Fifteen Lessons I Learned (or Learned Again) in Teaching on the Cross this Lent

Through Lent this year I taught a Bible study on “The Meaning of the Cross.” We packed a lot into four weeks! We talked about crucifixion in the ancient world and the specific circumstances surrounding Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross. We talked about the theological puzzle this created for the early Christians (“Christ crucified by humans, yet raised from the dead by God—what?!”). We talked about various explanations Christians have given through history of the saving significance of Jesus’ death (“atonement models” or “theories”). This included a particular focus on (and critique of) the dominant model in modern western Protestant circles, Penal Substitution—that on the cross Jesus took our place, taking God’s punishment for our sin and appeasing God’s wrath against us for our sin.

I may create some posts from all this down the road, we’ll see. For now, though, here are fifteen lessons I learned (or learned again) in teaching on the cross through Lent (and yes, these are tweetable!):

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #1: All atonement metaphors and models reflect the culture in which they were developed. Yes, this includes Penal Substitution. Yes, it also includes recent nonviolent models. It even includes biblical metaphors.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #2: How we understand the problem determines how we understand the solution. In the NT the root problem is not “hell” or “guilt” but “sin,” all the ways we harm others/creation. The solution? Rescue from harm, restoration to wholeness.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #3: In the OT there are many bases for God’s forgiveness of sins/appeasement of God’s wrath: remorse (Ps 32), persuasion (Num 14), repentance (Jon 3), animal sacrifice (Lev 4-6), and even killing someone with proper zeal (Num 25).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #4: There are many different kinds of blood sacrifices in the OT. Several of them had nothing to do with sin—ritual purification, thanksgiving gift, and covenant ratification, for instance.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #5: *God did not kill Jesus.* In fact, the NT consistently, emphatically declares that *humans* killed Jesus—*God* raised Jesus from the dead.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #6: Rarely if ever does the NT clearly, directly say that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wrath, or took our punishment, or paid our penalty. One might develop a model that logically requires this, but it’s not stated.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #7: The gospel preaching of Acts describes Jesus’ death as something humans did to Jesus, not something Jesus did for us. Forgiveness of sins in Acts is dependent on our repentance, and is based on Jesus’ exaltation not his death.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #8: The gospel tradition of 1 Cor 15:3-4, including “Christ died for our sins,” was a kind of “preaching summary” of the apostolic gospel—not a full-blown theology of salvation.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #9: In the NT Jesus’ death “for us” or “for our sins” most often simply means “for our benefit” or “in relation to our sins.” Anything more is implied from its context—or read into from our context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #10: The NT uses many different metaphors to describe Jesus’ death. All of them relate Jesus’ death to “our sins” in some way. Most of them, however, don’t do this in a “sacrifice for sins” kind of way.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #11: The Gospels don’t give much basis for Penal Substitution: Jesus rejected lethal violence and punitive justice, he agreed with the prophetic rebuke of blood sacrifice, and he forgave sins freely on God’s behalf—even his own murder!

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #12: Some Jews in Jesus’ day disputed the legitimacy of the Temple and its sacrifices. All Jews soon after Jesus’ day saw repentance and acts of mercy as “atoning,” no blood sacrifice required. Jesus fits right within this context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #13: The dominant metaphors used by Jesus in the Gospels for interpreting his death were related to liberation from oppressive powers (Passover, Exodus, “ransom/redemption,” “new covenant”).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #14: The dominant imagery used by Jesus in the Gospels for applying his death is “identification/participation”: Jesus stands with the sinned-against, and Jesus calls us to follow him in taking up our cross.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #15: The dominant interpretation of Jesus’ death in the NT is that it is a revelation of love: it shows God’s (and Jesus’) love for us, and it compels us to respond with love for God and for others—neighbours, strangers, even enemies.

How to put this all together? Well, I do have a few thoughts on that. As I said, I might get to developing some blog posts along those lines. In the meantime, however, you can check out a couple of past posts of mine on the cross: “The Foolishness of the Cross” and “‘Jesus Died for Our Sins’: Sketching Out Atonement.”

Why in the World Do I Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is an utterly impossible event.

I’m serious. It is truly impossible.

When we make it into something that is “possible”—whether historically or scientifically—then we’ve stripped it of its power. When we make it into something that is “possible,” we miss the nature of “resurrection” as new creation invading the old, the transformative redemption of the old into something radically new. As I note in From Resurrection to New Creation, all this is rather scandalous for Christian faith: Jesus’ resurrection demands historical investigation at the same time that it defies historical investigation.

So why then do I believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? Why do I believe in something that is truly impossible?

After all, I don’t make a habit of believing in impossible things. Sure, we all believe things that may well be improvable, but that’s different from believing in things which are impossible. So why do I believe in this particular impossible claim, that something happened to the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth such that he was resurrected from the dead to a transformed bodily existence?

PrintIn From Resurrection to New Creation, I note that this “scandal of the empty tomb” places Christians in the “risky realm of faith—trusting in the primitive testimony of those very first witnesses as found in ancient traditions in later written records, and believing in the history-demanding yet history-defying claim that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘raised from the dead on the third day,’ transformed to an immortal bodily existence untouched by sin and death” (12).

I do think this is the most fundamental basis for belief in Jesus’ resurrection: the apostolic gospel, the “kerygma,” the message of salvation to which the Spirit through the Scriptures and the Church bears witness, calls us to faith in Jesus’ resurrection. But this is a general reality, a common thread which runs through billions of diverse experiences of faith.

So why do I—I, and not all Christians—believe in the impossible: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?

Belief is a funny thing. We very often continue to hold to a belief for different reasons than we came to believe in the first place; the way we attain belief is not always the same as the way we sustain that belief. So it is that my own belief in Jesus’ resurrection was first prompted by the faith of others: my primary social community in my formative years of childhood and adolescence believed in Jesus’ resurrection, and they passed on that faith to me as well.

This “faith in the faith of my faith community” is still an important dimension of my belief in Jesus’ resurrection, but it is not in itself enough to sustain that belief for me. So, my own belief in Jesus’ resurrection is sustained by a few other things as well.

I have had several experiences of the “transcendent” or “supernatural” in my life—situations where things happened in an unusual and beneficial way, or impressions of something or someone “completely other” and “utterly beyond” engaging me in some way in my “inner being,” or the like.

I’m sure these can all be explained as coincidence in a chaotic world, or neurological processes in response to some subconsciously perceived external stimuli, or whatever. But there’s something about many of these experiences for which those explanations are—however true—not enough. Undoubtedly this simply reflects the fact that I want to believe there is someone somewhere out there who is “completely other” and “utterly beyond.” In any case, these experiences in many ways lay the groundwork for more specific belief.

Rembrandt EmmausI also have an ongoing and growing conviction that no other explanation than Jesus’ resurrection fully does justice to the texts and ideas, events and experiences of those first Jesus-followers after the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. Grave robbing and hallucinations, fainting and reviving, myth-creating and -telling, natural evolution of socio-religious ideas—none of these or similar explanations makes good sense to me of the specific traditions, writings, convictions, ministries, and deaths of those first followers of Jesus.

Now this is not the same as saying Jesus’ resurrection is “provable” according to the standards of historical criticism—I don’t think it is. Rather, it is more along the lines of saying—with deepest apologies to Sherlock and Sir Arthur for completely skewing a maxim of Holmesian logic—that when you have eliminated the improbable, whatever remains, however impossible, may well be the truth.

Nor is this simply another way of saying the same thing as I said above, that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is faith in the apostolic kerygma. This is rather what you might call a historical-but-not-critically-historical reason for cautious conviction that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

Also significant for my belief in Jesus’ resurrection is seeing individual lives and faith communities transformed by this belief, seeing Christian faith work in the daily grind of real life.

Again, alternative explanations are possible—people can make major, positive changes in their lives for a variety of reasons and from within (or apart from) a variety of faith traditions. And there’s no doubt that many who claim belief in Jesus’ resurrection see very little positive change in their lives, and can in fact do some pretty horrible things. But still, I can’t deny that this particular belief in this particular God who raised this particular Jesus from the dead has had some very positive effects on many individuals, communities, and even crucial moments in human history.

A not-unrelated factor is this: to me, a broadly Christian worldview works better epistemically than the alternatives, allowing me to make sense of my perceptions and experiences in the world in a way that is coherent and meaningful. And a crucial dimension of that Christian worldview is the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, that God is a God who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist, a hopelessly optimistic notion that God alone provides hope for real, lasting change.

All these factors—my personal experiences of the transcendent, my heritage of faith and my faith community, the coherence of a Christian worldview for me, the positive change I’ve seen in the lives and communities of believers, my dissatisfaction with alternative explanations for the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, and ultimately, the Scripture- and Church-witnessed apostolic kerygma—all these factors come together to prompt and sustain my belief in the impossible claim that the crucified Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

And this, in turn, changes everything.

This post is adapted from a post written in 2010 on a previous blog of mine. Also cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl. As a companion to this, you might want to check out my post, “Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?” The answer is more complex than you might think!

The Foolishness of the Cross

A meditation on the cross which I shared at the Morden Good Friday Community Service, April 18, 2014, slightly revised since. It is based on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

A few years ago I was fortunate to be able to go to Israel-Palestine with a study group. It was an amazing experience: hiking in the wadis west of the Dead Sea, climbing in the hills around the Sea of Galilee, baptizing a former student of mine in the Jordan River, listening to stories around a community oven in a Palestinian village, getting violently sick in my first days there. Well, that wasn’t so amazing, but it certainly was memorable!

Olive Wood CrossOf course, I brought back mementos of my trip. Stones from different parts of Israel-Palestine, beverage containers with Hebrew and Arabic on them, a ram’s horn. And some plain wooden crosses like this one, simple, carved out of olive wood.

It’s the universal symbol of Christianity, the cross. We set them outside our churches and everyone can see at a glance that we’re Christians. We have them at the front of our churches, focusing our attention in worship. Many churches in Europe are built in the shape of the cross. We place crosses over our graves. We cast crosses in silver and gold—or carve them in wood—and wear them around our necks.

The cross is pervasive among us Christians as a visual symbol for our faith. But you might be surprised to know that the cross wasn’t widely used as a visual, public symbol by the early Christians, probably for at least two hundred years after Jesus. The reason is a simple one—and it makes you think.

The Scandal of the Cross

You see, the cross was not in any way a positive thing for Jews or Christians in those early centuries of the Church. Even sophisticated, respectable Roman citizens thought crucifixion too distasteful for polite conversation. Cicero, a Roman philosopher and politician who lived just before the time of Jesus, said that “the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears…the very mention of [crucifixion]…is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man” (Pro Rabirio 16).

A real cross, the kind that people were crucified on, was normally just a rough-hewn beam of wood that the condemned criminal would carry outside the city, right on the busiest road where everyone could see. There it would be attached to something vertical—a post set up for such executions, or even just a tree. The person would be hung from it, arms outstretched, sometimes for days, until they died an excruciating death, usually of asphyxiation. Crosses were not your ordinary punishment; they were reserved for the worst of criminals, for treasonous rebels, for conquered peoples.

A real cross, then, the kind that Jesus died on, was an instrument of death, a horrific thing, an image of deep shame. It was like a giant billboard displaying Rome’s power and highlighting the subjugation of all other peoples. Cicero might not have wanted even to speak of crucifixion, but his Rome was built on the backs of crucified men.

Christians using the cross as a symbol, then, would be like African Americans in the Deep South of the early twentieth century placing a beautifully woven noose at the front of their churches, or like Jews of 1940s Poland casting a miniature golden gas chamber to wear as jewelry.

It’s disturbing to think about, isn’t it?

But once you get this then you can start to appreciate the Apostle Paul’s words in our passage from 1 Corinthians: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

Christ, of course, is Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, who walked those dry and dusty roads of Galilee, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching love of God and neighbour, healing the sick and raising the dead. But “Christ” is a title, not a name: it means “Messiah,” or “anointed one,” and refers to the ancient practice of initiating priests and prophets and kings by anointing their head with oil. When Paul calls Jesus “Christ” he is essentially calling him “King,” the promised Messiah in the family line of King David who was to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Of course, for Paul, there’s more going on in Jesus’ story. For Paul, Jesus the Christ was “sent” from God the Father: he perfectly represented God, God’s person and purposes. For Paul, Jesus embodied God in the world: as Colossians puts it, “in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19).

So this is Paul’s claim, then: the man Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the promised King come to bring about God’s kingdom, perfectly representing God to us, even embodying God for us—and this God-King has died on a Roman cross, executed in torturous pain and shame and oppression, in utter weakness.

If you were a Jew in Paul’s day, like Paul himself and all the first Christians, what would you think of this? The Messiah, the Son of David, was supposed to liberate God’s people from their oppressors, not succumb to those oppressors! The Messiah was supposed to come with mighty signs and wonders in triumph over God’s enemies, not be crucified by them! There was little room for a suffering and dying Messiah in Jewish thinking of the day.

There was also a persistent view among at least some Jews that those who were crucified were cursed by God; it comes from Deuteronomy 21:23, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” How could the Messiah be under God’s curse? The Messiah is blessed by God, not cursed!

No, a crucified Christ just could not be—and this was an enormous stumbling block for Jews in Paul’s day to believe in Jesus.

Alexamenos GraffitoWhat if you were a Roman? The Romans had their own stories of divine kings. Caesar Augustus and all “good emperors” after him were deified after their death, viewed by many in the Empire as divine kings. Some emperors along the way couldn’t wait until after they died to be deified, and insisted on being considered divine while they were still alive. So the Romans could understand a god-king. But a divine king being crucified at the hands of his enemies? Impossible! Such a king is not worthy of divinity!

And how about the Greeks? In Paul’s day, some at least thought of God as static, unchangeable, immune to shifting human passions and outside the fluctuating tides of human events. For these Greek thinkers, it was impossible that the divine being should experience suffering, let alone suffering on a cross.

But even for Greek thinkers who didn’t view God this way, they still had no room for this. They all liked their tidy system of thought, their sophisticated reason, their seamless, undisturbed way of understanding the world and our place in it. Stories of a crucified god-king? Too messy, too disturbing, too irrational.

No, a crucified Christ just could not be—and this was seen as complete and utter foolishness for many of the Gentiles in Paul’s day.

“We proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul says. Really, it’s hard to imagine any message in his world that could have been more foolish than that.

The Power of the Cross

But here’s the astounding thing: Paul insists that this foolishness is really wisdom, this weakness is really power. God is foolish in our eyes, God is weak—yet it is only through this foolishness that we find true wisdom, and it is only through this weakness that we find true power.

It is one of the most mysterious—and shocking—truths of Christianity: God brings about salvation for the world through a crucified Christ. God rescues humanity and all creation from sin and death through a Jewish king executed on a Roman cross. God overcomes our greatest enemies—our insatiable greed, our arrogant pride, our overpowering selfishness, these deep-rooted distorted desires that push us to hurt others and harm creation—God overcomes this sin and death by bearing the brunt of our sin and giving himself up to death.

It’s as if Jesus on the cross absorbs into himself all the hatred and violence and guilt and shame and pain and suffering that humans can inflict—he absorbs it all. Instead of fighting violence with violence, instead of fighting power with power, like everyone expected a king to do, or even a god to do—Jesus absorbs it all. Jesus takes all these things—all our sin, and this all-encompassing death that results from our sinful attitudes and actions—Jesus takes all this and absorbs it into himself, as if sucking the poison from a snake bite.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossThrough this Jesus shows us who God really is: God is the God who would rather die than kill, the God who comes in suffering and weakness rather than brazen displays of power, the God who would rather work silently through our distorted wills than enforce his own will on us. God is the God who loves us, who gives himself for us, the God who forgives us, the God who is not against us but for us, on our side, right by our side in our own suffering.

And in the process, Jesus also lays out a path for us to walk: we are to follow in the footsteps of our crucified Messiah, not in power but in weakness, not in glory but in suffering, not in hatred and violence but in love and peace.

The Good News of the Cross

I think we’re more like the Jews and Greeks and Romans of Paul’s day than we care to admit.

We think God comes to deal with our enemies—those other people, flesh and blood people who aren’t like us, who don’t like us. But the cross shows that God comes to deal with the deeper enemies we all face—our own selfishness and greed, our own arrogance and pride, our own sin and the wider evil and injustice that grows out of it.

We think God comes in power and strength, and so we revere strong and powerful people. We think God comes in wise words and clever arguments, and so we admire intelligent people. We think God comes in glittering glory, and so we idolize beautiful people. But the cross shows that God comes in foolishness and weakness, with nothing in his appearance to attract us to him. God comes in a helpless baby and a crucified king, God comes in the poor, the weak, the suffering, the least of these, Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

We think God makes the world a better place through his sheer will, his mighty power, and so we try to do good in the world by force, coercing others to do our will. But the cross shows that God changes the world through his weak power, through self-giving love and radical forgiveness—and so should we.

We think God only works in “God moments,” those times when something spectacular happens, something miraculous, something extraordinary. But the cross shows that God also works when tragedy strikes, when the worst thing you can imagine happens, when pain and suffering and despair and even death hits us. These too can be “God moments,” sometimes even the most powerful “God moments”—as God comes alongside you and walks with you through darkness and disaster.

We think God is unchangeable, unmoved by the ebb and flow of human circumstances and human experiences. But the cross shows that God knows the very depths of human suffering and sin. If there’s a solution to the problem of evil, it is this: God suffers with us.

One scholar has commented on our passage from 1 Corinthians this way: “The ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how ‘the God who makes sense’ ought to do things” (Gordon Fee, First Corinthians). But the cross shatters all our notions of “what God must be like.”

And in that there is genuine good news, for all of us.

If you are wracked by guilt, or overcome by shame for something you’ve done, God is not standing over you, to condemn you. God is standing before you, arms open wide, ready to forgive you, to welcome you home. Receive God’s forgiveness, and in that you can find the strength to seek the forgiveness of others.

If you are walking through pain and suffering—physical sickness, emotional wounds, mental illness, whatever it may be—God is not outside of all that, oblivious to your hurt. God is right there in the midst of it, ready to walk with you through it, to give you just what you need day by day to make it through. Open yourself to God’s love, trust in God to take care of you.

Road-to-the-CrossAnd if you have any kind of relationship to another human being—I think that pretty much covers all of us—remember this: God calls us to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the crucified Christ. God calls us to love, not to hate. God calls us to peace, not violence. God calls us to be humble with others, not proud. God calls us to forgive, not to harbor resentment or anger. God calls us to the cross, the weak and foolish cross, because it is only through the cross—Jesus’ kind of selfless, self-giving love, that we can find God’s true wisdom and power.

This is why the cross endures as such a powerful symbol of the Christian faith: not because the cross was an instrument of such horrific brutality and terrorizing oppression, but because the cross shows us so clearly who God truly is. The cross shows us God’s deep and abiding love—for me, for you, for all of us.

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

For some reflections on the cross and nonviolent atonement, check out my later post “‘Jesus Died For our Sins’: Sketching Out Atonement.”

Good Friday, Better Sunday

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossToday Christians observe Good Friday, one of the most important days of the Christian calendar. Work will be set aside, worship services will be attended, and sombre reflection will mix with effusive joy in celebration of this “Good Friday.”

But to the close followers of Jesus of Nazareth nearly 2,000 years ago, that particular Friday was anything but “good.”

Things had certainly looked good earlier in the week. Jesus’ popularity appeared to be at an all-time high, with many Passover pilgrims and native Judeans cheering on this intriguing Galilean prophet in his entry to the city, his protest in the Temple courts, and his confrontations with the religious leaders. Jesus’ odd words on the way to Jerusalem (“The son of man must suffer and die”…?) had seemed even more peculiar in light of this new-found honour being granted him in the holy city. Surely Jesus’ earlier pessimism (“Every prophet must die in Jerusalem”…?) had been unwarranted, for here he had found the power and influence he needed to bring about God’s kingdom, to establish the saving sovereignty of God among his people.

But now Jesus—their prophet, their teacher, even their hoped-for Messiah—had been arrested, charged with crimes ranging from blasphemy to sedition. Most of his followers had scattered in fear, terrified of facing similar indictments and the prospect of a similar fate. In the end Jesus was condemned according to both Jewish and Roman law, physically tortured, publicly humiliated, and proficiently crucified. At a time when Jesus’ followers should have been celebrating God’s past deliverance of his oppressed people during Passover, when they had even dared to hope for God’s present deliverance of his oppressed people through his Messiah, they were instead left in despair, terror, and shame.

No, that Friday was anything but “good” for those first followers of Jesus.

But Sunday changed all that.

Rembrandt Christ ResurrectedThe early morning discovery of the empty tomb and the successive appearances of Jesus to his followers convinced them that he had been resurrected by God. In an instant, legal condemnation was turned into divine vindication. Shame and humiliation were suddenly transformed into honour and glory. Oppression and defeat were changed unexpectedly into freedom and victory. Fear became faith, despair hope, and hatred love. Death was swallowed up in life. In the light of the resurrection, Jesus’ crucifixion could no longer be viewed as a terrible human tragedy but rather as the supreme divine irony, a God-ordained paradox of glory through shame, strength through weakness, freedom through surrender, life through death, deliverance through crucifixion. The darkest day in history had been illuminated in the spotlight of the brightest of days, and that Friday could forever be called “very good.”

We still find ourselves in the place of those first followers of Jesus, caught between death and resurrection, stuck on Friday afternoon with Sunday morning yet to come. The never-ending Friday of this present age doesn’t look all that “good” to us—we see condemnation, shame, oppression, fear, despair, hatred, and death all around us, and even experience a good bit of this ourselves.

But Sunday has already come—and will come again—and that reality illuminates all the dark Fridays of our lives. The resurrection of Jesus Christ brings significance to our suffering; it may still be horrible, even horrific suffering at times, make no mistake of that, but as the death of Jesus is revealed in the sufferings of God’s people and his creation, the life of Jesus is increasingly displayed through the people of God in anticipation of the full redemption of creation. Moreover, the resurrection of Jesus Christ compels us to enact resurrection daily—to bring forgiveness to the condemned, honour to the shamed, freedom to the oppressed, faith to those paralyzed by fear, hope to those devoured by despair, love to those consumed by hate, and life for the sick and the dying. The resurrection of Jesus Christ summons us forward, from the darkness of this world’s Fridays, through the gloom of this world’s Saturdays, into the glorious eternal Sunday of God’s new creation, with his saving sovereignty displayed throughout the earth.

It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that enables us to say, even in the midst of our darkest Fridays, though very often with a sightless faith: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And so, it is indeed a very Good Friday.

This post first appeared on an earlier blog of mine back in March 2008. Also cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

An Anabaptist Does Advent

Advent wreathI don’t recall talking about Advent in the church in which I grew up, an Anabaptist church with a conservative evangelical bent. Certainly we didn’t mention Lent. And those other church days, with names like “Epiphany” and “Trinity Sunday” and “Feast of Christ the King”? Those weren’t even in my universe.

We celebrated the five “evangelical feasts,” as I later came to know them: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. And Ascension was optional. Well, so was Pentecost, though believers often got baptized then. What really mattered was the Christmas Eve Sunday school service with Christmas carols and candy bags, some sort of sombre Good Friday remembrance, and lots of joyful singing and sweet bread on Easter Sunday.

Anabaptists have been suspicious of the church calendar throughout most of our history. It’s in the same line as church creeds and seven sacraments, going back to the early Anabaptist conviction that “if it’s not in the Bible we shouldn’t do it.” Advent and Lent, let alone the likes of the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, are not mentioned in Scripture, at least not directly. So they’re suspect.

Over the past twenty years or so, in fits and starts, I have gradually come round to observing the church year. At least in a general way—Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, Lent through Easter, the Ascension through Pentecost, and that wonderfully titled chunk of “Ordinary Time” culminating in Christ the King Sunday. And I’m not alone. Over that same twenty years or so, Mennonite churches have been moving more and more to the rhythms of the church year. (It’s about the only rhythm some of us move to. Mennonite joke.)

Why is this? I’d suggest there are some good, thoroughly Anabaptist reasons for observing Advent and Lent and all these seasons of the Christian church. Let me give two.

First, Anabaptists believe Jesus is central to all we do; observing the church calendar focuses us on the story of Jesus.

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born! At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

I love this. Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

Anabaptists also believe Jesus calls us to live in community with his followers; observing the church calendar underscores a sense of community with all Jesus’ followers.

Sure, the Anabaptist emphasis in this has been on the local congregation, and rightly so. The capital-C, universal Church is meaningless apart from the local, small-c church. Each and every flesh-and-blood gathering of Jesus-followers is the touchstone of God’s sanctifying presence in the world, the ears and mouth and hands and feet of Christ’s body in the world, an outpost of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and joy in the world. The bottom line: we need each other, and we need each other in the daily grind of real life, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.

But Anabaptists have recognized the need for wider connection with God’s people. We Mennonites have created regional and national bodies to coordinate ministry efforts and encourage one another—even international bodies such as the Mennonite World Conference. In recent years we have even participated in broader ecumenical conversations, such as those with Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

It turns out that just as the universal Church is meaningless apart from the local church, so is the local church meaningless apart from the universal Church, historic and global. And we’ve discovered that the strong sense of community we cherish as Anabaptists in our local congregations can be nurtured and celebrated in ever-widening circles. As any good Mennonite can tell you, you can always fit more around the table; there’s always enough food to share.

And one of the ways we can expand the table and experience community with the wider Church is by following the rhythms of the church calendar. As we walk through Advent, yearning for God to come among us, we do so alongside most of the Church around the world.

So I invite you to join us this Advent, either physically with us at Morden Mennonite or spiritually with us in your own congregation. Join us, and all God’s people, in entering the all-compelling, life-giving story of Jesus.

After all, if an Anabaptist can observe Advent, you can too.

Note: Since this was first posted I’ve become aware how northern hemisphere-centric some of this perspective is. Christians in the southern hemisphere: take from this what is helpful, and feel free to ignore the rest! Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.