Sunday, December 16, 2007


The other day, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was on TV. We started watching but quickly tired of it… it's really all fluff until the Christmas pageant scene. Linus' recitation of the birth narrative from the Gospel of Luke must be one of the most significant fixtures of American religious memory. Whenever I read “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…” I hear in my head Linus' voice; I picture the empty hall with a lone(ly) spotlight; I want to read in the voice of a small child with a stuffy nose.

It's amazing how Biblical texts can take on a life of their own. They become wrapped up in our cultures, both as the sources and repositories for our meaning.

And, along the way, surprising things can happen.

Passages can be misquoted; “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1Tim. 6:8) becomes “money is the root of all evil.”

More often, passages can leave their contexts and appear in surprising new places. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” which in the New Testament is followed up with its implication regarding the Kingdom of Satan, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matt. 12:25-26) instead is applied to one's beloved fatherland. The force of the cultural reading is so strong that the impulse is to fault Jesus for comparing the USA to the Kingdom of Satan, rather than blaming Abe for the reverse.

Similarly, Paul's declaration, “I have become all things to all people,” in 1Cor. 9:22 sounds to us like an admission of guilt rather than a proud statement of accomplishment. Somehow the English idiom “trying to be all things to all people” has come to indicate the futility—and perhaps even the disingenuousness—of adapting oneself to multiple, diverse groups of people.

But the context of Paul's statement couldn't be clearer:
1Cor. 9:19-23
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
“Becoming as… though not” seems to be a core pillar of Paul's gospel practice. And if it flies in the face of deeply-held beliefs we as Americans have about “being ourselves,” then my gut is that we just have to find a way to cope.

Not that this is easily done well. (Maybe this is why Paul next leaps into his tirade about “punishing” his body and “enslaving” it in order to run the gospel race with endurance.) Certainly, “becoming as… though not“ could describe some of the most offensive condescension perpetrated between people groups in our world. But, apparently, if done the right way…

Well, if done the right the way, we know something about what it would look like.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:9-11
Paul didn't invent this whole “becoming as… though not” thing. It's simply the closest imitation he could muster of God's own “becoming.” Paul's justification is ours as well: Jesus did it first.

So, as we witness this Christmastide the becoming of Christ's body here among us in the Elm City Vineyard, we should know that our own pursuit of the gospel and its blessings will lead us to further becoming—becoming like those unlike us, humbling ourselves to see the world through someone else's eyes.

And we have some advantages over Paul as we set our hands to this particular imitation of Christ. Whereas Paul, but one man, could never become all things, we, as a community, can. We can become who we once were not, as we seek humbly to embrace, love and serve those not like us, as we invite them to love and obey with us the One who came humbly to serve all—as our community expands, it will become what once it was not.

Which is not to say this is an easy task. There will be some “becoming as… though not yet”; and it may seem foolish or impossible or border-line fake.

But it will be beautiful, possible and authentic as it is pursued in our becoming ever more Christ-like, as we pursue the humility of the One who became a child, born in a lowly manger—God, not “becoming as…“ but actually becoming least of the least in order that He might save some, save us, so that He might draw us to Him, as like to like, even across chasms much wider than culture, class, or race.

But it took becoming. To show us who we are and who we ought to be. To show us the gospel that fundamentally convicts and fulfills our cultures, our very selves. It took becoming.

And it will take becoming again, as we become Christ's body incarnate here in our City. There will be “becoming as… though not yet” and “becoming by fits and starts…” and “trying to become…” all things to all people whom we are calling to revolutionary lives of action through Spirit-Empowered communities that love and obey the incarnate Christ.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Just leaving a comment, because, that ought to be the thing to do. Thanks for the interesting thoughts from Paul, Matt. I like, particularly the comparison of Paul's imperitive to that which was accomplished by God himself through the incarnation. As I think of applying that in our New Haven context today, the question to me is how are we to 'incarnate' Christ in this culture? Where will we do it, and how? It strikes me that the impetus is on the going out and being among others, of inviting others into our homes, or partnerning with non-profits and other communities... much more of this then simply having wonderful sunday gatherings and inviting people to "check us out." In the former lies the hard work..

Merry Christmas, all...