The Trinitarian Gospel of Paul

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).

I love Paul’s angle on the gospel here. This is good news for a prodigal child, as we all are in some way. It’s good news for one who returns thinking they’ll live as a slave, only to have their Abba run out to meet them with a full embrace and insist that, not only are they a beloved child, they are a full heir. Bring on the music and dancing! Let the angels rejoice!

You might think the whole “suffering” theme puts a bit of a damper on this party. But when we read on we find that this suffering is the suffering of Christ as he joins in solidarity with the suffering of the world, even all creation. Jesus in his life and death walked in solidarity with the most wounded of sufferers and outcast of sinners. We are invited to join in this suffering in solidarity with the world, so that all people might one day recognize the truth of their belovedness as God’s children. Cue the music once again! Look at those angels dance!

This, then, is the Trinitarian gospel of Paul in Romans 8: we who walk in suffering and sin are beloved children of God the Father, joint heirs with Christ the Son, birthed of the Holy Spirit. May this good news prompt us to praise and stir us to step out in faith and hope and love this week.

The Not-So-Nice, Not-So-Safe Spirit of God

We have walked with the resurrected Jesus to his ascension and exaltation, and now this coming Sunday we are at Pentecost. Naturally, then, our lectionary texts for this Sunday are filled with references to the Spirit.

Mennonites haven’t been entirely sure what to do with Pentecost, I’d say. To be honest, we haven’t always been sure what to do with the Spirit. Yes, we have developed our nice, safe ways of interpreting the Pentecost coming of the Spirit, mostly around things like “God’s presence is with us” and a lot of stuff about “communal discernment” as the work of the Spirit.

But I’m struck by this reality regarding the Spirit in our upcoming lectionary texts: the Spirit isn’t “nice and safe.”

When the Spirit comes in Acts 2, there are tongues of fire and the sound of a rushing wind (in southern Manitoba these days, this doesn’t sound all that safe). There is a cacophony of voices and languages, exuberantly declaring God’s praises (in most of our Mennonite churches, this would be frowned upon).

There is a declaration of the Spirit’s prophetic presence, falling on old and young, women and men equally (it’s dangerous having one prophet, let alone a whole church full of them, crossing gender and class lines). There is a cut-to-the-heart repentance for complicity with state violence, and a radical turn to a generous and simple common life, a life held together by breaking bread and prayers and the teaching about Jesus (in our nationalistic and capitalistic society, these things are far from safe).

And that’s just Acts 2.

Elsewhere in our Scripture texts, the coming of the Spirit brings sudden life out of dusty, dry-bones death (Psalm 104, politicized in Ezekiel 37 as the return of conquered and enslaved Israel from exile). The Spirit groans with us in our deepest griefs and longings—indeed with all creation, groaning under the weight of human greed and hubris—anticipating with hope the fullness of redemption (Romans 8). The Spirit convicts the world of its harmful ways and guides Jesus’ followers into the fullness of truth regarding Jesus and his justice-bringing ways of love (John 16).

It turns out that while the Spirit is unquestionably good, the Spirit is not necessarily safe. While the Spirit does make us secure in God’s love, the Spirit does not guarantee our physical or social security. While the Spirit does bring us comfort, the coming of the Spirit is not comfortable. The wind of the Spirit blows the doors off our categories, it shatters our illusions and self-delusions, it turns power on its head and our world’s values upside-down.

As we enter Pentecost, let’s attune ourselves to the true Pentecost Spirit in our churches and in the world around us: the not-so-nice, not-so-safe Spirit of God. And let’s ask ourselves: how, then, can we support one another as we follow this dangerous Pentecost Spirit into the world?

Dwelling Embodied in the World

I’m writing this in our new house, looking out at a busy West End intersection. Busy—and it’s Sunday. During a pandemic lockdown.

We’re not in Morden anymore, Toto.

In the first day of our initial “campout” in the new place, I’ve seen ambulances wail by, heard fire trucks head out, watched intoxicated men stumble past, witnessed meth users yelling at their invisible demons. I’ve also seen young moms pushing strollers with toddlers in tow, and couples out for a walk with their dogs. I’ve met our next-door neighbours, a courageous immigrant mother caring for half a dozen friendly children on her own.

Cars whiz by on their way from Point A to Point B, unaware of the menagerie of life on this single block in inner city Winnipeg.

I hear this word from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the prayer of Jesus for his disciples: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15,18).

We aren’t called to whiz by the messy reality of life from Point A to Point B. We are called to live life incarnate, like Jesus, dwelling embodied in the stuff of earth. For us, now, this will mean dwelling embodied in this West End neighbourhood.

I’m also reminded of “the world” we are leaving behind in Morden. It’s no more the “rural haven” many imagine than West End Winnipeg is the “urban blight” everyone thinks it is. Within those immaculate rural homes there are untold stories of domestic and sexual abuse. The quiet streets and friendly smiles paper over the evidence of a toxic mix of unaddressed poverty and racism. And don’t get me started on anti-vaxxer religion.

“The world” is all around us, whether in Winnipeg or beyond the perimeter. “The world”—in all its dappled shadows and light, all its many-hued array of goodness and evil, love and harm. May we have courage to follow Jesus in fully dwelling embodied in the world in which we live, exposing the shadows with grace as we bear witness to the light in love.

Abiding in Jesus

In this fourth week of Easter, Jesus says to us, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).

Much has been written about what this means. Some understand it in a more mystical sense: abiding in the presence of the Spirit of Jesus as the Spirit of the risen Jesus dwells within us. Others understand it in a more practical sense: abiding in the words and ways of Jesus of Nazareth as his words and ways remain lodged within our hearts and minds, lived out in the everyday.

I tend to think it is both of these, and perhaps more than these. John’s Gospel and letters connect this “abiding/dwelling/remaining” both with the presence and work of the Spirit and with the teachings and commandments of Jesus. In Johannine thinking, Jesus “abides in us” both by his words and ways remaining within us and by his Spirit dwelling within us; we “abide in him” both by dwelling in the presence of the Spirit and by living out the words and ways of Jesus in our everyday lives.

The language here also pushes us beyond individualism: the “you” here is plural. Jesus is not just saying, “I abide within you,” each of us individually; he is also saying, “I abide among you,” all of us together. Both the living presence of the Spirit and the embedding of Jesus’ words and ways in our lives needs to be a reality among us collectively as well as individually.

This calls us to find balance, a harmony of body and spirit. If we tend toward the practical, perhaps we could attend more carefully to the mystical, developing our attentiveness to the presence of the Spirit in us and among us. If we tend toward the mystical or “spiritual,” perhaps we could attend more carefully to the practical, developing our understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings and seeking to live these out in our lives. And if we tend toward emphasizing these things either individually or collectively, perhaps we could turn our gaze outward or inward as needed.

As we seek this balance of “abiding in Jesus just as Jesus abides in us,” we have his promise before us: we will “bear much fruit” as his beloved disciples (John 15:8).

Living and Loving in the Way of Jesus

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  (1 John 3:16-17).

The whole passage from this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings is worth reading: 1 John 3:16-24. It’s a good summary of what the Christian faith is all about.

It’s all there: a focus on Jesus, on his life and teachings of love, on his death as the ultimate example of love, on his resurrection presence in which we abide, alongside a call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, praying boldly and relying on the Spirit to love not with mere words but “in truth and action.”

The passage reminds me of words from earlier in the Elder’s sermon-letter: “By this we may be sure that we are in [Jesus]: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:5-6).

And this in turn reminds me of the famous words of early Anabaptist Hans Denck: “No one may truly know Christ except one who follows him in life.”

May we keep it simple in our Christian lives: day by day focusing on living and loving in the way of Jesus. In this moment, and now in this moment, and now in this: how can I live out the love of Christ for those around me, for the person right in front of me?

Life Finds a Way

In this second week of Easter, this verse from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings has lodged itself in my brain: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). It’s in Peter’s address to those “men of Israel” (not all Jews!) who colluded with their rulers and Rome to execute Jesus.

There are three astounding claims in this verse.

First astounding claim: Jesus is “the Author of life.” Jesus is the origin of life, the ruler of life (archēgos). Everything Jesus did, he did to bring about life. Everything Jesus continues to do by the Spirit, he does to bring about life. This, then is who God is: the Author of life, the one who writes our stories toward a full and thriving life. That which brings about death is not-God; this is the Satan, the anti-God, the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus has come to bring life, a life that is abundant (John 10:10).

Second astounding claim: Jesus, the Author of life, was killed. Humans killed the origin of life. Powerful humans, coalescing in the powers-that-be—human structures and systems of injustice and oppression—killed the ruler of life. The Author of life was written out of his own story. While God always moves creation toward life, we can do things that bring about death—even the death of God.

Third astounding claim: God raised the Author of life from the dead. God overturned the verdict of the human powers-that-be; God undid the death and destruction of the Satan, the anti-God, the thief. To quote that well-known theologian, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.” The God who always and only moves creation toward life, finds a way to bring life even out of death.

May we be chastened by the reality that we as humans can do things that bring death, even writing the Author of life out of their own story. But may we be encouraged that the Author of life still lives, and God is writing our story toward a full and thriving life, an abundant life for all persons and all creation.

“Concrete Koinonia”

As I look ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the reality of koinōnia stands out to me. Koinōnia comes from the Greek word for “common” or “shared” (koinos), and so koinōnia has the idea of “that which is held in common,” “that which is shared among us.”

Contrary to the way we often use the word “fellowship,” in the New Testament Christians don’t “fellowship,” as a verb. Rather, we have “fellowship,” as a noun. This koinōnia is a gift from God, a gift of God’s Spirit to us as God’s people.

1 John 1:3 describes it this way: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have koinōnia with us; and truly our koinōnia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” There are things we hold in common, realities we share together—in 1 John these would be things like “life” and “light” and “love”—and as we share these common realities together we discover they are in fact realities God has shared with us, realities we hold in common with Jesus.

This “fellowship,” this koinōnia, is not just some abstract truth but a concrete, lived out experience. The love, light, and life we share together in Jesus works itself out in a shared life together, a common way of life in which we come together in acts of love and deeds of light that bring life among us and beyond us.

This “concrete koinōnia” comes out in another lectionary text for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koinos)… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

This is the new reality the resurrected Jesus creates among us by the Spirit: a shared reality in which we hold in common a new life of love and light, in which we live out this new reality in ways which re-order our common life so that no one is needy, no one is marginalized, no one is oppressed by forces beyond their control.

The Good News of “Holy Terror”

As we begin our Holy Week journey toward the cross, we know already that the story ends with the good news of resurrection. But Mark gives us a different take on Jesus’ resurrection than we typically think of.

Here are the (most likely*) final words of Mark’s Gospel: “So [Mary, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fear, even terror? How is this good news?

There’s a long history in the Bible of “holy fear,” even “holy terror,” in the presence of God. This isn’t (normally) because God is angry or abusive, but because God is so…absolutely other. “Holy,” to use the biblical language. When we humans find ourselves in the absolute presence of the transcendent God, we realize that God is not like we had imagined: God is so much greater than we had ever imagined.

This biblical thread finds its way into Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus. When Jesus teaches, people are “astounded.” When Jesus casts out demons, they are “in awe.” When Jesus heals, they are “stunned.” When Jesus walks on the water, his disciples are “terrified.” When Jesus calms the storm, they literally “fear with a great fear.” “Who is this,” they ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So we really shouldn’t be surprised when Mark ends his Gospel with these same words, following this long biblical tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has revealed God’s self in all God’s fullness: in life rising out of death, in peace growing out of violence, in liberation bursting out of oppression, in love blooming in the midst of hate. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has blown the doors off all our expectations of who God is and what God does.

This Easter may we, like the two Marys and Salome, come face to face with God in the resurrected Jesus, so that the walls we build around God might be shattered in the revelation of God’s life and peace and liberation and love. This is a good “holy terror.” This is good news.

* Mark’s Gospel has several different endings in ancient manuscripts of Mark. Most textual critics think Mark’s Gospel originally ended here, at Mark 16:8. Later scribes weren’t satisfied with this ending so they added their own or borrowed from the other Gospels.

The New Covenant Gospel

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

These have to be some of the most beautiful words in Scripture.

Israel has broken the covenant. They’ve messed up big time. All that idolatry and injustice, all that pursuit of “gods” of wealth and power, all that oppression of the poor and the vulnerable—it’s caught up with them. Their society has collapsed, their homes have been destroyed, their temple has been desecrated, and they are enslaved in shame in a foreign land.

Yet God has not forgotten them—especially the poor and the lowly, the widow and the orphan, the enslaved and imprisoned. God promises a new covenant with them: the heart of the Torah written on their hearts, full forgiveness of their immense sins, intimate knowledge of God by all from least to greatest. In sum: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

To a people shattered and broken, humbled and humiliated, this is God’s commitment. And Jesus brings this commitment to fruition. Jesus establishes this new covenant for all peoples, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female and more.

May this gospel of inclusion, this good news of God’s compassion and forgiveness, God’s intimate, guiding presence, spur you on this week in your work and your worship.

The Gathered Redeemed

I’ve always loved Psalm 107 for the ways it describes the diversity of our encounters with God. No two people come to God in the same way. No two people experience God in the same way.

There’s the intro in verses 1-3: “Give thanks to God, for God is good! God’s steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed say so, all those God redeemed and gathered in from all different directions.” Then the Psalmist gives four different examples of how “the redeemed” have come to God.

There are those who have experienced hunger and barrenness (vv. 4-9): they have “wandered in desert wastes” until “their soul fainted within them.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “satisfying the thirsty and filling the hungry with good things.”

There are those who have experienced oppression and imprisonment (vv. 10-16): they “sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons,” and “their hearts were bowed down with hard labour.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “shattering the doors of bronze, and cutting in two the bars of iron.”

There are those who have experienced sickness and affliction (vv. 17-22): they “loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “sending out God’s word and healing them, delivering them from destruction.”

Then there are those who have experienced success and power, until disaster strikes (vv. 23-32): they went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” until “they went down to the depths” and “their courage melted away in their calamity.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “making the storm be still” and “bringing them to their desired haven.”

The Psalm closes with a beautiful depiction of God’s faithfulness and love toward those who are lowly or oppressed, humble and repentant. “When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow, God pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but God raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like flocks.”

The whole Psalm is a wonderful reminder of the many ways God meets us in our need, meeting each of us exactly where we are at, meeting us exactly as we are. Do any of these poetic depictions above describe your story of encountering God? If not, what metaphor might you use for that?

“Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”