It is way too easy to decry the excessive materialism of the way our society celebrates Christmas. It is true that the genuine and historical story of Christmas is overwhelmed by cultural surges of marketing and gift-giving, of entertaining and indulgence, of sentimentality and the reality that we now live in a society of many religions. Rather than bemoan that America by and large ignores the “reason for the season” we would do better to quietly reflect on the real meaning of Christmas and the place it holds in our own hearts.
The truth is that Christians—like everyone else—can lose their grip on the awesome and life-giving substance of this season. That is because Christians very often become fuzzy about what the Gospel actually is. In truth, we don’t have a very firm grip on what Christmas means. We sorely need to regularly revisit the message of Jesus and his Gospel.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5). It’s good advice for all of us, to examine ourselves and see whether we are actually believing and living in the truth of the Gospel.
Every student of the New Testament knows Paul taught a great deal about love and humility and living a life of grace. Think of his words to these same Corinthians in his earlier letter to them (1:13:2), “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Knowing the truth is important, faith is vital, but love trumps all, it seems the great apostle was saying.
So it is important to pay particular attention when the Apostle of Love becomes contentious. When it came to properly understanding and stating what the Gospel is, Paul became fierce. In writing to some of the churches in the region of Galatia (modern day western Turkey) he made clear that living a life of love did not mean being muddled about what the genuine Christian faith is and what it is not. He recounted to them a confrontation he once had in Jerusalem.
Before he had gotten too far along in his public ministry, Paul went up to Jerusalem from Antioch in a fairly submissive and collegial spirit to confirm with the Jerusalem leaders that the Gospel he was preaching to the non-Jews was consistent with the Gospel preached by those who’d kept company with Jesus. They agreed that it was.
But then Paul added this piece of the story:
“Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Galatians 2:4-5)
Why did Paul take such a strong stand for the “truth of the gospel” as he put it? Why did he insist that the Gospel he preached—the Gospel he and the Jerusalem pillars agreed on—why did he fight so that that Gospel might be preserved for them, for you and for me?
Paul understood that the Gospel is life-giving. But when we change it, or others change it for us, it loses it’s effectiveness. It is no longer the Gospel. So, let me ask you a very important question: what do you say that Gospel is? What do you think of when we talk about the Gospel?
In that same first letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul spoke about the Gospel that he had taught them. He wrote,
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve”. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)
What do you see in this passage? Paul referred to the “gospel I preached to you” and I see six distinct pieces to it:
- Christ—the Jewish Messiah, the promised deliverer, the prophet of whom Moses spoke—died
- His death was for the sins of those who believed in him
- His death was according to what had been prophesied
- He was buried
- He was raised on the third day
- He appeared to his chosen followers.
How do these six assertions jive with your own understanding of the Gospel? Think them over. Examine your thinking to see if what you believe is consistent with the truth.
It’s important to think about the real Gospel, especially now at Christmas, because the sentimentality of the season can sometimes wash over us all with the notions of love and being with those we love and taking care of others—all good things. The risk is that we miss the central truth to this season.
The Baby of Bethlehem did not come as a composite of all that is good about us but rather as the ultimately unique person on a mission to remove all that is bad about us.
We need to consider the Gospel carefully, thoughtfully, repeatedly. When you look at the six elements of the Gospel above, you may think of other aspects of the Gospel. We’ll look at some of them in the next four posts. As with God, so with his Gospel: there is more. So let us examine our thinking, because the hopeful result of Christmas is this: “Jesus Christ in you.”
Happy Christmas to you and to all of us.