Christianity’s ‘exaggerated stuff’
“Yes, we are Christians,” an elderly man said on a sidewalk on the Greek island of Milos after giving directions to my wife, Ellen, and me. “But we don’t believe the exaggerated stuff.”
The unexpected comment came after I noticed small silver crosses he and his wife each wore. “You are Christians!” I said. Friendly conversation followed, and we learned their names were George and Helen. I pressed for an example of “exaggerated stuff” in Christianity.
“We like Jesus,” George allowed, “but we don’t believe in the resurrection.” My biblical imagination went on full alert: This was the same response some Greeks gave the Apostle Paul almost two millennia ago. When Paul mentioned the resurrection to people at Athens, “some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’ ” (Acts 17:32).
Helen and George wanted to hear more and invited us for coffee in their humble home. There we explained that we were Christians visiting sites in Greece related to Paul and the early church. George told how he had traveled the world in the merchant marine. Learning that I am a minister, he posed a question: How could God punish his Son for sins of humanity? What kind of father would do that?
Don’t think of it so much as God punishing his Son, I said. Think of Jesus as God-with-us. God was fully present in Jesus, taking on the brokenness of the world. The cross shows how much God loves, not how angry God is. Resurrection shows that God has chosen to overcome evil with forgiveness and love.
George and Helen seemed drawn to this image of God and went on to share concerns about their own health and family. Ellen and I offered to pray with them, and both were in tears when prayer ended. “Jesus is present here,” I said. “This is the power of the resurrection.”
George excused himself to the next room to regain composure. Helen went to the kitchen and retrieved two small magnetic refrigerator icons — not of monetary value, but beautiful. “Take these,” she said with a smile. We thanked them for their kindness, and I left my business card.
Three months later Christmas greetings arrived from Greece —addressed to “Father Nelson.” We wish and hope you have a mery-mery Christmas,” George and Helen wrote. “Pray Lord for us as you once did in our little house in Milos!”
A letter we wrote after my heart surgery in January prompted a three-page epistle in return. “I can feel it was a serious long vicissitude,” George wrote of my operation, “and obviously very painful for your intimates! . . . For this we’ll pray Saint Judas the Thadeus! He was a stepbrother of Jesus.”
George was referring to Jude, one of the Twelve also known as Thaddeus. A website says Jude is “patron of desperate situations, forgotten causes, hospitals, impossible causes and lost causes.”
I’m not sure I like being placed in such dire categories. But George promised to send me an icon of Saint Jude, and I will receive it with gratitude. “We promise to tell him always about you and pray,” George wrote. “He will hear our words, and God will give you health and strength to continue.”
Ellen and I will continue to write, and will pray that George and Helen get beyond Saint Jude to know the presence of the risen Christ in their daily lives.
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.
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