There are plenty of christians these days who prefer not to refer to themselves as ‘christian’. Perhaps you are one of them.
The whole matter is complicated because it has become a catch-all description for a variety of political, ethnic, and doctrinal ideologies. ‘Christian’ has been cheapened by extremists in much the same way that ‘evangelical’ has been sullied recently.
For the record, Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and their family trees are all christian. There are liberal and conservative christians. You can find Seventh Day Adventist and Methodist christians, Jewish and Palestinian christians, church attending christians and those who don’t. John Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were raised as christians; same for Pope Francis, Franklin Graham, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Joe Biden, and some of our neighbours. Yep, all christians.
So what was this messy word meant to express in the first place? Well that is quite interesting, actually.
Jesus started it
It started with Jesus, obviously. He was born in circumstances that would eventually inaugurate this whole romanticized Christmas season you’re in the middle of right now.
His followers were average Jewish women and men who became convinced that Jesus was … well, the Son of God. These people claimed that he was the anointed one (Christ) and they were noticeably unified in practicing their new beliefs (ians). They further believed this man-god had overcome death and initiated a new way of being for each and every person.¹
Jesus-people in the ancient city of Antioch were the first ones to be called ‘christian’.² Antioch was an equivalent to a city like Toronto, here in Canada. It was a large economic and governmental hub with a highly diversified population. When I say ‘diversified’ I mean it had a large Jewish population but was primarily populated by non-Jews originating from Greece as well as from all around the Mediterranean, Europe, and as far away as India.
The first christians in this city lived by an unheard of ideology: they were known for their countercultural practice of inviting anyone to join with them.³ Their radical lifestyle meant loving and caring for anyone, regardless of race, sex, economics, or health.
a good word
You see, the term ‘christian’ was not originally a black eye or insult, but a description. It came from the city’s citizens who observed that Jesus’ followers had unconditional love and concern for everybody.
Do you remember Jesus explaining how nothing is more important than loving God and neighbour? Or Jesus tortured and dying on a cross with love and forgiveness on his lips? How about St. Paul’s poetic chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 about how anything (even if it is good) is empty without love. Anything.
Actually, St. Paul had been a bigoted person before he met Jesus. Paul grew to believe in something much more significant than just tolerance, however – he came to believe that all people were to be loved equally. He expressed it with a bold statement: “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.” (Gal. 5:6)
That’s big. Especially for a do-gooder. The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love. Think about the simplicity and the expansiveness of that statement.
Paul is simply re-wording the principle taught previously by Jesus – living in love. Love is what we are invited into and loving is what we are meant to do.
is that me?
Love is the traditional theme for the third Sunday of Advent.
Can I just say this flat out? Of all people groups on our planet it is Christ-ians who should be ahead of everybody else on this whole love thing. The fact that Christianity was born to receive and express love makes our lovelessness all the more egregious.
Truth be told, the entire Bible is full of love. I know, I know … there is plenty of judgement and gore but let me challenge you to read it differently with a focus on patience, grace, love.
Is this the guiding principle among the christians who influence us? Is it yours? Does love rise above everything else – beliefs, nationality, colour, opinion, politics?
“If we love others, we live in the light, and so there is nothing in us that will cause someone else to sin. But if we hate others, we are in the darkness; we walk in it and do not know where we are going, because the darkness has made us blind.” – John the Evangelist (GNB)
i love you
There are at least three notable ways to tell someone you love them.
The first way is casual bonding – a generic “Way to go! I love ya, man!” with a teammate or co-worker.
The second is a relational bonding – what we might say when we head out the door in the morning: “Love you“.
The third is a personal bonding – a bride and groom at an altar, a mother to her child: “I love you.”
Maybe it’s just me but each of those feels progressively more meaningful. The first is emotional goodwill, the second is mindful affection, but “I love you” is personal, unconditional, and rooted deeply in our hearts.
It’s true, you know – all Jesus ever wanted was our hearts. Not in a ‘world’s-biggest-religion’ kind of way, but in an ‘every- person-is-a-gift’ kind of way.
That is the true meaning of Christmas.
And the true meaning of Christian.
~ ~ ~
¹ They believed that Jesus taught and demonstrated a new way of living through love, peace, compassion. His disciples weren’t somewhat convinced of the importance of these things … they were a lot convinced. So convinced that nearly all of them were killed in creative ways just for continuing to talk about it.
² Acts 11:26
³ This comes to light in Pauls’ letter to the Galatians (2) where he writes about confronting visitors who visited the Antioch house church. Paul challenged these Jewish christians when they resisted worshipping with Gentile christians. He gets more specific in chapter 3 where he says there is no distinction between Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. Paul’s theology has been a cornerstone for freedom and equality movements through history.
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