Monday, December 26, 2011

First Blood

Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas 1

The white joy of Christmas turns blood red on the First Day after Christmas as the Christian movement remembers its first martyr, Stephen the Deacon. His death at the hands of an enraged mob marks the beginning of wrestling match between the movement Jesus inaugurated with the harsh realities of history—the first, that is, since the Master’s similar death.

The brash young man—surely he was young, being so impetuous—had been chosen to handle the distribution of food among elderly, widowed women in the burgeoning Jerusalem commune created by the people of the Way of Jesus while the men of the commune’s Council—the Twelve—took care of presenting the Message.

But Stephen just couldn’t stick to his assignment and began to debate critics of the movement. One thing led to another and he found himself “speaking truth to power” in a way sure to offend — and was summarily slaughtered by a enraged mob of Judeans not happy to be dubbed, along with their ancestors, the enemies of God’s purposes.

The first blood of the movement had been shed—after the blood of the Instigator. The first blood was followed by more as “a great persecution arose” against the Commune, leading to its dispersal to smaller towns in Judea, Samaria, Galilee and beyond.

Jesus: Movement Initiator

It’s fashionable in many liberal circles to say that Jesus didn’t start a church; but one of the things I think we can be quite certain of historically is that he instigated a movement.

The Jesus movement (according to its own records) was organized enough after his death to receive thousands of new members into its charitable programs. Organized, as in ruling council, codes of conduct, ceremonial meals, financial folks, the whole ball of wax—apparently like other Second Temple era anti-establishment movements, like the Community of the Scrolls at Qumran.

It might be nice to dis-identify Jesus with his movement; indeed, it is one of the most popular themes of some liberal religious scholarship and fantasy—a Jesus free from all that the movement, a.k.a. “the church,” has become in history. Some Christians scholars are have alleged that even the Gospels don’t represent Jesus, but are full of the mis-impressions of his followers and their converts. The “real” Jesus was so much better than that terrible movement, it would seem.

A bit too convenient, this fashion; for it allows the whole idea of Jesus to float in some non-historical hyperspace, vulnerable to fashioning in the image of the beholder. As unromantic as it may seem, the institutionalization of the message of Jesus is actually part and parcel of what Christians call “incarnation” — for institutions are the bodies that ideas wear in history. The message of Jesus had to become institutionally incarnate, or it would just be a set of glittering ideals.

The Challenge of Historical Incarnation

The difficulty the Christian movement has had living into the full implications of what he said simply shows how hard it is for souped-up primates like us to see any further than our own immediate interests. The “failures of the churches” are an inevitable part of any movement that hopes to have an influence on history. Movements always need reforming, refreshing, restoring to a rooting in their original goals. Or else they’re not worth living for.

Or dying for, as so many thousands have through the centuries. The early community Stephen served had its own flaws, and would develop many more. But Stephen had been captivated by the message—Jesus’ vision of what human community could be—and for it he risked his life. In so doing he demonstrated that the lovely birth we celebrate had real-life consequences for Jesus and anyone willing to sign on to his own crazy, daring hope: that humanity might actually turn back from its foolish ways and choose love over hate, peace over war, and justice over oppression. The sort of thing that might just save us from bringing the whole planetary house down around us.

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