own comfort over the effort it takes to help someone in need;
  • when we give in to our addictions for the hundredth time even though we just said we wouldn’t;
  • when we hurt someone’s feelings completely by accident because we didn’t understand their history or their upbringing or we thought the way we see things must be the way everyone else sees things;
  • when we don’t treat our family members with honor and love and respect because we’re busy playing with our phones or our new gadgets or zoning out in front of the TV.

That’s what sin looks like. That’s what we have no hope of getting ourselves out of, because it’s just so pervasive that we aren’t even always aware of it. That’s what we need saving from; and so we need a Savior.

We need a Messiah to set all things right and to usher in the reign of God in this world by bringing the Spirit of God into our lives so that we might be more of who God created us to be, lovers of God and of our neighbors, not just the end results of trying harder. We need a Messiah so that the world might be all that it was created to be.

We need a Lord, a master, to show us a better way of living, to lead us and guide us in a world that is full of voices and obligations and pressures and anxiety and fear. Everybody’s telling you the way to do things: advertisers, your colleagues, your boss, that random person whose blog you read, your siblings, your parents, your kids, your significant other.

But there is only one who knows the path of life and can show us the path of life; there is only one who can restore all things and redeem all things; there is only one who can save us from all our sins; and that is Jesus—Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

Of course, let’s not forget Luke 2:12, which would be so easy to pass over and yet is so quintessentially God and such a key part of the gospel story: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” If you’re familiar with the Christmas story, you probably won’t bat an eyelid at that statement. But think about it for a moment: the angel has just announced that there’s great news, God is coming to save his people, a Savior is here, God’s chosen one.

If someone came up to you today and said, “Great news! So-and-so is going to bring about world peace,” you’d probably think of a political leader, someone who’s well-known and well-protected, someone with a lot of influence and clout, someone who’ll get things done. You wouldn’t think of a baby, would you? I mean, how is a baby going to save us?! He’s wrapped in swaddling clothes, which means that not only is he a baby, his arms and legs are tucked in tight! And he’s lying in a manger. Again, we’ve gotten so used to the term “manger” that we would be forgiven for thinking that that was just another name for Jesus’ bed. It was a feeding trough! For animals! Because there was no room for the family in the house!

What kind of rescue is this chosen one going to accomplish, who is in the form of a baby wrapped up in strips of cloth? What kind of leader is this who sleeps not in a palace or a high security compound, who doesn’t even have enough influence to get a spare room, has to sleep in a borrowed food container for oxen, and whose arrival is announced not on a public stage for all to see but to shepherds pulling the nightshift out in the fields?

Well, I’m glad you asked!

It will be the most complete rescue, it will be the most wonderful restoration; and he will be the greatest leader to ever walk the face of the earth, the one who will show us who God is and who we were created to be, the one whose power is the power of love and humility and sacrifice, the one who lifts up the lowly and brings good news to the poor and release to those in captivity and healing to the hurting and broken.

This is part of the surprise of Christmas. After all, the word “Christmas” is a conflation of “Christ’s Mass,” that is, the worship of the God who came as a human baby into the darkness of the night two thousand years ago, who comes also into our darkness and our fears and our longing, to bring light and hope and fulfillment. A Savior has been born to us, God’s anointed, who will be the Lord, the herald and harbinger of the kingdom of God, and the one who will set all things right. And he shall come not with a trumpet-in-your-face, unavoidable demonstration of power that will blast you into submission, but as a baby, swaddled, and lying in an animal’s feeding trough. Because that’s how love works. That’s how God works. Frederick Buechner wrote this in The Hungering Dark:

Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. … And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully. (13-14)

That’s why Christmas is good news. And I hope it’s good news for you this week.

Merry Christmas!

Questions about Christianity

drmouw-profile-photo

I’ve always been a firm believer that with faith, not all of the questions can yet be answered. I’ve also always believed that a faith that can’t withstand questions isn’t much of a faith at all.

So I’m excited that Rich Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, made a stop at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church to answer some questions about the faith, hosted by John Ortberg.

You can check out the video here and the audio here(I’ve put the time stamps next to each question, in case you want to skip forward.)

  • What does “evangelical” mean? (2:51)
  • Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? (6:15)
  • Are Mormons Christians? (9:55)
  • Can we trust the Bible? And why? (15:00)
  • How do we as Christians talk about human sexuality–divorce, same-sex attraction, etc.? (21:51)
  • How can we be people of conviction and also people of civility? (24:54)
  • How do Christians talk, especially with non-Christians, about hell? (30:34)
  • How do we think about the passages in the Bible that contain violence? (32:50)
  • What is God waiting for before he comes back? (35:25)
  • What do you see in the world that makes you hopeful? (36:50)

And if you have follow-up questions, I’ll see what I can do to answer them. 🙂

Election 2012 Epilogue

A few thoughts in the aftermath of the election:

On Tuesday morning, I attended an Election Day prayer breakfast at a large African-American church. I had come into the day with a sense of excitement about the elections, knowing the tremendous responsibility and privilege I had as a citizen, and looking forward to being a part of the democratic process again (in this particular way)–2008 was the first presidential election I’d ever voted in, and I was eager to cast my ballot again.

But being there that morning, I was reminded of the solemnity and seriousness of the situation. The pastor was a man who, in his own lifetime, had known a time when he wasn’t allowed to vote; and the people around me were folks who never thought they’d see someone who looked like them in the Oval Office. It was a time when we came to God and asked that his will would be done, regardless of the outcome of the election, that equality  and justice and righteousness would increase.

It gave me a new and refreshing perspective for the rest of the day. Kathy Khang says it well in “It’s Easy to Forget Privilege When It’s Always Been Yours”:

there still are people who have no voice, who have no right to vote, but they are directly impacted by the politicians, referenda, judges, and local officials as well as the “agendas and policies.” As a Christian who is new to the process, it’s a privilege and responsibility I don’t take lightly because it isn’t a given. I’m not American born. We are not post-racial America, and the fact of the matter is the church isn’t either. We are working on it, but we aren’t there.

Also, Angry Asian Man highlights a historic election night for Asian Americans.

And on a related note, I wonder what the future holds for the Republican Party, which was trounced in the polls when it came to minorities (according to exit polls, Obama won 93-6 among African Americans, 73-26 among Asian Americans, and 71-27 among Latinos) and young people (60-36 among 18-24 year olds, 60-38 among 25-29 year olds, and 55-42 among 30-39 year olds). I guess we’ll see in the coming months.

In the meantime, I continue to follow the lead of Oscar Romero, former Archbishop of San Salvador, who said:

I am not with the right or with the left. I am trying to be faithful to the word that the Lord bids me preach, to the message that cannot change, which tells both sides the good they do and the injustices they commit.

Christ and his gospel above all.

P.S. I’ve always been a big fan of Nate Silver. And xkcd.

Pride

[Part 2 of a blog adaptation of the October 28 message at The District Church: “Jubilee.”]

After Acts 4–after the heady hope of the Jubilee community, after the generosity and selfless sacrifice of Barnabas–we move into chapter 5, and we run face-first into reality. Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a piece of property, keep some of the proceeds and bring the rest to the apostles, while pretending to bring all of the proceeds from the sale. They are found out, and as a result, they both “fell down and died.”

It’s a troubling episode for many of us–it seems awfully harsh! But Luke doesn’t just explain it away; he doesn’t paper over the sin in the community, nor over things that freak out the early church community (and us!). It’s really important that we see things like this, that we’re reminded that God isn’t just a kindly old man, God is not your buddy or your pal. God calls us his friends, God invites us into his family, God is our Father; but it would be folly to forget that he is still God.

Take electricity for example. It’s a potent thing: it can run your laptop, charge your phone, power the cell towers that allow you to stay connected with people; it runs cars and buses and trams and trains; it brings light and heat to our homes and cities; it allows us to store and cook food, to wash dishes and clothes; it enables us to watch or listen to or play with all kinds of entertainment. But if you’ve ever experienced electric shock, you know it’s not a pleasant experience—it makes sense to me now why my childhood nanny freaked out when I tried cutting through a power cable with a pair of scissors. And if you’ve ever seen the power of a lightning strike up close, you know that it’s not to be trifled with and that if you do, you’re going to get hurt. Did you know that the temperature of the air around a lightning bolt is over 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, six times hotter than the surface of the Sun? You don’t mess around with that stuff!

One of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is when the children are told that the great Aslan, whom they’re about to meet, is actually not a man, but a lion; and so they’re naturally a little nervous about meeting him.

Lucy: “Then he isn’t safe?”

Mr. Beaver: “‘Course he isn’t safe … but he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

I love that. But there’s a difference between the power of electricity and the power of God: the power of God is personal, and the God who wields this power is good and you can trust him.

So we should always remember—we need to always remember—that God is not to be treated casually. God is not just someone we can make in our own image—no, we are made in his: God, the Holy One, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, so glorious that when Moses asked to see his glory, in Exodus, he says, “You cannot, for no one can see me and live.” He wasn’t saying, “I could show you but then I’d have to kill you,” but rather, “There is such a gulf between you and me that you wouldn’t be able to handle the fullness of my glory.” Think about that! This is the God that Ananias and Sapphira were treating so lightly; they had forgotten what it was all about, who it was all about.

Which brings us to what I think is the root of the problem here in Acts 5 and what I think is one of the most potent poisons known to the people of God–to the Jubilee community: pride, that which C.S. Lewis called “the great sin.” In Mere Christianity, he wrote:

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Just as Kryptonite is lethal to Superman, pride is lethal to the Jubilee community.

  • Pride eats up the very possibility of contentment: Ananias and Sapphira weren’t happy to just give a certain amount of money.
  • Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person: they weren’t just giving because they wanted to bless the community; they were giving because they wanted to be recognized for giving—and they wanted to get the recognition without having to make the sacrifice. There’s a reason Luke juxtaposes their story with that of Barnabas; they wanted to be like Barnabas—”Barnabas” was sort of a nickname given to this man Joseph by the apostles, probably because of what he was like: an encourager, a friend, a supporter. Ananias and Sapphira wanted that.
  • Pride eats up the very possibility of common sense: their pride led them to come up with this plan; their pride led them to stick to it, even when they had the opportunity to come clean. Their pride led them to think that they could fool God.

The point of this story isn’t that God wants you to keep your finances in order—though he does; the point of this story isn’t that you shouldn’t give money to the church—you should; the point of this story is that God is holy and God hates hypocrisy—that child of pride. John Ortberg writes,

According to Jesus, hypocrisy is not just the failure to live up to what we aspire to. Everybody does that. The core of hypocrisy is deception—mean-spirited and selfish, although sometimes even unconscious, deception. (Who is This Man?, 122)

We can think of any number of scenarios involving hypocrisy: the politician who rails against corruption and who herself is caught in a bribery scandal; or the priest who speaks of a God who loves children while himself abusing them; or the pastor who preaches about the sacredness of marriage and is discovered having an affair.

I often read these stories, particularly about the ones that happen within the church, and at first, I react in the same way as when I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, with righteous indignation, with incredulity, with a pitying shaking of the head.

And then the Spirit of God sort of taps me on the shoulder and reminds me to take the plank out of my own eye, reminds me that I have a tremendous capacity for self-deception, convicts me for the sin of pride, for looking down on others when only God has the right to judge. And it is when I humble myself—for humility is the opposite of, indeed the antidote for, pride—that God gives me compassion when I look at others and grace when I look at myself.

And that is when we truly embody this Jubilee community. We live out this Jubilee community:

  • when we work toward right and restored relationships with the God who has forgiven our sins and with those around us, even if—perhaps especially if—they have done nothing to deserve it;
  • when we love others with the love of the Christ who died on the cross because of love;
  • when we forgive those who have wronged us as God forgives us;
  • when we give generously and sacrificially, when we meet the needs of our church body and the needs of our neighbors—both friend and enemy;
  • when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what this good news means for all people; and
  • when we humble ourselves, asking God to forgive us for our sins and to make us better, and allowing the Spirit of God to perform surgery—however painful—on our souls to remove the spiritual cancer of pride..

My parents actually gave me the middle name, “Barnabas.” And I want to be like him: I want to be uncomfortably, sacrificially generous; I want to be part of this Jubilee community; I want to be so in love with God and such a part of the body of Christ that I make decisions that might not make sense to the rest of the world.

But I acknowledge that often I make decisions with ulterior motives—in fact, nothing I do is ever completely pure. Did I serve on this occasion because I love serving or because I love the recognition that comes with serving? Probably both. If no one knew that I had served, would I still do it? Probably, but maybe a little more grudgingly. I acknowledge that my so-called ‘sacrifices’ are nowhere near as costly or as heartfelt as the sacrifice of my Lord deserves. I know my life will not always match up to what it’s supposed to be, and sometimes it won’t even be facing the right direction.

But in those moments, when I am brought down low, the same God whose might is imposing and even frightening, lifts me up with his strength. The same God whose holiness shows up every defect and flaw and blemish in me burns away those very defects and flaws and blemishes with that same holiness. The same God whose presence is overwhelming fills me with this same presence and reminds me that it is the Spirit of Christ living in me—and not my own strength—that will accomplish all things. The same God who convicts me of my sin also reminds me that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and will purify us from all unrighteousness.

Pride takes all sorts of different forms, and I’m pretty sure that we all struggle with this sin in some way:

  • Maybe it’s being judgmental, concerning yourself more with where others are going wrong than with where you need correction.
  • Maybe it’s lacking patience, as if everyone should work to your schedule and your timetable.
  • Maybe it’s not thinking about others enough, riding roughshod over other people’s feelings.
  • Maybe it’s self-centeredness, not even being aware of how you’re hurting people.
  • Maybe it’s refusing to ask for help, because to ask for help would be to show weakness and you don’t want to appear weak.
  • Maybe it’s selfishness, not wanting to share with others the material blessings you’ve been given because you think they belong to you, or not helping those in need because you’ve forgotten that they belong to God.

Ask God to show you what it is. Ask God to forgive you. Ask God to heal you and make you new.

Maybe it’s fear or uncertainty or anxiety or your past—something that is causing you to hold on or hold back or hold out, something that is keeping you from giving your time or your money or your relationships or your life to God. You’re not sure if you can trust him; you’re not sure if you can trust other people; you’re just not sure who to trust.

I want to encourage you to trust in Jesus Christ: he isn’t safe, but he is good.

Jubilee

[Part 1 of a blog adaptation of the October 28 message at The District Church: “Jubilee.” Read part 2 here.]

In Leviticus 25, God decrees that, for the people of Israel, every fiftieth year is to be a year of Jubilee: liberty was to be proclaimed to all people; debts would be forgiven; land would be sold back to its original owners; and slaves would be set free. The purpose of this was to show the surrounding nations–and, perhaps more importantly, to remind the people of Israel–that God was in control and God would provide.

The year of Jubilee was meant to remind the people of Israel that whatever land they owned or whatever crops or fruit they reaped or however successful they became, and on the flipside, whatever debts they had accrued, however many mistakes they had made or opportunities they had squandered, however low they had sunk, ultimately everything belonged to God and ultimately everyone belonged to God.

When we look at the early church in Acts 4, where everything was held in common, “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions” (v.32) because they recognized that everything belonged to God; and “there was not a needy person among them” (v.34) because they recognized that everyone belonged to God. They showed uncomfortable, sacrificial generosity on a daily basis.

Whatever fears they might have had about not being cared for, whatever reticence they might have had about giving of themselves and their belongings—these were assuaged by the trust within the community: they trusted that they’d be looked after, they trusted in each other and in the discernment of their leaders, and most importantly, they trusted in God and in his provision. They were the people of God, the Jubilee community.

The precise details of the situation in Acts may be a little different from ours, but we face similar fears and uncertainties to the early church, similar questions about how we’ll survive or how God will provide, about what it means to be involved in the community of the body of Christ, about how much we can trust each other with our lives or our time or our money or our emotional and relational energy.

We love the idea of this Jubilee community: of no one being in need, of doing life together, of being open to one another; and intellectually, we can agree that everything belongs to God and that everyone belongs to God. But sometimes, when we realize how much work it’ll actually take or how much it’ll actually cost us, we flinch: we hold on or hold back or hold out because we think, it’s smart to protect yourself, it’s safer to insulate yourself.

When Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his public ministry, he says, in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He’s quoting here from Isaiah 61—and when he mentions “the year of the Lord’s favor,” he’s talking about Jubilee. Jesus was saying that his mission was to proclaim the year of Jubilee, and it wouldn’t simply be a time of material restoration, when land and property are returned and financial debts are forgiven, but these things will be part of the larger reality of all things being made right: good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.”

And in carrying out this mission, Jesus refused to protect himself; he refused to insulate himself—from the poor, from the broken, from the hurting, from the lost, from the world of sinners separated from God—and for these people, for us, he gave his very life—quite literally—as the ultimate act of sacrificial generosity.

In Acts 4, we see this community of Jesus-followers taking up the mantle of their master, walking in his footsteps: healing the sick, casting out demons, sharing their possessions with one another, ensuring that there were no needy persons among them. This was Jubilee community.

In fact, this generosity—not just of spirit but of possessions and of life—came to be one of the most defining characteristics of the early church. A few hundred years later, around AD 360, the Roman Emperor was Julian the Apostate, and he was not a fan of Christians or their faith; yet in a letter, he wrote,

it is disgraceful that … the impious Galileans support their own poor as well as ours, while everyone can see that our people are in need of aid from us.

The early church cared not just for their own community but for the people they lived among, people who didn’t believe what they believed, people who may have disagreed pretty strongly with what they believed. It didn’t matter—it doesn’t matter: everyone is made in the image of God. So they put others’ needs far above their own, treated the welfare of others as more valuable than any of their possessions and any of their time, and held others’ lives as of greater importance than their own.

This is something that has been a great encouragement to me in these early years of The District Church’s existence: we care. We care for each other, we seek to live out true community with one another, we share our lives with each other and encourage one another, we challenge each other to grow closer to God, and we care also for those who aren’t part of our church community. I love how we’ve gotten involved in our neighborhood: partnering with Samaritan Inns and Christ House and Park View Kids Zone and various schools, to just love on people, to meet them where they are, to provide food and supplies and resources. I love how we’ve been so generous: last year we gave tens of thousands of dollars toward famine relief in Somalia and to build a well in Liberia. When people need help, we help; when people need jobs, we pass along résumés and job postings; when people need a place to stay, we step up and offer a couch or a spare room. These things may sound pretty ordinary, but to me, they’re signs that we’re on the right track.

Now we’re not perfect by any means—far from it. We are sinful, selfish, messed-up, broken human beings, after all. The early church wasn’t perfect either; but that didn’t stop God from doing great things in and through it.

Us not being perfect doesn’t stop God from doing great things in and through us. You not being perfect doesn’t stop God from doing great things in and through you.

Let us thank God for that!