As I look ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the reality of koinōnia stands out to me. Koinōnia comes from the Greek word for “common” or “shared” (koinos), and so koinōnia has the idea of “that which is held in common,” “that which is shared among us.”
Contrary to the way we often use the word “fellowship,” in the New Testament Christians don’t “fellowship,” as a verb. Rather, we have “fellowship,” as a noun. This koinōnia is a gift from God, a gift of God’s Spirit to us as God’s people.
1 John 1:3 describes it this way: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have koinōnia with us; and truly our koinōnia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” There are things we hold in common, realities we share together—in 1 John these would be things like “life” and “light” and “love”—and as we share these common realities together we discover they are in fact realities God has shared with us, realities we hold in common with Jesus.
This “fellowship,” this koinōnia, is not just some abstract truth but a concrete, lived out experience. The love, light, and life we share together in Jesus works itself out in a shared life together, a common way of life in which we come together in acts of love and deeds of light that bring life among us and beyond us.
This “concrete koinōnia” comes out in another lectionary text for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koinos)… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
This is the new reality the resurrected Jesus creates among us by the Spirit: a shared reality in which we hold in common a new life of love and light, in which we live out this new reality in ways which re-order our common life so that no one is needy, no one is marginalized, no one is oppressed by forces beyond their control.
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.
The Christmas season is often called “the season of giving.” Those of us who follow this tradition, whether Christian or not, give and receive gifts this time of year. For some Christians, this includes giving a little extra to their local church—an especially helpful gift at a time of year when many churches are struggling to meet their budgets.
Giving to local churches has declined in recent decades. To a certain extent this has simply followed the similar decline in membership and attendance, but there are other reasons also. Fewer people are donating to charity than in the past, and, when they do give, their donations are going to a wider variety of causes and organizations.
This is not all bad. Large, cause-specific organizations like MCC or MDS can do things that a local church or even church conference cannot do. But this does raise a question: Why should Christians give to their local church at all?
The New Testament has quite a bit to say about money, including giving within the local gathering of believers, the local church.
In stark contrast to the Old Testament expectation based on the Law of Moses, the New Testament ideal is not a “tithe,” everyone giving a set percentage of their income (say, 10%), but rather “generous giving according to one’s means” (e.g. 2 Cor 8:9-15). This frees those who have little from the burden of giving a tithe they cannot afford, a tithe that can leave them without enough for their own necessities. It also frees those who have much to give more than a mere 10% when they can certainly afford to do so.
The New Testament describes at least two broad reasons for giving within the context of the local church.
The earliest Christians gave to support the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour [that is, respect plus remuneration], especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). This was based on the teaching of Jesus that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7; 1 Tim 5:18); or, as Paul puts it, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:4-14).
The earliest Christians also gave to help those in material need, both those within the church and those beyond it. Within the local congregation this was predominantly widows, who were some of the most economically vulnerable people in society (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim 5:3-16). Beyond the local congregation this was “the poor” more generally, including poor believers in other places (e.g. Gal 2:10; 2 Cor 8-10).
The goal of this giving was what might be called “essential economic equity”: to ensure that everyone had their basic material needs met, their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11). “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11; cf. Jas 2:15-17; 1 John 3:17). “As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (2 Cor 8:15).
The motive for this giving? Following the teaching and example of Jesus. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing” (Matt 25:31-46). “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
Things have evolved since the New Testament era, some would say not entirely for the better. Now most churches have full budgets that include everything from church facilities to staff salaries to programs in education and outreach and more. That’s some ways away from small gatherings of believers pooling their money to pay the elder teaching on a given Lord’s Day, or to provide food for the widows and orphans among them without family support.
Still, the New Testament teachings on local church giving can guide us today. They should prompt us to ask some probing questions of ourselves as churches and as individual Christians.
To what extent do our church budgets reflect the core ministries of the church? Do they support the teaching of Scripture and the preaching of the gospel? Do they assist those in material need, both within the church and beyond it? If not, what needs to change?
Am I truly giving generously according to my means? If my basic needs are met through my income, can I give more than I already am?
Do I really value my church’s preaching and teaching ministries, enough to show it not only through my attendance at worship services, Bible studies, and Sunday school, but also through my financial support?
Do I really need that [insert first-world comfort item here], when there are people in the world, even right in my church and community, who are struggling simply to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families?
Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Cor 9:7-8)
There are many good New Testament passages one can explore to envision what the church should be and do: Romans 12-15, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4-5 are all good options, among others. Still, when I think about the church there’s one specific verse that always seems to come to mind first:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
To me this description of the first Jesus followers on the day of Pentecost nicely sums up what it means for us as Christians to “be the church,” to “do church” together.
As the church we are “devoted” to certain things. These are the things that we commit ourselves to, that we are centred on as a church—which is a way of saying that there are lots of other things, maybe even some good things, that aren’t so central, that we’re not as devoted to. There are lots of things we can be and do as a church, but these things are at the heart of them all.
First and foremost, we are devoted to learning and living the way of Jesus as taught by his Apostles: “the apostles’ teaching.” This means we commit ourselves to studying the Christian Scriptures, and in particular the New Testament where we find “the apostles’ teaching,” in order to learn about Jesus and his way of love. As we faithfully follow Jesus in his way of love, God’s justice and peace and flourishing life (“God’s kingdom,” or “salvation”) is manifest in and among and through us.
We are also devoted to the community of fellow Jesus followers, the common life we share together: “the fellowship.” This means we commit ourselves to one another within the church, to each other’s wellbeing, to caring for one another and helping to meet one another’s needs. At bottom this is because, in the midst of our diversity, we hold the absolute essentials in common: everything we are and do centres around Jesus and his way of love.
We are devoted to gathering together in worship and hospitality: “the breaking of bread.” This means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together around the Lord’s Table, along with other acts of worship (symbols, stories, songs) that likewise orient us around the central story of Jesus. This also means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together in our homes, following Jesus’ example of radical hospitality for all—not only friends and family, but also sinners and strangers, outcasts and enemies.
And we are devoted to regular times of prayer together: “the prayers.” This means we not only pray as individuals as an act of private devotion, but we also gather together regularly to pray: to meditate on who God is and what God has done for us, to praise and thank God for these good gifts, to confess our sins to God and accept God’s forgiveness, and to entreat God to move among us and through us in the world.
Jan Richardson, The Best Supper
For many Christians, this is not the church they envision. Or, perhaps more accurately, they might nod in agreement with this vision of church in theory, but in practice they are either not fully devoted to these things, or they are devoted to other things above these things.
Many Christians envision a church that has lots of programs—especially programs aimed at their particular demographic. These programs are not bad in themselves, of course, and they can in fact be wonderful ways of expressing and nurturing the devotion Acts 2:42 describes.
The problem comes when people want programs that have little if anything to do with that fourfold devotion—they really want a social club with a religious veneer, which they can participate in at their convenience and for their pleasure. Fine, but that’s not a church.
Many Christians envision a church filled with people, often recalling a bygone era of buzzing foyers and bursting sanctuaries. There’s nothing wrong this either—Acts 2 itself describes large numbers of people joining the Jesus movement and participating in new Jesus communities. However, a preoccupation with numbers can be problematic for at least a couple of reasons.
First, many Christians want the large numbers without having to devote themselves to studying the Scriptures and learning the way of Jesus, gathering together regularly for Jesus-centred worship and prayer, and showing radical hospitality in the way of Jesus. It’s ironic—though not terribly surprising—that the Christians who are most critical of “the way things are being done” at church are often the ones who don’t attend Bible studies and prayer meetings and only show up for Sunday worship once or twice a month.
Second, many Christians have bought into a “free market” notion of church. We are competing with other churches for “market share.” We need to produce a good church “product” in order to attract Christians, our “buyers.” If people don’t like our product they’ll go find another “seller,” another church with a better product: high quality music in a style they enjoy, interesting preaching that increases their happiness through moderate self-improvement, vibrant programs catering to their particular demographic, et cetera. So, if we want to increase our market share (i.e. “grow our church”) we need to produce a better product.
Not only is this view of the church thoroughly unbiblical, it’s also unethical—it’s church growth through sheep-stealing, not sheep-finding.
Programs and numbers, then, while being potentially good things, are not central to being and doing church. What is central is this: devotion to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Lest anyone think I’m being too idealistic, raising a bar too high for the church in the real world, let me add this: Jesus welcomes all to his table, whatever the level of their devotion. Jesus in his way of love stands at the centre of the church like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing people in by its warmth and light. Some gather close around the fire, freely sharing their songs and stories, bread and wine. Others stay back in the shadows, content to listen and observe. Some drift in and out.
However, while the level of devotion varies among Christians and even changes throughout our lives, the things we are devoted to remain the same: not programs and numbers, not pleasurable music or comfortable teaching or enjoyable socializing, not even correct doctrine or proper behaviour or rituals done right, but learning and living the way of Jesus together, gathering in worship and prayer, in radical hospitality and mutual care, all of this in love.
Anything less—and anything else—is simply not church.
But a church that looks like this? It’s what the world—and we ourselves—desperately need: a living embodiment of God’s kingdom vision of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all.
I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. I’ve tried them in the past, but they’ve never worked. “Resolution” can sounds so decisive, so irrevocable. So guilt-inducing.
Let’s call this my pastoral New Year’s goal, then. Here’s what I’m aiming for as a pastor for 2017: to be patient in love, persistent in prayer, faithful in teaching the Scriptures, and bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If that sounds like liturgy, that’s because it is. This was the commitment I made before our congregation when I was installed as pastor. Really, then, my 2017 pastoral New Year’s goal is simply re-committing myself to this calling.
I’ve often been distracted from this. To be fair to myself, though, it’s awfully easy to get distracted from this.
Many pastors feel like they have “a hundred bosses,” or whatever the size of their congregation is, because every person in the church has a different, particular understanding of what it means to be a “pastor,” who a pastor is supposed to be and what they are supposed to do. Some want a congregational visitor, others a community activist, some a spiritual guru, others a private therapist, some a thoughtful theologian, others an extroverted evangelist—and that’s only a small sample of the options. Just imagine the multiple personalities required to do all this, let alone the superhuman skills and physics-bending time and energy.
Into this vortex of competing expectations and impossible demands I hear Jesus’ simple call to me as pastor, a call nicely summarized by that installation liturgy: be patient in love, persistent in prayer, faithful in teaching the Scriptures, and bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Be patient in love. This is not so much a specific task to do as it is a general orientation for everything I do. And this is as difficult for me as it is for anyone else—contrary to another common expectation, pastors are not inherently “more spiritual” than others. Yet it is an orientation all Christians are called to nurture in Christ by his Spirit. In whatever tasks I do, in whatever roles I take on, in 2017 I want to strive to be patient with others as I seek to love them in the way of Jesus. (Lord, have mercy!)
Be persistent in prayer. Here my pastoral calling starts to become more specific, and in this I have much room for improvement. This is not incidental to my ministry, but central: to persevere in prayer for those among us and around us, to be deliberate in making and taking time to speak the names and stories, joys and sorrows of our congregation and community before God. May this year be a year of rekindled prayer in my life, in every area of my life.
Be faithful in teaching the Scriptures. You’d think this would already be well in place. After all, this is an area of expertise and experience for me, and teaching the Bible is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I have a Ph.D. in biblical studies, for goodness’ sake! But for various reasons this has been pushed to the margins in my ministry. No more: in the coming year I am determined to re-claim this calling, to find and create opportunities to teach the Scriptures in all their difficult challenge and inspired insight.
Be bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is something I have been doing—every sermon I preach is a proclamation of the gospel—but I am resolved (yes, on this I’m “resolved”) to do this even more. Our world—and each one of us—desperately needs to hear God’s good news again and again and again. But beware: this is not the gospel many of us grew up with. It’s the gospel of God’s kingdom come on earth, justice and peace and flourishing life for all, brought about through the crucified and resurrected Jesus. It promises true life, abundant life, but it demands our very lives: walking in the cross-shaped footsteps of the resurrected Jesus. In 2017 I intend to preach this gospel of peace at every opportunity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that these are the only things I’ll be doing as pastor this year. There are all kinds of specific tasks, necessary or urgent or both, that are part of a lead pastor’s role in this day and age. But these are the things I’ll be focusing my time and energy on, for these are the things to which I have been called.
So watch out, world! Look out, Morden Mennonite Church! Pastor Michael is on the loose! Let 2017 be the year in which I take a leap of faith closer to the goal for which I was commissioned: being patient in love, persistent in prayer, faithful in teaching the Scriptures, and bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
I saw you cringe. It’s one of those topics not fit for polite conversation. It may be entertaining for some, intensely interesting for others, but for many it’s one of those “change the subject” kind of subjects.
But politics are everywhere. There are politics any time we humans organize ourselves in order to make decisions for our collective interest. Actually, that’s pretty much the definition of “politics.”
And any time we are talking about making decisions, we’re talking about power: the ability to bring about change. Where there’s politics, there’s power.
Yep, there are even politics and power dynamics in church. Yep, even your church.
Politics and power are inevitable in collective human life. They are neither good nor bad; they just are.
But I sure do understand that feeling of “Ugh!” when you hear the word “politics.” After all, so much of the way we do politics—you might say “the politics of the world”—is just not very nice.
We polish up our résumés and show off our good sides: all strength, no weakness allowed.
We shore up support through strategic relationships and backroom deals and hollow promises.
We appeal to our base through polarizing rhetoric: it’s “us” versus “them.”
We listen to those who agree with us, and we ignore—or even disdain—those who don’t.
We appeal to truth—when it’s convenient for us. Otherwise it’s half-truths, sometimes a full-on lie.
We manipulate emotions through sugary, empty rhetoric. Our only harsh words are for our opponents.
We take control whenever we can, holding all the crucial resources and making all the important decisions.
We do all this either consciously (“That’s just politics!”) or subconsciously (our capacity for self-deceit is astonishing).
And we do all this, we like to think, for the ultimate good of all. We know what is best, and we’ll do whatever it takes to bring about that ultimate good. In the politics of the world, the ends justify the means.
I bet you think I’ve just described politics in Canada or America. That may be, but what I actually had in mind was politics in the church.
Go back through the list again. That, all too often, is church politics. That, folks, is just politics, whether in the church or in society.
But Jesus calls us to another way. Jesus calls us to a radically different politics, a radically different power.
The gospel—and the Gospels—are shot through with Jesus’ upside-down politics and power.
Since his followers are slow to get the point, he states it bluntly: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
And finally, in the penultimate end, Jesus is enthroned on a cross. He gives his life for the good of others, he embraces utter weakness and relinquishes total control, he refuses right to the bitter end to respond with raw power or naked force. In the politics of Jesus, the means—the ways of the cross—are the ends.
In the middle of all this is a familiar story that sums up Jesus’ approach to politics and power.
In the story Peter declares that Jesus is indeed the Messianic King. Jesus accepts his declaration, but immediately emphasizes that the way to his throne is the way of the cross. Peter then rebukes Jesus: That’s not the way kingdoms are won! That’s not how the world changes! Everyone knows this, Jesus!
And in turn, Jesus rebukes Peter, with words that should strike holy fear in the heart of anyone who claims to be a Christian: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not thinking the way God thinks about such things, but the way the world thinks.”
You are not thinking the way God thinks about such things—about kings and kingdoms, about politics and power—but the way the world thinks.
The world’s politics are about “strong power.” Overwhelming physical presence. Personal charisma and authority. Psychological intimidation and emotional manipulation. Coercive words, polarizing rhetoric, and subtle deceit. Full control.
Jesus’ politics are about “weak power.” Humility, not pride. Compassion, not apathy or antipathy. Persuasion, not coercion. Forgiveness, not blame. Persevering faith, not fear. Self-giving love, not self-serving self-interest.
The world’s politics are tempting, to be sure. You can get quicker results when you force your way through, when you unilaterally push your agenda for a better world. And the longer you spin your wheels trying to achieve a goal without results, or the more pressure there is to bring about a certain objective, not now, but right now—the more tempting it is to resort to strong power.
But the history of humanity—and the smaller stories in our own lives—show over and over again that these “good” results through strong power simply do not last, and they’re often more damaging in the long run. Even in the short run, there are almost always innocent victims, physical or psychological or emotional casualties left in our wake.
Jesus’ politics take longer to achieve any good thing—like small seeds growing, or yeast working through dough—and they demand much more of us—our very lives, in fact. But the end result is shalom for all involved: wholeness, harmony, justice, and abundant life.
So what does all this have to do with church politics? What (gulp) might this even have to do with politics of any kind?
Everything, in every way.
We must resist the temptation to bring about change, even positive change, through strong power. Strong-arm tactics, passive-aggressive behaviour, divisive fearmongering, meticulous control, and more, have no place—no place at all—among followers of the crucified Jesus, whether in the church or beyond it. We need to have a patient, persevering faith, truly trusting that God’s way, the way of weak power, is in fact best.
We must repent of the ways we have engaged in strong-power politics. Again, our capacity for self-deception and self-justification is truly astonishing. This is especially so when we are convinced that our way is the best way, or that we hold the morally superior or theologically correct position. We need constant, rigorous self-monitoring and self-examination—and the humility to accept correction by others.
We must embrace Jesus’ way of weak-power politics. Seeking to persuade rather than coerce: speaking truth to power, showing compassion for weakness. Serving others in humility, not posturing before others to gain status or controlling others to ensure the change we want to see. Forgiving others when they fail, not pouncing on their faults for political leverage. Patiently pursuing long-term shalom rather than short-term gain.
In particular, we must always attend to those on the margins. Always. Even when the margins shift, and those on the outside become those at the centre, and others are now on the margins. And especially when we’re the ones at the centre—along with our friends and family and all our favourite people. Any power for change we possess—through position, wealth, education, whatever—must be used in the way of the cross for those without such power, especially the most vulnerable and unjustly treated.
In other words, we must set aside our cultural brand of Christianity with its ways of the world and respond to Jesus’ radical call to discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
This is politics and power, the Jesus way. And it’s the only way to find real life: for you, for the other, for all.
In the last post I claimed that modern Israel is not the heir to the biblical promises to ancient Israel. That claim is controversial among some Christians, to be sure, but I trust that my claim in this post will not be. At least, it shouldn’t be controversial, but all too often it seems that Christians act as if they don’t really believe it.
Here’s my second claim: as followers of Jesus seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.
Jesus teaches us that we are to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Matt 6:33). This is a call to allegiance: Jesus is saying that our allegiance to God’s kingdom and God’s way of justice stands over and above our allegiance to any earthly kingdom or any worldly way of justice.
And God’s kingdom transcends borders, it transcends our geographical and political boundaries, it embraces our ethnic and cultural differences. God’s kingdom includes all peoples equally: every tribe, every nation, even all creation. To believe otherwise is, to be frank, not just un-Mennonite, it’s un-Christian—it is even anti-Christ, in opposition to Jesus and the global and cosmic scope of his reconciling work (e.g. Col 1:13-23; Rev 7:9-17).
So when Jesus calls us to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice,” he is calling us to give our allegiance to the reign of God that transcends national borders and includes all peoples, and to seek justice for all within God’s shalom.
This means that we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians, both Jews and Muslims.
This means that we are called to denounce violence wherever it is found, whether in Hamas rockets killing a 4-year old Israeli boy playing in the living room of his kibbutz home or in Israeli missiles killing Palestinian children playing soccer on the beach.
This means that we are called to put a spotlight on injustice and oppression, those situations where there is an imbalance of power leading to an abuse of power—as there certainly is in Israel taking over land in the West Bank for Israeli settlements, or in Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas rockets from Gaza (and no, the “human shields” argument doesn’t hold water).
Christians here in North America don’t help the situation when we blindly support Israel in all her policies. Given the horrible history of anti-Semitism, there is good reason for supporting an Israeli state that makes special provision for citizenship of ethnic Jews. But there is no good biblical or historical basis for seeing modern Israel as the rightful heir to the land. And, in any case, our ultimate allegiance is not to any nation state on earth, but to God’s kingdom and God’s justice—and thus we must seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.
Our Father in heaven, in whose image all people have been created, hallowed be your name. May Your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom without borders, your will for justice and peace, on earth as it is in heaven…
This series is adapted from a sermon I preached on August 3, 2014, “What should we think about Israel?” See below for part two, “Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel.” Follow the links throughout for sources and more information.
It’s interesting watching my Facebook feed whenever Israel is in the news, which seems to be nearly always. I have Christian friends on Facebook who are decidedly pro-Israel—they cheer every move Israel makes and applaud Canada when it “stands with Israel,” and they boo western media and Canadian politicians that dare to criticize Israel. For them, Israel can do no wrong: Israel is a modern miracle, the fulfillment of biblical promises, God’s holy nation with a divine right to the land they’re in.
But then I have Christian friends on Facebook who just don’t follow the same script. They speak of “Israel-Palestine,” or sometimes just “Palestine,” but not “Israel.” They advocate for Palestinian refugees and speak out against Israeli settlement on Palestinian lands. They highlight the Palestinian casualties in Gaza and downplay Israeli losses. They cringe when Canada stands uncritically with Israel. For them, Israel is just another nation.
As Christians, how should we think about Israel?
There are no simplistic answers to this question. It’s complicated—and contentious. What I offer here is my own perspective as an expert in biblical theology and an admitted non-expert in Middle East politics. As I note at the beginning of each post, I encourage you to click through the links to dig into things in more detail—and to think through all this for yourself. Let’s start with some history.
The Palestinian crisis—like many of the conflicts in our world today—has its roots in a global event that started one hundred years ago this summer: the First World War. The so-called “War to End All War” was in fact the war that spawned a century of wars (and counting).
Before World War I much of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Turkey. The war saw the end of that centuries-old empire, and the result for the Middle East was extreme instability. All the victorious nations came together to create the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations, and the United Kingdom was given charge of the land of Palestine. Included in this charge was this mandate: to establish “a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Meanwhile, over in Europe, Germany was left demoralized after the war. Strong voices spoke out from the rubble with brash promises of Germany’s rise to prominence once again. The strongest of these voices? Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the Nazis. By 1933, a mere 15 years after the First World War, Hitler was in power and Nazi policies were made law and implemented with frightening speed.
This, of course, led directly to World War II. Once the smoke had cleared after this next global war, the world was horrified at what Hitler had done: eleven million “undesirables” killed in Hitler’s Holocaust, including over six million Jews. This led to a sudden increase in sympathy for the Jewish people and their plight, which in turn added fuel to a Zionism that had been growing for decades.
It was this precise mix of ingredients—the instability of the Middle East in the twilight of the British Empire, the horror of the Holocaust under Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and Zionist dreams of an independent Jewish state—that led to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
The land of Palestine, however, was to be shared. Up until World War II there were a few Jewish settlements in Palestine—at the beginning of the war less than 30% of the total population living on about 5% of the land. It was mostly inhabited, though rather sparsely, by native Palestinians: Arabs who had lived for centuries under the Ottoman Empire, mostly Muslim though some were Christian. Under the plan proposed after the war, Jews who had been without a state of their own for centuries were given roughly half of the land of Palestine, and hundreds of thousands began to stream there from around the world. The other half was for the native Palestinians, but involved the displacement of some from their home regions.
Though maps such as this are not without problems in bias (scale, labeling, etc.), they do give a good rough portrait of land ownership changes in Palestine over the past 100 years.
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.
Most 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.
What 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.
Romans 14-15 often gets quoted when Christians talk about how to handle conflict in the church. That’s the passage that deals with what has been called “adiaphora” or “disputable matters”—seen sometimes as an add-on to the Apostle Paul’s magisterial, theologically rich epistle to the Romans. In reality this passage is Paul’s pastoral response to a fragile Christian community in danger of fracturing along a Jew-Gentile fault line—and it’s the whole point of the letter.
We miss out on the significance of this passage when we think of it as about mere opinions, things that don’t really matter, as if the Roman Christians were arguing over what colour the new carpet in the sanctuary should be. Try telling a devout Jew that the kosher food laws or Sabbath observance are “mere opinions”! No, the issues causing fissures in the church of Rome—sacred days and “clean” foods (14:1-2, 5-6, 14)—were matters of deep personal, ethnic, and religious identity, grounded in Scripture and affecting both everyday life and collective worship.
In fact, I would suggest that the dispute in Rome followed a pattern we’ve seen played out again and again throughout the Church’s history—and still today:
We think X is an important issue, something vital, something essential.
We think our view on X is biblical; we can back it up from the Bible.
We therefore think we’ve got God on our side.
And then we disagree, we dispute, we argue, we fight, and often we split. Or, perhaps slightly better, or maybe worse: we simply avoid those we disagree with, we shun them, we ban them from our lives.
Note first what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t choose one side and say, “Look, this group is right and the other is wrong. Everybody just needs to agree with the group that’s right, or leave!” Nor does he even call both groups to compromise on their convictions, to try to find a middle position that everyone can assent to but satisfies no one. Nor does he simply give a bland answer of tolerance: “C’mon, everybody, why can’t we all just get along?”
Rather, Paul speaks a word of admonition to both sides. (Not just the “strong”—read it carefully!).
To the Jewish “conservatives,” the “traditionalists” among them (“the weak in the faith”): “Do not condemn your ‘liberal’ sisters and brothers, for God has accepted them and you are not their judge.” (Yep, I’ve done that.)
To the Gentile “progressives,” those “liberals” in the bunch (the “strong”): “Do not despise your ‘conservative’ sisters and brothers, for we all share one Lord and act out of devotion to him.” (Yep, I’ve done that, too.)
To all of them, but especially those of the majority: “Respect the convictions of others; do not compel the other to act against their convictions.” (That’s what the whole “stumbling block” thing is, not just “offending” someone’s sensibilities through our actions—see 14:23. Think about it: Paul wasn’t really all that concerned about “offending” people!).
And to all of them, both “conservatives” and “progressives”: “Welcome one another, accept the other, receive them into your circle, just as God in Christ has welcomed you.” (Strong words, these!)
And underlying these words? The true centre of Christian faith: the Person of Jesus, and Jesus’ Way of Love. Throughout the passage, at key points in his passionate plea for unity-in-diversity, Paul looks to Jesus as the basis for his exhortations (14:9, 15; 15:3, 7): the crucified and resurrected Jesus as Lord and Saviour, welcoming sinners.
Drawing on Paul’s words here, and just some good conflict resolution ideas, here’s my attempt to summarize how we as Christians can navigate through these disputes over significant issues, when everyone’s sure they’ve got the Bible on their side:
Come to your own convictions carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, biblically, centred on Jesus.
Hold your convictions humbly, loosely. Be willing to be wrong, or to give way for the good of others.
Respect others in their own convictions, showing Jesus’ love. Do not pressure them to act against their conscience. Do not condemn them; you are not their Judge. Do not despise them; you share the same Lord and Saviour.
Before speaking, listen. Hear the convictions of others, and listen to the life story that has shaped those convictions.
Then speak openly and honestly about your convictions. If you feel it is necessary, even speak passionately and persuasively. Always speak with gentleness and respect, with the love of Jesus.
As much as possible, speak face-to-face. Share a meal together, share your stories, share your prayers, share your common faith, your common humanity.
When a group decision is needed, strive for consensus. This means unanimity if possible, but if that’s not possible then at least come to a place where everyone is heard and the minority are willing—not coerced, but willing—to concede and support the decision of the group.
And at bottom, in the very centre, allow Jesus to pull you in again, to draw you to himself, to follow him in this life of love. Don’t be distracted by all the things everyone else says is so important. There are very few things worthy of our strongest conviction; anything more is vanity, or even idolatry.
I know it’s easy to be fearful of this, this pursuit of unity-in-diversity. It’s risky, this simple focus on Jesus, this walking in the way of love. It’s uncomfortable, allowing things we’ve relied upon for our whole lives to be questioned.
But the centre will hold. All else might seem shaken, but of this I am sure: the centre of our faith will hold firm. Scripture assures us that while our ways of doing things are always changing, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8), and that while all our oh-so-certain knowledge will one day disappear, “love will always remain” (1 Cor 13:13).
And when you come to really understand that pure and simple centre—Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love—and you come to fully appreciate it, you can have the confidence and the freedom to fruitfully engage the different views of others, even to change your mind on these issues, even to celebrate our diversity as the Body of Christ.