Love Builds Up

Looking ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, I’m struck by the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.

It’s a fairly well known text, but a strange one. Paul is dealing with the issue of meat that has been sacrificed to a god or goddess in one of Corinth’s many temples. Corinthian Christians could get this meat at a discount in the local market. Should they buy it? Should they eat it? Should they eat it if someone offers it to them in their home? Should they attend a feast in one of these temples, and eat this meat there? (Should I eat it in a house? Should I eat it with a mouse?)

We all know what it’s like to live and worship together with others who have different religious sensibilities than ours. The thing that really matters to that person might not matter at all to me. But then there’s that thing which I think is really important—why can’t this person see how important it is? So much of church life is navigating these diverse sensibilities, around liturgy, mission, theology, and whether Henry should really be the one leading the singing over Zoom since God knows he can never hit those high E-flats.

The words that struck me this time are the words Paul opens with: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

How often does my knowledge, my certainty that I am right, puff me up in arrogant condescension of others? How often, then, do I miss the knowledge which is really most necessary—the knowledge of God through love? When we act in love for God—devotion to God through compassion for others—then we find we not only know God truly, we are truly and fully known by God.

God’s Reign Come Near

The Gospel text for this coming Sunday is Mark 1:14-20. It’s the well-known description of the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, including the call of the first disciples of Jesus. Jesus comes into Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God.” And what is this good news? That “the time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near.”

The Greek word for “come near” (engizō) is an interesting one. It can mean “near” either in terms of space or in terms of time—or possibly both. Does Jesus mean that it is almost time for God’s reign of true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life to be revealed on earth? (“The end is near!”) Or does he mean that this reign of God is already now but it’s just beyond our reach?

I tend to think Jesus meant both of these. Like God’s very self, the kingdom of God is both imminent—near in time—and immanent—near in space. If we have eyes to see it, we can see this reign of God already among us—heaven invading earth in acts of justice and peace and life-giving love. However, this reign of God is not fully here—and so we wait for its fullness to come, always tantalizingly just around the corner.

This week, as we do the necessary tasks before us, both the mundane and the sublime, may we glimpse the reign of God breaking into our world and among us as God’s people. And may we be filled with the ever-fresh hope that the fullness of God’s reign is just around the next bend.

Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.

“Heaven” in the Bible and My Imagination

“Heaven” in the Bible is never used to talk about “where we go when we die.” It usually means either “the heavens” (“the skies”) or it means something like “where God is most present.” Sometimes, because of this, it is used as a roundabout way of saying “God,” as in “kingdom of heaven” meaning “kingdom of God,” kind of like how we might say, “Thank heavens!” when we mean “Thank God!”

But still, when we talk about “heaven” we typically mean “where we go after death.” So, here’s how I think about “heaven” in this way, what happens after we die.

The Old Testament moves from basically no belief in life after death, to a belief in she’ol (a kind of shadowy existence without any substance or colour), to a belief in a future resurrection of the body (e.g. Daniel 12:2, 13). The New Testament picks up on this “resurrection” idea and fleshes it out in a pretty consistent way, even if the details vary from passage to passage.

The consistent New Testament expectation is this: immediately after death, we are with Jesus; and then, at some point, we are bodily resurrected to live in a renewed earthly creation. So, you could say, as N.T. Wright puts it, first there’s “life after death” with Jesus, and then there’s “life after life after death” in a new creation.

“Jesus, remember me…” Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

Immediately after death, we are with Jesus. In Luke 23:43 Jesus promises the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (“Paradise” is a Persian word that has the idea of a beautiful garden—it’s a place of bliss.) In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul says that when we are “away from the body” we will be “at home with the Lord.” And in Philippians 1:23 Paul talks about “departing from this flesh” and “being with Christ.”

Other New Testament passages give the same consistent message: after death we are with Jesus. There’s no more detail given than this (Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 and the vision in Revelation 6:9-11 are probably not to be taken literally as descriptions of what this actually looks like), but for Christians this is intended to be enough: after death we are with Jesus, and by extension with all those who have died “in Jesus” before us.

The ultimate end, however, is being bodily resurrected to live in a renewed earthly creation. The idea is a return to the way God originally created us to be: people with both a soul and a body, living in an earthly creation, enjoying that good creation and caring for it even as it provides for us (that’s Genesis 2:7-15). The New Testament is consistent in looking forward to this, even if it gives different depictions of exactly that might look like. This is what’s behind every future “resurrection” passage (e.g. Romans 8:18-30; 1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:4-6).

So much for the biblical, basic Christian expectation of life after death (and then life after this life after death!). How do I myself actually imagine this to look like?

I believe that when I die (when my body and brain stop functioning), my “spirit” or “soul” will continue to exist. I imagine feeling a kind of “painless peace” at that moment. I imagine, maybe, a feeling of motion to another place, where I will experience a kind of “waking” in a place suffused with light, as if the light oozes out of everything around me. That feeling of “painless peace” continues, but now is added a feeling of being deeply, perfectly loved, and being intimately connected to everything around me. I imagine, then, in this “place” being reunited with my loved ones who have died—a joyful reunion!—and seeing Jesus for the first time face to face—like coming home after being away for a very long time.

At some point—it might feel immediate, it might feel like time has passed—I believe that God will complete the renewal of creation that Jesus has begun and we have continued. Exactly what this looks like, I’m not sure, but I imagine this same world, this very earth, within this universe—yet without the pollution, the overcrowding, the disease, the war, the disasters, and all the greed and pride and abuse of power and more that has caused all that. It’s a pristine earth, with clear streams and clean air, beautiful flowers and grass and mountains and valleys and prairies and sunsets and twinkling stars.

Jan Richardson, The Best Supper

And at some point—again, not exactly sure what this looks like—I believe that God will resurrect us, bodily. We will live as we do now, as God intended us to live, but with bodies untouched by sin and death. We will plant gardens and make music and share meals and tell stories and live together in harmony—all peoples, every tribe and language and nation—with all creation, as God originally intended us to live.

Much of this imagining I get from stories of people who have had “near-death” experiences and from some of our poets and storytellers in the Christian tradition. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have been especially influential for me in my imagination of life after death and life after life after death.

I think, for example of Tolkien’s description of Frodo waking up in Minas Tirith after destroying the ring in Mount Doom—that’s how I imagine what happens immediately after death, waking up in Jesus’ presence. And then I imagine the new creation being like Frodo and Sam being back in the Shire, enjoying again the simple pleasures of tilled earth and good companions, but without the threat of evil from the East. Or, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lewis’ description of “heaven” in The Last Battle: just like this earth, only brighter, the colours purer, and with worlds upon worlds to explore “further up and further in!”

Maybe this is too many words. Or maybe it’s too much speculation. But the biblical descriptions of what happens after death do lend themselves to using our imaginations—always remembering, of course, that God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), and that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love God” (1 Corinthians 2:9). This is in many ways the basis for my hope for “heaven”—that God has given us deep desires to live, to flourish in life here on this good earth, and so God will fulfill those desires beyond our best dreams.

God’s Good News

There’s a lot of bad news in our world. Poverty, disease, violence, injustice, cruelty, war, famine, fire, flood—each day the news seems to be filled with these things. It’s easy to be discouraged by all this, even to despair for our future. It can also be easy to blame God for it all—after all, God’s in charge, right?

But this is not who God is, and this is not what God wants for the world. In fact, God has some very good news for us.


God loves the whole world and has a beautiful vision for our future.

God our Creator loves all creation—you, me, every person, all living things. Because of this, God wants true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all people together, where every person has their deepest needs met, no exceptions. God wants the earth and the water and the sky to be healthy and whole, so that all living things can thrive. This vision for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” come down to earth. It’s what the Bible also calls “salvation” and “eternal life.”

“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

“I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16)

“The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy.” (Romans 14:17)


We are under the sway of powerful forces that keep us from fully realizing God’s vision for the world.

The Bible talks about “sin”—it’s what we need “salvation” from. Sin is the harmful  things  we think  and say and do, but it is also harmful patterns of thought or behaviour, deep ruts of dysfunction we fall into and can’t seem to escape from.

These harmful patterns of thought or behaviour also show up in groups of people, even whole societies. A group can do terrible things that none of those people would do individually. Sometimes these harmful patterns become a part of the very structures and systems of a society—in unjust laws, for example.

The result of all this is what the Bible often calls “death”: not just physically dying, but also living in guilt, shame, fear, hostility, violence, oppression, and more. The Bible talks about all these manifestations of “sin” and “death” as “powers” that control us, that we seem to have no control over. They keep us from experiencing the life God wants for us.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

“All people are under the power of sin.” (Romans 3:9)

“Sin pays us death as wages, but God gives us eternal life through Jesus.” (Romans 6:23)


Jesus came to liberate us from these powerful forces and to bring about God’s vision for the world.

Jesus of Nazareth showed us God’s vision for the world. He taught God’s way of love for all and of peace through nonviolence. He freely healed and forgave people. He shared meals with those considered “sinners” and denounced those who oppressed the vulnerable. He was killed by the powers-that-be for living out God’s vision, but God raised him from the dead to a new life untouched by sin and death. In doing so God declared Jesus to be “Lord” over all powerful forces.

“Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Messiah Jesus—he is Lord of all…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…” (Acts 10:34-43)


If we resist these forces at work in us and in our world, and we commit ourselves to Jesus’ way of love, God’s vision for the world will become a reality.

Jesus calls us to “repent”: to resist our own sin, all those ways we harm others, and to resist the evil we see in the world through love, without violence. Jesus calls us to “believe in God’s good news”: to trust in God’s love for us and to commit to Jesus’ way of love in solidarity with others. When we do this, God’s presence is with us to make real God’s vision for the world: true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all. We will share in Jesus’ new life—even his life beyond death.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-34)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

“We know that we have passed from death to life when we love one another.” (1 John 3:14)


“The kingdom of God is like the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Will you allow God’s vision for the world to be planted in your own life, in your own small corner of the world? Will you trust in the God who loves you far beyond what you can even imagine? Will you commit to living out Jesus’ way of love?

If you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him in his way of love, here are some suggested first steps in the journey:

  • Join a faith community that is committed to following Jesus. In North America check out home.mennonitechurch.ca/churches or mennoniteusa.org/find-a-church.
  • Read the Bible to learn more about Jesus, his teaching, and his way of life. Try starting with the Gospel of Mark, and then read the other Gospels. Read online at biblegateway.com.
  • Pray regularly—being aware of God’s presence, communicating with God—in a way that works for you. Check out the “Take Our Moments and Our Days” (Android, Apple) and “Common Prayer” (Android, Apple) apps for your smart phone.

Here is this tract as a PDF. Here are instructions for printing and assembling it. Feel free to use, just use responsibly! For some background on how this tract came to be developed please see here.

Tracting the Gospel

A couple of years ago I took a local church to task for the “gospel tracts” they were handing out and which we received. Here’s what I said then about such “gospel tracts”:

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

I went on to declare, rather strongly, that this is in fact not the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s because it isn’t. And in the post I detailed why.

I ended the post with these words:

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

Not the gospel.

Now, there are good reasons to be suspicious of “tract theology” generally. Like its close kin, “bumper sticker theology,” tract theology assumes that the gospel can be sufficiently summarized in just a few words: a pithy phrase for a bumper sticker, four spiritual laws and a thousand words for a tract. Also, these pop theology media assume that the gospel can be divorced from any context: any extended biblical context, any deep context of Jesus’ life, any context of relationship between messenger and hearer.

As I say, these are good reasons to be suspicious of the whole gospel tract enterprise. That’s why the genre is dominated by truncated, even unbiblical “gospels”: Christians who have a more nuanced, contextual understanding of the gospel tend to be allergic to attempts at communicating the gospel in a pithy, slickly marketed way, devoid of context.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to make the attempt. One is that, for some people, these “gospel tracts” do work. And I don’t just mean that they convince some people. I mean that, out of all the people they convince, there are some who actually go deeper and become authentic Jesus-followers. This utilitarian reason is not enough; by itself, I loathe it, because I’m not sure that the ends (a few Jesus-followers) justify the means (many receiving and believing a distorted gospel). But it’s not the only reason.

There is also a history of tract- and slogan-making within Christianity, going back to earliest Christianity. Many of the Reformers and Radical Reformers wrote tracts: brief (by 16th century standards, which meant titles a mile long), general treatises on a subject, intended for wide circulation, to be read without any relationship with the author or any context other than the readers’ own. Slogans—pithy phrases to summarize larger ideas—were also part of this Reformation era (think sola gratia and sola fide).

This use of tracts and slogans actually goes back all the way to the New Testament itself. The gospel was in fact summarized in pithy ways by the Apostles and their followers: “Jesus is the Messiah,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Christ died for our sins according the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” and more. And as for tracts, many scholars view Ephesians as a general letter intended for multiple audiences. 1 John shows some of those same features, a kind of “sermon-letter” for a few different congregations.

If these tracts and slogans are not viewed as “the totality of the gospel” or a replacement for sharing the good news of Jesus within relationship in both deeds and words, then these can have their place. They can summarize for Christians what it is we profess and proclaim. They can be an introduction to the Christian message and an invitation to the way of Jesus for those who are curious or seeking.

I’ve summarized “the gospel” in various places on this blog, including that post about “gospel tracts.” Each time I do this it’s is a little different (that whole nuance and context thing). Nevertheless, in making a gospel tract these are the things I’d want to see:

  • A gospel that is based on the biblical descriptions of “the gospel” (euangel– language) and the “evangelistic speeches” of Acts, as well as informed by the New Testament descriptions of the “word of God/the Lord/salvation/truth/life/etc.” which are synonymous with “gospel.”
  • This means, then, a gospel that is about “God,” about “Jesus,” about “God’s kingdom,” and about “salvation,” as these are the most common “big-picture” content descriptions of the gospel in the Bible.
  • It means a gospel that includes the whole good news story of Jesus: Jesus in his person and character and way of life, and Jesus’ life from his baptism through his kingdom teachings and healings, his death “for our sins” at the hands of the “rulers and powers,” his resurrection by God “on the third day,” and his exaltation by God as Lord over all powers.
  • It means a gospel that is “good news for the poor.” This means the literal poor, yes—the economically disadvantaged and destitute. But in Scripture “the poor” is also often a cipher for all kinds of powerlessness: the widow, the orphan, the alien and stranger, the lowly, the last, the least, the lost, the “sinner.”
  • It means a gospel that calls forth “repentance” and “faith” that leads to “love,” as these are properly understood in biblical context. (For instance, “faith” doesn’t merely mean “agreeing that certain claims are true,” but it is more akin to “fidelity” or even “allegiance.”)

If someone presents a gospel that does not square with all these things, they are not proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. There may be a million different ways of presenting the gospel—as there must be, because human contexts differ and change—but these should be some guiding principles. At least, they are for me.

In the next post you’ll find my Michael Pahl Certified™ gospel tract: “God’s Good News.” If you need to attach further labels to it, you’ll find it to be Anabaptist-friendly and Christus Victor-leaning—not because that’s what I am, but because I am those things after thirty years of studying and teaching the Bible. (You might also notice my nod to “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself. 😊)

An Anabaptist Ecclesiology for a Global Pandemic

I’m convinced that the church is the gathered people of God.

In the New Testament, even when the word ekklēsia points beyond local gatherings to the universal church, it still has the idea of “the church that gathers”: followers of Jesus who live together in the world as Christ’s body, God’s family, a new humanity formed by the Spirit. This gathered people of God is together “a holy priesthood”: while some are called to spiritual leadership as “pastors” or “shepherd-teachers,” there are no human mediators between God and individual believers and each one is distinctly gifted by the Spirit of Christ so that together we can be the body of Christ in the world.

This understanding of “church” is part of what makes me “Anabaptist” in my Christian convictions. And this Anabaptist ecclesiology has some direct implications for how we “do church,” to use a modern phrase.

This ecclesiology means worship services are not performances. Worship services are the gathered people of God, gathered to worship God collectively, with everyone contributing in worship.

We don’t speak of a “stage” and an “audience”; we are a “congregation” gathered together in a “sanctuary,” or even, deep in our tradition, simply a “meeting house.” We don’t dim the “audience lights” and throw spotlights on the people “on stage.”

“Worship leaders” are neither priests nor performers. They are not even the “song leaders.” Worship leaders are exactly that: those in any given service (often lay people) who guide the congregation in our collective worship, all aspects of it (not just the music).

The building is closed. The church is still open.

Sermons are neither more nor less important than any other part of the service. Congregational singing, congregational sharing and prayer, sharing our creative gifts, sharing our financial resources, reading Scripture together, intentionally listening together for God’s voice to us as a congregation—these are just as important as, and some weeks more important than, what the preacher shares.

This ecclesiology also means worship services are not all that “church” is. We don’t simply “do church” on Sunday mornings; we “do church”—or better, we are the church—all throughout the week.

Yes, this means we live out our individual and family lives as Christians through the week, striving in the Spirit to follow Jesus in the ordinary everyday. But it also means we continue to be the church, gathering together throughout the week in various ways: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes.

Sometimes this way of thinking about “church” is considered “low church,” in contrast to “high church” ecclesiologies that include liturgy, sacraments, vestments, icons, candles, bells, and incense. I appreciate the distinction, and I myself love liturgy and worship that engages the senses. But I have to confess I bristle a bit at the idea that an Anabaptist view of church is “low”: we take church as seriously as any other group of Christians, and more seriously than many.

But what happens when “the gathered people of God” can no longer gather? How can we be the church in a pandemic?

In some ways the answer to this is simple: we continue to find creative ways to love our neighbours as ourselves, loving all others (and especially the most vulnerable) in the way of Jesus. There is never any shortage of people who need to be loved.

But this is really an individual Christian response to a pandemic. How do we do this specifically as the church, the gathered people of God? And how do we do all the things that nurture and support the faith and hope that form the root of this love? How do we worship together, pray together, learn together, hear God’s voice to us together, serve together?

How do we sing together? How do we break bread together?

When we dig a little deeper into this question—how can we be the church in a pandemic?—we find the answers aren’t simple and easy at all.

Since there are no simple and easy answers to this, I won’t stand in judgment on any other church or pastor and how they work through this question. (Unless you’ve been given specific guidelines, even orders, by your local health authorities not to gather in large groups, but you still do—then may God have mercy on your souls, and on the bodies of the rest of us who might end up paying for your foolish hubris disguised as “faith.”)

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts roiling around in my brain, circling around this conviction:

The church hasn’t changed. We are still the gathered people of God.

Because of this conviction, I’ll confess I have no appetite for recording or livestreaming a “worship service” of people performing in front of empty pews. I do understand the impulse behind these efforts, and I sympathize with those who have decided to do this. But that’s never been what our worship services are—they’ve never been about the people “on stage” doing something which the people “in the audience” observe.

Since our worship services are more participatory than that, I’m working at finding ways to include as many people as possible in the “virtual worship services” we as a church are providing, and I’m working at finding ways to encourage people to participate in those online worship services. We’re recording various church folks praying and singing and playing music to accompany our hymns, for example, so those gifts can be shared on a Sunday morning.

Also, because of this conviction that the church is still the gathered people of God, I am encouraging our church to lean into the idea that our worship services are not all that “church” is. We may not be able to gather in person, but we are committed to finding ways to “gather” throughout each week for all the reasons we’ve always gathered: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes. Some of this “breaking bread together” might have to happen as households host one another for a meal via Zoom, but we’ll find a way.

The goal of all this faith- and hope-formation, the fruit we’re hoping to see among us, is still the same: love. Loving each other, loving all others, and especially loving the most vulnerable, in the way of Jesus.

For many of us, for now at least, this “love in the way of Jesus” means being physically separated from others, especially the most vulnerable. That’s counter-intuitive for all of us, but especially Mennonites, who like a hands-on kind of Jesus-love.

Social distancing, Dirk!

For all of us, this “love in the way of Jesus” means finding creative ways to walk in solidarity with those most at-risk and those most affected and afflicted. Following social distancing requirements to the letter, but doing so to help stock the local food bank. Checking in with our elderly and immune compromised church folks, making sure they have the things they need. And more.

All churches are having to find creative ways to “do church” and “be the church” in these days. But for those with strong Anabaptist convictions about church? We’ve got some unique challenges—and opportunities—ahead of us.

How is your church “doing” and “being” the church during COVID-19?

If your church is a Mennonite or other Anabaptist church, how is your church trying to maintain the conviction that the church is “the gathered people of God?”

Most pressing for Mennonites, how in the world are you singing together and breaking bread together? 🙂

I’d love to hear constructive responses!

Note: This post has been edited slightly since its original publication.

Am I “Satanic” or Just “Unbiblical”? A Guide for My Christian Critics

Dear Christian critic,

I occasionally say things that you find disconcerting, even disturbing. Sometimes you accuse me of being “unbiblical,” or of “not preaching the gospel,” or of “heresy,” even of being “antichrist” or (my personal favourite) “satanic.”

Those are strong words. However, you do not seem to be using them correctly. So, I’ve put together this helpful guide for you to use those terms more accurately in the future.

Rest assured, I will continue to say disconcerting things.

Respectfully,
Michael

—————————————————-

“Unbiblical.”

This means “not biblical.” (We’re off to a good start here.)

Now, I certainly say and do plenty of things that are “not biblical.” Just the other day I texted my wife (texting is not in the Bible) and let her know that we already had two big bottles of ketchup in the fridge, both half full (ketchup is also not in the Bible, and hoarding resources is not an acceptable biblical practice).

More to the point, like most people I do occasionally lie, I sometimes have anger issues, and I participate in an economic system that exploits poor labourers to enrich the wealthy. These things and more are profoundly “unbiblical.” I’m trying to become “more biblical” in both my personal morals and my social ethics.

But I suspect this is still not what you mean by “unbiblical.” I suspect what you really mean when you call something I say “unbiblical” is “Michael’s teaching is not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.”

After all, I read and study my Bible every day. In fact, I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life studying the Bible in order to help other people understand the Bible better. I preach on biblical passages every time I preach. I teach Bible studies, and topical studies on the Bible and about the Bible. So, when you say I’m saying or doing something “unbiblical” you can’t mean “Michael doesn’t take the Bible seriously.”

I can only conclude, then, that by “unbiblical” you mean, “not according to my interpretation of the Bible and what I have prioritized as most important in the Bible.” It might be more helpful, then, if you said that. Then we could have a conversation about how we interpret the Bible differently and why we prioritize various biblical teachings differently.

“Not preaching the gospel.”

Now this strikes near to my heart.

You see, I’ve not only spent the last 30 years studying and teaching the Bible, I’ve also become convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what the Bible points us toward. The gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). It is the truth we are to live out in our individual lives and as churches, and it is the truth we are to teach within our churches and proclaim to the world. It is the truth the world desperately needs.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of Jesus, from his baptism to his resurrection, including all his words and works and ways (Mark 1:1). It is the good news that God has arrived in Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus is the anticipated “Messiah” of Israel who brings about the “kingdom of God,” God’s vision for justice and peace and life for the world (Mark 1:14-15). It is the good news that Jesus has done this—that he has brought near God’s reign—through his life, his teachings, his execution on a Roman cross, and his resurrection from the dead by God (Acts 10:36-43; 1 Cor 15:3-5). It is the good news that this risen and exalted Jesus is now “Lord” over all powers of this age, including all evil powers (Rom 1:1-6; 10:9-10).

This good news calls forth a response of “repentance”: turning from our collusion with the evil powers of this age, even actively resisting these powers, including both our own personal sins and the wider injustices of our world. This good news calls forth a response of “faith”: committing ourselves to the loving and faithful God who calls us to walk in Jesus’ way of suffering love in solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed, in the presence and power of God’s Spirit. When we do these things, we will experience the reign of the God who is love: forgiveness and joy, true justice and lasting peace, flourishing life for ourselves and for the world—God’s “salvation,” in other words.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ according to his Apostles, and this is the gospel I preach. So, when you say I am “not preaching the gospel,” what you must mean is, “Michael is not preaching the ‘gospel’ I’ve been taught to believe.” If the gospel you believe lines up with the gospel I preach, hey, we good! If not, let’s get together and explore what the New Testament says about “the gospel.”

(Though if you publicly preach or disseminate a gospel reduced to a private transaction offering fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, or a gospel that is not actually “good news for the poor,” I’m likely to call you out on it. Fair warning.)

“Heresy.”

Ah, yes. The favourite power-play of self-styled theologians.

I say that because, for most trained theologians, “heresy” has a fairly well-defined meaning. It is the opposite of “orthodoxy,” which also has a fairly well-defined meaning.

“Orthodoxy” in this broad sense (not referring to “Eastern Orthodox churches”) means adhering to the universal creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and often also the Athanasian Creed. It means confessing such historic Christian doctrines as the Trinity, God as Creator of all things, the incarnation, the true humanity and true deity of Christ, Jesus’ virginal conception, Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ exaltation to God, Jesus as judge of humanity, the person and activity of the Holy Spirit, the universal Church, the forgiveness of sins, a future bodily resurrection, and life in the age to come.

“Heresy,” then, is denying these things.

Since I believe these things, and have never denied them, when you accuse me of “heresy” you must mean, “Michael is teaching things which I think are wrong.” Sorry, but you don’t get to decide what “heresy” is, and neither do I.

(Which is why I won’t call you a heretic, even though I probably think you’re wrong. Unless you really are a heretic, in which case I might use that term. But don’t worry: as an Anabaptist “heretic” just doesn’t carry the same weight for me as it does for others. Too many Anabaptists were drowned or burned for so-called “heresy,” I suppose, and there’s not enough interest among us in authoritative creeds beyond the life and teaching of Jesus.)

“Antichrist.”

I do admire this one—it’s got a certain panache.

Allow me a little deep-dive into 1 and 2 John, though, the only places in the Bible where “antichrist” is used.

These letters were written for a specific situation. Some people were teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was not really the “Christ.” They apparently taught that the “Christ” was a spirit which came upon Jesus and then left Jesus before he died. These teachers made a sharp distinction between the “spiritual,” which we are to embrace, and the “physical” or “material,” which we are to cast aside. These theological acrobatics allowed them to treat actual flesh-and-blood people in uncompassionate, even cruel ways—not providing food for the hungry, for example.

This is what the author of 1 and 2 John calls “antichrist” and “the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). You could summarize “antichrist” this way: “denying that Jesus is who the gospel proclaims he is, both fully human and fully God; denying that salvation is what the gospel says it is, the full redemption of creation and humanity in both body and spirit; and denying that the gospel calls us to love one another in very direct and practical ways.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always love others in the way of Jesus. But I strive to, and I certainly affirm all these things. Sorry to burst your bubble, then, but I’m no antichrist, and neither is my gospel or my teaching “of the spirit of antichrist.”

“Satanic.”

This is my favourite. (Narrator: “That is a lie. Michael does not like being called ‘satanic.’”)

This is getting long, so quick summary. “Satan” (or really “the satan”) in the Bible simply means “the adversary.” It often means “the adversary of God” or “the adversary of God’s people.”

So, I get it. If you think I’m teaching or acting against God’s ways, then I might well seem “satanic” to you.

But it’s worth thinking about the way the Gospels describe what is truly “satanic.” Jesus is tempted by “the devil” in the wilderness, tempted to use his power selfishly, tempted to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus cries (Matt 4:10). Later, Peter tries to deter Jesus from going through the suffering of the cross; it’s another call for Jesus to instead bring about God’s kingdom on earth through worldly power. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus again cries (Matt 16:23).

The way of “the satan” is the way of worldly power—gaining power and privilege, even through accumulating wealth and the use of violence, and using these means to achieve our own ends, even potentially good ends. But this is not the way of God. This is not the way of Jesus. And, although I’m as prone to love power as the next person, it’s not the way I’m striving to live.

Sorry, I’m really not satanic. I’m pretty boring, really.

Here’s the bottom line in all this: you think I’m wrong about something. Fine. I probably think you’re wrong about a few things, too. I might even think you’re actually the heretic or the one not preaching the true gospel.

But maybe we could get together and talk about these things, you know, with a little gentleness and respect (2 Tim 2:24-26; 1 Pet 3:15-16). I’ll try and cut the sarcasm if you try and cut the name-calling. Deal?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Or, another way to put it: Who are the commandments for? Who is being expected to obey these commandments?

For most Christians, the assumption is that these are universal moral laws: they are for everyone. The “you” in the Ten Commandments is “every person.”

This can make a lot of sense—with some of these commands. We read, “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” or “You shall not steal,” and it can make perfect sense to hear these as “You—every person—must not do these things.”

But other commandments complicate this assumption.

Take the commandment to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Exod 20:8-10).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? If you still think it’s “every person,” go back and read that last bit again.

Or, take the commandment not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? Or, more appropriately, who’s the “neighbour”?

The “you,” and the “neighbour,” in these commandments is not “every person.” It’s not a universal “you.” The “you” does not include wives, sons or daughters, male or female slaves, or resident foreigners. The “you” here has a wife, sons and daughters, and male and female slaves.

The “you” in these commandments is a man, not a woman or a child. The “you” is a free man, not a slave. The “you” is a property-owning free man, a free man with a “household,” not someone landless and without wealth.

I’ve pointed this out in different teaching contexts, and responses range from bemusement to confusion to shock to denial. Even with the text staring them in the face, some insist that the “you” in the Ten Commandments must be “every person.”

“That’s your interpretation,” they say.

“Read it again,” I say. “That’s the text.”

Now, my point in raising this in teaching contexts is not to deny that the Ten Commandments have any ongoing moral relevance. I believe they do.

Rather, my point is that there is no straight line between the text of Scripture and what it means for us today. We do need to interpret the text—we all do anyway, actually, whether we realize it or not—and if we want to interpret the text well we must grapple with the reality of Scripture’s ancient cultural contexts.

And a big part of this is grappling with the various forms of patriarchy that underlie every single book in our Bibles.

This is disconcerting for us, even disturbing. And it should be.

The Ten Commandments assume—and even support—a patriarchy centred on free men with households, including wives, children, slaves, and other property. This is a slaveholding society, a society which allowed not only bonded servitude to pay a debt but also chattel slavery of conquered foreigners (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). It’s a society in which women are, at least in some sense, the “property” of a man: their father, then their husband (Exod 20:17; Numbers 30; Deut 22:13-21).

This should be disturbing for us.

And it’s not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes—and often supports—a similar form of patriarchy centred on free men with households, including subject wives and owned slaves. “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, like Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’” (1 Pet 3:1-6). “Slaves, obey your masters in everything” (Col 3:22).

This should be disturbing for us.

But running right through the Bible, from Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a parallel thread highlighting God’s concern for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Actually, it’s even stronger than that: there is a thread running through the Bible that emphasizes God’s solidarity with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Even the Ten Commandments, which assume and support a slave-owning, patriarchal society, open with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The God of Israel is the God of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Any other “god” is not the true and living God, the Creator-of-All, the Redeemer-from-Slavery, the Sustainer-of-the-Oppressed.

Here’s a good way to see this biblical thread represented in a single passage. According to Luke’s Gospel, these are the words of Jesus in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth:

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.

I say these are the words of Jesus through the Evangelist Luke (Luke 4:18-19), but this is Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2), and referencing the Year of Jubilee in the Law of Moses (Lev 25). From Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a thread through the Bible that highlights God’s concern for, even God’s solidarity with, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The poor in a world of shocking economic disparity. The incarcerated in a world of authoritarian violence against minorities. The disabled in an ableist world. The indigenous in a colonized world. The queer in a heteronormative world.

And women in a patriarchal world.

The “you” in the Ten Commandments is not “every person”; it is people with power, especially men with power, people who need a law to restrain the abuse of their power.

But God is decidedly on the side of the powerless. The God who is enthroned in the heavens comes down to the lowest of the lowly, and dwells with them, and takes up their cause, and overthrows the powerful who violate the powerless.

This is how God is revealed in the Law and the Prophets. And this is how God is revealed in Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to use to his advantage,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even execution on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

#JesusEconomics

Imagine Jesus as a financial advisor, or maybe as an economic consultant to presidents and prime ministers…

“Okay, here’s my plan (endorsed by God): I’ve come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim a ‘year of God’s favour’ – a Jubilee where all debts are forgiven.” (Luke 4:18-19) #JesusEconomics

“You who are poor, you who are hungry, *you* are the ones blessed by God. God’s political agenda favours *you*. The wealthy? You’re on the wrong side of history. Nothing but woe for you.” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25) #JesusEconomics

“Give to everyone who begs from you. Yes, everyone. If someone in need steals something from you, let them keep it.” (Luke 6:30-31) #JesusEconomics

“Don’t lend only to those who can repay you. Lend, expecting nothing in return. Yes, nothing.” (Luke 6:34-36) #JesusEconomics

“If you simply want to preserve your life you’re going to lose it. There’s no profit in gaining the whole world if you lose your soul in the process!” (Luke 9:23-25) #JesusEconomics

“It’s true: a labourer deserves a fair wage. So share peaceful hospitality and enjoy food and drink together. Oh, and heal the sick among you, freely. This is God’s political agenda.” (Luke 10:5-9) #JesusEconomics

“That ‘heal the sick freely’ thing? I meant it. Even when it’s a foreigner, an enemy, someone you despise. They are your neighbour, and loving our neighbour is right up there with loving God.” (Luke 10:25-37) #JesusEconomics

“We need to yearn for God’s political agenda to be implemented. This means ‘daily bread’ for all of us. This means forgiving debts others owe us. Amen.” (Luke 11:2-4) #JesusEconomics

“We need to guard ourselves against every form of greed, always wanting more and bigger and better. True life is not about possessing things.” (Luke 12:15-21) #JesusEconomics

“We need to strive for God’s political agenda, and all our basic needs will be met.” (Luke 12:22-31) #JesusEconomics

“Sell your possessions before they possess you. Give to the poor and needy. Make these your treasure, for these are what is treasured by God.” (Luke 12:33-34) #JesusEconomics

“Don’t throw a party – or a state dinner – for those who can repay you. Lay out a feast for those who *can’t* repay you, especially those society most ignores – after all, they’re the ones who most need it.” (Luke 14:12-14) #JesusEconomics

“If you’re going to do a project you make sure you’ve got enough to pay for it. You might think this means you should save up every penny for yourself. Nope! It means you need to give up the whole idea of possessing anything yourself.” (Luke 14:25-33) #JesusEconomics

“Just to be clear: wealth is a god who will enslave you. Instead, become slaves of God who gives you freedom. Make your choice: you cannot serve both God and money. You cannot serve both God and The Economy.” (Luke 16:13) #JesusEconomics

“Here’s a story: Rich man ignores poor man right next door. Rich man dies. Poor man dies. Poor man goes to heaven. Rich man goes to hell. He should have listened to Moses and the prophets!” (Luke 16:19-31) #JesusEconomics

“If the wealthy refuse to distribute their wealth equitably, they’re not participating in God’s political agenda. They’re not ‘saved,’ no matter what they say. But God can work miracles!” (Luke 18:18-27) #JesusEconomics

“Here’s a better story: Rich man got rich by robbing from the poor. Rich man repents, gives half his wealth to the poor and pays back four times what he defrauded others. This is a billionaire who got ‘saved’!” (Luke 19:1-10) #JesusEconomics

“Yes, pay your taxes. Give to human rulers what they think they need: it’s only money. But make sure you give to God what belongs to God: ‘The earth is God’s and everything in it.'” (Luke 20:21-25) #JesusEconomics

“A poor woman who gives her entire widow’s pension for a good cause has given more than a multi-billionaire donating a hundred million dollars for a university with his name on it.” (Luke 21:1-4) #JesusEconomics

The Gospel of the Lord. #TheGospelAccordingToLuke #JesusEconomics