In the weeks that come after Christmas, we think and read a lot about the first few years of Jesus’ life. There’s probably no more stunning detail than when King Herod orders every infant boy in and around Bethlehem to be killed in an attempt to thwart Jesus’ revolutionary life at the very beginning. It’s no wonder that we mark Advent as a season of anticipation—clearly, Jesus was born into a world that desperately needed the principles of peace and justice that he would teach and the transformational love that he would bring.
It’s 2018, and our world is still aching to know Jesus. Years after it began, we’re grappling still with the worst refugee crisis since World War II. In Yemen, hundreds starve each day and dozens more die from the worst recorded cholera outbreak in human history, the bitter fruits of a war and blockade prosecuted by Saudi Arabia with support from the United States. Meanwhile, the prospect of a nuclear war feels closer than it has for decades, and deep divisions within our domestic politics make it hard to agree on what’s true, let alone bear witness to it. That same pall of division is difficult to ignore within the church, including our own denomination.
But if those circumstances seem daunting, bear in mind the odds that were stacked against Jesus. Born into poverty, persecuted from the moment he took his first breath, Jesus was raised under the heavy yoke of a tyrannical regional government, itself the satellite of a brutal empire with a zero-tolerance policy for political subversion. Jesus didn’t have the tools that we do. He didn’t have a First Amendment to protect his right to share his message. Forget about social media, Jesus was a millennium and a half ahead of the printing press—not that most of his contemporaries could even read.
Maybe most significant of all, Jesus didn’t have a church to be his hands and feet. To the contrary, the religious establishment in his day was among his most ruthless opponents. But today, billions of Christians claim to love Jesus. If they love him enough to listen to him and obey, that could mean billions of hands pulling at the knots of injustice and billions of feet standing with people on the margins. It’s the church—not freedom from persecution, not viral technology, not near-universal literacy, or a Bible in every hotel nightstand—that should give us confidence that the world really can be transformed by Jesus.
Of course, it’s also the church that so often seems to be the biggest obstacle. As a human institution, how many times have we been sidetracked by greed, by selfishness, by fear? How often have we been seduced by power? How often have we been lulled into complacency by comfort and privilege? How often have we tarnished Jesus’ name because we chose to be oppressive or violent or unconcerned with our neighbors?
Even though the church has fallen short so many times before, I still have faith that this institution can be a vessel of hope for the world. That’s because I see it every day: peacebuilders who put themselves in harm’s way to transform violence, servants who place themselves with the marginalized and downtrodden, moral movers who challenge unjust systems, churches that give sanctuary, build community, and teach people about Jesus.
We’re not going to solve the world’s problems in 2018. We’re not even going to solve this denomination’s problems. But we can do more to build Jesus’ kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, bearing the confidence of faith and expecting that things really can improve. We have to trust Jesus enough to obey him. We have to love Jesus enough to love the least of those among us. And we have to make the message of Jesus as simple and irresistible as it was when he built a movement two thousand years ago: love God and love others as we love ourselves.
Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred is a member of Hollidaysburg (Pa.) Church of the Brethren and attends Washington City Church of the Brethren in Washington, D.C. A recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, he is a Young Fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. He also runs DunkerPunks.com and is a host of the Dunker Punks Podcast.