We have celebrated another Christmas. The Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel has been read and meditated upon in the churches of the land. Written in a pre-television era, they are filled with “word pictures” that embed themselves in our minds. The stories have become part of us who have grown up in our churches, and we are resistant to thinking about Jesus’ birth in any other way.

Theologians have written complex statements that try to explain these faith stories, and in some ways their explanations have become the curse of religion because groups argue about who has the right definition and divide over their differences. We should have learned that once we have defined God, what we have defined is not God.

Mark, the earliest of the Gospels emphasizes Jesus’ lifestyle in his attempt to bring the nature of God to earth. Jesus’ emphasis is love: love for God and love for thy neighbor.

Jesus extends this love to those whom society ignored: the sick, outcast, poor and victims of oppression. Jesus calls people to “follow” him. Jesus was killed by the oppressive powers who wanted to maintain the status quo.

This message of Jesus is largely forgotten because the later Gospels, Matthew, Luke and John, reflect a different reason for Jesus’ death.

They thought of Jesus as the messiah whose death reflected the Passover lamb of their Jewish religious heritage.

Jesus becomes God and his death becomes the “payment” for human sin, and those who believe in Jesus have assurance of eternal life in heaven when they die.

What a comforting message and so few requirements.

Christianity became a “personal salvation” issue, and the social action ministry of Jesus was largely forgotten.

I grew up in this tradition as have almost all Christians over the many centuries that have passed.

There have been many admirable consequences. Some individuals were motivated to follow Jesus’ outreach to the marginalized and worked for justice in society. Many became the moral citizens who created a stable society, but resisted reaching out to any outside of their own kind. Others continued the form of religion but seldom experience its essence. Some simply dropped out because they found no meaning in the language and theology of traditional Christianity.

Today we have large numbers of people who say they are spiritual but not religious. They are not interested in a “feel good religion that promises heaven.” They want to be involved in making the world a better place and are tired of a religion that often comes across as bigoted and judgmental rather than accepting others in love and advocating justice for all.

The church needs to reclaim the picture of Jesus from the earliest of the Gospels: Mark. Mark’s Jesus was not “God in human flesh,” but the human Jesus emptying himself to make space for the divine spirit of the universe to empower him to live the word, to incarnate — make into flesh — the love that is the essence of God. Jesus lived this love, and he calls us to follow him.

The miracle of Jesus is not his incarnation of the love of God, but that we are called to be the word incarnate — the ones who do not just proclaim God’s love, but who live God’s love. To be this we “need to get beyond our ego-centered lives.” When we have emptied ourselves, the life-giving energy that permeates all of creation, God, will fill us.

Then loving the world, its creatures and other humans will no longer be a chore but the consequences of being set free from the bondage of self and empowered to be the love of God — of being “love incarnate” — love expressed in human actions.

I have reached the point in my faith journey where what one believes is not really important. The measure of faith is how one lives.

Rev. Edgar Zelle is a retired ELCA pastor living in Waverly.

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