The first Christian assembly?

by
19 December 2014

Perhaps Christmas, not Pentecost, is the sign of the birth of the Church, says James Jones

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The Adoration of the Shepherds  Giacomo Cavedoni

The Adoration of the Shepherds  Giacomo Cavedoni

"THIS will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger."

An infant wrapped in baby clothes was hardly a distinctive sign. You would have thought that any newborn child would have been wrapped up well after leaving the warmth of the womb. A baby clad in bands of cloth would have been of little help to the shepherds in their search through the streets of Bethlehem for this special child.

The mark of distinction was not the infant's clothing, but, rather, the cot in which he lay. A trough. A manger for feeding livestock. A risky place to put a baby with animals about.

Such a sign would have caught the attention of shepherds. They knew only too well that nature was "red in tooth and claw". That is why they spent cold nights on the hills, to protect their sheep from wolves savagely descending upon their folds.

A newborn baby lying safely in a manger suggested that his promised uniqueness heralded a new world, in which there would be a very different relationship between all God's creatures.

The shepherds might have known that picture of the new world from the prophet Isaiah, where "the wolf shall lie down with the lamb." Rogues though many of them were, they would have warmed to a vision that took much of the danger out of their work.

The new world that was coming, Isaiah said, would have a child in the lead, and see a radically new relationship between the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, the nursing child and the adder.

This child in a manger, in an animal's feeding trough, in all its unusualness, spoke of harmony between all God's creatures. It was nothing less than a sign of the coming Kingdom. This clue was given to shepherds who knew first-hand the wildness of nature.

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In other ways, they were a surprising choice for this message. They were disreputable characters, forbidden to act as witnesses in court. It may be why Jesus never called himself "the shepherd". He always qualified it. He styled himself "The Good Shepherd", as if it could not be taken for granted that a shepherd was always good. 

IT IS one of the reasons that I have always been sceptical of the view that the birth narratives have no basis in history. Why would you make it up, or include it, if, as St Luke was doing, you were trying to convince others of the veracity of your accounts of Jesus's life? Shepherds had no gravitas, or authority, to lend to the gospel to persuade others.

Not only were these outsiders the early witnesses of the Good News: they, together with Mary, Joseph, and the Wise Men, gave expression to the first Christian assembly.

The manger was the first altar to bear the body of Christ, and Mary was the first person to minister to the body of Christ. The Wise Men, shepherds, Joseph, and Mary were the first to hear, and give voice to the worship of Christ. So perhaps it was Christmas rather than Pentecost that made the beginnings of the Christian Church. The birth of Christ giving birth to the Church.

This fragile congregation was missionary from the start. Mary treasured all that she had experienced for future disclosure.

 

The Wise Men bore witness to Herod, but, with dove-like innocence, cloaked in serpentine wisdom, they soon learnt not to cast their pearls before swine, and gave him a wide berth on their return from the manger.

The shepherds went on their way with a contagion of enthusiasm.

But no sooner had this first celebration of Christmas lost its starlit wonder than this infant Church began to learn the paradox of the life of a faith centred on Christ.

The nativity is a story of intervention. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Wise Men all experienced it differently. God invaded their worlds. This microcosm of humanity found the course of their lives altered for ever, a symbol of God's predictable commitment to his creation, and of his unpredictable moments of intervention.

THE question that might have bothered them, and that lingers today, is why God intervened to save the world, but stood back from staying the hand of Herod's murderous soldiers as they took the sword to innocent children. This is the question that people of Christian faith have wrestled with constantly.

Faith is like a piece of string that disappears up into the clouds and tugs occasionally. There are times of spiritual intimacy when, through silence or sacrament, through nature or fellowship, we sense the presence of God. Then there can follow long periods of alienation, when spiritual intimacy gives way to distance, doubt, and even despair, not least when cries for God to intervene go unheeded.

There is new despair in the air at what is unfolding in the Middle East, once such a theatre of God's intervention. The place where the Church was born is rapidly becoming the graveyard of Christianity. We look on as helpless as the mothers of the Innocents. As Islamic State holds a knife to the throats of humanitarian workers, and rapes and slaughters Christians, people have pleaded and prayed, but to no avail.

But this is not a new scenario in the history of Christianity. One of the first to put Christians to the sword was Saul. In case we skate over the brutality of his aggression, we should remember that his acts were as violent and as merciless as those of the Islamic State.

After his conversion to Christ, and years later, at the end of a letter he wrote to Christians in Rome, Paul gave a clue to his change of heart. He wrote of two relatives "who were in Christ before I was". Presumably Junias and Andronicus, when they saw their cousin murdering their Christian brothers and sisters, sought to love him and pray for him. It is what our Lord told us to do to terrorists. 

PERHAPS it is too uncomfortable a thought for Christmas, but a universal campaign to pray for Jihadi John and his comrades, that love would conquer their hearts, would be in the spirit of the Early Church. It is the only intervention I can think of which would obviate escalation. Such an intervention would be consonant with the example of Paul, who did more than any other to establish the Church in the Mediterranean world.

Those angels who sent shepherds searching for a sign sang them on their way, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace".

This was the theme that the Christ-child would one day take up, and make the centrepiece of his universal prayer: "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." It is a petition for the earthing of heaven: a new world, where the relationships between all God's creatures will be transformed towards peace in the reunification of earth and heaven.

In Bethlehem, "The House of Bread", the first Church turned a feeding stall into an altar, on which was laid the body of Christ. It was a sign for their times, and for ours. In our Christmas eucharist, we feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

 The Rt Revd James Jones was formerly the Bishop of Liverpool, and now advises the Home Secretary on Hillsborough, and Waitrose on corporate social responsibility.

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