On Being Friends with Jesus

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“Slain in the Spirit”

I came to know Jesus when I was 16 years old. I was swallowed up by a revelation that sticks me with today: Jesus is God. Before that, religion was forms, it was duty. But then, it became a relationship, a person, a new kind of existence.

When I look to Jesus, I look to God. In this human, I can know God. It was through Jesus that I realized that I could be friends with God.

Newly saved, I would be anxious to get home from school, wanting alone time with God. I would read the Bible for hours, wrestling with the text and demanding wisdom, clarification, answers from God, and sometimes I’d be led to something, and other times not. No matter what, I was just happy to be in God’s presence.

I’d sing to God, dance with God. I’d have fits of laughter that would go late into the night. My mom would come into my room to scold me, thinking I was on my laptop screwing around on YouTube. She’d find me sprawled out, being tickled by the Holy Spirit. Her son, a Pentecostal. Relieved, I’m sure, that I wasn’t on the computer, but mostly confused. She didn’t know what to do with me.

The cheesiest pop songs on the radio – God, even Coldplay – began to mean to something to me. That’s how I felt about God. I longed for God. She was beautiful. I couldn’t get her off of my mind. I loved how she wrapped herself around all humanity, all creation. I love how she made her home in me. She was Love itself. And I was in love. I still am.

All that to say, I love Jesus. God is my friend.

As I’ve come to know Jesus, I’ve come to the humanity of God. The God I met in Christ is the marriage of humanity and divinity. “Fully God” looks like “fully human.”

The life of Jesus is the life of God. And his life wrecks all hierarchies. It dethrones all kings. Even Jesus was dethroned. With a crown of thorns, he took up a cross instead. And he calls us to do the same.

This is what it means to be godly: it is surrender to empathy wherever she leads you. It requires a certain weakness, a humanness, a vulnerability, that makes one take up the pain of others, to join their struggle and lean into solidarity,  fearlessly and shamelessly yielding to the movement of liberation.

By the looks of it, being God is being an accomplice, a comrade in the struggle. If the livelihood and very existence of the oppressed is practically illegal, then we are called to become accomplices. We are called to an existence that rejects and actively combats the false authorities that are imprisoning and murdering God’s image-bearers. Going as far as literally “setting prisoners free.”

Allies are not accomplices. Allies are disconnected from empathy, valuing appearances and gestures over action. Knowing the direction of where justice is calling us to, but limiting their surrender to it. They create no tangible or material change but rhetorically affirm their righteousness. They will not join the struggle of the oppressed but will instead dialogue with the oppressor, believing that they can convince others to be reasonable, compassionate, and perhaps, repentant. Meanwhile, people die.

Their desire for everybody, most importantly the oppressor, to be comfortable is more necessary than the liberation of those suffering. They’re proud to be more progressive and enlightened than others. They believe they see beyond the emotional cloudiness of the oppressed and the ignorant bias of the oppressor. And that they can be friends with both.

But they can’t. When you become a friend of Jesus, you discover he has very real friends, and very real enemies. Ultimately, Christ’s war is against systems and not people, but there are people who enjoy and push forward these systems, and they need to be restrained. These people are not your friends.

When you become a friend of Jesus, you join the struggle of his friends. And his friends are those that bear the Image of God most fully – the oppressed.

In some sense, there is still a hierarchy. We are called to lift up those who have been crushed, to amplify the voices of those pushed out and rejected. They are God’s priority and this is their gospel. In their suffering and denial of power, they know the heart of God. By being willing to do whatever it takes to honor their Incarnation, you become a Christian.

Honoring their Incarnation may call a disciple of Christ to what some may call violent action. We cannot simply dismiss all physical harm done to others for the sake of revolutionary and liberatory purposes as violent, when the ways we are trying to transform society are not working, and people are dying as a result of that.

If your pacifism is merely an ideological value and not a threat to the state and these systems we are called to wage war against, then your pacifism sides with the violence of the state.

The threat of the Alt-Right and the growing number of organized and armed fascists and ultra-nationalists, is a reality the Church is facing and will continue to. Violent political upheaval didn’t climax in Charlottesville, it was simply inaugurated on a larger scale. The original sin of the United States, white supremacy, has become more blatant and spelled out, and as capitalism collapses on society, things in this regard will only get worse.

Such purist perspectives on violence are idolatry. The idea that God is above us and that their instruction is more important than the well-being and lives of God’s children is cruel. This piety is demonic. Any theology that values God above people is false. From experience I can say that as I’ve fallen more in love with God, I’ve fallen more in love with God’s children. Our loyalty to God is found in our loyalty to the suffering. If our loyalty to God leads us to betray or forsake the suffering, then we are deceived idolaters.

Allyship is not enough. The kin-dom of God is not a matter of talk, but power. When God’s love manifests, it turns power upside down. It destroys and creates. It tears down and lifts up. It’s shocking. It makes people angry, scared even. It’s prophetic.

Of course, allies will name the marginalized in their lives as prophets. That is, until they prophesy to them, or their community. When their allyship is attacked, they will shut down these prophets with condescension, with eyes signaling that they’re understanding but words that are really just a drawn out, polite hush. They say, isn’t that a little harsh? Isn’t that taking it a little too far?

Friends of Jesus are accomplices and realize that loving their neighbor looks like something. It looks like solidarity, it looks like mutual aid, it looks like reparations, and, frankly, it looks like revolution. They realize that sometimes loving their neighbor looks like keeping their neighbor from oppressing others. They realize that love for others can put their reputations and lives at risk. They realize that the systems that dictate our lives cannot be reformed or transformed, but need to be abolished. And they act on it. They live it.

God’s kin-dom demands more than allyship – it demands revolutionaries. To be a friend of Jesus is to know him not as a great leader or mighty king, but as a comrade. To be his friend requires becoming an accomplice to the oppressed, to join their struggle. As he was an outlaw for the sake of the oppressed, so will be his followers. He will walk with us, hand in hand, to tear down Empire, and to welcome our kin-dom. It’s in our midst, he says. We just need to be willing to let love unravel in our lives. It’s a daunting task. The systems of the world are built against you, and they will fight you from all sides. Do not fear, though, for he is with us, to the end of the age. Love is on our side.

Jesus, a Failed Revolutionary

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

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Many who followed Jesus hoped for a revolutionary, a leader who might liberate Israel from its imperial oppressor. Christ could have been the answer.

But he died.

And I wonder, if Jesus wanted an insurrection, then why did he die on the cross? Why didn’t he accomplish a revolution?

I’ve been sitting on this question, waiting and thinking. In the meantime, my apocalyptic theology has grown more and more anarchist. I’ve been impatient and angry. But my sense is that this isn’t the way of Christ.

God in Christ reveals what it means to be human. It is love – to live in communion with God and with your fellow children of God. It is to be surrendered to God’s liberating love, embracing the way we are all connected and bound to one another, and following the riskiest and most beautiful implications of this connection, even unto death.

Jesus embodied the truest, fullest way to be human.

And the cross reveals the cost. It reveals that this liberation work, creating a new society marked not by hierarchy but instead by equality and mutual yielding, might cost something. And it is worth it. It must be worth it. People are worth it.

I think the problem is that following God makes us feel like failures. We work and we work and we work, but we do not see the authorities and systems we fight come crashing down. We die fighting for revolution, contending for Heaven to be realized on Earth.

Living into God’s kingdom takes the same commitment that Jesus had, one where laying down your life for your friends is not just the greatest way to show love, it’s also the only way to undo imperial oppressors.

Jesus modeled the life of a true revolutionary, absolutely committed to the way and politics of heaven, even to the point of arrest, torture, and death – even to the point of failure. Living into Christ’s revolution means that failure is both possible and probable. But if resurrection is Christ’s insurrection, then failure might also be the only way to win.

There’s another lesson here: the destruction of the systems and authorities on this earth and the realization of God’s kingdom cannot be accomplished by one person. Christ’s ministry wasn’t a one-man show. It can only be realized through his people, through his body. Through us.

Jesus revealed to us that we need to actively live into another Way. We heal one another. We feed one another. We provide for one another. We work together. We fight for the liberation of all people everywhere. The Lamb’s war is our war.

It could cost us everything. But people are worth it.

People of Presence

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J. Doyle Penrose’s “Presence in the Midst”

I was alone in my bedroom the night I decided to follow Jesus. I was sixteen years old, and I was done with religion. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesus.

I’d grown up in the Unification Church, and Jesus was barely a part of the cosmic narrative there. Actually, what I knew about Jesus was that – among our very ecumenical pantheon of sages and saints – he was a failure. But there was something about Jesus. His grace. His forgiveness. His sacrifice. Something about Jesus that spoke to my  condition. He was absurd. And beautiful.

Jesus had shaken my faith before that night. In my sophomore year of high school, I attended a Mormon ward for six months, hoping that I might meet Jesus there. But I never received the promised “burning ofthe bosom,” so I gave up.

Later, as I tried to detox from religion and keep my distance from anything “spiritual,” my desire to know Christ kept coming back. I didn’t want to be a Christian. I didn’t want to have to listen to shitty Christian rock music or vote Republican or reject evolution. And more than anything, I didn’t want to be seen as a nutty born-again. But I wanted Jesus.

I needed Jesus.

I paced the floor of my bedroom that night, and I thought about what coming to Jesus might mean. I knew I didn’t get all the implications. I knew it wouldn’t help my relationship with my parents. I suspected the Holy Spirit would push me to do hard things. I was scared. But Jesus seemed worth it.

And then I was on my knees. I didn’t know what to say. I just needed to talk. And as I talked, I felt God’s ear inclined to me, listening, hearing me. I’d been praying my whole life. But this was the first time I’d ever felt as if God heard me. As if God cared.

It was a kind of presence that I now think of as the Spirit. I felt loved, known, adored. I felt hope. Like I could do anything. Like Love herself was in me. I met Jesus that night.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think this kind of encounter is supposed to be rare. I think this is what church was intended to be. The gathering of Christians is more than space for moral encouragement or corporate mindfulness or even religious education. If it’s not first a space where real people come in contact with power, with wisdom, with Love herself, then we fail to be the Body of Christ, and the world stays the same.

God grants us rest, fullness of joy, power – always surrounds us, always with us, present within us. So why don’t we notice? Where is our power? Why is it so hard to believe? Corporate worship should nurture our ability to rest into this presence, to yield together to Love. Wherever hearts are open and pursuing the light of God’s love, whenever we come together.

I’ve experienced such spaces of worship. Places where the presence of God released fresh air of faith, hope, love. We breathed it in. God’s hand was upon us, molding our desire for justice and mercy. There was also honesty – authenticity – that I rarely encounter in any other place. People spoke about their addictions, their shame, their fear, and there was no judgment. We looked into one another’s eyes. There was understanding. There was love.

In college, I used to run a prayer meeting in my dorm room. I was a lot bolder back then, and I’d invite people off the street to come. There was a 30-something single mom who I kept bumping into, at parties, at stores and once at a Christian Reformed church. I invited her to my prayer meeting. One time, she broke down weeping, opening up about her fears and shames, and she begged us for prayer. None of us had seen someone so desperate for prayer, and honestly, several folks were deeply uncomfortable. This was not normal behavior. But it was good, beautiful, and needed. As we prayed and prophesied over her, there was peace, and we couldn’t deny that her honesty, her vulnerability, was a catalyst for the Spirit moving among us.

We learn from the early Church that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit changes everything. This encounter with the living God transformed the 
first Christian community and resulted in the working of miracles, shared meals, communal prayer, radical hospitality. I’m convinced that our inheritance as children of God is so much deeper than sweet sentiments and moral support. We need the very presence and life of God.

This Spirit-led discipleship is what I hoped to find among Friends, but to be honest, I don’t see much of it here. Sometimes I wonder if modern Quaker culture leaves much room for the Holy Spirit, in her sloppiness, in her risk-taking, in her boldness, in her power, in her love. To be fair, this isn’t just a Quaker problem. It’s everywhere in the American church.

We need something new. We need each other. We need to be a people who, though done with religion, just can’t stop thinking about Jesus.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

—St. Paul

Political Protest is Spiritual Warfare

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Philadelphia City Hall

When I was a freshman in college, my friends and I were discovering charismatic spirituality together. We often had long prayer sessions, and we always expected to experience and hear God. It was messy, naive, often fueled by fear, but God was somehow in it as we experimented with this bizarre mysticism that was so confident in Christ’s Spirit being within us. Some of us walked through our campus often, quietly praying in tongues, rebuking the spirits among us causing fear, spiritual drought, depression, etc., and declaring a better way for the Church and for the school. We called this spiritual warfare.

I still believe in the power of spiritual warfare, even if much of our demon-hunting was a bit silly. I’d like to think that Holy Spirit interpreted our prayers the way they needed to be interpreted, and maybe we did push the devil out of our campus a bit. Hopefully. But still, before Friends of Jesus retreats, I often try to spend time in intercession, praying for the outpouring of the Spirit and protection from the enemy, who loves to stir up quarreling among believers and quench the Holy Ghost. I’m still a firm believer that Christ handed an authority to the Church to be declare, prophesy, and shake things on this earth, and in the spirit realm, to realize the reign of God among and within us.

So I still command demons to shut up and back off. I still pray in tongues when I sense something off, which sometimes is a valid spiritual concern, and other times just my social anxiety acting up. That being said, I very much believe these things are helpful, real, and good. I’ve seen God heal dozens of sick people when hands were laid upon them, and the word of God was declared over them: “be healed.” I’ve felt the power of deliverance, having the weight of shame torn off my spirit instantaneously through a prophetic word. I’ve felt shifts in the atmosphere during worship, and then I’d notice somebody quietly praying in tongues, or interceding, and I’d feel that they probably were helping cleanse the environment for God’s presence to be realized.

I think these things are real.

And as we go in the streets to protest, to demonstrate, we are engaging with the enemy: oppressive, abusive, and corrupt systems. We wage war against the spirit of racism as we declare that Black Lives Matter, and as we point out the sins of our country, the sins of our people, and reveal a better way. One of compassion, one of hope, one of generosity, one of love. Even if we are marching with those who do not identify as followers of Christ, they are carrying a mantle and anointing as well to crush the work of the enemy and extend the reality of God’s love.

All that to say: To protest is to rebuke. To protest is to war against the devil. To protest is to prophesy. And as dangerous forms of religious and political fundamentalism continue to grow in all directions, and as the Empire continues to slaughter innocent people all over the world, we need to be loudly warring against these spirits that are strangling the Church and the world, and we need to preach the Good News. We need to be the Good News.

The Church in America, in this mind-boggling and disheartening political climate, needs to speak. We need to call out the systemic sins of the world, including religious institutions, and live and preach a way forward. Your tongue has the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21), and when you choose not to speak out for Life, you are often giving power to death. So speak. Loudly. For the oppressed, for the forgotten, for the lost, for the hurting, and for all God’s children. And in doing this, you bind the enemy and you confess Christ.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” —Ephesians 6:12

 

The Foolishness That Saved My Life

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“Ascention” by Edward Vardanian

I think the closest I have ever felt to God was laying on the bathroom floor in a psychiatric hospital with my shirt soaked in urine and knowing that my life was a mess and finally becoming okay with that.

It was 5 AM or so, I think, and I woke up to a nurse rapidly spewing indecipherable words, and I nodded and nodded and nodded to keep her from talking too much, and she pulled a needle out of her cart and poked me and then left.

As she left, I decided to pee. I got up and felt a bit dizzy but I thought nothing of it until I strained a bit to push out my pee. And as I strained, everything became black and I fell on to the floor, pissing all over the bathroom and myself.

I laid there and I felt no reason to get back up. I just did not have the energy and I took it as an opportunity to figure out how the hell I got into this hospital.

I mean, I knew how I got there—it was after weeks of not eating, not showering, not going to class, ignoring phone calls, and pretending to get better so people would not worry. I became a skinny grease-magnet with little joy or hope. And I was planning out how to kill myself, and had been for awhile, and I finally admitted it to another soul. I was told the responsible decision would be to admit myself to this hospital. Did I really care about being responsible? I don’t think so. But as I confided in my friend and admitted my doubts and hopelessness, he consoled me by saying, “Even if you lack faith, even if you lack hope, I believe God’s promises for you. Don’t worry, I’ll have hope for you.” The way he leaned upon God in that moment relieved me of the pressure to believe, and somehow helped me lean upon God, too. I trusted him, and because of that, I mustered up some trust in God.

So I was sent off to the hospital.

As soon as I filled out all the paperwork, I entered the hospital and was bombarded by fresh fruit, granola, and people who were openly discussing what they were diagnosed and their medications. The guy who led me to my room made me take out the laces from my boat shoes. He was kind. He felt bad that he had to examine me nude. I didn’t really care. Turns out he was Pentecostal, and we bonded over the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit. He encouraged me and then took my laces and other dangerous items I could possibly attempt suicide with.

As I laid down in my puddle of urine and thought about it all, it all seemed ridiculous. My life seemed ridiculous. And I was okay with that. I was at peace with where I was at. The anxieties and fears I clung on to for so long did not disappear but they at least seemed far away enough so that I could finally think clearly.

And I wanted to talk to God—catch up a bit. I had a hard time being real with him for awhile and I felt like there was so much to say. I compartmentalized a lot and tried to keep secrets from God for so long. As my mind found some peace, I began to realize I was hungry for God. In fact, I was starving… but before I could even think of anything to say to him, I knew the Holy Ghost was there. And it was not that She just entered the room at that moment. Really, She never seemed to have left. I was unable to see God’s hand and presence in my life because I was blinded by my illness. But as my medication kicked in, and as I finally put food in my system, I could see the Light in my darkness.

It was there on the floor, as I soaked in my own pee, that I encountered the Father whose palm I could not be plucked out of. This was the Love, the One, I could never be separated from. And perhaps it was absurd that I could affirm the notion that God was good, that God was Love, and that God was close, after experiencing the closest thing I’ve known to hell, but I’ve come to see that most routes in life are quite foolish. Holding on to hope, believing in creative possibility, and reaching for wholeness and reconciliation, are often counted as futile and naive. Yet Jesus reveals that such foolishness is wisdom, and I’m convinced it is the only way forward. It was certainly my only way forward.

“And these signs will accompany those who believe.”

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15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.
Mark 15:15-20

As a charismatic believer, I have often seen these verses used to defend the belief that tongues is for all believers and that healing is the desire of God. These verses, though, are not in the earliest of manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) and most bibles make note this fact. For a long time, I did not believe these verses could be used at all to defend this view and even railed against those who used in this in their own apologetics on the charismatic gifts. Though I still agree (admittedly, with some hesitance) with most scholars that these verses were not likely penned by Mark, I still value these verses and recognize that they could hold some significance for Christians today. There is the possibility that they may have ended up in the manuscripts because of either oral tradition or the notes of a scribe. Nevertheless, the fact that they exist means something. I think the Church needs to open to the possibility that their existence indicates that a supernatural culture, one full of the miraculous and providential work of the Spirit, was the norm of the early church.

Post-Constantine Christianity (note: perhaps a problematic term, but a historical shift is undeniable, and Constantine was definitely helpful in that) may have ushered in a spiritual drought as Christianity lost its counter-cultural, subversive nature. The Church became a pillar of the Empire, and though the good news of Jesus continued to nurture and instruct thousands of souls in the ways of righteousness, the political implications of this good news was much-rejected, and the spiritual power of the Church seemed to have been drained as a result. It did not help that the Galatian heresy of mixing Christ’s grace with the Law seemed to also consume the formal doctrine of the Church, and that the role of prophets and prophecy (which continued into the early church, as evidenced by the Didache) vanished as Ignatius instructed the Church to “do nothing without the bishops,” pushing the gift of prophecy to lose its egalitarian nature as it became a gift for bishops alone. (Read “The Decline of Ecstatic Prophecy in the Early Church” by James L. Ash, Jr. for more on this.)

Augustine developed a form of cessationism during this time, arguably because of the lack of charismatic activity in the Church. This experience was quite common throughout the Church of the time. Before this period, the approach to the miraculous was much more earnest and frequent among Christians. In the second century, both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon spoke of the charismatic gifts, discussing prophetic ministry, exorcisms, and even the raising of the dead. The practice of jubilation, which seems to be practice of singing in tongues, was even a part of the liturgy, and continued even into the ninth century. By the end of Augustine’s life, he had changed his view as he witnessed a revival of healing, but his cessationism continues to influence many Christians.

All this to say that these extra verses in Mark seem to reflect the early church’s practice of the miraculous.

  1. In my name they will drive out demons (a practice described by Ireneaus of Lyon, Origen of Alexandria, Lactantius, Tertullian, among church fathers and early Christians)
  2. …they will speak in new tongues (note: not other tongues but new tongues, which could likely include the practice of “jubilation” as described by Augustine and the mystics)
  3.  …they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all  (not a practice to reproduce, as some fundamentalists do, but a promise of protection; Paul experiences this in Acts 28:3 when bit by a snake)
  4. …they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well (reveals the authority to heal among believers and is talked about by a number of early Christians, including by Augustine in the City of God)

If this Spirit-driven culture of the Church was the norm for early Christians, and they regularly exercised the charismatic gifts and miracles, then I cannot see why it shouldn’t be the norm for the believer and Church today. Throughout Church history, we have seen this apostolic and prophetic power restored and tapped into time after time, among several Anabaptist and Huguenot groups, throughout Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement, as well as the Quakers, especially the first generation of Friends, who regularly saw such manifestations occur.

As Christendom as we know it crumbles before our eyes, the heresies of legalism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, leader-centered/hierarchical models of worship, violence, imperalism, and all our limiting theologies on the work of Christ and the Spirit, are losing their hold on God’s people. I pray that as we move forward in the revelation of Christ, in the pursuit of God’s Kingdom, we would seek the Spirit’s anointing and grow in an imaginative, dynamic faith that welcomes the impossible.

Speaking to my Quaker sisters and brothers, we must not forget that the first generation of Friends were yielded disciples of Jesus Christ. They were truly Pentecostal; united in the experience and life found in the Spirit of Christ. Their actions were often subversive to both the Church and State, and their ministries and fellowship were marked by the life-changing power of the Spirit. They saw miracles daily, just like the Church after Pentecost, and they boldly lived out the political implications of the gospel. All of this was the result of following and submitting to the lead of the Holy Spirit. We have a glorious inheritance in our spiritual lineage, and I am confident that as we discover and yield to the Spirit that sparked our movement, we can walk in the power of early Friends and the apostles, and see the greater things that Christ promised to us (John 14:12).

 

What the Wise Men Can Teach Us About God

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Journey of the Magi; Inquiry of King Herod (Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’

 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way.

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Matthew 2:1-12

I’ve been thinking a lot about these Wise Men, often called the Magi or the Three Kings. Over the past 2,000 years, plenty of theories and legends about these men have circulated throughout the Church. In the Western Church, there is a legend that their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and that they were respected scholars. It’s been long-claimed that Melchior was Persian, Caspar was Indian, and Balthazar was Babylonian. Syrian Christians claim the names of the Magi to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. Ethiopian tradition calls them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Armenians believe their names to be Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Meanwhile, Matthew never tells us their names, the number of these wise men, or their actual vocations. There is just about no indication that they are kings, though the Greek word magi (μάγοι) apparently may indicate that they were of a higher, priestly caste.

So what do we know about these men?

Not much. They were from the East. We don’t know if that means they were Persian, Babylonian, Indian, or something else completely. We don’t even know what religion they were. Many, such as the Swedish religious scholar Anders Hultgård, convincingly argue that these Wise Men were in fact Persian Zoroastrians, but again, that is never mentioned in the text. What seems evident enough is that they were not Jewish. They had to ask Jewish people about the scriptural prophecies on the messiah’s birth. They called this man, this baby, the “King of the Jews.” They even followed a star to find Jesus, which sounds awfully astrological to me.

And yet, these non-Jews, perhaps Zoroastrian, perhaps amateur or even seasoned astrologists, looked for Christ, found him, and worshiped him. They never converted to Judaism, they never articulated that this child was God or even Savior, but they knew they had to honor him. And today we venerate these men, often as saints, despite the fact that they never knew about the atoning sacrifice of Christ and never claimed to worship the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Not that we know of, at least.) And yet God led them to this baby, not to be evangelized to, and not to convince them of some doctrine or perform some saving ritual, but so that they may honor him and, I think, experience his presence.

It seems to me that these men knew God. Matthew tells us that God even spoke to them in a prophetic dream as they left Christ, warning them to not to return to the blood-thirsty Herod. God was pretty serious about talking to these men. Even though their religious practices and beliefs would not be considered orthodox by the Jews of their day or even modern Christians, God was with them, for them, and used them. It seems that God even used their own religious system, which in many ways was incompatible with Judaism, to do this.

This is shocking. And I think it’s part of the gospel.

In fact, it makes a lot of sense that God’s arrival on Earth in Christ would be kicked off with an invitation to these men. It seems to me that this was a glimpse into the heart of God. Paul reveals in 1 Timothy 4:10 that our God “is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” This Savior is the Savior of all people. This good news is good news for all people. I even think this extends to those who do not identify as Christian or even as a Theist.

In Acts 17:16-34, Paul preaches in Athens among philosophers and worshipers of various gods, and appears to commend them for their religiosity as something fascinating and respectable. He boldly claims that their altar and worship to an “unknown god” is truly the “God who made the world and everything in it.” The God proclaimed by Paul “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” He goes on to say that God “is not actually far from each of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.”

Jesus was prophesied to be Emanuel (Matt. 1:23)or God with us. The new covenant of Christ, revealed through his incarnation, his ministry, his death and resurrection, and even through Pentecost, make it clear that God is with usall of humanity, all of creation. It was the Church, the followers of Christ, who knew very early on that the Spirit was truly poured out on all people (Acts 2:17).

There is an inextinguishable hope for all people in Christ. 

I am confident that it is through Jesus that we can most perfectly know God and most fully inherit the abundant life he offered (Matt. 11:27, John 1:18, 6:37, 14:9, 2 Cor. 5:19, Col. 3:3). That being said, my pursuit of Quakerism has given me the courage to state something I’ve long known but also been hesitant to say out loud: there truly is that of God in everyone.

I have several friends who have left behind Christianity because of the toxic culture in the Church and their inability to have faith in the Christian God, and often any god. Some of them have turned to Buddhism, others dabble in self-help and New Age books and practices, while others have given up an active pursuit of spirituality. Most of these folks have come out of their de-conversion more fully themselves and I would even say more Christ-like. No longer are they hindered in their ability to love and accept others because of their church’s dogma, no longer are they trapped in a culture of condemnation and a phobia of anything academic, and they have found the freedom to ask hard questions and be true to themselves. I think I can see Jesus in that. I would dare to say it is a move of the Spirit.

After all, the life of Jesus illustrates that God will do anything to redeem all people, even if it requires meeting us where we are at and entering into our mess. If you can believe God is in the mess we call Evangelical Christianity—which so often looks like a rigid moralism rather than a spiritual path and which so often contradicts the message of Christ by advocating for violence, nationalism, and capitalism—then it can’t be too hard to accept that God is even working among those who do not know or believe in Jesus Christ.

It is because I believe in the Lordship of Jesus, the incarnation, and the atonement that I can declare that God is in and with all people.

Not only can I declare it, but I can see it and experience it.

Jesus opened my eyes to his sweet presence everywhere. For so long I was numb to that presence, that air of reverence, that breath of God, outside of the ministry of Christians-that-I-mostly-agreed-with. But the longer I’ve been walking with Jesus, I’ve come to discover how wicked that “us vs. them” version of the gospel was and I came to discover God’s presence outside of worship services and Christocentric settings. I came to know the presence of God as I watched my agnostic brother-in-law holding my nephew, as I delighted in the Hare Krishna devotees chanting on the street, and in long late-night conversations with elderly Moonies. I came to know that God was truly with us; all of us.