Originally posted at my ForeWords blog

We’ve made it to Christmas and out the other side once again. We’ve heard the familiar stories from the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. They are balanced by equally familiar words from the Hebrew prophets, in particular from the Book of Isaiah. But there is another “Christmas story,” one not nearly as well known. Some might not even recognize it as such. It’s only a few verses long, slipped in to a longer narrative from Paul’s Galatian letter:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. –Galatians 4:4-7 NRSV

Perhaps the obvious first question might well be: Why would Paul offer such a stripped-down, bare-bones story of the coming of Jesus Christ? No angels or shepherds, no star in the East guiding wise men, no decree from Caesar or evil King Herod, no Bethlehem manger scene. Nada, rien, nothing. It would make for a very short children’s pageant at church, to say the least!

But the truth is that all that other, familiar stuff–what we tend to think Christmas is all about–is the product of the Gospel accounts. The general opinion of reputable scholars is that the Gospel writers we know as Matthew and Luke didn’t write their stories until somewhere around the years 80-85. Galatians, on the other hand, was Paul’s first letter and most likely was written by the year 50. And so if you want to get technical about it, it’s not that Paul offers a stripped-down version; Matthew and Luke give us highly embellished versions.

Keep in mind that the Gospels are not objective, eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. Their purpose is to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and to persuade people to come and follow the way of Jesus. Each in his own way, the four Gospel writers probably drew on existing oral accounts that had developed in the decades since Jesus’ death and resurrection. They matched those stories with references to Old Testament events, personalities, metaphors, and narratives. Some scholars have gone so far as to say the outline of the story of Jesus’ life was created as a parallel to the annual Jewish observance of festivals.

It appears that Paul didn’t care about much, or maybe even any, of that. His purpose was to explain why God sent Christ and what it all means for both the Jews and the rapid advance of the followers of Jesus into the gentile world. Paul was definitely a “big picture” kind of guy. That’s a major reason why I’ve personally been drawn to his writing for a long time.

From our 21st-century perspective, Paul’s core question appears backwards: How is it possible for the gentiles to be “saved,” to be brought into the family of God alongside the Jews? Far too many Christians today focus on the opposite question: How can the Jews be “saved” unless they accept Jesus and thereby become Christians? Paul’s solution for the first-century question was to explain that gentiles could be adopted in to the “family,” because they can be considered equal heirs with the Jews of the promises made to Abraham a very long time ago. And it’s in the middle of that extended argument to the Galatians where Paul slips in his “Christmas story.” Jesus, you see, is the true spiritual heir of Abraham and anyone who is “in Christ” is therefore a joint heir of those promises. It’s all about faithfulness!

It was in this way that Paul tied the old and new “covenants” together because of Jesus Christ. The latter did not replace the former; they must be understood in tandem. Paul had little interest in getting souls into heaven. Rather, he sought to build up the Spirit-led community of believers faithfully engaged in the mission of Christ.

The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) contains three major themes: [1] Exodus (liberation), [2] Exile (restoration), and (3) the Temple (forgiveness and atonement, which for ancient Israel came as a result of ritual sacrifices). Likewise, the ministry of Jesus Christ contains those same three themes, but now expressed in new, more expansive ways. Somehow over the ensuing centuries, however, much of Christianity has downplayed the first two and emphasized the third, sometimes to the complete exclusion of the others. For them it’s all about “saving souls” and getting them into heaven.

There has been renewed interest within Christianity for the past century, especially in recent decades, on liberation and restoration. This can be understood in both personal terms as well as larger, societal ways.

My own denomination, the Community of Christ, has engaged in this transformation, often at a great cost. Many members have chosen to either reduce their involvement or even withdraw as the church engages in ministries of liberation and restoration, justice and peace.

I continue to believe the Holy Spirit has led the church into far-flung, non-Western cultures and nations. At the same time the CofC has been reexamining its understanding of the roles, value, and ministry of women and the LGBTQ community, as well as the ongoing struggle against injustice while pursuing peace. Those processes are not finished by any means, and they may never be as we continue to follow the Spirit in the way of Jesus Christ.

Some questions to consider:

  • Have you ever connected Paul with the birth narrative of Jesus?
  • Why would his “birth narrative” matter to him or to us?
  • What does it mean to you to be “adopted” into the family of God?
  • When does the cost of transformation become too great?