Walking Together in Unity

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 31, 2017, based on Ephesians 4.

We live in a divided world, and it seems increasingly to be so. Where once there might have been allowance for nuanced positions that do not fit neatly into an either/or—a “third way,” even—there now seems to be a “you’re either with us or against us” kind of mindset in western society.

“Unity,” in this us-versus-them world, means “absolute solidarity,” “total agreement,” or even “complete uniformity” of belief and practice, whether we are talking about religion or politics or social issues. This “unity” is achieved through acts of power: decisive leadership giving firm direction, backroom deals and deceitful manipulation if necessary, enforced agreement with established dogma, harsh public shaming if someone steps out of line.

 You’re either with us in all things—blessed “unity”—or you’re against us—accursed “other,” beyond the pale.

Ephesians 4:1-16 gives us a very different picture of unity. It is a unity grounded in the simple one-ness of God, yet with a diversity reflected in the complex three-ness of God’s redemptive work. There is one-and-only-one Spirit at work among us all, one-and-only-one Lord to whom we owe our allegiance, one-and-only-one God who is “above all and in all and through all”—therefore we must walk in this one-ness. Yet God the Father’s work is through the Lord Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, who gives manifold gifts to all—therefore we must walk in this many-ness.

This one-yet-many unity is a gift given to us: it already is, we just need to walk in it, to live it out, to “keep” or maintain it. And we maintain this unity of the Spirit “through the bond of peace”: not through power politics or strong-arm tactics, but through Christ-like humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance in love.

Leaders among us are not to lord it over those whom they lead; they are not “the deciders” or “the doers,” or even visionaries with great personal charisma. They are God’s gifts to us, whose sole task is to equip us to do works of service so that we might fully realize our calling to be Christ’s body in the world, continuing Jesus’ mission in the world: the unity of all things (1:9-10), including the reconciliation of all “others” (2:13-18).

What might happen in our world if we fully embraced this radical vision of unity in our churches, instead of the superficial “unity” our world promotes?

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

The Bible as Diverse Anthology

A key idea I’ve emphasized here and here is that whatever we mean by Scripture’s divine inspiration, it cannot mean that the biblical writings are somehow not genuinely human writings. As I said earlier:

Written in ordinary human languages and idioms, making use of conventional genres, employing scribes, relying on prior sources, edited by individuals and communities, collected by different peoples over many centuries—the fact is, these realities are the norm for the writings we have in the anthology of ancient literature we call the Bible.

This really shouldn’t bother us. If anything, we who believe that God has been revealed most clearly and fully in a human being, the man Jesus, should expect that God’s voice in Scripture is to be heard only through the utterly human voices of the biblical authors.

And it truly is a diversity of voices in Scripture. The Bible is not really a single “book.” It is, as I’ve just described it, an “anthology”—a collection of different writings by different human authors.

Consider some examples:

We have two different creation stories side by side in Genesis. The first (Gen 1:1-2:3) describes God as Elohim, the Mightiest One, who stands beyond the earth and speaks creation into existence, crafting a well-ordered and richly filled palace-temple for himself, with humans as his priest-kings and priestess-queens. The second (Gen 2:4-25) describes God as Yahweh Elohim, God in covenant with Israel, who comes to earth and gets their hands dirty in shaping the Human to care for their flourishing garden.

We have two different histories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The first (Samuel-Kings) tells the story through the lens of Deuteronomy: good kings uphold the covenant of Moses, bad kings do not, and in the end it all goes bad because the people of Israel and Judah abandon Moses’ Law. The second (Chronicles) tells the story through the lens of David: the worship established by David in the Temple built by David’s past son must continue, and the kingdom promised to David will be restored to David’s future son.

We have 150 Psalms giving a dozen different portraits of worship. The rugged individualist hanging out with God in nature? The Temple liturgist composing for antiphonal choir amidst all the smells and bells? The bibliophile scribe caught up in the wonders of the Torah? The exiled poet leading others by a foreign river, pining for a temple, doing the best they can with what they’ve got? Glorious tapestries of song, rich in theological expression? The “God, give me what I want and I’ll praise you” kind of worship? It’s all there.

We have four different biographies of Jesus in the New Testament. There’s Mark’s sparse, orally crafted story exploring what it means to claim that this crucified Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God.” There’s Matthew’s didactic adaptation of Mark, highlighting the Moses-like teachings of Jesus for a Jewish Christian audience. There’s Luke’s well-crafted, liturgically rich alternative to Matthew’s story, presenting Jesus to a wider audience: not just Jews but Gentiles, not just men but women, not just rich but poor. And then there’s John’s alternative to all the rest, giving the “beloved disciple’s” expanded re-presentations of Jesus’ life and teachings as the Word made flesh, come to bring life to the world.

This diversity can be problematic for Christians. For some, it’s terribly uncomfortable. We want God to speak clearly and consistently, a single voice on every issue. Some even go to great lengths to harmonize all these differences, to reassure ourselves and our communities that there is one clear biblical teaching on x and y and z. So when we begin to recognize the Bible’s diversity, especially on some central matters of Christian belief and practice, we get antsy.

This diversity can be problematic beyond just the discomfort we feel about it. For the history of biblical interpretation makes one thing abundantly clear: we can justify almost anything by appeal to the Bible, even things that are contradictory.

War, even genocide? Yes. Pacifism? Yes.

Slavery? Check. Abolition of slavery? Check.

Patriarchy? Yep. Full equality of women? Yep.

Death penalty? You bet. No death penalty? You bet.

All of these things are “biblical.” All of these things are “clear from Scripture.”

The problem, again, is one of wrong expectations based on false assumptions. We assume the Bible’s divine inspiration ensures a uniformity of teaching on all things, but the biblical writings never actually claim such a thing. There are plenty of claims in Scripture about Scripture—claims of biblical writings being God’s “word” or “message,” of God “revealing” God’s self or God’s will in or through them, of Scripture being “useful for teaching” for faith and life, or of Scripture reliably “testifying” to Jesus, of Scripture being “true.” But it’s only our assumptions that make us think these claims must mean Scripture presents a clear, uniform perspective on any particular question or issue we might face.

But there is something that unites these diverse writings. An “anthology” is not just a random collection of writings, and the Bible is no exception. There is something that unites this anthology, that makes it make sense as a collection. And, I would suggest, we are indeed right to see in that “something” the Voice of God that we are searching for.

So how do we get there? How do we find that “something” that unites this inspired Scripture, this diverse anthology of ancient literature? To answer that question, let me start with a few general observations.

The unity of Scripture is not uniformity, but unity in diversity. It’s not a monochrome picture, but a whole spectrum of colours. It’s not univocal, a single voice, but polyvocal, many voices. It’s not a monotone, but a whole array of tones: sometimes discordant, sometimes harmonious, often haunting, profound, encouraging, challenging.

The unity of Scripture is not static, but dynamic. There is change in thought from earlier to later biblical books, sometimes even intentional, direct change. This change is good, we say by faith: it’s a progression, not a moving backward, or sideways. This change is even sometimes that of a trajectory that aims beyond Scripture, giving an unfinished arc that invites us to step in and complete it.

And the unity of Scripture has a significance greater than the sum of its parts. The “something” that unites Scripture is in fact a Someone. The many voices of Scripture are like echoes of their Voice in a dark tunnel, which we hear, dimly. Or they’re like the many voices of a choir that together make a single choral Voice—which is the whole point of these many voices, their very raison d’être.

In other words, the progressive unity in diversity of Scripture, the Voice through the Bible’s many voices, is rather like this:

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as a separate post in 2014.

Love, Above All

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

Image: Stephen Hopkins

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need more than anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Sounds simplistic and naïve, I know. Sounds idealistic, and darn near impossible. Sounds suspiciously like some liberal agenda, or some trendy “spiritual-but-not-religious” kick.

But I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

And now I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

Think back to the way the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, speaks about love. Jesus and Paul agree that the whole point of Scripture is love: every command, every promise, every story, every poem in the Bible hangs on the hook of love, loving God and loving others (Matt 22:35-40; Rom 13:8-10). John concurs, affirming that this love is the defining characteristic of the true life of God, truly knowing God, truly being a disciple of Jesus (1 John 3:11-20; 4:7-21; John 13:35).

Paul talks about love as the virtue that “binds together” all other virtues, including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (Col 3:5-14). Love for others, Paul says, is more important than seeking true knowledge, or striving for sinless purity, or having great faith. There are three things that “abide,” he stresses: “faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 12:31-13:13).

Underlying these and similar biblical texts is the notion that every ideal humans are to strive for, every virtue Christians are to cultivate, is subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

How does this work? A few musings—and be prepared, this is the most abstract and “theological” of all these posts on love.

Love incorporates all the other Christian virtues. Again, I’m not talking about a sentimental affection or a clinical self-sacrifice, a benign tolerance or an intense intimacy. I’m talking about the love that God shows us in Jesus, the love that freely gives oneself for the good of the other, to share together in the flourishing life of God. Any human ideal or Christian virtue you can conceive of is subsumed under this love.

You can trust someone without loving them, but you can’t love in this way without trust. You can hope without love, but this Jesus-love includes hope. It’s possible to have justice without love, but not love without justice. Peace, patience, courage, faithfulness, self-control, joy, and more—they’re all the same, woven into the fabric of a Christ-like love.

Clothe in LoveLove defines and governs all the other Christian virtues. If one ever seeks a justice that is not loving toward all involved, then one has not found true justice. If one strives for a faithfulness that is not compassionate or charitable toward others, then one has not found true faithfulness. If we ever feel a tension between holiness and love, or between truth and love, or between any other ideal or virtue and love, we must choose love—because it is in love that we will realize the potential of all other virtues and ideals.

Love precedes and supersedes moral holiness, being “separate from sin.” Before sin was in the world, before moral holiness was even a thing, there was love. After sin and death are dealt their final blow, when moral holiness is no longer a thing, there will still be love.

This is why holiness—in the sense of moral holiness, separation from sin—cannot be the central, most essential attribute of God. God is eternally holy, in the sense of being utterly distinct from all else, wholly other. But moral holiness is not an eternal attribute of God, unless we wish to say sin and evil are eternal.

God’s eternal holiness, God’s distinctness, God’s otherness, is shown first and foremost and always in love. It is, in fact, because God is distinct and other that God can love: love requires a distinction in personhood, an I and a thou, a self and an other, before it can give the self for the other, before it can love the other as it loves itself. Classic Christian theology understands God to have been loving in this way for an eternity as three persons in one God, and God’s love for humanity and all creation is simply an extension of this eternal love within the Trinity.

God is love. This is the essential nature of God’s character, God’s person. And so it is the defining feature of God’s ultimate self-revelation, Jesus Christ. And so it is to be the essential nature and defining feature of those created in God’s image, those being re-created in Christ’s image, God’s new humanity. Just as God’s holiness is manifest first and foremost and always in love, so it is with the holiness God calls Christians to. Our holiness, our distinctiveness, is seen in our love.

Love fulfils truth; it completes it. Love puts flesh on truth. It is truth put into proper practice. By itself, truth—in the sense of “correct knowledge about reality”—has no virtue. It is neither inherently good nor bad. Truth only becomes virtuous, it only becomes good, when it is used in good ways for good ends.

This doesn’t mean that truth has no value. It is valuable and necessary, even in relation to love. Love should be guided by a right perception of reality, as best as we can discern that—recognizing that our knowledge of the truth is always incomplete (1 Cor 13:9-12).

But, while love without knowledge can still be virtuous, knowledge without love never is: it is as a resounding gong or clanging cymbal, it is as nothing at all (1 Cor 13:1-3). Such knowledge risks simply puffing us up in pride, while love—even ignorant love—always builds up others (1 Cor 8:1-3).

These ideas are behind the most significant dimension of a Christian understanding of “truth,” the idea that truth is not just about “correct knowledge of reality,” but that truth is ultimately about a Person, a Person who shows us a certain Way, a Way that leads to Life. Jesus is this Truth, and his Way is love, and this Jesus-love leads to Life (John 14:6).

In all this we’re circling around something very profound, and crucially important: love is at the heart of the gospel, and so at the centre of Christian theology and ethics.

The God who is love has, out of love, come in the person of Jesus, who taught an ethic of love and lived out a life of love, and who suffered in love for us in order to bring us with him into flourishing life, a life energized by the Spirit of Jesus and characterized in its very essence by our love for God and others. We might spend millions of pages and thousands of lifetimes exploring this trinitarian gospel of Jesus-love, but if we ever lose this focus in our theology and ethics, then we no longer have a theology or ethic worthy of being called “Christian.”

It’s love all the way through, no matter how you slice it. It’s love all the way down, from top to bottom. It’s love from beginning to end and everywhere in between.

I’ve sometimes heard people say that calling for love is somehow being wishy-washy. That somehow saying, “We need to love each other,” is being soft on holiness or truth. “Just take a stand, won’t you! Get off the fence on this issue, or that issue, or the next issue. Stand up for truth! Demand holiness!”

Well, here I stand. I can do no other. I give you the strongest moral imperative there is, the most profound truth one could ever declare:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

If we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Up next, some concluding reflections on putting this love into practice.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

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

What is Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

diversityIn our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need always and forever.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I say this, because, as I outlined in my last post, I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

But what is this love? What does it look like?

Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Some people hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Some, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy.

But the love I’m talking about is not merely affection for others, though feelings of affection are good and beautiful. This love is not merely tolerance of others, though it is important that we acknowledge and accept others’ differences. This love cannot be reduced to simple self-sacrifice, though it is true that we need to break through our selfishness and give of ourselves to others. And although physical and emotional intimacy is a necessary, God-given gift, by itself this is not the love that saves us.

Acceptance. Affection. Self-sacrifice. Intimacy.

Each of these is good and necessary. Each of these gives a glimpse of love, one angle on a multi-faceted love. But none of these by itself is the love we need.

When the biblical authors attempt to describe “love” they consistently point to God’s love for us. In the New Testament, more particularly, they point to God’s love for us in Jesus. To get even more specific, the New Testament often points to Jesus’ suffering and death to portray what true love is all about.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

So, for example, in the Hebrew Bible we hear of God’s hesed, Yahweh’s loyal love for ancient Israel, standing at the very centre of God’s self-revelation (e.g. Exod 34:6; Ps 145:8-9). We see this loyal love in action from creation on, Yahweh providing and protecting, giving and forgiving, rescuing and restoring, time and time and time again.

In the Gospels we hear Jesus speaking of an Abba Father who cares for the least and last, who seeks the lost, who loves sinners with a ring-and-robe and fatted-calf-feast kind of love (e.g. Luke 15). In the Epistles we hear that “God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), that “we know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16), and that we are to be “imitators of God” by “living in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2).

“God is love,” we are told, and Jesus comes as “the image of the invisible God,” the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” the ultimate revelation of the God who is love (1 John 4:8, 16; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; John 1:18).

So in light of God’s love for us, and especially God’s love for us in Jesus, what is this love, this one thing we really need? A few reflections, and then a summary description.

Love starts with a stance of openness. It doesn’t stand aloof, arms crossed in suspicion or scorn, waiting for the other to prove themselves. Love steps forward with arms open wide, even running toward the other. It sees the other as a person, inherently worthy of welcome, of compassion, of affection, of respect. It sees these things, even when the other person cannot see it themselves.

Love is freely given. It is “freely given” in that it is voluntary, not coerced. A forced “love” is no love at all. It is also “freely given” in that it expects nothing in return. That is barter or bribery, or crass capitalism—it is not love.

Love is a giving of oneself. Our time, our attention, our listening ear, our gracious words, our empathy, our loyalty, our experiences, our material resources—all the things that make us who we are as persons, all the things we value as humans, given for the other person. This puts us in a precarious position, because we love without knowing how our love will be perceived, without knowing how it will be received. There is always risk in love.

Love is given whether the recipient deserves it or not. It is loving anyone we cross paths with day by day, our “neighbours.” It is loving “strangers” or “sinners,” those who are different than us in any way, even in ways we vehemently disagree with. It is loving even those who oppose us in anything, even if they do so violently: our “enemies.”

Love is given even when it hurts the giver. This is not an excuse for abuse—remember, love is freely given, never coerced, never forced. This is not the weak being oppressed by the strong, but the strong giving themselves for the weak. Love, at one time or another, in one way or another, will always suffer for the other person. To love is to suffer.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing, giver and receiver together. The objective is life shared together: not merely surviving but thriving. It is the opposite of what Christians call “sin,” those attitudes and actions that cause harm to others and ourselves.

Think of our most basic needs as human beings. We’ve got those basic physical needs, what we need just to exist: clean air and water, nourishing food, adequate warmth in clothing and shelter, simple health and safety. Then there are those basic psychological, emotional, and social needs we all have, without which we are diminished as persons: positive relationships with others, a sense of belonging in a group, a sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world.

These are universal human needs. They can give us a minimal, rough sketch of what “flourishing life” can look like. Which means they can give us a working description of what love should strive for: ensuring others have these basic human needs met, meeting these basic needs for others, for one another together.

This, then, is love: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.

Let that sink in a little.

Go back and read that again.

As you do, pause to think about different people in your life, people you encounter day by day—those you’re close to, those you’re not, those you like, those you don’t.

What would it look like to love them like this?

What would our world be like if we loved one another like this?

Stay tuned for part four.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

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

Scripture and Jesus on Love

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

reg_div_typeIn our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need over and above anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Let’s start with a quick survey of some biblical texts. It’s not just that “love” is mentioned a lot in the Bible—that’s true, but it’s more than that. It’s the way love is talked about in the Bible that’s so significant.

Take the Great (or Greatest) Commandment. Here’s Matthew’s version of the story:

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:35-40; cf. Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18)

Jesus’ response is right in line with similar teachings from other great Rabbis (e.g. Hillel), and the first part is straight out of the Shema, the daily recitation of devout Jews. But Jesus does something distinctive if not novel: he binds a second command to the “greatest and first,” he connects loving people with loving God. These two loves go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other.

The final statement is crucial. All the Law and the Prophets, the Jewish Scriptures, the entire Old Testament—every command, every promise, every story, every poem—hangs on the hook of these two commandments. This two-dimensional love—vertical love for God, horizontal love for others—is the point of everything in Scripture, it is Scripture’s end goal. If we read anything in Scripture in a way that does not lead us to greater love for God and love for others, we have not read Scripture correctly.

The earliest Christians got this. Take Paul in Romans 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10; cf. Gal 5:14)

What’s the one thing we owe each other? The one, single thing? Love.

And what sums up every commandment God has ever given? I mean, every single one—including commands like “Be holy” or “Speak the truth”? Love.

And what is it that expresses the underlying intention and overarching goal of the Law of Moses, that brings the whole Torah to fruition? Love.

Sounds a whole lot like Jesus to me.

Interesting, too, to note why these things are true: because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Love does not cause harm to others. Put the other way, love brings good to others. Love is life-giving. That’s why love is the fulfillment of the Torah, whose purpose was to bring God’s people life (Deut 30:11-20).

Then take 1 John. This is hard to quote and summarize because these themes of love are woven throughout the letter, but some key texts are 1 John 3:11-20 and 4:7-21. A few highlights:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Strong words, all of them. Yet they are right in line with Jesus’ Great Commandment teaching: love is at the essence of life, at the heart of God’s will for us, and our love for God is inseparable from our love for others. No wonder another text of John’s depicts Jesus saying that love is the hallmark of true disciples of Jesus (John 13:35).

There’s more. Much more.

There’s Jesus teaching on love throughout the Gospels, in all the Gospels. Loving neighbours the same way a Samaritan does (Luke 10:25-37). Loving enemies the same way the Creator does (Matt 5:43-48; cf. Luke 6:27-31). Loving prodigal sinners and self-righteous brothers the same way a Father does (Luke 15:11-32). Loving fellow disciples the same way Jesus does (John 13:34-35).

There’s Paul speaking of love in his letters. That love is the “most excellent way,” a far greater way than seeking knowledge of right doctrine, or pursuing mountaintop spiritual experiences, or striving for an ascetic, avoid-it-all, moral purity (1 Cor 12:31-13:13; cf. 8:1-3). That the “only thing that counts,” the thing that really matters most, is “faith working—or being expressed—through love” (Gal 5:6). That love is the virtue that is “over all” other virtues, that “binds together” all other virtues (Col 3:14), including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (3:5-14).

There’s John’s three-layered love theology that circles through his writings over and over again: the Father loves the Son, the Father loves us through the Son, and so we are to love one another in the way of the Son (e.g. John 15:9-12). There’s James’ Jesus-like description of “fulfilling the royal law found in Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Jas 2:8). There’s Peter’s Paul-like summary: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

It’s everywhere. This bottom-line, heart-of-the-matter, sums-it-all-up kind of perspective on love is everywhere in the New Testament, weaving together threads of love that run through the Old Testament.

Love really is all we need.

But what is this love? What does it look like? That’s the next post.

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

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

Love is All We Need

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

We live in turbulent times.

Everything is changing. Nothing seems certain any more.

Humans NYOur knowledge of the universe is growing exponentially, racing beyond our wisdom, outpacing our ability to tame this knowledge for good purposes.

Our globe has shrunk to a village, but it’s a village made up of thousands of distinct cultures, dozens of religions with hundreds of offshoots, and seven billion one-of-a-kind individuals.

Our world is increasingly complex, and we don’t know how to handle this. We scramble for some kind of order in all the chaos and confusion.

We’re afraid, though we don’t like to admit it. We’re afraid of change, afraid of losing what we value most, afraid of the unknown other, the unknown future, afraid of a meaningless existence.

We mask all these fears with stuff—big houses and new cars, gizmos and gadgets and mindless entertainment, all just bread and circuses. Or we medicate our fears away—whether it’s prescription drugs or spiritual highs or something else—anaesthetizing our angst until it retreats to the depths of our subconscious.

Naturally, everyone’s got an opinion on what should be done—that’s part of the mad scramble for order, and part of the chaos and confusion. We take sides on issue x or issue y, digging into our polarized positions in binary code. We shout at each other IN ALL CAPS across the internet. We react to opposition with flaming words, with shaming and scapegoating, or with bullets and bombs—betraying all those underlying fears, and giving us even more reason to fear.

We Christians have our own brands of chaos and confusion, growing from those same complex realities. Faith nomads shift from one Christian tradition to another, church attendance overall is on the decline, and Christianity’s public influence is waning even faster. And we eagerly contribute to the cacophony of opinions on what should be done about all this.

Some of us call for allegiance to doctrinal systems that lay everything out with clarity and certainty—in this we will find our stability, we are told. Others turn to the latest fandangled worship bling or revive tried-and-true forms of ancient ritual. Still others shrug their shoulders at theology or liturgy and instead focus on social justice efforts or political engagement.

Some point to charismatic speakers or compelling authors and hang on their every word—surely they will point the way forward. Others appeal for a simple return to the Bible, apparently unaware that the Christian Scriptures have in fact spawned dozens of different worldviews themselves, contributing to the complexity and chaos and confusion of our post-Christendom world.

In the midst of this chaos and confusion, standing in the complexity of our world, I join my voice to those who say this:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Yikes! Did you hear that? That was the sound of Christians shouting their objections at me. (Yes, we Christians do that, in case you haven’t noticed.)

“Love? Seriously? The world’s problems are going to be solved by holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’? Get real!”

“Love, sure. But we are also called by God to be holy, we are called to seek and speak truth. Love without holiness and truth is no love at all!”

“You’re just another liberal following the crowd, reducing the gospel to mere ‘tolerance,’ willing to accept anything and everything in the name of love!”

Well, before you grab your pitchforks and storm mi casa, hear me out.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary.

Love is all we need.

Faith Hope LoveIf we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Sound a little over-the-top? Well, come back tomorrow and I’ll begin fleshing this out in a series of blog posts this week.

In the meantime, here’s a little reading to get you started.

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

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

Sermon from a Morden Church

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King JrOut of great struggle rise great women and men, to do great things. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of these. His voice gave dignity to African-Americans in a world that gave them none. His example of nonviolent resistance gave others the courage to stand for truth in love. His ideas fueled a movement toward freedom and equality that continues to this day.

MLK’s legacy is an American treasure. But it is a treasure big enough for all people to share.

I was reminded of the above quote from MLK’s book, Stride Toward Freedom, a couple of weeks ago when I preached on Epiphany Sunday. My sermon was on diversity, on the ways we “other” others. Sound odd? Here’s an excerpt…

“Others,” and How They Are Made

It happens all the time, and we’re all prone to it. We all like to be around people who are like us, people who generally think the same way we do, who dress much the same way we do, who speak the same language, like the same food, have similar interests. But then someone new arrives on the scene, someone who doesn’t quite fit the mould, someone who looks a little different, who speaks a little different, who likes different things.

It’s so easy for us to fear the different. Often this is motivated by ignorance—we just don’t know what to make of them, we don’t know what their presence might mean for us. And so we’re afraid: there’s something threatening about their differences, as if we think they might undermine our own comfortable life just by their presence, as if the fact that they think and do things differently might call into question the legitimacy of the way we think and do things.

At this point things are still salvageable. Difference is not the problem. But when, out of ignorance and fear, we push differences to the outside, we make the different into the outsider, then we have a problem. They are no longer “us”; they’re not even “you’s” anymore, people we address directly. They are simply “them,” “those people,” consigned to third person pronouns.

But things can even get worse. When someone we’ve labeled an outsider actually does something to us, or our family, or our community, when one of “those people” does something that threatens something we hold dear, the outsider can become the enemy. Then it’s not simply “us” and “them”: it’s “us versus them.” Suddenly “those people” get blamed for everything that’s going wrong. Suddenly the greatest threat to our world is Muslims, or evolutionists, or gays, or whatever we’ve made into our polar opposite—and if nothing is done, we believe, the world as we know it will be lost. Again, more ignorance and fear.

The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy—but we’re not done yet. In extreme cases, we then demonize these enemies, we de-humanize them. Think of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden: by the time they died they were no longer seen as flesh-and-blood human beings, regular people who still had to get dressed every morning, who still laughed and loved with friends and family. Our greatest enemies become symbols of something greater, something more terrible; they become icons of evil. And then we can imagine horrible things done to them that we would never wish on any flesh-and-blood human being.

The different becomes the outsider, the outsider becomes the enemy, and the enemy is demonized, stripped of their humanity.

Reversing this “Othering”

But this is not the way of Jesus. This is not the gospel. Jesus is about breaking down walls, erasing lines in the sand, widening circles, extending tables.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIn a brilliant passage that deserves careful, repeated reading, Ephesians 2 describes how Jesus has come to “destroy the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles: he “preached peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near,” in order to create “one new humanity” and thus “bring peace” (Eph 2:14-18).

Here’s the hard part, the more excellent way, the narrow road. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, motivated by love, we are called to reverse this process of “othering”: to humanize our enemies, to bring the outsider in, to celebrate our differences.

“There is no fear in love,” we’re told in 1 John 4, “but perfect love casts out fear.” So we begin to follow Jesus in this by replacing fear of others with love. We don’t fear those who are different simply because they are different; we love them.

This sounds so idealistic, and it is—the gospel is idealistic, the kingdom of God is the ultimate in idealistic, imagining a world better than the one we’ve got now. But this love can still take seriously the dangers around us. Sometimes we have legitimate reason to fear other people. Sometimes other people’s actions do threaten something or someone we hold dear. We should be cautious in a dangerous world. We still lock our doors at night; we don’t leave our keys in the ignition; we don’t let our kids walk alone across town. We promote just laws, and compassionate policing, and restorative justice.

Yet if this appropriate caution becomes a fear that drives us, defining the way we interact with those we meet day by day, defining the way we engage those who are different than us, making the different the outsider and the outsider the enemy—then we need love to drive out that fear. That kind of fear-based approach to those who are different just doesn’t work. It has got us as a human race into a mighty mess—polarized politics, radicalized religion, angry fundamentalism, culture wars, real wars—and we need love to drive that fear away.

This love is not a sentimental “smile and nod” kind of love. It is heartfelt, active, Jesus-love. It shows interest in the other person, in their loves and longings, their joys and sorrows. It learns about that person, where they’re from, what they eat, what they like to do, how they live. It reaches out to that person in their need—loneliness, despair, hunger, illness, grief—and accepts help from that person when we’re in need. This Jesus-love is a love that gives itself for the other, even when it hurts, even when the other is different, an outsider, an enemy.

And when we love like this, the process of “othering” someone else turns back on itself. That enemy we have demonized, is humanized. We see them for who they are: people just like us, just as frightened as we are behind their pomp and power, feeling just as threatened in their world, with things they value and people they love, longing for the basics of a meaningful human life—good and nourishing food, clean air and water, warm shelter and clothing, personal freedom, a safe home, loving relationships, dignity and respect.

And when we love like this, the outsider is brought in. It’s no longer “us versus them” or even just “us” and “them”—the third-person “those people” becomes a second-person “you” as we engage them directly, and then even a first-person “one of us.” We break down the walls that divide us, we erase the high-stakes lines in the sand, we widen the circle, we extend the table and invite them in for Faspa. Whatever “those people” we’ve created, we open our arms and say, “Welcome here.”

And when we love like this, the different are celebrated. Love doesn’t erase our differences. We recognize that just as we’re all the same—humans together on the same planet hurtling through the galaxy around the same sun—so we recognize that we’re all different. Different abilities, different ideas, different interests, different dreams, different clothes, different shades of skin, different shapes and sizes, different names, different people. And we celebrate this: we welcome the Magi from the East just as we’ve welcomed the shepherds from the hill country, and just as God welcomes slave and free, Gentile and Jew, male and female, from every tribe and nation and people and language.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

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

When Everyone’s Biblical and We All Disagree

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.

Bible Bashing

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.

For more on some of these thoughts, see my post “On Bonfires, Love, and Jesus.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

On Bonfires, Love, and Jesus

This Sunday we’re continuing our worship series on “Welcoming One Another.” A crucial part of this “welcoming”—this “accepting” each other, this “receiving” one another—is coming to terms with our differences, even celebrating them. In fact, that’s the key idea in Romans 15:7: we come from different backgrounds and experiences, we think and act differently, and so each must “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

Here are a few of the thoughts in my head as I reflect this week on “celebrating our diversity”:

In order for us to accept our diversity as a church, even to celebrate this diversity, we must have a good sense of what it is that unites us. Our diversity is not without any unity, though this unity is not uniformity. We are diverse in our unity, and we are united in our diversity.

Too often Christians have a merely doctrinal approach to unity. We think of unity in terms of those beliefs that we hold in common. Sometimes that list can get quite long, well beyond any biblical or historic summary of the essentials of the Christian faith. But the longer the list the harder it is for everyone to agree, and so these lists of unity essentials become divisive.

But ignoring doctrine and taking a practical approach is not any better. Trying to determine what practices or rituals unite us as Christians can lead to the same problem. There is something else—I would say Someone—behind these beliefs and practices, in whom we are united.

Too often, also, Christians have a “fence” approach to unity. We think of our distinctive beliefs and/or practices as a fence that separates us from those who are not us, and this fence defines who we are together, it defines our unity.

Bonfire at San RiverBut it’s much better to have a “bonfire” approach to unity. The Someone who unites us stands at the centre like a bonfire on a cold night, and we are drawn to the warmth and light of the fire from all different directions. We huddle together around this fire, we tell our stories, we sing our songs, and we share our bread and wine. Our unity has a centre, but no boundaries.

And what is this bonfire around which we gather? It is Jesus, and it is love.

Read the New Testament; behind all the New Testament’s diversity stands Jesus, on every page. Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and taught and healed and suffered and died and rose again, Jesus the Christ, Israel’s Messiah-King and the world’s true Lord—this Jesus is the one to whom the Scriptures witness, he is the heart of the gospel, he is the one who shows us who the Triune God is, the one in whom we find deep, abiding life and discern humanity’s true purpose.

And alongside Jesus throughout the New Testament—in fact, only fully discerned through Jesus—is the call to love: to give ourselves for the good of the other, even if they are the different, the stranger, the enemy, even if we think they don’t deserve it, even if it costs us our very life. This Jesus-love is the sum of the Law and the Prophets; it is the mark of Jesus’ true disciples; it is the virtue that binds together all other virtues; it is the more excellent way and greatest good that always remains; it is the sign that we have truly come to know God, who is love.

When we see unity not as bordered but as centred, when we see this unity as centred on Jesus and Jesus-love, when we refuse to allow ourselves to be distracted by boundaries and walls and disputes over “who’s in and who’s out” or questions of “do they believe the right things or do things the right way,” when we see “welcoming one another” in love as at the very heart of who the eternally Triune God is, who God is as shown in Jesus, and who we are as Christians—then we can find the freedom to truly accept our diversity, and even to celebrate it.

Some of the thoughts rolling around in my head…

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