For the better part of this year I’ve been watching re-runs of the comedy series Community on Netflix. Set in a dodgy community college, the show whimsically centres around a study group of 7 students. One of my favourite characters is Dean Pelton, a colourful personality who over-accommodates for everyone’s needs in a desperate attempt to keep the college afloat. To create the least-offensive mascot possible, the Dean designs the ‘Greendale Human Being’. About as non-human as you can get, the mascot is a non-denominational, ethnic-free representation of the Greendale student body with a faceless mask and no defining characteristics. The mascot features in both physical form and on college paraphernalia throughout the series, and is sometimes decorated for Valentine’s Day and Christmas.
While this is obviously an extreme example, I feel the Church has done something similar with our understanding of Jesus. Ever obsessed with doctrine and lists of right and wrong, Christians have taken what was an intricate and culturally specific story of Jesus coming into the world, and turned it into a broad generalist set of statements that serve the purposes of belief and ultimate salvation. With every quotation of John 3:16 Jesus becomes less and less human, and more a symbol or vessel by which God achieves restoration. Jesus’ body (size, shape, weight, quirks, creaks) and Jesus’ blood (AB+? O-? High in salt or cholesterol?) become symbols of forgiveness, handed out at regular intervals for common consumption. Now don’t get me wrong, Jesus did ask his followers to remember him, but do you think what he was ultimately hoping for was a ritualistic boiling down of the main points, and killer quotes on bookstore stationery?
The book of Matthew introduces the birth of Jesus with an extensive genealogy. This baby was not just ‘some guy’, but a particular guy, born from a particular girl, in a particular time and place, and with a particular bloodline from a particular people with a particular God. Yes God is a God for all, but the detail matters: A Hebrew born into political upheaval, Jesus knew the brutal boot of Roman rule at a personal level. A good Jewish boy, Jesus studied and meditated on the Torah – a living, breathing divine organism. He learnt the family trade and played his part in society, all the while hearing and following the daily call of Yahweh.
As he grew up, the words Jesus spoke fell on first century middle eastern ears, each with a rich understanding of God, themselves and the world, passed down to them by their ancestors. And Jesus’ specific body and blood was poured out one particular day (some have suggested Friday 3rd April), on a hill outside Jerusalem for all citizens to see the crushing display of political power for those that don’t tow the line. Jesus was a person. He was a refugee, an awkward teenager, a man. He was Jewish, a non-Western first-born son. He was a carpenter, a brother, a teacher, a friend. Not part-man, part-God; but fully man and fully God – Jesus wasn’t neutral but as human as you can possibly get.
Yet so often we speak of Jesus in symbolic terms. This isn’t wrong in itself but there’s an element that brushes over the detail. It skips past the everyday experiences that we know all too well – pain, grief, frustration, elation, terror, excitement, loneliness, hollowness. Our nativity scenes and Christmas carols display romanticised images of Mary, Joseph and Baby Dot-Point in ways that are somehow meant to make us feel something. And then when confronted with stories of real struggle, real heartache and real injustice, there’s a sense of delayed reaction as we slowly make the connections between this story and that.
Let me be really clear: At the centre of the Jesus story is not a list of things you’re looking for in a church. It’s not a set of ideological dot points for you to check off or cross out depending on where you’re at. It’s not a gateway to the afterlife or a weapon to ensure that people know the divine ‘line’ of how to believe and behave. If I were to symbolise this very specific story, I’d say that at the centre of the Jesus story is a manger and a table. (Both handcrafted, none of this Ikea crap.) The manger is the rickety, out-of-place, putrid excuse for a cot that was humbly accepted by Jesus’ desperate parents on that particular night. (Surely in the morning the Inn keeper would have put a little more effort into finding something a little more respectable for the 2nd night? But who knows, I wasn’t there.) The manger is the very ordinary reminder of God’s backwards plan, which doesn’t look for extraordinary types, but “those that are humble in Spirit”.
And the table is the ever-expansive invitation to sit with this guy and eat something. A table where you gather around the bread and the wine, a table where everyone – with all their particularities, quirks, history and understandings – is welcome. Not because the table is neutral and non-offensive, but because it’s particular and specific – the table of Jesus, who lived a real life in a real context and who knows what it’s like to be completely human. A man who knew suffering to the point of death. And a man who experienced complete bodily resurrection! I think that guy’s gonna have a pretty good understanding of the things I go through.
During Advent, believers everywhere prepare their hearts for the Saviour of the World. But I encourage you to step closer this year. What would it look like this Christmas, to prepare your heart for a person? A friend who knows you, who sees you and who invites you to his family table, filled with all the dishes he lovingly prepared for you and for the whole neighbourhood? (Oh and you can ditch your list. And your speech or your credentials, or lack thereof. They don’t make for great dinner conversations anyway.)
And as we engage in the particular lives of those around us, especially those lonely, vulnerable and in need, we are participating with Jesus in setting the table for the whole world.
My friends, may you smell the freshly baked bread on your plate this Christmas (GF if necessary – use your imagination people), and may you be filled with joy and thanksgiving to share it around without hesitation to a people hungry and crying out for a Saviour.
Lots of love,