God’s Dream for the World

“I have a dream.”

The words are iconic. I’m sure most of us know the speaker, and the context.

Martin Luther King, Jr. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. August 28, 1963.

Ground zero of the African-American civil rights movement.

It had been 100 years since Abraham Lincoln himself had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Almost 98 years since the U.S. Congress had passed the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. A full century, in other words, to bring about full equality under the law for African Americans. But it hadn’t happened.

Three, four generations. And it still hadn’t happened. Bits and pieces, here and there, including a decade of rocky attempts at desegregating schools. But the 100-year old promise of freedom was far from fully realized.

And so African Americans were getting restless. Meetings were held, boycotts were enacted. People marched, people protested. Some began to think all this was not enough. A stronger voice was needed, a more powerful statement. Maybe even violence.

Into this world Martin Luther King came. Supporting Rosa Parks in her refusal to give her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus. Instrumental in organizing the civil rights movement. Preaching, speaking, rallying, lobbying. Insisting that, in their struggle for justice, African Americans must not resort to the same tactics as their oppressors: no hatred, no cruelty, no violence.

And this was how Martin Luther King, Jr., ended up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, in front of 200,000 people.

Ground zero of the African-American civil rights movement.

“I have a dream.”

Powerful words, these. Powerful things, dreams.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’”

Sounds biblical, these words. Sounds like God, these dreams.

And that’s because they are.

Nearly two thousand years earlier another prophet had stood on the other side of the world in very similar circumstances. He, too, had a dream.

His name was Jesus. He was from Nazareth, in Galilee. His people, the Jews, were coming up to 100 years under Roman occupation: nearly a century of economic exploitation, heavy taxation, no freedom to choose their own course. Galilee in particular was a simmering cauldron of unrest, always ready to boil over into outright revolt.

It had happened before. Not long after Jesus was born, after the death of King Herod, several people tried to claim the throne to take a run at Rome. Messiahs grew like wildflowers after a spring rain—but they were ruthlessly cut down.

Ten years later—about the time Luke’s Jesus was turning heads as a child in Jerusalem’s Temple—a man named Judah led an outright revolt against Rome, claiming Rome’s heavy taxes amounted to slavery. He and his followers were brutally crushed by the armies of Rome.

And now here Jesus stands, on those very hills of Galilee.

Ground zero of the Jewish resistance movement.

“I have a dream,” Jesus declares.

“I have a dream of God’s kingdom come, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven. On that day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’”

Tissot - Jesus Teaching“I have a dream,” Jesus proclaims to his fellow Galileans buckling under the weight of Rome. “I have a dream that one day those who are now grieving will be comforted, those who are now lowly and downtrodden will be in charge, those who are right now starving for justice will have their craving satisfied. I have a dream that one day those who are humble in their spirit and pure in their motives, those who show mercy toward others, those who make peace instead of inflicting violence and waging war, these will live in the fullness of life.”

“I have a dream today!” The crowd rumbles its agreement.

“I have a dream,” Jesus shouts to the restless masses. “I have a dream that one day the last will be first and the first will be last, everyone on equal footing. The Jew will live alongside the Gentile, the rich will sit down with the poor, men and women and elders and children all will share their lives in mutual care and respect.”

“I have a dream today!” You can hear the “Amen!” shouted in the background.

“I have a dream that one day the lost will be found. The struggling, the sick, the stigmatized, the silent, the sinner, all will be brought in to the banquet of God’s great love, the very least feasting until they are satisfied. I have a dream that one day the poor will hear good news for a change, the unwell will know true healing, the outcasts will be embraced, and those left for dead will experience new life.”

“I have a dream that one day oppression will cease and wars will be no more. The powerful and proud will be humbled and the lowly will be lifted up, swords will be turned into plows and seeds of life will be planted for the flourishing of humanity.”

“I have a dream today!” And the applause echoes out over the waters of the Sea of Galilee.

It might seem strange to think about Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as God’s dream for the world. But that’s essentially the idea: the kingdom of God is God’s vision for the world, what the world would be like if people lived out God’s will, God’s way for humanity. The kingdom of God is the best possible world God can imagine.

This still might seem odd, to imagine God dreaming, to think of God imagining a better world. But remember: God is the Creator of all things, and to speak of God as Creator is to speak of God as imagining. Before anything existed, God imagined it. Everything that is, exists because God imagined it first. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, God is the one who “calls into being the things that do not yet exist.”

But God is not done imagining. God is not done dreaming. God has a dream for a better world. And God’s dream for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

And here’s the thing about God’s dreams: when God dreams something, you know it will become reality, even if it takes an eternity.

In fact, God has provided a way for us to see this dream become a reality: through Jesus. Jesus didn’t just stand on the steps of the halls of power and share God’s dream. He taught how this kingdom of God can come down to earth, and then he lived it out. Think back to our Scripture passages for today from Luke’s Gospel. Think back to the story of Jesus.

Title: The parable of the sower [Click for larger image view]God’s kingdom, Jesus says, starts small, like a mustard seed. God’s dream for the world begins in the insignificant spaces in our lives: the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane. God’s dream for the world starts in the hidden places of our lives: in small, unseen acts of empathy and humility and compassion.

The kingdom of God does not come about through flashy programs and glitzy marketing campaigns, but through the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices we make to be kind, to be patient, to welcome, to forgive, to trust, to rejoice, to persevere.

God’s kingdom, Jesus says, spreads quietly, like yeast in dough. As we do these ordinary acts of love in the hidden spaces of the world, God’s dream begins to spread. It’s contagious. Grace begets grace. Forgiving others leads to others forgiving. Practising empathy and compassion encourages others to do the same. Joyful hospitality and thankful generosity multiply, spawning a community of open-handed and open-hearted people.

The kingdom of God does not come about through guilt manipulation or aggressive coercion, but through the repeated, repeated, repeated practice of Christ-likeness: humbling ourselves, raising up others, seeking the good of all above our own whiny wants.

And this is where God’s dream gets really hard. Because living into God’s kingdom, Jesus says, requires us to lose our lives in order to truly live. If we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, to see God’s dream become reality, Jesus says we must “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.”

The kingdom of God does not come about by an easy road, a life of comfort and ease, insisting on our rights and privileges. It comes about by a narrow path, the path of willingly putting others’ genuine needs before our own personal preferences, seeking the good of all rather than our own selfish whims, knowing that when we all thrive together, we will each thrive even more.

And this is where God’s dream moves beyond our private lives and into the public domain. Because living into God’s kingdom, Jesus says, requires us to stand fast against evil: both that within ourselves and that in the wider world. God’s dream confronts the nightmare of this world’s evil. It demands that we defy those impulses within ourselves that cause harm to the other, and also those larger patterns of hostility and injustice within our societies that cause harm to whole swaths of people.

Racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds. Physical, sexual, and other forms of abuse. Economic exploitation and political repression. All the human rulers and underlying ideologies and prevailing attitudes and social structures that support these and other terrible evils.

To seek first God’s dream for the world means we are committing ourselves to stand firm against all these spiritual forces of evil—but to do so through persuasion and not coercion, through compassion and not cruelty, through mercy and not vengeance, through peaceful means and not violence.

Jesus walked this path himself, this narrow path to God’s kingdom. He did the small things, off in a back corner of the Roman Empire. He lived out the infectious way of welcoming love and selfless compassion and grateful joy. He resisted the evil powers of his day, willing to die rather than kill, giving his own life to seek the good of all.

And through all this Jesus sowed the seed of God’s kingdom in the world. In Jesus this dream was plucked from the fertile imagination of God and planted in the earthy soil of our humanity.

This was why, when Jesus was asked when God’s kingdom would come, when God’s dream would become a reality, Jesus could say: “Don’t look for the big, flashy signs! The kingdom of God is already among you. It’s right here—if you’re ready to see it.”

Do you remember the story of Pentecost? After Jesus’ death and resurrection, after Jesus’ exaltation to his rightful place in the universe, the wind of God moved on the face of the deep, just like it did in the beginning. God’s Spirit came upon that ragtag band of Jesus-followers, all huddled together in hope and fear.

And when it came time for the Apostle Peter to explain what was going on to the bewildered crowds, do you remember what Peter said? He quoted the words of the prophet Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young ones shall see visions,
and your old ones shall dream dreams.

And so it has been ever since.

God’s daughters and sons are still prophesying, they are still dreaming. The young ones, even the old ones—did you hear that?—are still dreaming God’s dreams for the world.

For two thousand years God’s people have been dreaming the dreams of God, imagining God’s kingdom come, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven. Martin Luther King’s dream is just one of those dreams, still awaiting its full realization. Like the dreams of Syrian refugees, and residential school survivors, and many, many others.

The kingdom of God starts small, like a mustard seed. And it can take an age until its branches provide nests for the birds and shade for all who seek it. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends surely toward justice.

But to see this become a reality we must dream the dreams of God. We must imagine the world as it can be, flowing with justice and peace and bursting with flourishing life. Only then can we step out in faith and love and hope in the footsteps of Jesus, and grasp the dream that stands before us.

Adapted from a sermon preached on October 30, 2016, at Morden Mennonite Church, as part of the “Stirring Our Imagination” worship series. Watch MLK’s full “I have a dream” speech; or listen to the audio recording. Images: 1) U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; 2) “Jesus Teaches By the Sea” by James Tissot; 3) “Parable of the Sower” by Jesus Mafa.

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

(Re-)Imagining Worship

It’s interesting that the New Testament never gives a detailed description of exactly what went on when the first Jesus-followers gathered together to worship. There’s no divinely inspired “order of service.”

The closing worship service at Mennonite Arts Weekend 2016, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Cara Hummel. Sure, we get some glimpses of early Christian worship here and there: some snippets in the book of Acts, some clues in the New Testament letters. But nowhere in the New Testament do we get a really detailed description of what a “worship service” looked like for the first Christians.

Probably it was different in every place.

Jewish Christians in Jerusalem likely modeled their worship meetings after the synagogue service they were familiar with: Scripture readings, a sermon, singing psalms, prayers. Gentile Christians in Corinth may have modeled their gatherings after religious banquets or society meetings: religious rites, speeches, a shared meal.

The “worship services” in churches planted by Paul in Turkey or Greece probably looked very different from the regular meetings in churches planted by Thomas in India or Philip in Africa—different languages, different music, different food and dress, and, of course, different kinds of people.

In fact, the Bible provides quite a diverse list of the sorts of things that God’s people did when they got together to worship, from the ancestors of Israel all the way through to the earliest Christians:

  • telling stories, reciting poetry, chanting psalms;
  • loud cymbals, drums, and horns; soft harps and lyres; no instruments at all;
  • responsive reading, antiphonal singing, dramatic re-enactments, visual art;
  • kneeling, standing, clapping, dancing, eating, drinking;
  • confessing sins, receiving forgiveness, blessing one another;
  • hearing Scripture, teaching the faith, affirming the faith, proclaiming good news, encouraging one another;
  • praying, praising, thanking, silence.

And then there’s the diverse worship history of the church. Beautiful sacred spaces, from large cathedrals to small parish churches. Stained glass, exquisite art, imposing sculpture. Gorgeous cantatas, plainsong chants, simple hymns, well-known carols.

In our own Mennonite tradition, there has been everything from simple unison singing to full-throated four-part harmony, from plain furnishings to elaborate quilting, from the basic hymns-prayers-Scripture-sermon format to intricate services incorporating ancient liturgies from other traditions.

And beyond our Mennonite tradition, beyond the Western history of the church, there’s a whole world of worship out there from across the globe, from every language and culture and tribe and nation.

We can tend to think that there’s only ever been one way the church has worshiped, or that there’s an obvious “best way” to worship God when we gather together, but clearly that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.

And, in fact, it’s not really healthy for us to get stuck in a rut in our worship, always and only doing everything the same way. There’s a reason the Psalms exhort us multiple times to “sing to the Lord a new song.” It’s because a willingness to try new ways of worshiping is like a willingness to explore new ways of thinking about God or to work out new ways of following Jesus—it is evidence of an authentic faith, a faith that is vibrant and growing and very much alive.

All this is what I mean when I say we need to develop a “liturgical imagination.” We need, to use Paul’s words in Colossians, always to remain grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, letting the “word of Christ” dwell among us richly in our teaching and preaching, our singing and music, every “word and deed” of our collective worship. But we need to continually re-imagine what this all looks like.

And we have no shortage of resources to work with. We have the examples of worship throughout the biblical writings. We have models of worship throughout the church’s history and from around the world. And we have rich resources among us a congregation, creative gifts in preaching, teaching, storytelling, poetry, music, visual art, tactile art, culinary art, drama, dance, and so much more.

I wonder: how might God’s Spirit prompt us to “sing a new song” in our worship together, to try out new “words and deeds,” fresh ways of worshiping God?

But “developing a liturgical imagination” is more than just the people up in the front leading us in trying out some new things. Each one of us needs to use our imagination in participating in worship.

When we walk into the sanctuary every Sunday morning we all need to be ready to use our God-given imagination, using our imagination to enter into whole new worlds of worship.

Using our imagination to enter the world of the songwriter when we sing their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the biblical author when we read their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the worship leader or preacher when we hear their words.

Using our imagination to enter into the presence of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

And in this way, as we teach and sing the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other before God, letting the “word of Christ dwell among us richly,” we can come to believe with ever-increasing faith that we are God’s “holy and beloved” children, “chosen by God” to be more and more like Jesus.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on October 23, 2016, part of a sermon series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“The Word Made Flesh”: On Doing Theology Afresh

A Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church. No joke.

Imagine it: a Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church, back in the first century. Let’s say it’s a gathering of believers in Ephesus. And imagine that they happen to do this on the day a brand-new opening to John’s Gospel is debuted. They hear, for the first time ever, these words:

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

How would each one hear this?

Our first-century Jew might hear this as being about God’s creative command, the “word” God spoke at creation. They might hear this as being about God’s perfect wisdom, by which God created all things. They might hear this as being about God’s prophetic message, the essential “word” God has been communicating since the beginning of time.

Our Greek, however, would hear something different. They might hear this language of “word” or logos, and understand it as referring to the logical principle that under girds the whole universal order, the clear light of reason that holds everything together.

And our Roman? Well, they’d probably hear this along the lines of our Greek. But it’s possible they might hear this language of “word” or logos as the underlying rational law, the binding covenant among people, that keeps society from falling into disorder and chaos. Romans, after all, were big on law on order.

Three different people, hearing the exact same words, but hearing different things.

And all three would be right.

That’s the astonishing beauty of John’s opening prologue: the author has taken something so simple, the basic Greek word for “word,” logos, and used it in a way that makes sense in all those different ways, maybe more.

God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message. The logical principle that holds together all reality. The rational law that keeps us from chaos. All these things are the Word, the Logos, that John is talking about.

And this is what makes the sudden turn at verse 14 so dramatic: This Logos, this Word, “became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mic drop. Stunned silence. Then a flurry of questions.

Really? This man Jesus—the one that was crucified as a lawbreaker—he embodies the law that keeps us from social chaos? This Jew from backwoods Galilee embodies the underlying logic of all reality? Jesus of Nazareth embodies God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message? Really?

We’re so used to this passage we don’t even blink when we hear it. But trust me, to anyone hearing this at the end of the first century—Jew, Greek, or Roman—this would have been shocking, even scandalous. It was cutting edge theology, outside the box of any faith tradition passed on by mothers or fathers.

In a moment of creative inspiration, the author of John’s prologue has hit upon this idea of Jesus as the “Word,” the Logos. It’s such a simple thought—a common, everyday word for “word.” But it taps into the complexity of the author’s world—Jews, Greeks, Romans, and more all could hear different nuances of the word logos, and so glimpse something of the full significance of what God has done for us in Jesus.

The author of these words has used his God-given imagination to tap into ideas from the culture of his day and talk in fresh ways about God and creation, Jesus and our world—to do theology, in other words.

And it’s not just John. In fact, the Bible from cover to cover models exactly this kind of “creatively imagining God in fresh ways by tapping into the culture around us.” From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical authors all follow the same pattern.

The two creation stories that start off the Bible draw on language and ideas from other ancient creation stories—like those from Egypt or Mesopotamia—to describe what it means to say that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the Creator of the world.

The Law of Moses draws on language and ideas from other ancient law codes—like the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi—to shape the distinctive terms of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.

The Hebrew prophets draw on the patterns of poetry and prophecy from the world around them, in order to call the people of Israel back to Yahweh and point them to God’s future salvation in God’s coming kingdom.

The Gospels took a fairly recent genre of literature in the Roman world—the biography—and used it to create their own kind of story—a Gospel, a presentation of the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus himself took a common technique of Jewish Rabbis—the parable story—along with the stuff of everyday life—farmers and seeds, kings and banquets—and used them to describe God and God’s kingdom.

God did not merely plant the exact words of the Bible into the minds of the biblical authors, and then they wrote them down. God worked through their creative imaginations as they drew on all kinds of things from the culture around them to make sense of what it meant for them at that moment to live in faithfulness to God.

Of course, we’re not prophets or apostles. We don’t claim any special inspiration by God. We’re not Jesus. We don’t claim to uniquely embody God.

But we are called to look to these inspired prophets and apostles in order to figure out how to faithfully follow Jesus—including how we think and speak about God and our world, how we do theology. The biblical authors and Jesus himself model for us how to do theology in our own day and age: using our imaginations to draw on all kinds of things from our culture to think and speak about God and creation, Jesus and our world—and then to live in faithfulness to the God whom we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths.

This, you could say, is how the Word is made flesh in every generation, incarnated in every culture around the globe—including right here among us in Morden, Manitoba.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on October 16, 2016, part of a series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Dusting Off the “Golden Rule”

“Treat others the way you want to be treated!”

I don’t know about you, but that’s been a mantra in our house ever since our kids were little.

“Would you like them to treat you that way? No! So treat them the way you want to be treated!”

Of course, this parental advice is always delivered in a calm voice, with an encouraging smile. Because that’s the way we would want to be treated. Ahem.

We all know the “Golden Rule,” it seems. It usually comes out something like that: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Here’s the way the NRSV renders Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

“Treat others the way you want to be treated!”

Here’s the thing. This is not just a good rule of thumb for kids, so they can get along with each other—though it helps with that. Nor is this merely a basic principle for adults, so we can get along with each other—though it helps with that, too.

No, the idea Jesus prompts us toward is much deeper, and much more challenging: Jesus is calling us to nurture empathy and cultivate compassion for others—and then to act on it in love. Jesus, in other words, is calling us to foster an active “moral imagination.”

Through childhood and adolescence and early adulthood most of us develop at least a somewhat healthy self- and other-awareness.

We learn that we are distinct “selves,” unique persons, each with our own interests and desires and hopes and fears. But we also learn that others are also distinct “selves,” unique persons, each with their own interests and desires and hopes and fears. And, along the way, we learn that each one of us, though distinct and even unique, have all kinds of important things in common with everyone else: basic needs for health and warmth, security and freedom, belonging and intimacy and respect and significance.

This process of developing a healthy self- and other-awareness is critical. But the process can be long, and hard, and fraught with all kinds of potential pitfalls.

That’s simply because we have a hard time really seeing the world through anyone else’s eyes other than our own. It’s hard—to use the words of Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird—to “climb inside another person’s skin and walk around in it.” In fact, it’s impossible to fully do that—everything I feel and think and say and do is in this body, perceived through these eyes and ears, processed through this brain, lived out with these hands and feet.

Yet we do have the capacity for compassion. Recent research has confirmed it: empathy can be learned. God has given us this gift.

But how do we develop our in-born capacity for compassion? How do we nurture that God-given gift of empathy?

The answer, I think, is found in another gift from God: our imagination.

If we want to truly love others, if we want to do so with empathy and compassion, we need to exercise our imagination.

What is it like to be that person? What is it like to have had their upbringing, to be in their circumstances, to face their challenges? What is it like to bear their fears and anxieties, to have their passions and interests, to hold their hopes and dreams? What is their story, and what would it be like to live in their story?

If we want to truly love others, we need to imagine ourselves in their shoes. We need to imagine being them in their shoes.

There are all kinds of ways we can develop this kind of “moral imagination.”

One is by simply listening to others. Active listening, that is: giving our entire attention to the other, being fully present with them, drawing on our own experience to feel what they are feeling. And diverse listening: pushing through all our normal discomfort and anxiety, and talking with people who are different from us, letting them tell their story.

Another is through prayer. Praying for others plants their names and faces and stories in our minds and hearts as we bring them before God. Praying not just for those people we like, those who are close to us, but even for those we dislike, those who have harmed us.

A third way to develop our moral imagination is through reading. Not just any reading, mind you, but reading what’s often called “literary fiction”: novels or short stories with complex characters in a vivid setting, facing challenging issues in a realistic way. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is actually a great example, and a great place to start. Several studies have confirmed that reading good fiction pushes us to imagine ourselves in the stories of a wide variety of people who are not at all like us, and this can translate into greater empathy and compassion when we encounter diverse people in real life.

Simple things—and I’m sure there are others. When we do these kinds of things, we develop our God-given moral imaginations, our ability to empathize with others and show them genuine compassion.

And when we do that, we are starting to grasp the deeper idea behind Jesus’ “Golden Rule.”

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

For Jesus, this was not just a “Golden Rule”: a nice phrase to hang above a door or engrave on a bracelet.

For Jesus, this is the key to our humanity. It sums up the Law and the Prophets, the whole Bible. All our obligations to each other under God are encapsulated in this.

Even more, for Jesus, this was a way of life. Being moved by compassion for others, imagining himself in their shoes, imagining being them in their shoes.

And then stepping into their shoes and walking with them through their brokenness and suffering, even bearing their brokenness and suffering when it was most needed—even to the cross.

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached at Morden Mennonite Church on September 25, 2016, in the series “Stirring Our Imagination.” Second image from Scarboro Missions via Harry Gensler.

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

“Read it Again—This Time with Imagination!”

Have you read 1 Corinthians 10 recently? I mean, really read it? Because there are some pretty odd things going on there.

In the passage Paul refers to several stories in ancient Israel’s history, stories we find in our Old Testament books of Exodus and Numbers. Most of us probably know these stories.

There’s the story of Israel’s exodus, being freed from slavery in Egypt. There’s the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea. There are the stories of Israel wandering in the wilderness, receiving manna from the skies and water from a rock. And there are the stories of Israel grumbling and complaining, rejecting God and worshiping other gods.

There are at least half a dozen different Old Testament stories about Israel that Paul alludes to here in 1 Corinthians 10. That’s not what’s odd. What’s odd are things like this:

  • Paul says the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” when they went through the Red Sea under the pillar of cloud.
  • Paul says that the manna that fell from the sky was not merely some kind of bread, but it was “spiritual food.”
  • And the rock they got the water from? That rock, Paul says, was actually Jesus. Christ was a “spiritual rock” that “followed them” everywhere they went, and he provided “spiritual drink” for them, not merely H2O.

None of this is actually found in any of the stories in Exodus or Numbers. Rather, Paul is reading these things into the biblical stories.

In other words, Paul is using a pretty hefty dose of imagination in reading his Bible.

Paul is imagining Jesus always present in the background of the Bible—even those passages that don’t say anything about Jesus. And Paul is imagining the church as the intended audience of the Bible, even being in the biblical stories as if they were there—even though the stories were written for people long since gone.

What Paul does in this passage might seem really strange. In fact, I wouldn’t stretch the text of Scripture quite as far as Paul does, or in exactly the same ways (hey, he’s an apostle). But Paul’s example of using his imagination to read the Bible is still a helpful model for us today, in three particular ways.

First, when we read the Bible we should imagine Jesus as its fulfilment.

I don’t think we should try and see Jesus behind every rock or prophecy in the Old Testament. But we should imagine how Jesus relates to everything we read.

For example, try reading the biblical stories and imagining Jesus among those who were oppressed, who suffered and were killed—not among the strong conquerors. That is, in fact, the story of Jesus, that he identified with the weak and the suffering, not the powerful and successful. And if we use our imaginations in this way, suddenly new stories might pop out at us in fresh ways.

We might see Jesus in the life of Ruth, the Moabite woman trying to find her way in a patriarchal Israelite world. We might see Jesus in the life of Mephibosheth, the disabled grandson of King Saul, and in the way King David treated him with surprising mercy and compassion. We might see Jesus in the life of Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke truth to power and in so doing endured ostracism and imprisonment.

Here’s a second idea: When we read the Bible we should imagine ourselves in the story.

We should use our imaginations when we read the stories of the Bible, and put ourselves in the sandals of each character in the story, whether “good” or “bad,” big or small.

Jesus’ stories are particularly good for imagining ourselves in them as different characters. In fact, he invites us to do this imagining.

The Good Samaritan - Ferdinand HodlerYou know the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: the Jew robbed on the way to Jericho, the priest and then the Levite passing him by, the despised Samaritan stopping to help him. As Luke tells the story, Jesus invites his hearers to use their imagination: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who was robbed?”

Put yourself in each of their sandals, Jesus says. Imagine yourself in their place. Which one was the true neighbour?

And you can almost feel the struggle in his Jewish listeners, afraid to put themselves in the sandals of a Samaritan, then being forced to admit that their scorned enemy was in fact a loving neighbour.

This is what we need to do, if we really want God to speak directly to our hearts through the Bible. We need to imagine ourselves in the story, even when it challenges our preconceptions, even when it hurts our ego.

A third suggestion: When we read the Bible we should imagine how its message can be lived out in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t end the story of the Good Samaritan by simply getting the right identification of the hero from his audience. He ends the story with these words: “Now go and do likewise.”

Go and do likewise.

Not, “Go and repeat exactly the same thing.” Not, “Go and find someone who was robbed and beaten and then bind up their wounds and take them to a safe place to heal”—though, of course, that’s not a bad thing!

No, it’s “Go and do likewise (homoiōs), do similar kinds of things.” Follow this example of mercy shown to a neighbour, a stranger, a foreigner, an enemy, the “other.” But there may be a billion different ways this same neighbour-love can be shown. It depends on our context, the needs around us, where we are at in our own story. And so this requires some imagination.

1 Corinthians 10 gives us a window into how the Apostle Paul and the other early Christians read their Bibles—loaded with imagination. We’re invited to do the very same thing when we read our Bibles.

Where is Jesus in the biblical story? Is he right there, front and centre, like in the Gospels? Or is he in the background, where we can just see the contours of his character? Does the story prompt a question that Jesus answers, or pose a problem that Jesus solves? How does what we see in the story relate to the way Jesus lived his life, the things he taught?

Where do we fit in the biblical story? Are we one of the “good guys” or one of the “bad guys”? (Don’t presume to know the answer!) Are we up among the powerful and privileged in the story, or down among the weak and lowly? Are we one of the insiders, or one of the outsiders? What is God saying to us, whichever role we find ourselves in at this particular time?

How does the biblical story fulfilled in Jesus intersect with our life? What encouragement does it give us? How does it challenge the way we think, the way we live? How can we “go and do likewise” in following Jesus in the particular circumstances of our lives?

Where is Jesus? Where are we? And how do we then live? May God stir our imaginations to answer these questions as we read the Scriptures, both on our own and together as God’s people.

Images: James Tissot, “Moses Strikes the Rock”; Ferdinand Hodler, “The Good Samaritan.” This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on September 18, 2016, as part of a series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” For more suggestions on how to read the Bible, check out my post on “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?”

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