taking the words of Jesus seriously


Before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the angels proclaimed “peace on earth, good will to all people.” We imagine the scene as a silent night–all calm, all bright. But Matthew’s gospel tells a different story. A paranoid puppet king committed acts of terror when he heard rumors of Jesus’ birth. A hit was put out on every boy under the age of two.


In a world ruled by people like Herrod, all was not calm. All was not bright. Folks kept their heads down in darkness, praying to make it through. Mary and Joseph were afraid, and for good reason.


Jesus was born in a time not unlike our own, when children in Palestine and Afghanistan cower at the sounds of bulldozers and drones and people on the streets of Paris and San Bernadino flinch at every sound, hoping to God that the unimaginable hasn’t happened again.


We don’t like to think of ourselves as fragile people, living in fear. But we are.


The good news ins’t that we’re all going to be safe because we have enough walls and guns and armor to protect ourselves from every enemy. The good news of Advent is that despite real dangers and fear, there is a love strong enough to come in weakness and befriend us. The good news is that, from the time he was born, Jesus’s story shows us how surprising friendships drive out fear.


When an agent of terror was trying to kill their baby, Mary and Joseph met some strangers who didn’t speak their language but somehow communicated that they wanted to meet their son. This is precisely the sort of situation for which “stand your ground” laws were written. Two loving parents were afraid. They had a right to defend their child. Under normal rule of law, they would call the police and report these visitors to Homeland Security.


Instead, they welcomed them in. They listened to them. And they learned from them essential intel that saved their beloved son.


Long before Jesus taught the way of surprising friendships, his life depended on it. “Love your enemies, ” he told his disciples years later. Love them because sometimes, despite all that you expect, they’re the only people who can save you.


This is what I’ve learned, over and again, living alongside people who’ve been labeled “ex-con, ” “gang-affiliated, ” or “armed-and-dangerous.” Sure, people are broken and we can do terrible things to one another. Fear makes sense when we’re overwhelmed by lack. But when we focus on abundance–when we stop to pay attention to how many people are enjoying the most unlikely of friendships–abundance can be overwhelming too.


Focus on the abundance of friendships long enough and you can forget fear all together. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love casts out all fear.”


In a violent world where people are afraid, I want to invest in sharing and multiplying surprising friendships. “Making surprising friendships possible” is the mission of School for Conversion, where I teach and learn. When we received a “challenge grant” a few weeks ago, we decided the best thing we could do to further our mission was to break the gift and bless it and pass out the pieces to everyone we know. We’ve called our little campaign #5loaves2fish.


So on #GivingTuesday we got to experience what Jesus said–how it’s more blessed to give than to receive. We gave $7–a 5 and a 2–to hundreds of people who’ve participated in our work this year. And we asked each of them to do one thing with it: invest it in sharing the good news of surprising friendships.


The stories have been a joy to hear–and they keep coming. One young man set out to find a homeless neighbor to share a meal with and ended up running into a guy he grew up with who was down on his luck and needed a listening ear. They ate and talked for hours, and he came back to tell me about it the next day with tears in his eyes. How can you capture the abundance of surprising friendships? It’s hard, but Franklin and Kim almost made me taste it with this video. I’m glad to share it with a prayer that it inspires the kind of sharing in your life that makes it hard to remember what you were afraid of.



About The Author


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a celebrated spiritual writer and speaker. Together with his wife, Leah, he co-founded the Rutba House in Durham, NC, where he also directs the School for Conversion (www.schoolforconversion.org). Jonathan works closely with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II to spearhead The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Jonathan's newest book is "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion" (InterVarsity Press).

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