Ever wonder what the first Christian communities were really like? All love and peace and harmony, right? And especially when Jesus was there, we can easily slip into this vision of a wonderful party, with shades of Jesus Christ Superstar, of a bunch of nice men basking in the glow of Jesus, who like those old paintings I remember from Sunday School, shone even in the middle of the night, he was so holy.
Sweet, wonderful glow in the dark Jesus, going around and healing people, hugging children, and being helpful and forgiving to everyone he met. Acting like a shepherd, getting his portrait painted with baby lambs in his arms and gazing thoughtfully up into the sky.
Well, if that’s our picture of Jesus and his followers, how do we deal with the scriptures today? The book of James describes would-be Christians as greedy assassins. Listen again, “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” James was supposed to be the brother of Jesus, and the leader of the people of Jerusalem. So here we have a vision of a rather drastic Church community that James is trying to lead.
Mark’s gospel is not much better. The disciples are so wrapped up in their own fighting that they are ashamed and embarrassed when Jesus asks them what they were talking about. They don’t want to admit that they don’t understand what he’s teaching. “I’m the greatest!” “No, I am!” the argument goes on and on until Jesus challenges them. Just like two kids yelling at each other in the basement when Mom or Dad asks, “What’s going on down there?”
If we look for advice about being community, being church in a challenging time, Jesus and James have the same message. Keep your big picture in mind. Don’t go hitting each other below the belt in unfair fights. Don’t get greedy or violent or selfish or manipulative.
That’s easier said than done. It’s much more fun to be the victim, resenting how so and so treated me, or the way that I’m going to treat that jerk who’s been attacking me and deserves to suffer. Revenge is a dish that’s best served up cold, and get them before they get me, right?
Neither Jesus nor James agree. They don’t think much of the quarrels, complaints, whining, grumbling and competitive jostling for power and status among God’s followers. In short, don’t act like some politicians who use fear and attack ads to tear down other people. Don’t go below the belt, don’t act aggressively. Don’t grasp after possessions or power. Be more like children.
I don’t know about you, but children have been on my mind a lot recently. First it was the photograph of Alan Kurdi drowned on a beach after leaving Syria, then it was the horrific story of Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette in Blairmore. And just yesterday more Syrian children drowned trying to cross to safety. So when I hear children in the gospel, that’s what I imagine, a child like Alan or Hailey in the centre of a circle of quarrelsome men.
Put a small child in the middle of a bunch of adults, and watch the little ones play, be curious, ask for rides on shoulders, and have very little in the way of power and authority. A two year old is not going to run for Prime Minister, for example. And some of you might remember that children were seen in the ancient world as having no status except as a possession of their fathers’, and in some cultures, as disposable as the fathers saw fit.
Children are vulnerable. They can’t feed themselves when they are very little, they need someone to cook for them and provide for them. They have to ask for help to even survive. They have no power over where they live, or what conditions they live in. But they do have the ability to ask. Even a newborn will cry when it’s hungry in a bid to get help.
Here’s where I think James and Jesus both challenge us to ask ourselves what is really important. What do we want our children to feel: welcomed, accepted, loved, vindicated, forgiven, liberated, and hopeful? If the disciples had thought about what they had wanted in a different way, maybe instead they could have said, “we’d like have a better future for our children, we’d like to have more fair play and fair employment for ourselves and our neighbors, we’d like to feel that we weren’t alone in the struggles of an unfair government system, and we’d like to live free from oppression and the threat of violence.
To me it sounds like they are both trying to lead us to simplify what our purpose is in our lives. To not get all caught up in the daily grind until we lose hope and dignity and kindness, but to remember to connect our lives to a higher purpose, a higher dream, a loftier hope. A dream that never dies but keeps on showing us the way to a life where we can know real peace and belonging, gentleness and all of that with true integrity and trustworthiness in the service of something much bigger than ourselves, that will leave behind a legacy we can be proud of. We can follow in the footsteps of James and the other quarrelsome disciples who found themselves profoundly transformed into a community that healed and encouraged, practised generosity and transparency for the greater good of all no matter what your age. For the vision of God’s beautiful, kind and peaceful community lived among us every day. May we too work for such a vision of God’s kingdom among us.