In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, I was invited by a new American Muslim friend and Founding Director of Celebrate Mercy, Tarek El-Messidi, to join him and nine prominent Muslim voices on a webinar that focused on the legacies of Mohammed & Jesus. I had met Tarek and his wife at the White House days before where we quickly forged a friendship and began conspiring effective ways to guide our traditions toward the embodiment of our common teaching of neighbor-love.
I was honored by the invitation to talk about the Jesus I follow with a global Muslim audience, and, in light of surging religious tribalism and dangerously divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric, I accepted and began to prepare the most unique Christmas Eve message of my life.
Here’s what I said that day:
I want to begin my remarks by expressing to you, Tarek, my fellow presenters, and to those of you viewing this webinar from all around the world how honored I am to be a part of this moment. If ever there was a time that we learn from rather than about one another, it is now. I ask God to bless us all as we learn together.
Let me reflect for a few moments on the Jesus that we all revere and who I follow as a Christian.
To do so, I want to start at the beginning of our Story where we discover a God who isn’t aloof, distant, and disengaged but is present, active, immersed, and compassionately engaged. In Genesis 2:10, after speaking existence into being, we find God entering the created order, forming humanity out of dirt, and exhaling God’s breath into the human shape. That intimate moment brought humanity to life and initiated a human & divine dance that lasted a very short time.
Just a few verses later, humanity shattered all that was beautiful and good by making God tragic, authoring their own fantasy, and chasing it. The moment they did, everything good was undone and God, the Peace Creator, became the Great Peacemaker. Here’s what that looked like: rather than ending the Story, God saw and then immersed into the radical center of our brokenness and then contended for our flourishing at the price of blood.
Shortly thereafter, in Genesis 15, God made a blood covenant with Father Abraham in which God walked through blood twice, unilaterally signing the promise. In so doing, God communicated to humanity that if He didn’t hold up to his end of the deal, God would die. His journey through blood twice also meant that if humanity didn’t hold up to our end of the deal, God would die.
Mind you, the only way God could die is if God became human.
Father Abraham’s family began an immigrants’ journey that took them from Ur to Canaan, Canaan to Egypt, Egypt to the Wilderness, and the Wilderness to Canaan which was renamed Israel. Because the Israelites rejected their vocation as image bearers of God their journey continued from Israel to Babylon as exiles. It was from within exile that the people cried out to God to make good on His blood-promise to Father Abraham. Within exile, the present, compassionate, and fully engaged God spoke to the people through the prophets: “The One who will wage a decisive, restorative peace is coming.”
A Great Silence followed, after which God spoke again to a people who were once slaves, immigrants and exiles, and were now occupied by the Roman Empire. This time, when God spoke, He did so unto an impoverished teenage couple:
The time has come. I’m making good on My blood-promise to Father Abraham. Once again, I’m immersing into the radical center of your broken story. Only this time, I’m doing so in the most unlikely of ways: within the humble, fully dependent human flesh of a baby.
This moment in the Christian tradition doesn’t suggest that God spawned a child. Rather, we believe that God who Created entered creation encased in skin, bones, organs, and veins. For the first time…ever…God could bleed so that we could be restored.
At last, we get to Jesus. While the Gospels focus primarily on the ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we do get a couple of glimpses of His early formation. In Luke 2:40-52 we discover Jesus as a young, curious student sitting among the influencers, listening, and shocking them with his questions. He was filled with wisdom and God’s favor rested on Him.
Eighteen years later, at the age of 30, we watch the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry through the ritual of baptism. In John 1:29-32, John the Baptist identified Jesus on the overcrowded shores of the Jordan River, pointed at Him, and exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God! This is the one who will take away the sins of the world.” John the Baptist observed the exhale of God descending on Jesus, while Matthew tells of the audible voice of God saying, “This is my Son whom I love. With Him I am well pleased.”
Now keep in mind…this affirmation occurred before Jesus had really done anything. Here, we discover a God who loves, not because we deserve it or have earned it, but because He wants to.
I could spend the next several hours reflecting on the core passages that inform the Jesus that I follow. Being that I only have a few moments, let me share six teachings that Jesus not only offered, but went on to embody.
Matthew 5:9 :: In the beginning of Jesus’ magnum opus we call the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Rather than referring to those who are soft, docile, inoffensive defenders of the status quo, Jesus identified sons & daughters of God as those who spend their lives on the flourishing of family, friends, neighbors…even “enemies.”
Matthew 5:38-42 :: Jesus continued his teaching by saying, “When power is abused and you’re the victim, don’t get even…get creative in love.” In so doing, He asserted that active, creative, sacrificial, non-violent direct action is the only thing that can change an enemy to a friend/family.
Matthew 5:43-44 :: Then, Jesus pushed far beyond the ethical standard of neighbor-love by exhorting his followers to “love your enemy.” The love that he referred to was not emotional affection, but self-sacrificial. Here, Jesus went far beyond teaching…He loved us all, an enemy people, by laying down His life on our behalf.
John 10:30-33 :: In this passage, Jesus offered one of the most bizarre, yet clarifying, statements of his life: “I and My Father are one.” Here, Jesus simultaneously communicated several truths:
Do you want to know what God is like? Watch Me live with unprecedented hospitality, unthinkable grace, & sacrificial generosity.
Do you want to know what God thinks about? Listen to Me teach.
Do you want to know who God is for? Watch Me move toward all of humanity…the powerful, the powerless, the “enemy” and the “other” with restoration, compassion, grace, & mercy.
Do you want to know what God thinks about power? Watch Me continuously place myself below & beneath.
Do you want to know what God thinks about possessions? Watch Me walk a downwardly-mobile, simple journey.
Do you want to know what God thinks about status & reputation? Watch Me choose all of the wrong kinds of people as followers, restore the sick to health & the dead to life, openly critique the unjust Roman & Jewish power structures of the day, and consistently move away from the applause of the crowds.
Do you want to know what God thinks about you? Watch Me die and then rise again so that you can be forgiven, restored, redeemed, and liberated. When you watch Me suffer, die, and then rise again, you will discover a God who can’t imagine living without you. You’ll discover a God who says, “You are worth my Son.”
And then there’s Matthew 4 where Jesus offered the relational, yet dangerous invitation to follow Him. Rather than Jesus inviting them into a cognitive process, He offered his followers the opportunity to learn to embody His teachings and, ultimately, to become men and women who lived, loved, and led like Him.
Finally, I’ll pair the invitation of Matthew 4 with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 16:24-25 on the “How?” of followership:
Deny yourself; breathe in the exhale of God; and live a cross-shaped life. That is, in the power of the Spirit and in the Way of the Jesus, lay down your lives so that others might be rescued, redeemed, restored, forgiven, and liberated.
You’ll note that the Jesus I speak of does not put on display an angry, violent, revenge-oriented genocidal God. Rather, the Jesus that I revealed today puts on display an enemy-loving, self-sacrificial God.
The very best of Christianity, therefore, is a Jesus-looking people joining an enemy-loving God in restoring what’s broken in our world.
The very best of Christianity looks like a people oriented around Jesus who are humble, creative, collaborative, and sacrificially generous. They are a merciful and compassionate people who listen longer than feels comfortable and humbly move toward the marginalized and the misunderstood. The best of Christianity looks like a cross-shaped people leveraging whatever power and privilege they have to usher in the restoration of broken relationships (God, self, others, world). They are a people who actively and sacrificially move beyond neighbor-love to enemy love.
The last thing I’ll say is this: atrocities throughout time have occurred under the banner of “Christianity.” Those atrocities were not and are not fueled by the Jesus I just revealed. Any violence done under the banner of Christianity has been fueled by an inauthentic Jesus conveniently constructed by violent, powerful people. I’m devastated by this and, to those of you who have experienced violence at the hands of Christians, I humbly beg your forgiveness.
At the White House, Tarek asked me this poignant question: “What is one thing that you want to see renovated within American Evangelical Christianity?”
“Lots of things!” I replied with a sheepish grin, “but I’d start with our understanding of Jesus.”
Jesus is what an enemy loving God is like.
You honor me today by allowing me to speak of Him. His peace be upon you, my friends.