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.

Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases

Have you ever had two people understand something you’ve said in two very different ways? It happens to all of us sometime. I’ve had it happen to me when I preach, more than once. This happens even when I use common Christian words or phrases derived from the Bible—maybe especially when I do so. It can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.

Part of this is just me needing to look for ways to communicate more clearly. Part of it, however, is our natural tendency to hear what we expect to hear. When we’re in a church and someone speaks about “faith” or “heaven,” for example, or they say “Jesus saves us from our sins,” we are inclined to hear those things in a particular “churchy” or “Christianese” kind of way.

But many of these words or phrases don’t mean for me what they often mean in popular Christianity. The reason? I don’t think the popular understandings actually reflect the biblical ideas behind these words or phrases, at least not completely.

Well, if you’re ever in doubt about what I might mean when I talk about “salvation,” or when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” I’ve created this nifty little guide: Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start handing this out before I preach every Sunday.

God. God is depicted in a myriad of different ways in Scripture. These are all metaphors: God is in some sense comparable to a “Father,” for instance, or a “Mother,” or a “Lord,” or a “Rock,” just to name a few. Even “God” is a metaphor: God is analogous to the “gods” of other nations and religions, comparable to what we typically think of when we think of a “deity.” Some biblical descriptions, however, take a different tack: God is YHWH, “I Am Who I Am,” for instance, or God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being,” or “God is love.” When I speak of “God,” I’m thinking more along those lines: God is “the ground and source of all being, personhood, and love.” I don’t imagine that God is merely “a being,” a distinct being within the universe, like us only bigger and stronger and immortal and invisible.

heaven. The Bible doesn’t speak of “heaven” as “our eternal home.” The New Testament understanding of life after death is simply being “with the Lord” or “with Christ.” In the end this includes living in transformed bodies in a renewed earthly creation (“resurrection” to a “new heavens and new earth”). In the Bible “heaven” means either 1) “the skies,” 2) “God’s dwelling,” or 3) a roundabout way of saying “God” (e.g. “kingdom of heaven” = “kingdom of God”). I don’t use the word “heaven” very often myself because of how it is misunderstood, but when I do it’s along the lines of 2) above: “the ‘place’ where God is most ‘fully present.’” Usually I use the word to speak of the biblical hope of “heaven” come down to earth, God’s presence being fully realized among us within a renewed creation.

sin. We tend to think of “sin” as “personal moral failure”: we’ve crossed a boundary established by God, and these boundaries are mostly related to our private lives or individual relationships. This way of thinking about sin isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete, and if this is the only way we think about sin then it can be unhelpful and unhealthy. I think a better (and more holistically biblical) way of thinking about sin is as “all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world through our settled thoughts, our words, our actions, and our inaction.” This “harm” can be thought of as “preventing or hindering flourishing life.” With regard to people this can most practically be understood as keeping them from having their most basic needs met: needs for clean air and water, nutritious food, basic health, security and freedom, meaningful relationships, love and respect. This sin is more than just “personal moral failure,” then—it also includes collective sins such as systemic injustice, as well as actions that harm the natural world.

salvation. In Scripture the language of “salvation” is most often about “rescue” or “deliverance” from some real-life peril, but it also can include ideas of “healing” and “restoration,” whether physically or relationally, individually or collectively. Then there’s all the related biblical words like “redemption,” “reconciliation,” and so on, which are really variations on the “restoration” idea. When I speak of “salvation” or being “saved” or God as “Saviour,” I mean something along the lines of “God delivering us from all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world, and bringing about a full and flourishing life for all creation.” I don’t mean “God rescuing us from future eternal torture so that we can live a disembodied existence somewhere else forever with God.”

kingdom of God. In much popular thinking the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is equivalent to “heaven,” which is thought of as “our eternal home” (see “heaven” above). But for early Jews, including Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, “kingdom of God” was a way of referring to “God ruling over God’s people and all the peoples of the earth.” When I use the phrase “kingdom of God,” I’m trying to capture Jesus’ particular understanding of this earthly rule of God, something along the lines of “God’s vision of a world of justice, peace, and flourishing life, which becomes a reality when people live according to God’s way of love.”

Jesus Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name; “Christ” is a title. And it’s not a title of divinity; it’s a human title. “Christ,” or “Messiah,” was most commonly a way of referring to the human kings in the line of ancient Israel’s King David. Eventually it came to refer to the ultimate Messiah, “the king from David’s dynasty who brings about God’s kingdom on earth.” The phrase “Jesus Christ,” then is a mini-creed: “Jesus is the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth.”

Son of God. This phrase has a dual meaning in the New Testament. Some writings, Mark’s Gospel, for example, use “Son of God” in one of its Old Testament senses, as a way of referring to the kings in the line of David. In this sense the phrase is equivalent to “Christ” or “Messiah,” and has no overtones of divinity. Other writings, most notably John’s Gospel, use “Son of God” with a clear implication of divinity. I believe both to be true of Jesus, and how I use this phrase tends to depend on which New Testament books I’m talking about: Jesus is “the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth,” and Jesus is “the one who uniquely embodies God, showing us most clearly and completely who God is and how God works in the world.”

Jesus is Lord. This doesn’t mean “Jesus controls everything that happens.” Nor does it merely mean “Jesus is the boss of me.” “Lord” in the ancient world had connotations of “master,” yes, but it was also a common way of speaking of human rulers—kings, emperors, and the like. With none of these was the idea that they controlled a person’s life circumstances; it was that they commanded their obedience or allegiance. To say that “Jesus is Lord,” then, means that “Jesus is greater than all human rulers and any powers-that-be in this world, and so he holds our ultimate allegiance in all things.”

gospel. The New Testament word “gospel” means “good news.” The “gospel” is not merely that “God sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” It’s the “good news that God has acted in Jesus—through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection—to make right everything that has gone wrong in the world.” In other words, it’s a way of summing up pretty much everything I’ve described above.

faith. We tend to think of “faith” either as “believing certain things to be true,” or “trusting in someone to do something.” The New Testament language of “faith” includes those ideas, but also others: “faith” (pistis) can mean everything from “belief” to “trust” to “faithfulness” to “fidelity” to “allegiance.” When I use the word “faith” I can mean any or all of those, following the New Testament usage. All of those are the response God desires from us: “believing what God says to be true, trusting in God through all things, being faithful to God and following God’s way of love.”

love. Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Others 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.” Others, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy. None of these are bad, but on their own they are incomplete. In the New Testament, love is consistently portrayed as loving the way Jesus loved. It is more along the lines, then, of “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.” This love, I’m convinced, is at the heart of who God is, what Jesus taught and lived out unto death, and how God’s “salvation,” the “kingdom of God,” comes about.

How do you understand these words? What often-misunderstood “Christian words” would you add?

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”

The Perfect Portrait of God

I’m not a visual artist. I cannot draw, I cannot paint. My stick figures don’t even look like stick figures.

But over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for the visual arts. I think it really started when we lived in England and we took advantage of all the free museums and art galleries. And so I’ve been working out what kind of art I like: John Constable’s English Romantic landscapes, Claude Monet’s French Impressionism, among others.

de-grebber-god-inviting-christ-to-right-handI also have an interest in religious art, Christian religious art in particular. Ancient Eastern icons. Rembrandt’s portrayals of the life of Christ. Depictions of God—like the famous one in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, or this one by Pieter de Grebber.

It seems that when we attempt to portray God visually, this is where we often end up: God is an old man with a white beard. He might be a kindly grandfather figure, benevolent and benign. Or he might be an untouchable monarch in all his pomp and state. Or he might be a judge, robes swirling, scowling with the full force of the law. But he’s an old man with a white beard, regardless.

And, in our portaits of God, we imagine God as up there, out there, somewhere other. God is heavenly holy, unreachable, untouchable. God is immensity. God is eternity. God is omni-potency.

But did you know that God has actually given us a self-portrait? This portrait of God is an “exact representation of God’s being,” as Hebrews 1 puts it. It is the “very image of God,” as Colossians 1 says. And—although God has nothing against old men with white beards—God’s self-portrait is nothing like our typical picture of God.

This perfect portrait of God is Jesus.

This means that the perfect portrait of God is a baby, born of water. Umbilical cord twisting toward his mother. Amniotic fluid matting his dark hair against his olive skin. Eyes tight shut, mouth open, wailing his newborn cry.

The perfect portrait of God is a child. Toddling, falling, and getting back up. Forming first words—“Abba,” perhaps. Laughing at silly games, scraping knees in play, being comforted in a young mother’s warm embrace. God’s kingdom belongs to such as these.

The perfect portrait of God is a teenager. Learning, questioning, questioning again—even the chief rabbis in Jerusalem. Taking on responsibility, taking on independence, taking on hopes and fears to guide his years ahead. God’s kingdom belongs to these as well.

The perfect portrait of God is a young adult, born of spirit. Living and loving, laughing and lamenting among kith and kin in a small village in Galilee. Acquiring his father’s craft, creating something out of nothing but a bit of formless wood or stone.

The perfect portrait of God is a grown human, fully alive. Devoted to God in faith, committed to others in love, tenacious in hope for good things to come. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. The whole Law is summed up in these things.

weistling-kissing-the-face-of-godThe perfect portrait of God is Jesus. And this changes everything.

God is not in the earthquake, not in the storm, not in the fire—but in the still silence of a sleeping baby, a mother’s gentle whisper.

God is not in our chariots and horses, our instruments of power and death—but in our acts of tender love and humble compassion.

God is not in our strength, nor in our riches, nor in our wisdom—God is in the poor in spirit, the humble in heart, in those who must rely on God even for their daily bread.

God is not in our might and power—but in the Spirit, God’s persistent yet gentle wind of peace.

God is not in our impressive words written or spoken—but in the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

God is in a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Our Lord, Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

A meditation given at Morden Mennonite Church on December 25, 2016. Click on images for sources. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Trust in God, Love One Another

One of my parishioners in a former church used to say that preachers really only have two or maybe three different sermons. “Every sermon they preach—doesn’t matter the text or the title—is really just a variation of one of those two or three sermons,” he’d say.

I’m not quite that cynical about the average pastor’s ability to navigate through a wide terrain of topics and Biblical texts. But I do think my friend was on to something. In fact, as I’ve been reflecting back on three years of preaching here at Morden Mennonite, I think pretty much all of my sermons—along with my pastoral counsel—can be boiled down to one of these two basic exhortations:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Exploring the mystery of the divine? Trust in God.

Dealing with the latest hot issue? Love one another.

Facing a financial crunch? Trust in God.

Wondering how to strengthen your marriage? Love one another.

Grieving the loss of a loved one? Trust in God.

Got a difficult situation with a co-worker? Love one another.

Needing to make a major decision? Trust in God.

Your son has just come out as gay? Love one another.

The Return of the Prodigal SonOf course, by themselves these refrains—“Trust in God” and “Love one another”—can sound trite. They can be trite: overly simplistic, pat answers, bumper sticker slogans empty of any real meaning or usefulness. Life is complicated, and these statements need to be nuanced and explained, their significance teased out in practical ways.

And in my preaching and teaching and pastoral guidance I certainly say a whole lot more than just “Trust in God” and “Love one another.” I attempt to set biblical texts within their ancient context, and then try to let them speak to us in our current context. I invite us to enter into the theological and moral imagination of Jesus and his first followers. I talk about what this “faith” and “love” looked like when Jesus did them, and what they might look like for us today, in our particular circumstances.

And yet, distilled to their most concentrated form, my sermons and conversations always seem to be some version of these two simple appeals:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

I’ve been reflecting again on the Gospel of John lately. It’s curious how I keep coming back to that Gospel, or maybe more that John’s Gospel keeps coming back to me. I gravitate toward the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—and the letters that bear Paul’s name. And yet every time I attempt to articulate the core message of these other writings, or the heart of my Christian faith, I seem to end up using John’s language to do so. So it is once again.

Because in the living waters of John’s Gospel two verbs keep rising to the surface, over and over again: “believe” and “love.”

The first one, “believe,” is pisteuō in Greek. This word is not as narrow as the English word “believe.” We tend to use “believe” as “I believe x to be true,” where x is some statement or claim. Or we simply say “Just believe!” or (same thing) “Believe in yourself!”—be authentic to who you are, trust your instincts, your own inner resources. In John’s Gospel, though, as throughout the New Testament, “believe” is more the idea of “I trust in, I rely upon, I am committed to God/Jesus.” It’s a personal thing, an interpersonal thing, our dependence upon and fidelity to the God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Good SamaritanThe second verb, “love,” is John’s comprehensive ethic: it’s every good thing that anyone does for anyone else. God loves Jesus. God loves the world. Jesus loves his disciples. Jesus’ disciples love Jesus, and love God, and love each other. This love is not about natural attraction or permissive tolerance, but rather selfless giving: a Father giving his beloved Son for the world, a Son giving his life for his disciples, his disciples giving themselves for one another and the world.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Simple, isn’t it? Maybe. But it’s certainly not easy. In fact, these are the most difficult things we can do.

Trust in God—even when the whole world seems paralyzed by fear of the unknown other, the unknown future.

Love one another—even when the whole world seems caught up in a self-righteous cycle of harm and offense, hostility and retaliation.

Trust in God—right at that moment when your resources are low and your worry is high and you can’t see a way out of this mess.

Love one another—yes, even that person, the most unlovable, annoying, strange, disturbing, [insert negative adjective here] person you know.

Trust in God—cry out to God with your anger, your fear, your unbearable sadness, your overwhelming loneliness, and then look for God’s presence right where you least expect it, right where you most need it.

Love one another—hold that hand in awkward silence, listen to that wounded heart, speak up for that voiceless person, give that fifty bucks, change that flat tire, celebrate that achievement, learn about that culture, learn that child’s name.

Trust in God—pray and worship, weep and lament, sing and rejoice, question and complain, contemplate and meditate, explore with raw wonder the transcendent mystery and immanent presence that is God.

Love one another—be kind, be generous, show compassion, show respect, speak truth, seek justice, be patient, be gentle, be humble, be delighted, be encouraging, forgive, forgive, and forgive again.

Simple, but not easy.

Hard, but necessary.

The essence of Christianity, the essence of human life—and, apparently, the only two sermons I ever preach. No coincidence there—they’re also the two things I most need to be reminded of myself.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son; Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

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

Why Worship? Why Worship Together?

It’s Sunday morning, and we gather together as Christians to worship God.

The specific experiences are as varied as the number of churches, but most worship services have a few things in common.

We sing together—sometimes off-key, sometimes hymns too slowly, sometimes choruses too repetitively, too repetitively, too repetitively.

We pray together—sometimes faltering, sometimes mumbling, sometimes with too little genuine feeling, sometimes with too much “Lord, we just, Lord, want to just ask, Lord…”

We break bread together—not all of us every Sunday, not always in a ritual, sometimes with too little ritual.

We read Scripture and reflect on it together—sometimes with poor exegesis, sometimes with too little Jesus, sometimes going past noon with dinner waiting in the crockpot.

Why exactly do we do all these things, worshiping in these and other ways Sunday morning after Sunday morning? And is this “worship” really all that important?

Revelation 4-5 speaks directly to these kinds of questions—and gives us some surprising and challenging answers.

Let’s start with the big picture, stating the obvious: Revelation 4-5 is all about worship. (That much at least everyone can agree on.)

But notice where this vision is in the book of Revelation. Revelation 1 is introduction, setting up the rest of the book. Revelation 2-3 are specific letters to the seven specific churches Revelation is written to—in a sense still introduction, setting the stage for the main act. And then we hit Revelation 4-5—the first major vision John sees, determining the course of everything else that follows.

The first major vision at the heart of the book—and it’s all about worship.

This tells us that worshiping God is an essential activity. And not just worshiping God individually—worshiping God collectively, gathering together with others in worship, is essential. It grounds our way of life. It sets the tone for everything else.

But why is this? And how exactly does this work?

Let’s focus in on some of the details of this vision.

At the centre of it all, the object of all this worship, is God, seated on his heavenly throne, ruler over all creation. God, the Indescribable One, only imagined in colours and light.

Elder 2Four “living creatures” are immediately around the throne, one on each side: a lion, an ox, a human being, and a flying eagle. These represent all living things—later they are heard saying “Amen” to the declaration of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” (that’s pretty comprehensive). All creatures of our God and king, giving honour and praise to God.

Twenty-four “elders” surround them, seated on thrones, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their head. These represent all God’s people, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ—as we hear later when the twelve tribes and twelve apostles are brought together in the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem. All God’s people, bowing in reverence to God, singing God’s praises.

All creation, all God’s people, from the beginning of the world until its end, worshiping God.

So here’s one answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is a participation in something fundamental to all creation, something that all creation is intrinsically engaged in.

The birds of the air, the flowers of the field—they honour their Creator simply by being what God created them to be, doing what God created them to do. Simply by being as God made them to be, existing as God made them to exist, all living things worship God.

Likewise, humans honour our Creator simply by being the way God made us to be, living the way God made us to live. We glorify God in our humanness, by being fully human. Simply by being as God made us to be, existing as God made us to exist, we worship God.

This ceaseless praise of God is intrinsic to creation; it is the very grain of the universe.

And so we are encouraged to see our worship together as a participation in this eternal, ceaseless worship of God by all creation and all God’s people. We are encouraged to see our worship together as giving voice to this never-ending, underlying rhythm of worship that is happening all around us.

But there’s more.

As we keep moving through this vision in Revelation 4-5, we hear some very specific declarations of praise. As the elders and living creatures give voice to the worship of all creation, their voice says some specific things.

God is holy. God is other. God is unlike any other. God is unique.

God is almighty. God is the source of all true power, power that creates and gives life.

God is eternal. God was. God is. God will be.

God is Creator. All that is, is because God is.

God is Redeemer. All that is good, is good because God loves.

Elder 1Here, then, is a second answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is worldview-shaping, crafting the lenses through which we see our world and understand our place in it.

Good worship—worship in both spirit and in truth—is instructive. It teaches us; we learn from it.

Through our worship together we understand God’s role in the world as Creator and Redeemer. All things exist because God is. And although there is hurt and brokenness in our world, and in ourselves, all things can be redeemed because God loves. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Through our worship together we understand the world as God’s beloved creation. God does not hate us. God does not despise the work of his hands. God loves all creation, and imbues it with his grace and glory. We learn this in part through our worship together.

And through our worship together we understand our role as redeemed priest-kings and priestess-queens extending God’s reign throughout the earth. God calls us as God’s people to a particular task, a particular way of being in the world. God calls us to faith, to hope, to love. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Revelation 4-5 gives us a third answer to the question of “why worship God,” and it’s the most surprising one of all: Our collective worship is a profoundly political act; it is a powerful statement about how we should order our lives as human societies.

It’s all too easy for us to pass over the significance of the “throne.” For us, thrones are something from ancient times or fairy tales, or from the Bible. Of course God sits on a throne! God is king, after all!

But when was the last time you saw a king or a queen or an emperor or empress actually sitting on a throne, wielding some real power?

The “throne” doesn’t really mean much to us. But no one in the time of Revelation would miss the significance: the throne was a thoroughly political symbol, even the most potent political symbol one could use. And, in a world filled with absolute claims to absolute power, it was also about as subversive as you could get.

“Worship” is about “ascribing worth”; it is about declaring value. Worship is an expression of devotion and commitment, an expression of allegiance. When we come together and “worship God,” then, we are declaring our allegiance to God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

But this vision is even more politically subversive than that.

Lion-Lamb 2In Revelation 5 we see a scroll, and we’re told that “no one can open the scroll”—no one in heaven or on earth or even under the earth, no creature, no human being, no human ruler, no angelic being. It’s not clear what the scroll represents—the title deed to the universe, perhaps, or the unfolding of human history. Either way, it’s the kind of thing that any good Roman would expect the emperor to rightfully possess and be able to open at will.

Yet it is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who alone can open it—Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s promised king from the tribe of Judah, descendent of king David. This is as any Jew in Revelation’s day would expect—but there’s another twist.

The “lion” is in fact a “lamb,” a “lamb who has been slaughtered.” The Messiah, Israel’s king, has not gained the right to rule by crucifying his enemies, but by being crucified. The true Lord and Ruler of the cosmos has not changed the tides of human history by killing his enemies, but by being willing to die for them.

God reigns not as a tyrant, not as a bully, not through coercion or violence or any other form of raw power. God reigns through the humble, self-giving, suffering servant, who gives himself for the world. God reigns through forgiveness and compassion. God reigns in love.

When we come together and worship God, then, we are saying “no” to any other way of being in the world, any other way of ordering our lives as human societies. We are saying that no human society that will stand the test of time, no civilization that will last, can be built on deceit or corruption or coercion or violence or injustice of any kind.

When we come together and “worship God” we are worshiping the God who exercises power and authority through self-giving love. We are declaring our allegiance to this God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

So the next Sunday you’re in church and the person next to you is singing that hymn a little off-key, or the organist is dragging a little, or you’re on your twenty-fourth time through the chorus of “Oceans,” or the Scripture reader stumbles over “Melchizedek,” or the preacher is droning on while the roast is drying out, remember this: there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

You are participating in the worship of all creation. You are giving voice to the wordless praise of all living things.

Your mind and heart, your very soul, is being shaped by God. God is training you to see the world differently, preparing you to step out and find your God-ordained role in this world.

You are making a declaration of allegiance. You are standing unequivocally with the God who loves, the God who brings life, the God who gives his life in love.

Come, let us sing to the Lord. Come, let us worship and bow down.

Together.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The Horrors of the Apocalypse”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 10, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Seeing God Face to Face

Seeking God’s Face

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

There are many ways to think about Christian spirituality, but these words from Psalm 27 do a pretty good job of summing it all up. You could say that the spiritual life is all about “seeking God’s face.”

Different words are used by different people, of course. Pursuing God, desiring God, knowing God, experiencing God, loving God. Being filled with the Spirit, walking in the Spirit. Being at one with our Creator, touching the transcendent, sensing the divine.

Different words are used by different people, both Christians and others. But they all reflect the same longing: there is a spiritual dimension to being human.

There is something within us that craves something beyond us.

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

This longing to experience God, to “seek God’s face,” comes through in different ways throughout the biblical stories.

In Genesis 3 God walks with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the day—until that fateful day when sin enters the story, and they hide from the Lord God. They are ashamed because of their selfish, prideful actions, and they no longer want to see God’s face.

In Exodus 33 Moses asks to see Yahweh’s divine glory. God allows Moses to see a measure of his glory, but God says to him, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” Even that measure of divine glory, that glimpse of Yahweh’s back, is enough to make Moses glow with the radiance of his experience of God.

In Isaiah 6 Isaiah sees a vision in the temple: the Lord God, sitting on a throne, high and lofty, surrounded by heavenly beings. Really, though, Isaiah can only see God’s feet: God’s face is too high, too holy, too transcendent, too far beyond for anyone to see.

Each of these Old Testament stories, and many others besides, point to this “something within us that craves something beyond us,” this human longing to know God, to touch the transcendent, to sense the divine. Yet the people in each of these stories never quite get there. They get a taste of God, a fleeting glimpse, or they hide from God or put God behind all kinds of protective barriers.

And so that longing of Psalm 27 continues:

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

Seeing God’s Face

There is a profound shift that happens in the New Testament with all this: yes, there is still something within us that craves something beyond us—but that something beyond us has now come among us.

We no longer need to search desperately for the face of God—because God has already shown his face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

This is what’s behind John’s words in John 1: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” God has shown her face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

This is what’s behind Paul’s words in Colossians 1 and 2: Christ “is the image of the invisible God”; “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” God has shown his face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

This is what’s behind the anonymous author of Hebrews words in Hebrews 1: “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son… He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” God has shown her face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

James Tissot (French, 1836−1902). Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray (detail), 1886−94. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 1138 x 61⁄4 in. (28.9 × 15.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.137From Matthew to Revelation, the New Testament writings are united in the conviction that the man Jesus of Nazareth shows us the God of Israel. The man Jesus, who lived a certain way and taught certain things, who healed the sick and forgave sinners and cast out evil powers, who suffered and died and was raised to life again—this man Jesus shows us who God is.

God has shown God’s face, and it’s the face of Jesus. So to “seek God’s face” we need to seek the face of Jesus.

How do we do this? How can we, two thousand years after Jesus walked this earth, see Jesus, and so see the face of God?

As the Bible itself acknowledges, we can no longer see Jesus in the flesh (John 20:29; 1 Peter 1:8). But we can still see the imprint of Jesus, we can still discern the Spirit of Jesus. How do we do this?

Well, we can read the Bible’s stories of Jesus, the Gospels. Read Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John. And as you read, ask yourself some questions.

What does this tell me about Jesus? What does this tell me about Jesus’ character, his desires, his motivation, his way of thinking, his way of life?

And so, then, what does this tell me about God, who God is, how God relates to us? The character of Jesus is the character of God. The desires of Jesus are God’s desires. The things that motivate Jesus to speak or act, those are the things that motivate God. How does Jesus think? That’s a window into how God thinks. How does Jesus live his life? That’s a parallel to how God acts in the world.

And then, what does this tell me about who I am, who I can become? No, we are not God, we cannot be God. But we are all created in God’s image, we can reflect God in all these ways.

So the character of Jesus shows us the character we should seek to develop ourselves. The desires of Jesus show us what we should desire. The things that motivate Jesus to speak or act, those are the things that should motivate us. How does Jesus think? That’s a pattern for how we should think. How does Jesus live his life? That’s a model for how we should seek to live our lives in our world today.

So we can see the face of God in Jesus by reading the Bible’s stories of Jesus. But we can also read Jesus’ Bible, our Old Testament. Read Genesis, or Deuteronomy, or the Psalms, or Isaiah, or Daniel, or Amos. Read any Old Testament book—but read it in the light of Jesus.

So ask yourself: How does this particular passage parallel Jesus’ character, his desires, his motivation, his way of thinking, his way of life? How do I see the God revealed in Jesus, here in this Old Testament book?

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus. Go back and do it all again.

We can read the letters and other writings of Jesus’ first followers, our New Testament. Read Acts, or Romans, or 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians, or Philippians, or Hebrews, or James, or 1 John, or Revelation.

And ask yourself: How does this particular passage describe Jesus? How does this New Testament book take the character and attitudes and life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and apply it to the specific situation of these early Christians and their world?

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus. Go back and do it all again.

We can think about Jesus, ponder his way of life, mull over his teachings, contemplate his sufferings, revel in his resurrection. We can gather together with other Christians and consider Jesus together, honour Jesus together, cry out to Jesus together, bow down to Jesus together.

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus.

We can talk about Jesus. Read well-researched books about Jesus. Watch time-tested films about Jesus. Study classic paintings of Jesus. We can see how other people have envisioned the man from Galilee.

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus.

James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). Jesus Sits by the Seashore and Preaches, 1886–96. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 103⁄16 x 79⁄16 in. (25.9 × 19.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.109We can look for Jesus in other people. The poor, the stranger, the suffering. The merciful, the gentle, the steadfast, the kind. We can look for Jesus in ourselves. In our own hardships and sorrows, in our own moments of joy and delight, in our own sometimes-surprising feelings of empathy and compassion and forgiveness.

Then re-read the Bible’s stories of Jesus.

You get the picture.

We can see the imprint of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus, in lots of different places, and so see God’s face. But we see Jesus most clearly, most completely, in the stories and teachings of Scripture. Indeed, this is what the Bible is for.

The Bible is not an encyclopedia of all truth—though it speaks the truth we most need to hear. It is not a comprehensive moral handbook—though it gives us guidance on how to live.

No, the Bible is first and foremost a witness to Jesus. We read the Bible to see Jesus.

And then, as we learn about Jesus from the Bible, we can learn to see Jesus in other places. And when we see Jesus, we see who God is, and we see who we can become as those created in God’s image.

Seeing God Face to Face

Let me leave you with two Bible verses to ponder.

2 Corinthians 3:18 says that as we “see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Paul is talking about looking to Jesus, seeing God’s glory in Jesus, and being transformed in the process, being re-made in the image of God in Jesus. That’s just what I’ve been talking about: seeing Jesus, and so seeing God, and so seeing who we can become as those created in God’s image.

But you’ll notice the little phrase, “as though reflected in a mirror.” It’s an acknowledgment that we don’t see Jesus face to face. Even in looking to Scripture to see Jesus, even in carefully discerning the imprint of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus, diligently seeking Jesus’ face in all the ways I’ve talked about, it is still only like seeing a reflection of Jesus in a mirror.

1 Corinthians 13:12 picks up on that same idea, but gives us some powerful encouragement: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.

There is something within us that craves something beyond us—and that something beyond us has now come among us in Jesus.

God has shown his face, and it’s the face of Jesus.

For now, we see Jesus’ face by looking for his imprint in the Scriptures, by looking for his Spirit in his followers and in the world. But one day—one day!—we will see Jesus face to face.

And then our craving for something beyond us—the transcendent, the divine, the presence of God—will be fulfilled. Then our quest to seek God’s face will finally be at an end—an end which will be just the beginning of a new and even better story “which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” (C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle).

This is adapted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on February 21, 2016. Artwork is by James Tissot; click on pictures for more details. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

You Are Not Alone

This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 31, 2016. See others in the series: “Loved,” “Forgiven,” “Needed.” Here is the audio of the full sermon:

It’s one of the most basic needs we have: the need for human connection. It’s one of the most common fears we have: the fear of being alone. They’re two sides of the same coin: fear on the one side, desire on the other.

As soon as our eyes begin to focus as babies, we are looking for faces: eyes and noses and smiles. And, as babies, we need that human touch: loving, gentle, firm, safe.

At the other end of our lives, not much has changed. We still look for kind faces with warm smiles. We still crave that loving human touch. Right to the end.

This desire to be connected to others, and its flip side, the fear of being alone, drives us far more than we realize. All social groupings are at bottom fueled by that need for contact with other persons. We form friendship bonds, and partnership bonds, and permanent pair bonds, because we have a deep need to connect with others, and a deep fear of being isolated from others.

Put another way, there’s a reason why solitary confinement is one of the most horrific punishments that can be inflicted on people. Even the most introverted among us craves social interaction with other persons. The difference among us is only a matter of degree.

We long for meaningful connection; we fear being alone.

There’s an interesting feature of the creation stories in the book of Genesis that many people have noticed.

When you read through the first story in Genesis 1, you hear this repeated refrain: “And God saw that it was good.” God separates the land and the waters, and it is good. The earth brings forth vegetation, and it is good. God separates the light from the darkness, and it is good. God creates every living creature, and it is good.

Seven times in Genesis 1, the Creator God shapes something, forms something, makes something, fills something—and then declares it to be “good.”

But then comes Genesis 2, the second creation story. And smack in the middle of it, you read this: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good.’”

Keep in mind, this is before sin has even entered the picture. This is when everything is supposed to be untainted and unspoiled and perfect in its goodness. And in the middle of this very good creation is something that is “not good.”

Here’s the whole statement: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the Human should be alone.’”

The very first thing in the Bible noted as “not good,” even in the pristine paradise of Eden, is human isolation, a lack of meaningful connection with others—being all alone in a big wide world.

We long for meaningful connection; we fear being alone. This parallel desire and fear is not only built into our DNA; it’s built into our most primal stories, our first Scriptures.

And to each of us, God speaks these words of good news: “You are not alone.”

You are not alone. Others are with you: companions on the journey of life, partners in the purpose of life. And God is with you: even if all others fail, God will never leave you or forsake you. You are not alone.

Right from the very beginning of the human story, then, the Bible highlights our need for connection with others, that it is “not good” for us to be alone. But as interesting as that is, what’s even more interesting is what God does about it.

We typically think of the story this way: God says, “It’s not good for the Man to be alone,” and then we jump immediately to the end of the story, where there is a Man and a Woman who come together to be “one flesh” in marriage.

But that’s not actually the way the story is told. The Hebrew word for “Man” here is adam, which can mean “man” or “male human.” But it can also mean “human” or “human being” generally, and in the context it’s clear that’s what it means here.

Because right after God says, “It’s not good for the adam to be alone,” God doesn’t immediately make a womanGod makes the animals. You see, the distinction is not between the Man and the Woman, but between the Human and the Animals.

All the Animals are paraded before the Human, and none of them is the “suitable companion” that God says the Human needs. And so God makes another Human, “bone of bone and flesh of flesh”—exactly the same, a fully human counterpart—to be the first Human’s “suitable companion.”

In other words, the problem is not that a man needs a wife, or that a woman needs a husband. The problem is that a human needs another human—we need meaningful human connection, human companionship. And God has provided for that need by creating other humans, other people around us, to give us the connection and companionship that we require. Marriage, then, is one specific and important way in which this basic need for human relationship is fulfilled—but it is not the only way.

I know, that way of reading the story goes against the grain of our received interpretations of Genesis 2. But it’s really the best way to understand the story. After all, if that need for companionship is only satisfied through marriage, then there have been a lot of single people through history who have not fulfilled God’s purpose for relationships—including Jesus.

So here’s the important takeaway from all this: We are not all mandated to get married, but we are all created for human companionship—and God provides us with human companions on the journey of life, human partners in the purpose of life.

You are not alone. Others are with you: companions on the journey of life, partners in the purpose of life. You are not alone.

Rubens - Jesus on CrossBut there’s more. God is with you: even if all others fail, God will never leave you or forsake you.

This can be hard for us to believe, to really believe. We can at times feel abandoned by God—usually when we also feel abandoned by others. We can, in other words, feel like Jesus on the cross, crying out in our hearts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Yet, as Jesus himself would have known, God never really abandons us, God is always with us. Even that Psalm that Jesus quotes—his words on the cross are the opening words of Psalm 22—that Psalm goes on to say, “God did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (22:24).

So even in our loneliest moments, those times when we feel most isolated from others, most disconnected, even completely abandoned—God is with us.

If you feel like this—lonely, isolated, disconnected, abandoned—listen to these words from Scripture; let them wash over you:

From Isaiah 43:5: [God says,] “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you.”

From Hebrews 13:5: God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

You are precious in God’s sight, and honoured, and God loves you. Do not be anxious or afraid, for God is with you. Indeed, God will never leave you or forsake you.

You are not alone. Others are with you: companions on the journey of life, partners in the purpose of life. And God is with you: even if all others fail, God will never leave you or forsake you. You are not alone.

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

“We should re-think our theology? Say what?”

Earlier this summer I preached a sermon on grieving the losses in our lives, whether it’s the loss of someone we love through death or the loss of something we have invested with great significance—a relationship, a career, a home. In the sermon I talked about the need to adjust to the new reality of life without that person or entity we have cherished so much.

I gave some practical suggestions of the kinds of adjustments that might need to be made, adjustments in how we think, in how we live our lives day by day. And one of those suggestions was this: we might need to re-think our theology in light of the loss we have experienced.

I got a bit of push-back on this. “Re-think our theology? No, our theology shouldn’t change according to our experience. Our theology should be a rudder that guides us through the difficult waters. It should be an anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life.”

I understand the impulse behind this push-back. We know we can’t always trust our feelings; how much less when we’re shell-shocked after a traumatic experience. And there is a lot of truth to the idea that whether or not we survive the storms of life depends in large measure on how well we have prepared ourselves—physically, emotionally, psychologically, and also theologically—during the calm before the storm.

It’s also true that the New Testament in various ways speaks of a body of Christian teaching common to all followers of Jesus—and so doesn’t change with the changing times. At its heart is the first-order, foundation-level “gospel” of Christ crucified and risen which Paul claims all the apostles proclaimed (1 Cor 15:1-11). This bare-bones, good-news story about Jesus focused on his death and resurrection, brought together with some early Christian traditions about God (e.g. Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 8:6), became the framework for this common Christian teaching—eventually expressed succinctly in the earliest creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed.

So what do I mean when I say we may need to re-think our theology in light our life experiences?

“Theology” is a human endeavour. It is something we as human beings do, our attempts at making sense of our experiences of God and of everything else in relationship to God.

There are many different theologies out there, even many different Christian theologies. In fact, if we want to get very specific, there are as many different theologies as there are human beings trying to make sense of God and the world around them. That’s a lot of theologies.

Even if we focus just on one particular branch of Christian theology—say, Anabaptist theology—it’s pretty obvious that this theology changes over time. Anabaptists today don’t believe everything in exactly the same way as the original Anabaptists did. We might try to remain faithful to what we believe are the essentials of Anabaptism, but there’s been a lot of theological water under the Anabaptist bridge in five hundred years—and a lot of streams branching off as theological differences have emerged.

This is also true of our own individual theologies. If you’re in your middle years like I am, I sure hope you don’t believe all the same things about God as you did when you were a child, or a teenager, or a young adult. If you do, pretty much any Christian would say your faith has not grown, you have not been maturing spiritually.

For myself, the basic structure of my theology hasn’t changed much since my early university days. But the details of my theology have altered significantly since then, and even how I understand that basic structure is very different. And then there are the peripheral matters—things you won’t find in the New Testament’s gospel summaries, for instance, or in the Apostles’ Creed, say. Many of these have changed 180° for me, or simply fallen by the wayside as unworthy of my strong conviction.

When I say our theology may need to change—or even that, over the course of our life, our theology had better change—this is what I mean by “theology”: our particular ways of understanding and expressing and prioritizing our beliefs about God and everything else in relationship to God.

But if our theology can or even should change over time, what is it that doesn’t change?

The answer, of course, is God.

Our understanding of God changes, but God doesn’t change. Our experience of God changes, but God doesn’t change.

YHWH LoveGod—Being, Person, Love—is the same God, always. Put in biblical terms, the God who created the heavens and the earth, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is Yahweh the covenant God of Israel, is the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, is the Spirit indwelling the Church and blowing where it pleases in the wider world.

We don’t put our faith in theology. We put our faith in God.

Our theology supports our faith in God—but it is not God.

Our theology helps us make sense of our experience of God—but it is not God.

Our theology gives us some tools to think about God and speak of God—but it is not God.

It is God who guides us through the difficult waters. God is the anchor that holds us firm through the storms of life. If, when these storms come, we have put our faith in a system of beliefs and not in the true and living God, we may find our “faith” shattered beyond repair.

And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.

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

“All you ever do is talk about Jesus and love. Why don’t you preach the gospel?”

Okay, so I’ve never heard it put quite that starkly. And I don’t hear this in quite the critical tone of that title, at least not directly. (What’s said about me when I’m not around, well, that may be a different story!)

But I do hear some version of these kinds of questions fairly frequently, especially related to my preaching, mostly in a sort of puzzled tone:

“Why do you talk about Jesus and love all the time?”

sometimes juxtaposed up against

“Why don’t you preach the gospel?”

When that happens, I can’t help but smile to myself.

Many Christians have a particular idea of what it means to “preach the gospel.” For them it means to preach an “evangelistic sermon.” It means giving a Billy Graham-esque explanation of the gospel: that Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment that we deserved for our sin, and that if we confess our sins to God and believe in this message we can be saved, given the assurance of eternal life with God even beyond the grave. This gospel preaching is often completed with an altar call, an appeal to pray a particular prayer confessing one’s sins and expressing belief in this message.

If I don’t do these things, then, according to many Christians, I’m not “preaching the gospel.”

The problem is, this way of thinking about “preaching the gospel” is not really all that biblical.

Sure, it uses some biblical terms and ideas, words like “gospel” and “sin” and “Jesus” and “cross” and “belief” and “confession” and “salvation” and “eternal life.” But many of those words don’t mean what this popular notion of “preaching the gospel” means by them, and the way those terms and ideas are put together in this popular perspective doesn’t reflect the way the New Testament authors put those terms and ideas together.

Take a look at a few New Testament summaries of the “gospel” or “good news”:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” introducing Mark’s entire story of Jesus. (Mark 1:1)

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

Jesus “unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’…Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21)

“…the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name.” (Rom 1:1-5)

“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved… For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” (1 Cor 15:1-11)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” (2 Tim 2:8)

That’s just a sample—the noun “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion) and the verb “preaching the gospel/good news” (euangelizomai) together occur about 125 times in the New Testament, and several of those sketch out what this “gospel” message is that’s being preached.

For sure, some of these passages can be read to fit the popular, Billy Graham-esque idea of the “gospel” I’ve described above. But many, if not most, just don’t make sense in that understanding of the gospel.

The gospel is about all of Jesus’ life, not just his death on the cross?

The gospel is about the kingdom of God?

The gospel is good news for the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed?

The gospel is about Jesus being a descendant of David?

The gospel is about Jesus being Lord?

Many of these ideas are prevalent in New Testament descriptions of the gospel, or of the early Christians’ gospel preaching in Acts, yet they are conspicuously absent from the popular Christian notion today of what the gospel is and what it means to “preach the gospel.”

Yet any understanding of the “gospel” we have must try to make sense of the entire witness of the New Testament to the gospel, not just a few ideas read into a few select passages. This means, also, that any understanding of the “gospel” we have must be flexible enough to allow for the varied descriptions of the gospel we find in the New Testament.

The “gospel” is euangelion, it is “good news,” a “good message,” a message of good things, a message that should bring joy to its hearers.

The “gospel” is “according to Scripture,” anticipated by and in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament.

The “gospel” is about God, the one true and living Creator, the one in whom all things exist, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who works in and through all things to bring about good purposes.

The “gospel” is about the man Jesus of Nazareth, about his life, teachings, good deeds, miracles, death on a Roman cross, and resurrection from the dead.

The “gospel” is about Jesus, that this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish “Messiah” or “Christ,” the “Son of God,” who is the promised King descended from David who fulfills ancient Israel’s longings for God’s eternal reign of justice and peace and flourishing life for the Jews, for all people, and for all creation.

The “gospel” is about Jesus, that this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is therefore “Lord,” the rightful ruler over God’s people, all people, the entire world.

The “gospel” is about “salvation” from “sin,” God rescuing the world through this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth from all the ways we humans harm each other and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, and so work against God’s purposes and desires for us and all creation.

Simply put, the gospel is the good news that God has acted in Jesus to make right all that has gone wrong in the world because of human sin.

This “act of God in Jesus” is an act of grace and mercy, an act of undeserved favour, an act of restorative, self-giving love. And God calls us to respond to this divine love by persistently turning from our harmful, destructive ways (“repentance”), resolutely declaring our allegiance to the world’s true Lord, the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus (“faith”), and daily following in his footsteps of restorative, self-giving love for others and all creation (still “faith”).

Read the Gospels—there’s no “four spiritual laws.” The gospel is not about individual sinners being saved from hell to heaven, but about a sinful world being redeemed so that God’s reign of life and justice and peace might come on earth.

Read Acts—there’s no “sinner’s prayer.” The gospel addresses human sin, right down at its roots, but it does so in a way that impacts not just personal sins but also social sins, systemic sins, all the ways we harm and destroy.

Read Paul’s letters—there’s no “altar call.” The gospel does call for a response, but it’s a summons of allegiance to one who has given himself in humble, selfless love.

And all this is why, when I hear someone say something like, “All you ever do is talk about Jesus and love. Why don’t you preach the gospel?”—I smile to myself.

Yes, all I talk about is Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

That’s because I’m preaching the gospel.

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