Sin, Salvation, and Climate Action

Excerpted from a sermon at Altona Mennonite Church on September 11, 2022, called “The Gospel for All Creation.”

The Apostle Paul speaks of salvation often as “liberation” or “redemption” from “evil powers.”

For Paul these “evil powers” are forces that control us, yet which seem to be beyond our control. And for Paul the most basic of these evil powers is human sin: our individual habits of harm that wound ourselves and others, and our collective systems of harm that do the same but on a larger scale.

Let me name three of these evil powers that are especially strong within us and among us, causing devastation and destruction and death not just for humanity but for all creation: the sins of pride, greed, and violence.

In our pride, we as humanity have centered ourselves within creation and elevated ourselves above creation, instead of centering the Creator and lifting up creation. In our pride we have subjugated creation for our own ends instead of caring for creation as an end in itself.

For centuries now we as a western, industrialized society have sought to master creation in order to extract as many resources as we can out of it, all for our own purposes without any thought of the impact on the rest of creation, or even future generations. Even when we have known better, as we surely have for decades now, in our arrogance we have downplayed or ignored the problem.

As for greed, our greed as a western society is well-known. We have developed deeply ingrained habits of consumption and accumulation, always striving for more and newer and bigger and better. We have developed an entire economic system dependent upon consumption and accumulation.

This has caused tremendous harm to ourselves as human beings. We have objectified each other, seeing our core identity as producers and consumers and even objects to consume rather than as persons created in God’s image, having inherent worth and dignity regardless of our ability to produce or consume.

But our greed has also caused tremendous harm to the rest of creation. Instead of seeing the earth as a sanctuary created by God for the flourishing of life, the earth is viewed as a repository of resources to be extracted in order to sustain the capitalist engine of production and consumption and accumulation.

The consequences to species and ecosystems, and the impact on vulnerable peoples as the earth heats up, are catastrophic.

Out of our hubris and to sustain our greed, we have committed violence against creation and one another, causing destruction and death. We as so-called “developed” nations have exploited and violated the poorest and most vulnerable among us, including vulnerable ecosystems and species, all in order to maintain our lifestyles of convenience built on consumption and accumulation.

Our pride, our greed, and our violence. These are three of the most evil powers of sin at work both in human hearts and in the structures and systems of our society. And, as Paul says in Romans 8, “the wages of sin is death”: our pride, our greed, and our violence has paid as wages a devastating death not just for humans but also for the rest of creation.

But this is the good news of Jesus Christ: that in Jesus we can be liberated from our pride, our greed, and our violence. We can be liberated from these evil powers that dominate and destroy us and the world which is our home.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Jesus shows us a better way, where we are freed to live in humility and compassion instead of hubris, in simplicity and generosity instead of greed, in ways of justice and peace instead of violence. Jesus taught and lived out these things in resistance to the pride, greed, and violence of his day.

Jesus “humbled himself,” Paul says in another Christ hymn in Philippians 2, “he humbled himself, took on the form of a slave,” and died a slave’s death on a Roman cross.

And this humility was driven by compassion: multiple times the Gospels say that Jesus was “moved by compassion” to respond to the needs of others. Jesus shows us a better way than human pride, a way that prompts us to work together for the good of each other and all creation.

Instead of greed, Jesus taught and lived out simplicity. Freeing ourselves from the need to accumulate more, being freed from the chains of Mammon. Instead, trusting in God for our daily bread: just what we need, no more, just when we need it, not before.

This way of simplicity leads to generosity. Because we can hold our possessions lightly, because we trust that God will provide for us when we need it, we can be generous with what we have when others are in need.

And Jesus taught and lived out the way of nonviolence, living in harmony with one other and all creation: loving both neighbours and enemies, and attending to “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field.” This is a way that resists evil non-violently, walking in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable even if that means a cross.

This is the good news of Jesus: that we can be liberated from the evil powers that dominate and destroy us, including our own pride and greed and violence. And the key to experiencing this good news? It is as Jesus himself said when he first came proclaiming the gospel: “Repent and believe.”

We need to turn away from our habits and systems of harm, our ways of pride and greed and violence—we need to repent.

And we need to believe—not simply “believing certain things to be true,” that’s not what biblical faith is. Rather, biblical faith is trusting in God and committing ourselves to God’s way. Walking in Jesus’ way of faith, walking in Jesus’ way of hope, and walking in Jesus’ way of love.

My friends, here is where the good news of Jesus intersects with our eco-mission as a church: when we live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, when we live out the faith and hope and love of Jesus, when we live out our liberation from pride and greed and violence, we will see creation renewed.

My Faith Story

On September 4, 2022, I shared my faith story with my congregation as part of the process of transferring my membership from my previous congregation. Here is what I shared.

If I were to sum up my faith journey in a phrase, it might be this: “Pursuing Jesus who first found me.”

I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, nominally Anabaptist. I knew my Bible. I knew about Jesus. But I didn’t know Jesus.

In my university days I went on a spiritual quest. I checked out other religions—Hinduism and Buddhism fascinated me for a while. I actively participated in a different church every year of university: Pentecostal, United Church, Lutheran, Baptist. I was baptized in that Baptist church.

Along the way I had a profound spiritual experience that pushed me back to the Bible. I read it like I’d never read it before, in huge chunks: all of Isaiah in one sitting, all of Luke and Acts in another, all of Genesis in a morning, all of John in an afternoon, Romans before bed. I gorged on Scripture.

And that’s how I first met Jesus. I read the Bible and I found Jesus. Or rather, Jesus found me, and I’ve pursued him ever since.

Later, when I was teaching through the New Testament at a small Christian college and working on my Ph.D., I had an epiphany: this Jesus-centred reading of Scripture had made me into an Anabaptist. By reading the Bible to follow Jesus I had become committed to Jesus’ way of nonviolence, his way of just peace, his way of community, his way of love.

And so, when I left this nondenominational college to move into pastoral ministry, it made sense to serve in a Mennonite congregation, one that was thoroughly Anabaptist.

That was 13 years ago, and our journey since then has brought us from Alberta to Ohio to Manitoba, and now into my current role as Executive Minister of Mennonite Church Manitoba, and member of Home Street Mennonite Church. I’m grateful for this congregation, for its commitment to pursue Jesus who first found us.

Last week Ingrid shared about developing a centred-set approach to church instead of a bounded-set approach. I’ve also taught that concept since first coming across missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert’s use of this idea. And this, to me, is at the centre of this thing we call “Christianity,” and this thing we call “church”: Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love.

Jesus of Nazareth, crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord, and Jesus’ way of devotion for God expressed through compassion for others, especially those the world deems “last,” “least,” or “lost.”

We gather around Jesus and his way of love like people gathering around a bonfire on a cold, dark night. We draw close to Jesus and his love for light and warmth, and as we do so we find ourselves drawing closer to each other.

Around this fire we tell our stories, we sing our songs, we pray our prayers, we share our bread and wine. And we commit ourselves to following Jesus and his way of love as we go out into the world, carrying our candles lit with the fire of Jesus’ love.

As we go we proclaim the greatest revelation Jesus has given us: God is love. We should know this from Scripture, we should know this from observing creation around us, but in Jesus this is confirmed and clarified: God is love.

God always loves. God cannot not love. Everything God does is motivated by love and enacted in love. This means that anything we experience that is not of love is not of God. God is not the author of evil or suffering or harm.

Love is the essence of God in a way that God’s other attributes are not. God’s holiness is a holy love. God’s justice is a just love. God’s wisdom is a wise love. God’s power is a powerful love.

All is being moved by love towards God’s good purposes. Love is stronger than injustice or violence. Love is stronger than every other power. Love is stronger than death. In the end, love will win, and all will be well.

Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love, pointing us to the God who is love.

This is indeed good news.

What does it mean to say that “God is love”?

It’s one of the foundational beliefs of Christianity: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). But what does it mean to say this? Here are a few thoughts.

“God is love” means that God always loves. God cannot not love. Everything God does is motivated by love and enacted in love. This means that anything we experience that is not of love is not of God. God is not the author of evil or suffering or harm.

“God is love” means that love is at the heart of who God is. The Bible says that “God is holy,” but it never says that “God is holiness.” Love is the essence of God in a way that God’s other attributes are not. God’s holiness is a holy love. God’s justice is a just love. God’s wisdom is a wise love. God’s power is a powerful love.

“God is love” means that all has been created in love. As all things exist out of the overflow of God’s being, so all things exist out of the overflow of God’s love.

“God is love” means that all is being moved by love towards God’s good purposes. Love is stronger than injustice or violence. Love is stronger than every other power. Love is stronger than death. In the end, love will win, and all will be well.

“God is love” means that all that is not-love is not-God; it is anti-God. This, then, is “sin”: thinking and acting and speaking out of apathy or antipathy, causing harm to others, ourselves, or other creatures, and thus grieving the God who is love. And this is “death”: dying, or even living, in the consequences of this non-love.

“God is love” means that you are beloved by God. This is your most basic identity: God’s Beloved. And this is true of each and every person, every creature, all of creation.

“God is love” means that when you are at your lowest, or your loneliest, you are never alone. There is a Presence always with you, embracing you in their love.

“God is love” means that when you are at your worst, and you know it, or when you have done your worst, and you know it, there is One who is already moving toward you, to forgive you and restore you, to make you whole.

“God is love” means that God is calling us into a Beloved Community, a society of friends where peace with justice prevails over violence and injustice, where love and trust triumphs over fear and hatred. It means that, ultimately, God is moving all things toward a Peaceable Kingdom, God’s vision of true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life for all creation.

Then God, who is love, will be all in all.

Polarization and the Way of Jesus

Ask pastors and church leaders what their greatest concerns are in these latter days, and one of the words that will float to the top is “polarization.”

There’s little doubt that our society has become more polarized, more afflicted by extremes, less attuned to compromise and middle ground. And the church has followed suit, as it often does, sometimes even leading the way. The political partisanship and the culture clash of left versus right has permeated our congregations and denominations.

Any follower of Jesus worth their salt and light who wants to address polarization is faced with two conflicting beliefs.

On the one hand, we believe that Jesus came to heal divisions, to bring peace between people. Unity is one of our loftiest goals, a unity of the Spirit grounded in Jesus, a unity which does not erase diversity but celebrates it. Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that he might “create in himself one new humanity…thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).

On the other hand, we believe that following Jesus sometimes provokes hostility, even revealing divisions. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks his stunned disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:51-53).

What does the division-healing, division-revealing Spirit of Jesus have to say to us today in our polarized world? Let me suggest one overarching thought that then needs some explanation.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

Let’s step back even further. In case we Jesus-followers need to be reminded of this fact, no human person is ultimately our enemy. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh,” and “we do not wage war as the world does” with its “fleshly weapons” (Eph 6:12; 2 Cor 10:3-4).

This is Jesus’ Nonviolence 101. Humans may participate with the “spiritual forces of evil” in this world, and if so they need to be resisted, but ultimate they are not our enemy. God’s desire is for their redemption, and our redemption is bound up with theirs.

When it comes to how we treat individuals, then, we treat them as Jesus did: with compassion.

Here’s a striking contrast in the Gospels. Jesus speaks harsh, public words denouncing a group of people: woes to the rich oppressors, condemnations of unjust religious leaders (Luke 6:24-25; Matt 23). Yet he still shares meals with these people (Luke 7:36-50), and when he engages with individuals from among those groups he does so with deep compassion for them (John 3:1-15). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit, after all.

However, don’t miss this fact: Jesus does not shy away from speaking strong words against powerful oppressors, even individually. In fact, all his teaching and his healings, his whole way of life, was a subversion of the values of those powerful oppressors. And this brought division in his wake. Ultimately, it led to his crucifixion by the powers that be.

Jesus was a polarizing figure. Yet he was driven by compassion toward all, a devoted love for God expressed in compassionate love for neighbour.

Jesus’ love for all, though, had an important corollary: a strong sense of justice.

Jesus’ compassion for the powerless, impoverished crowds drove him to heal freely, to teach freely about God’s role-reversing reign of justice come near (Matt 9:35-36). The love of God compelled him to follow in the footsteps of the Prophets: denouncing injustice and oppression, pronouncing God’s judgment on unjust oppressors, and proclaiming God’s good news to the poor and liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21).

The love of God drove Jesus to walk in solidarity with the poor, the enslaved, oppressed and conquered peoples, right to the symbolic heart of that oppression: a Roman cross.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

As Christians today we look at polarization and see it as the opposite of peace. Ultimately, yes. There will be no polarization in God’s peaceable kingdom.

However, the path of peace can sometimes run through polarization, because, as Jesus’ life and death remind us, there is no peace without justice. And confronting injustice to create true peace will bring division. It will. Jesus has told us so. Jesus’ life and death has proved it to be so.

Don’t misunderstand me, or worse, Jesus. We can create division by being “jerks for Jesus.” That’s not what Jesus is talking about. That’s not the way of Jesus.

James Tissot, The Sermon of the Beatitudes

But when we patiently, persistently, compassionately seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, we will encounter hostility. Jesus doesn’t call us to a persecution complex, seeing persecution behind every opposition. But make no mistake: those who “hunger and thirst for justice” will be “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:6, 10).

Divisions will be revealed, sometimes gaping chasms of difference in values and goals and ways and means. These divisions will cut across family lines, as Jesus directly says, so we should not be surprised when they sometimes slice through our churches.

And when this happens, we cannot soft-pedal God’s desire for justice in order to create an artificial peace.

We Mennonites are especially prone to this, because in our veneration of peace we often strive to avoid conflict. Or we look for a middle-way compromise between two extremes, mistakenly calling this a “third way.” Thoughtful, empathetic compromise is certainly an important tool for simply getting along with each other in a diverse community. But neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other Apostle advocates for a middle-way compromise when injustice or oppression is on the table.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

To be more biblically precise, death is our enemy. Our sins of harm that create forms of death for others and our world, all the ways we cause harm or hinder well-being through our thoughts and words and actions, or inaction. Our systems and cultures of death that perpetuate these harms on a larger scale: economic inequity, corporate greed, militarism, colonialism, misogyny, racism, and more.

Death, we’re told, is the ultimate enemy, the “last enemy to be destroyed,” thrown deep into the fiery chasm from whence it came (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy that Jesus relentlessly pursued in every healing, every teaching, every interaction with a death-struck person, right through his own death into resurrection life.

And this is our calling as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to be united in the Spirit of Christ, being one in the body of Christ, centred on Jesus. Christian unity is not a unity that merely tries to keep a group of people together regardless of what they value and how they live. Christian unity is being united in walking in the loving, life-giving way of Jesus by the living, life-giving Spirit of Jesus.

All are welcome in this family of God, yes and amen! But this means people who cannot fully welcome the ones our world doesn’t welcome—the impoverished, the marginalized, those most vulnerable to harm, those perpetually oppressed by the powers that be—people who cannot fully welcome these our world calls “least” and “last” can never be fully welcome themselves until they can do so.

When we are complicit in injustice and oppression, complicit in sins of harm and systems of death, Jesus calls us to repentance. And when we repent, when we turn from our death-dealing ways of harm and embrace God’s life-giving ways of compassion and justice, Jesus assures us of God’s forgiveness.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

I am as concerned as any church leader about polarization in our churches and in our society. But polarization itself is not the enemy anymore than flesh-and-blood people on the other side of our divides are the enemy.

I long for churches to be united in the Spirit of Christ to follow the way of Christ, being the body of Christ in the world, seeking first God’s justice-bringing, life-generating reign on earth. May we have wisdom to discern how best to speak and act to bring about this true unity in Christ, and the courage to do so—even if the path to that unity first reveals some deep divisions among us.

Communion: Open or Closed?

Who should be allowed to receive communion?

It’s a question that comes up frequently in church circles, occasionally bursting into mainstream media. Among Mennonites, the question is typically framed like this: should the Lord’s Supper be “closed” only to the baptized, or should it be “open” to the un-baptized?*

Both sides are motivated by good impulses.

The best impulse of the closed communion folks is to protect abused, violated, or at-risk people among them from being forced to share the Lord’s Table with their oppressors. The best impulse of the open communion folks is to ensure that those often pushed out of church circles are welcome to share in the full life of the church. One side wants to protect the vulnerable, the other wants to remove barriers for the marginalized.

Of course, there are less admirable impulses on both sides as well.

Closed communion churches can be motivated by a desire of the powerful to maintain the status quo, gatekeeping to keep out undesirables. Open communion churches can be motivated by a bland form of acceptance or tolerance, unwilling to hold to account those among them living lives based on abuse of power, violence, greed, or injustice.

A simplistic “the Bible is clear on this” is another less-than-admirable motivation. It’s also not true.

Closed communion churches tend to point to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. The wealthy among the Corinthian believers had been coming to their shared meals early, filling up on food and wine and leaving nothing for the poorer Christians who had to work until late. Paul’s words are harsh and pointed: this abuse of the poor is a travesty of the Lord’s Supper, and the wealthy offenders must “examine themselves” to root out greed and inequity and “discern the body” of which all are equal members.

Yet Paul doesn’t tie his comments to baptism. Sure, it’s likely nearly everyone present at these communion meals was baptized. After all, baptism in Corinth, like elsewhere among the first generation of Christians, was probably as straightforward as professing belief in Jesus and being baptized as soon after as possible. But still, while Paul elsewhere does ground ethical appeals in baptism, he doesn’t do so with the Lord’s Supper. This could be because Paul in 1 Corinthians is reluctant to make too much of baptism: it was one of the things people were using to distinguish their partisan takes on Christian faith and life, aligning themselves with the one who baptized them. We may wish to ground communion theologically in baptism, but there’s no direct basis in 1 Corinthians (or anywhere in the New Testament, for that matter) for doing so.

Open communion churches tend to point to the stories of Jesus’ shared meals in the Gospels. Jesus became known as a “friend of sinners” and a “glutton and drunkard” because of his meals with those considered “least” and “last” and “lost” by the powers-that-be, turning patron-client and honour-shame conventions around meals on their head. He likewise told stories of God’s reign being like a meal in which those on the lowest rungs of society were welcomed. And the Last Supper, on which the Lord’s Supper is based, was a hodge-podge of disciples, sinners and tax-collectors and oft-despised Galileans themselves.

Yet the Last Supper doesn’t provide a perfect example of an “open” meal. While women disciples may have been present on the periphery, only male disciples are mentioned at table with Jesus. And yes, Jesus broke bread with a tax collector who had been on the side of Roman oppression and at least one Zealot who had been on the side of violence in opposition to Rome, but Jesus had called them to repentance and had lived and taught a radical alternative to these opposites. And sure, Jesus knowingly broke bread with both his denier and his betrayer, yet that act in itself could not keep these men from their actions. In fact, as closed-communion advocate Melissa Florer-Bixler has wryly noted, John’s Gospel pointedly states that it was “after [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.”

No, the Bible is not as clear on open versus closed communion as we might like it to be.

Still, these biblical texts highlight at least two realities all Mennonites (and all Christians) should take to heart.

First, regardless of a church’s stance on communion, we are called both to hold abusers of power to account and to remove barriers for the marginalized. We can tie these into our theology and practice of communion if we wish, but we had better be doing more than that in our wider theology and practice as a church. If unjust oppressors only feel uneasy when it comes time for communion, or if those cast aside by society only feel welcome when it comes time for communion, we’re not doing church right.

And second, Paul’s approach to baptism and communion strikes me as more Mennonite than some Mennonites. Some among us have almost made an idol of baptism and/or communion, even if we’re now more tolerant than we used to be about modes of baptism or ways of doing communion. Paul’s reluctance to make much of baptism in 1 Corinthians when he does so elsewhere is one of several examples of his ad hoc pastoral theology. Consistent, Paul was not. Or rather, Paul was guided by underlying values that overrode his commitment to particular forms or rituals.

And this, my Mennonite friends, is a very Mennonite way to approach church life. Our early Mennonite and other Anabaptist forebears were among the “radical Reformers,” striving for faithfulness to the words and ways of Jesus beyond any other form of religious (or political, economic, cultural, social) commitment.

If one congregation discerns that in their context closed communion allows them to live more faithfully to the way of Jesus, then peace be upon them. Likewise if a congregation discerns that open communion is where they need to be to follow Jesus faithfully in their setting: may they be blessed in this.

If, however, your church is making this decision out of more base impulses—powerful people gatekeeping those deemed undesirable, an unwillingness to confront injustice or abuse, even “the Bible is clear” or “it’s in our Confession of Faith” or “we’ve always done it this way”—then I encourage you to re-visit this question.

Regardless of where we end up as churches on open versus closed communion, may we be motivated by the love of Jesus, a way of love that pays special attention to the disempowered and calls to account the powerful, that seeks to orient our way of life together around God’s ways of equity and justice, so that we might all together participate in God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

*I realize there are other ways of defining “open” and “closed” communion, but for Mennonites baptism is where the line is typically drawn. I realize, too, that this debate is not confined to Mennonites, and that sometimes the question is whether a baptized member can be refused communion.

Eugène Burnand, The Great Banquet

Following Jesus Is Not Enough

Okay, let me start by saying I really do believe following Jesus is “enough,” in the sense that “following Jesus” nicely sums up what it means to be a Christian. Following Jesus in his teachings and way of life, united with him in his death and resurrection, and so being conformed by the Spirit to the image of God’s Son—this is what being a Christian means.

But here’s the problem: “following Jesus” can so easily be used to mean whatever we want it to mean.

We pick and choose which teachings of Jesus we think are really important. We make morality solely about inward intentions or private sexuality. We make the cross about an individual transaction with God. We view the resurrection as something still to come, no bearing on the here and now.

And then we can go on amassing our possessions, condemning “sinners,” ignoring the poor at our gates, and otherwise living in stark contrast to the way of Jesus.

It’s a well-worn path, a broad road even, this individualizing and privatizing and genericizing and spiritualizing of “following Jesus,” so we can justify our comfort and privilege, maintain our sense of piety and morality, and otherwise feel good about the life we lead.

It’s a path I find myself on often.

And so we need something to help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus,” to be “united with Christ,” to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son.”

Here’s where I’ve been helped by Black theologians like James Cone, by feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, by liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez. Here’s where the practical theology of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. has been important to me.

It’s from these followers of Jesus and others like them that I have learned of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

“The poor” in biblical context does not simply refer to the financially destitute. The phrase is aligned with “widows” and “orphans,” “aliens” and “strangers.” Jesus used words like “last” and “least” to refer to these children of God who were left at the bottom rung of society. “The poor” is often used, then, as a kind of cipher for all who are impoverished in power—economic power, yes, but also political power, social power, the power to change one’s circumstances for their wellbeing.

“Remembering the poor”—in the sense of “paying attention to those who are impoverished in power”—was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It was a crucial emphasis of his teaching. It was the way he lived. It gives greater meaning to the cross as God’s solidarity with the powerless, the evil-oppressed. It brings Jesus’ resurrection, God’s life-giving liberation, into the here and now.

This divine attention to the impoverished in power is the lens that can help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus.” When we “remember the poor” as we follow Jesus, we begin to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. We pay attention to those marginalized or even oppressed by powerful forces beyond their control, both spiritual and material. We see the ways we might be complicit with these powerful forces, whether by circumstance or by choice. We are Spirit-prompted to repent of this complicity and to walk in solidarity with the power-impoverished, even if it means a cross.

All this recalibrates our love of God and neighbour. It realigns our sense of morality and our ethics. It reforms our theology and heightens our worship. It draws us more closely to the way of Jesus. It unites us in practical ways with Christ in his death and resurrection, revealing us to be conformed to the image of Christ.

“Remembering the poor” helps us to follow Jesus. And this is indeed enough.

Reframing Unity

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

It’s an appeal for unity that sounds tailor-made for polarized congregations today. Churches are divided over LGBTQ+ inclusion, COVID precautions, rights and freedoms, penal substitution, critical race theory… It feels like too many things to name.

When we hear this appeal to “be of the same mind,” we probably think this means being in agreement about a set of beliefs or having the same positions on the important issues of the day. For many of us, this is what unity in the church looks like: it’s when everyone fully agrees on crucial doctrines or pressing social issues.

When there is disunity, then (meaning divisive disagreement on positions or beliefs), the typical appeal is for each side to listen to the other, to understand the other’s point of view, even to seek a compromise position or “middle way” (sometimes mistakenly labeled a “third way”—more on this later). In this understanding, both sides need to give a little if there’s going to be unity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to others and trying hard to understand their point of view. In fact, that’s crucial to living well with each other in any community. That’s also how we learn and grow.

But I’d like to suggest a different way of understanding unity, a reframing of unity that is better rooted in Paul’s language of being “of the same mind.”

Because here’s the thing: Paul never calls on divided congregations to come to a middle-ground compromise. Even more, Paul’s language of “being of the same mind” is not about “thinking the same way about doctrine or issues.” Rather, it’s about having a particular kind of “mind”: the “mind of Christ.”

The “one mind” we are to be “in accord” with is the “mind”—the way of thinking and living, the way of being—which Jesus displayed. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (Phil 2:5)—and then goes on to describe what this “mind of Christ” is.

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that divests ourselves of our individual power and privilege for the good of others, just as Jesus “emptied himself” of his divine status and prerogatives in becoming human for our liberation (2:5-7).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that enters into the life and suffering of the most disempowered and underprivileged, just as Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and even died a slave’s death, a conquered and oppressed people’s death—“death on a cross” (2:7-8).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that does all this to bring about a divine reversal, where those who have experienced oppression by the powers of our age enter with Jesus into his resurrection life and glorious exaltation (2:9-11).

Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

This is the “same mind,” the “one mind” which Paul has called the Philippians to be “in accord” with (2:2). This is the mind which Paul himself strives to enter into, living in Christ’s sufferings in order to enter Christ’s resurrection life (3:7-14). And this is the “same mind” which Paul urges mature Christians to hold—“and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15).

There’s no compromise sought here, no middle way between two apparently uncompromising positions. It’s a genuine “third way,” an alternative to two contrasting perspectives, and Paul expects full buy-in to this third-way “mind of Christ.”

Christian unity, then, is not about agreement with a Confession of Faith. It’s not about agreement with a set of positions on social issues. Confessions of faith are useful as theological guides, and it can at times be vital for us to take a particular stance on a significant issue in our world. But Christian unity isn’t found in our strong agreement with a set of doctrines or positions.

Being “united in Christ” is about our shared commitment to walk together in the way of Jesus, his liberating way of love. We are united in Christ when we commit together to hold our power lightly in our interactions with each other, to walk in humility and patience, kindness and compassion, with those who are different from us, especially with those who hold less power or privilege than we do. We are united in Christ when we commit together to pay attention to the marginalized and disempowered among us and around us, to walk in solidarity with these considered “last,” “least,” or “lost” in society toward justice and peace and flourishing life. This is “the Spirit of Christ” in which we are united, the Spirit who shapes us individually and collectively into the image of Jesus Christ.

Rather than asking two opposing “sides” in a congregation to get together and find a compromise position for the sake of unity, we’d be much better off with the whole congregation asking a few pointed questions:

  • What power and privilege do we hold—do I hold—within this congregation, within this community, this society?
  • How can we—and I myself—hold that power and privilege lightly as we walk with each other in humility, patience, kindness, and compassion, especially with those who are different from us?
  • Who are the genuinely disempowered and underprivileged, those who have historically or regularly been most vulnerable to actual physical and mental and spiritual harm, among us in this congregation and around us in this community?
  • How can we—and I—give up our power and privilege in order to empower these disempowered among us and around us, in order to walk in solidarity with them—knowing we will suffer with them, knowing we will be changed in the process—in order to bring about greater justice and more flourishing life for them and ultimately for all of us together?

When this is our shared stance, our shared way of thinking and living, our shared way of being—our “one mind”—then we can truly say we have discovered “unity in Christ.” May we, like Paul, “press on to make this our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own” (Phil 3:12).


Edited since originally posted. For some thoughts on parallels in other Pauline letters, including thoughts on how diversity works within this unity, see my comment below.

Christians, Freedom, and Human Rights

Over the past two years, many of us as Christians have forgotten our baptism.

Oh, sure, we might remember when we were baptized, or maybe we have the certificate or pictures to prove it. But we’ve forgotten what we were baptized into. We’ve forgotten what our baptism means.

The Christian understanding of freedom and human rights, like pretty much everything that is meaningfully “Christian,” grows out of our understanding of Jesus: his teachings, his way of life, his death and resurrection.

Jesus looked to his Scriptures, the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament), and he read them with a highlighter. He highlighted passages like “Love your neighbour as yourself,” claiming that this was bound up with the command to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” We show our love for God by loving our neighbours as ourselves.

And Jesus defined our “neighbour” broadly, yet with special emphasis. The neighbours we are to love include anyone we come across as we go through life, even if that includes the stranger or the foreigner—the outsider to our circles, the socially “other.” Yet Jesus, following the Torah and the Prophets, emphasized love for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the enslaved, the downtrodden—those especially vulnerable to harm, the socially powerless.

This comes through in another passage Jesus highlighted in his Scriptures, a passage from the Prophet Isaiah which he took as his life’s mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Jesus didn’t just teach these things, he lived them.

As the Apostle Paul puts it, Jesus set aside his own divine privileges—his own “rights” as God, you might say—in order to serve humanity in love. He sought out the powerless, he healed the sick, he blessed the poor, he spoke out against oppression and abuse of power against those most at risk. Jesus walked in solidarity with the lowest of the low, even dying a slave’s death, an oppressed and colonized people’s death, executed by the state on a cross. All out of love of neighbour.

This is the basis for a Christian view of freedom and human rights. Human rights are about ensuring basic rights for all people, for all people are created in God’s image. Yet in considering human rights Christians follow Jesus in seeking especially to ensure the rights of those most vulnerable to harm by powerful people and those most prone to oppression or marginalization by the powers that be.

And no, Christians in North America, that’s not us.

And freedom for Christians is about freedom to love our neighbours as ourselves, freedom to walk in Jesus’ way of love, again paying special attention to the socially “other” and the socially powerless. This is what true freedom is: loving others with the liberating love of God, so that they might be freed from all forms of bondage and oppression.

And no, Christians in North America, we are not being oppressed.

Here, then, is where too many of us as Christians have forgotten our baptism.

We have been baptized into Christ to follow the way of Christ, Jesus’ way of love. We have been baptized into Christ to walk in the freedom Jesus brings: liberated from the power of sin, our selfish ways of harm, to walk in Jesus’ way of love. In Christ we have the freedom not to pursue our own self-interest but the interests of others. In Christ we have the freedom to set aside our own rights and privileges to serve one another in love.

If you consider yourself a Christian, I urge you to remember your baptism. Remember the calling to which you were called. Remember the freedom for which Christ has set you free, and don’t settle for some pale imitation of the real thing. There are a lot of Christians right now peddling this fake freedom, and doing so in the name of Christ—don’t buy it, it’s not of Jesus.

And for God’s sake, and your neighbours’, get vaccinated if you can and wear a mask when you need to.

“Remember the Poor”

“Remember the poor.”

Those are the words of the Jerusalem apostles—Simon Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John—to the Apostle Paul (Galatians 2:10). In his preaching of his gospel to the Gentiles, these first witnesses to Jesus wanted an assurance from Paul that he would do this one thing: “Remember the poor.”

Theologians speak of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor. God acts especially on behalf of the poor, because they especially need God’s help. We see this emphasis throughout the Bible. The Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms all highlight concern for “the poor” alongside “widows and orphans,” often also including “the alien” or “the stranger.”

The apostles’ appeal to Paul to “remember the poor” is likely a specific reference to the poor in Jerusalem, a group that included a high proportion of widows (Acts 6:1). In the Gospels, Jesus focuses his ministry on “the last,” “the least,” and “the lost,” groups that include people who were sick, outcast, indebted, and imprisoned.

These descriptions suggest that “the poor” does not simply refer to the financially destitute. Or we might better say that various forms of poverty—a poverty of belonging, of support, of health, of respect, of purpose, really a poverty of power—intersect with economic poverty in significant ways. And so the God who is love pursues economic and social justice for the poor, seeking the empowerment of all who are impoverished.

Remember the poor.

This is a vital instruction for us in our evangelism or outreach, a necessary reminder that we cannot separate “evangelism” from “social justice” as some Christians attempt to do. It is also an important guide for us as we navigate group dynamics in our churches and communities.

If God is on the side of the powerless (Luke 1:46-55), if the gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18-19), if the poor hold God’s blessing and God’s kingdom (Luke 6:10), if in the impoverished in power we see the face of Jesus (Matthew 25:34-40), then it is vital for us as Christians to pay attention to power dynamics among us. In every situation we face, in every decision before us, we should ask ourselves, “Who holds power here? Who has less power here, or is even powerless?”

Power, in this sense, is one’s ability to shape circumstances to meet one’s basic human needs and the needs of others: physical needs like food and water, clothing and housing, health and safety and security; social needs related to belonging, loving and being loved; and spiritual needs like making sense of the world and one’s place in it, connecting to a purpose larger than oneself.

We acquire this social power in many ways, often simply because of who we are. In most Canadian social contexts, men have greater social power than women, white people have greater power than BIPOC, cisgender heterosexual people have more than LGBTQ+ people, adults have more than children, the middle-aged more than the elderly, the non-disabled more than persons with disabilities, the neurotypical person more than the neurodivergent, the wealthy more than the poor, those with approved pedigrees more than those without.

Our social power—the ability to shape circumstances to meet our needs and the needs of others—is a function of where we sit at the intersection of these diverse factors, and our power can vary depending on the particular situation.

All this means it is critical for us, in any given situation, to be aware of how we hold power, what gives us this power, and how our use of this social power affects others, especially those who are powerless. And then, following the way of God, we need to empower these who are impoverished in power. This is God’s kingdom way of justice, which we are to seek first before our own material needs (Matthew 6:33).

Remember the poor.

In our council and board meetings, in each decision we make—remember the poor.

In our congregational care meetings, our mission discussions, our visioning processes—remember the poor.

In our worship and communion, our preaching and teaching, our fellowship and service—remember the poor.

In our discerning of what love demands from us this day—remember the poor.

Attend to those who are impoverished in power. Remember the poor.

May our lives echo Paul’s own response to this challenge: “This is the very thing we are eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).

Published in Canadian Mennonite 25, no. 24 (2021): 14.

The Holy Mystery of God in Flesh and Blood

As I am reading through the upcoming lectionary texts for Sunday, the two passages from Hebrews stand out. They give us a unique glimpse into the mystery of the incarnation.

In Hebrews 1:1-4, we see the exaltation of Jesus. He is the divine Son through whom God pre-eminently speaks in these last days. Through him God created the worlds, and he is the rightful heir of all things. He is the perfect reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and all things are sustained by his powerful word. Since making purification for sins, he now sits in the position of penultimate authority at the right hand of God.

That’s quite a list for just a few verses! It’s also quite a thing to say about a man who lived only a generation before.

Hebrews 2:5-18 gives the other side of the incarnation coin, the humility and even humiliation of Jesus. He was for a little while made lower than the angels. He is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, entering into the same life as us, being of the very same flesh and blood. He has tasted of the suffering of death for us—for everyone, in fact.

This, too is quite a list. It’s quite a thing to say about the one “through whom all things were made,” the perfect “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

The mystery of the incarnation is one of the central mysteries of our faith. It’s also one of the most significant, and one of the most immediately helpful.

We worship a God who lovingly created us and sustains us—through Jesus. We worship a God who speaks to us and guides us—through Jesus. We worship a God who purifies us from our sin—through Jesus. And this God whom we worship has become one of us—in Jesus—sharing in our flesh and blood, participating in our frailties and fears, our sufferings and sorrows, in order to bring us into the very life of God.

May this holy mystery encourage us as we walk through this week in our flesh-and-blood lives. God our Creator has become flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Spirit of the enfleshed and crucified and risen Jesus is with us still.