Celebrating Canada and the Reformation: Uneasy Gratitude and Semper Reformanda

If you are a Protestant Christian in Canada, 2017 is a pretty big year. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, which took effect on July 1, 1867. This year also marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—or, at least, 500 years since the Reformation’s symbolic beginning, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Celebrations of all sorts are already underway for both anniversaries, and they’ll be ramped up even more once the magic dates hit. Tomorrow is going to be quite the party, all across the country.

But if you read the news, both the mainstream news and the news in Christian circles, you’ll know that not everyone is celebrating Canada’s 150th or the Reformation’s 500th. These celebrations—well, it’s complicated.

I remember when both Canada and the Reformation were easy things to celebrate for me.

I’ve always been among those millions of Canadians cheering Canada on in all the big hockey games. Canada Day has been a big date on our family calendar, whether it has meant parades or fireworks or a private celebration during our brief sojourn in the U.S. “I am Canadian”—born and bred and blood bright red.

As far as the Reformation, well, I identified for most of my life as an evangelical Christian. This meant, among other things, believing we evangelicals were the true heirs of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s story was told for us in evangelical terms: his conversion out of a heretical works-righteousness tradition-bound Roman Catholicism to a Scripture-alone grace-alone faith-alone Christ-alone salvation is a staple of evangelical lore.

Now, however, I think I’d characterize my thoughts and feelings about both Canada and the Reformation as a kind of “uneasy gratitude.”

The gratitude is strong. Very strong.

I am grateful that I live in a country that has a high quality of life: a liberal democracy with an excellent education system, publicly funded health care, and opportunities for meaningful work, all governed by the rule of law and so safe and secure and peaceful for most people, most of the time. I am grateful, even proud, to be a citizen of a country that more often than not has welcomed refugees, promoted multiculturalism, celebrated diversity, and played the role of peacemaker abroad.

I am also grateful for the Reformation. The medieval western church needed reform, even a resurrection, not just theologically but also culturally, socially, ethically, and more. I am grateful, then, for the Reformation’s focus on not just ecclesiastical reform but also individual repentance and societal transformation. I am grateful also for its application of Renaissance humanism to Christian faith and life: ad fontes (to the sources!), a critique of traditional authority structures, and more.

Yet this gratitude is mixed with a strong dose of unease.

Over the past few years I have become ever conscious of Canada’s colonialist and racist past and present. What I had understood earlier in my life as merely “bumps along the road” of an otherwise glorious Canadian journey were—and still are—massive barriers of systemic bigotry and injustice toward our host indigenous peoples and others of non-European descent. I’ve also become increasingly aware of nationalist and protectionist undercurrents in Canadian society, much of which ain’t pretty. Sometimes these things scare me, quite frankly.

As for the Reformation, I’ve come to recognize its ugly aftermath of schismatic ecclesiology (“Disagree? Split the church!”) and individualistic soteriology (“I’m saved—phew!”) and quasi-gnostic every-ology (“Give me heaven, earth be damned!”) that have little to do with the theologies reflected in the Bible. I no longer view Catholics as heretics, and I’m not convinced Luther got “justification by faith” right. And, of course, as an Anabaptist, I’m not all that fond of the general Protestant pining for the good old days of Christendom (just let it die already).

One of the realities of growing up is a realization that the world is not so neatly sliced into “good” and “bad.” When we’re kids it can seem as if the world is that way: people, things, ideas, are either thoroughly good or completely bad. But as we grow up we put away those childish ways (or so we should—the recent “you’re either for us or against us” polarization within our society on nearly every issue makes me wonder). We realize that good people do bad things and bad people do good things. We recognize that many good ideas, many good ideals, have bad elements to them. Politics, economics, people, church, society, history, theology, ethics—well, it’s complicated.

So it is with Canada, and so it is with the Reformation: there is much that is good, much to celebrate, but they’re peppered with elements that are bad—some things simply wrong, others unjust—and need to be changed. It’s a sign to us that, however many positive steps we may make toward a more just and peaceful and good and beautiful world, we have not yet arrived.

This is where my favourite Reformation-related phrase comes in: semper reformanda, “always reforming.” Karl Barth may have coined the phrase in reference to the church less than a century ago, but it expresses something good at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, the Radical Reformers who pushed even further, and all those who keep pressing on the status quo to make the world a better place.

We haven’t arrived. The road goes ever on. The arc of history must continually be pressed toward justice. We may have reformed—somewhat, in some ways—but we are still always reforming, still repenting, always resurrecting, until God’s kingdom comes, God’s will is fully done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So we continue to pray, and for this we continue to strive.

“From sea to sea”: On Canada, the Church, and the Kingdom of God

This post is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday. It was prompted by the reading from Zechariah 9:9-12 in light of both Canada Day and the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly this past week.

Update (July 2018): Here’s the audio of a recent revision of the full sermon:

A mari usque ad mare. “From sea to sea.”

That’s Canada’s motto, a symbol of our national unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic.

Canada Flag 2Most Canadians probably know the motto, but they might not know it comes from Psalm 72. It’s a psalm that was likely part of the coronation liturgy of ancient Israel. It’s a prayer for each new king in David’s dynasty, expressing all the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel with each successive king:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth… (Ps 72:1-8)

It’s quite the prayer, whether for ancient Israel or for twenty-first century Canada. In fact, ancient Israel and modern Canada have a few things in common: both relatively young nations in their eras, both small nations in the shadow of giants, both with big dreams for a glorious future.

While most Canadians might know our nation’s motto, and some might know its biblical origins, I suspect very few are aware that it also comes up in a later biblical book, in a much different setting.

The book is Zechariah, and in Zechariah’s day things were not at all like they used to be. Israel has been divided and conquered, their grand hopes for the future crushed. The people have been cast into exile, and a few have just recently returned from that exile to re-build Jerusalem’s walls and temple.

In many ways this ragged band of Jewish returnees felt much like many Christians feel in Canada today: the glory days are behind us, the days of a sanctuary bursting at the seams, bustling with worshipers and filled with choirs. Like the old-timers in Zechariah’s day who remembered the original temple of Solomon, many among us today remember the old days, and weep (Ezra 3:12).

But here’s what Zechariah does: he takes this ancient song of Israel’s kings and uses it as a powerful symbol of hope for the future:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:9-10)

One day, Zechariah promises, God will come again among his people. One day there will again be an anointed king of Israel who will fulfill those ancient hopes. One day the prayer of Psalm 72 will be answered.

Jesus is this king. So we as Christians believe. The prayer of Psalm 72, the promised answer to that prayer in Zechariah 9—these are fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus is the world’s true Lord and King. Jesus has come to bring justice to the world and peace on earth, the full shalom of God. Jesus has come to bring flourishing life to all God’s creation: a healing of wounds, a restoration of brokenness, a very reversal of death. Jesus is this promised king, who brings in God’s promised kingdom, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what the New Testament means when it declares that “Jesus is the Christ,” the Messiah, or “Jesus is the Son of God.” This is what it means when it proclaims that “Jesus is Lord.” This is what the gospel is all about, “the gospel of the kingdom” or “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But while God’s kingdom will come on earth, this kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). It’s not like any kingdom this world has ever seen, unlike any nation on earth. It operates by a different set of rules, values that are upside-down compared to the values of earthly realms.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the poor are richly blessed, where the sick are freely healed, where the outcasts are at the center.

God’s kingdom is a realm where enemies are loved as neighbours, where neighbours are loved as ourselves, where our selves are denied for the sake of others.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the king is a servant who suffers in love, and that sets the agenda for everything else.

But God’s kingdom is also a realm where real life is found, resurrection life, through that self-giving love.

God’s kingdom is a realm where parties break out when the lost are found, where banquets are laid out for the last and the least.

God’s kingdom is a realm where water for ceremony is turned into wine for celebration.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the whole world is invited: from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, men and women and children of every tribe and nation.

In fact, God’s kingdom is not any nation at all, nor any organization. It’s a perpetual grassroots movement, starting with a ragged band of followers: a tiny seed that grows into a world-shading tree. God’s kingdom is the dynamic reign of God, the Creator God ruling over all creation in love and faithfulness, bringing justice and peace and flourishing life.

MC Canada doveWhat does this all have to do with Canada’s future, and with the future of the church in Canada? Just this: our hope for the future lies in Jesus, the one who truly answers the Psalmist’s prayer and fulfills Zechariah’s expectation, the one who has truly been given all authority from sea to sea.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any nation, even one so glorious and free as Canada—may God keep it so. Should Canada fade from history, should the world map be radically re-drawn, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The kingdom of God cannot be identified with any nation. A nation can reflect kingdom values to a greater or lesser degree, but no nation is the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is bigger than any nation—it has no borders, in fact it breaks down borders of geography and race, economics and social status. God’s kingdom is outside the power structures we create, our governments, our laws, our law enforcement, judicial system—because however good those things may be, they are inevitably abused and corrupted, always in danger of supporting systemic evil.

God’s kingdom is among us as people, not among us as a nation.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any church organization, whether globally or nationally or regionally—or even us locally. Should Mennonite Church Canada or Manitoba be dissolved, should Morden Mennonite Church even cease to be, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The church is not the kingdom of God.

The church is called to be a witness to God’s kingdom, a signpost of the kingdom, pointing people to God’s dream for the world. Local churches like Morden Mennonite are to be a kind of outpost of God’s kingdom on earth, nurturing the upside-down values of the kingdom, a test plot showing what the kingdom of God can be like.

But God’s kingdom is bigger than any local church, broader than any particular denomination—it encompasses the world.

Our hope for the future lies with Jesus, the world’s true Lord and King. And this means our hope for the future lies in the extent to which we follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom.

Do we truly want to follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom? Do we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice? Then let’s count the cost. Let’s ask ourselves some hard questions—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the last and the least among us? The vulnerable, the marginalized, those outside our white, middle-class, heterosexual norm? Who are the lost? The doubting, the confused, the spiritually seeking, even the most egregious sinners?

To the extent that we first the last, feast the least, and find the lost, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the poor among us? The needy in our community, the homeless in our cities? Who are the sick? The dying, the mentally ill? Who are the outcasts? The elderly, the lonely, the disabled? The refugees, the immigrants, our host indigenous peoples? The convicted criminals, the shamed victims?

To the extent that we richly bless the poor, freely heal the sick, and center ourselves on the outcasts, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are our enemies? Our theological enemies, our political enemies, those difficult people who seem to always be against us, those who seek to harm us? Who are our neighbours? The people next door, the people down the street, the people in that other church, the people in that city next door?

To the extent that we love our enemies as neighbours, and love our neighbours as ourselves, denying ourselves for the sake of others, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

These things have nothing to do with how many people we have in our pews or how many programs we have in our church. They have nothing to do with how closely our society’s laws parallel our sexual ethics, or how well Canada’s economy is going. These may well be good things, but they are not signs of the kingdom.

Rather, Jesus says the signs of the kingdom are these: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In other words, the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found, enemies and neighbours are loved alike.

To the extent that we do these things as a church and as a nation, God’s kingdom is among us—and Jesus, the world’s true King, reigns from sea to sea to sea, a mari usque ad mare.

May it be so.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.