"Do you believe in the virgin birth?" It was an odd question in the middle of August. My questioner had held back until the post-service handshaking was over. She was a visitor — someone who had grown up in our church, but moved away decades ago.
The virgin birth. This, after a worship service devoted to Jesus' feeding of the five thousand. I gave her my most concise honest answer: that the stories about the Savior's birth testify to his specialness, and so in that sense are deeply true, but that the biology of it seems to me beside the point.
"You don't believe, then," she summarized, and she proceeded to tell me how she was disturbed by my children's message. I had told the kids that some scholars believe the miracle of the loaves and fishes was not the old Sunday school version — Jesus conjuring up a bounteous dinner with a wave of his magic hand — but instead was a miracle of community. Jesus' charismatic power to build a generous and grace-filled community out of this ragged band of pilgrims, as the theory goes, inspired them to dig into their pockets for that pita they weren't intending to share at all. Voila! Dinner is served.
I assured my questioner that she and her opinions were most welcome; diversity of belief is one way to get at truth. And certainly, I told her, the traditional supernatural explanations of Jesus' miracles are still entirely possible. Surely the power of God is beyond our imagination.
But as I wrestled with her comments later, I realized why the miracle of community has such resonance. With all the things that wall human beings off from each other — all those divisions of race, gender, orientation, economics, politics and belief — the chance to be part of a group of people struggling past our differences toward a common center is deeply rewarding.
We flirt with irrelevance, I think, if we shut Jesus up in church and read his story as a kind of saintly biography. Sure, he's a wonderful model for living, and as best we can wade through the otherness of ancient near East language and culture, we find in the Gospels a useful blueprint for behavior. But if we fixate on the old, old story at the expense of God's continuing story, we have nothing to say to those who ask, "Why does this matter to me this week?"
It's one thing to worship a god-man who did great magic tricks two millennia ago; it's another and far richer thing to live alongside the Spirit of the living Christ, the Spirit that enables and catalyzes simply amazing occasions of the presence of God in our lives, right here, right now.
The gift of the living Christ is hope — hope that we are not adrift but rather living into God's future. Could it be magic? The living Christ is a miracle that keeps on giving. In the beloved community — the surprising, contentious, messy association we call church — we gather around that miracle, and take, and eat.
The Rev. Scott Thomas is senior minister of Amherst Community Church (UCC/Disciples of Christ) in Snyder, N.Y.