My Faith Story

On September 4, 2022, I shared my faith story with my congregation as part of the process of transferring my membership from my previous congregation. Here is what I shared.

If I were to sum up my faith journey in a phrase, it might be this: “Pursuing Jesus who first found me.”

I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, nominally Anabaptist. I knew my Bible. I knew about Jesus. But I didn’t know Jesus.

In my university days I went on a spiritual quest. I checked out other religions—Hinduism and Buddhism fascinated me for a while. I actively participated in a different church every year of university: Pentecostal, United Church, Lutheran, Baptist. I was baptized in that Baptist church.

Along the way I had a profound spiritual experience that pushed me back to the Bible. I read it like I’d never read it before, in huge chunks: all of Isaiah in one sitting, all of Luke and Acts in another, all of Genesis in a morning, all of John in an afternoon, Romans before bed. I gorged on Scripture.

And that’s how I first met Jesus. I read the Bible and I found Jesus. Or rather, Jesus found me, and I’ve pursued him ever since.

Later, when I was teaching through the New Testament at a small Christian college and working on my Ph.D., I had an epiphany: this Jesus-centred reading of Scripture had made me into an Anabaptist. By reading the Bible to follow Jesus I had become committed to Jesus’ way of nonviolence, his way of just peace, his way of community, his way of love.

And so, when I left this nondenominational college to move into pastoral ministry, it made sense to serve in a Mennonite congregation, one that was thoroughly Anabaptist.

That was 13 years ago, and our journey since then has brought us from Alberta to Ohio to Manitoba, and now into my current role as Executive Minister of Mennonite Church Manitoba, and member of Home Street Mennonite Church. I’m grateful for this congregation, for its commitment to pursue Jesus who first found us.

Last week Ingrid shared about developing a centred-set approach to church instead of a bounded-set approach. I’ve also taught that concept since first coming across missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert’s use of this idea. And this, to me, is at the centre of this thing we call “Christianity,” and this thing we call “church”: Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love.

Jesus of Nazareth, crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord, and Jesus’ way of devotion for God expressed through compassion for others, especially those the world deems “last,” “least,” or “lost.”

We gather around Jesus and his way of love like people gathering around a bonfire on a cold, dark night. We draw close to Jesus and his love for light and warmth, and as we do so we find ourselves drawing closer to each other.

Around this fire we tell our stories, we sing our songs, we pray our prayers, we share our bread and wine. And we commit ourselves to following Jesus and his way of love as we go out into the world, carrying our candles lit with the fire of Jesus’ love.

As we go we proclaim the greatest revelation Jesus has given us: God is love. We should know this from Scripture, we should know this from observing creation around us, but in Jesus this is confirmed and clarified: God is love.

God always loves. God cannot not love. Everything God does is motivated by love and enacted in love. This means that anything we experience that is not of love is not of God. God is not the author of evil or suffering or harm.

Love is the essence of God in a way that God’s other attributes are not. God’s holiness is a holy love. God’s justice is a just love. God’s wisdom is a wise love. God’s power is a powerful love.

All is being moved by love towards God’s good purposes. Love is stronger than injustice or violence. Love is stronger than every other power. Love is stronger than death. In the end, love will win, and all will be well.

Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love, pointing us to the God who is love.

This is indeed good news.

Polarization and the Way of Jesus

Ask pastors and church leaders what their greatest concerns are in these latter days, and one of the words that will float to the top is “polarization.”

There’s little doubt that our society has become more polarized, more afflicted by extremes, less attuned to compromise and middle ground. And the church has followed suit, as it often does, sometimes even leading the way. The political partisanship and the culture clash of left versus right has permeated our congregations and denominations.

Any follower of Jesus worth their salt and light who wants to address polarization is faced with two conflicting beliefs.

On the one hand, we believe that Jesus came to heal divisions, to bring peace between people. Unity is one of our loftiest goals, a unity of the Spirit grounded in Jesus, a unity which does not erase diversity but celebrates it. Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that he might “create in himself one new humanity…thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).

On the other hand, we believe that following Jesus sometimes provokes hostility, even revealing divisions. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks his stunned disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:51-53).

What does the division-healing, division-revealing Spirit of Jesus have to say to us today in our polarized world? Let me suggest one overarching thought that then needs some explanation.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

Let’s step back even further. In case we Jesus-followers need to be reminded of this fact, no human person is ultimately our enemy. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh,” and “we do not wage war as the world does” with its “fleshly weapons” (Eph 6:12; 2 Cor 10:3-4).

This is Jesus’ Nonviolence 101. Humans may participate with the “spiritual forces of evil” in this world, and if so they need to be resisted, but ultimate they are not our enemy. God’s desire is for their redemption, and our redemption is bound up with theirs.

When it comes to how we treat individuals, then, we treat them as Jesus did: with compassion.

Here’s a striking contrast in the Gospels. Jesus speaks harsh, public words denouncing a group of people: woes to the rich oppressors, condemnations of unjust religious leaders (Luke 6:24-25; Matt 23). Yet he still shares meals with these people (Luke 7:36-50), and when he engages with individuals from among those groups he does so with deep compassion for them (John 3:1-15). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit, after all.

However, don’t miss this fact: Jesus does not shy away from speaking strong words against powerful oppressors, even individually. In fact, all his teaching and his healings, his whole way of life, was a subversion of the values of those powerful oppressors. And this brought division in his wake. Ultimately, it led to his crucifixion by the powers that be.

Jesus was a polarizing figure. Yet he was driven by compassion toward all, a devoted love for God expressed in compassionate love for neighbour.

Jesus’ love for all, though, had an important corollary: a strong sense of justice.

Jesus’ compassion for the powerless, impoverished crowds drove him to heal freely, to teach freely about God’s role-reversing reign of justice come near (Matt 9:35-36). The love of God compelled him to follow in the footsteps of the Prophets: denouncing injustice and oppression, pronouncing God’s judgment on unjust oppressors, and proclaiming God’s good news to the poor and liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21).

The love of God drove Jesus to walk in solidarity with the poor, the enslaved, oppressed and conquered peoples, right to the symbolic heart of that oppression: a Roman cross.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

As Christians today we look at polarization and see it as the opposite of peace. Ultimately, yes. There will be no polarization in God’s peaceable kingdom.

However, the path of peace can sometimes run through polarization, because, as Jesus’ life and death remind us, there is no peace without justice. And confronting injustice to create true peace will bring division. It will. Jesus has told us so. Jesus’ life and death has proved it to be so.

Don’t misunderstand me, or worse, Jesus. We can create division by being “jerks for Jesus.” That’s not what Jesus is talking about. That’s not the way of Jesus.

James Tissot, The Sermon of the Beatitudes

But when we patiently, persistently, compassionately seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, we will encounter hostility. Jesus doesn’t call us to a persecution complex, seeing persecution behind every opposition. But make no mistake: those who “hunger and thirst for justice” will be “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:6, 10).

Divisions will be revealed, sometimes gaping chasms of difference in values and goals and ways and means. These divisions will cut across family lines, as Jesus directly says, so we should not be surprised when they sometimes slice through our churches.

And when this happens, we cannot soft-pedal God’s desire for justice in order to create an artificial peace.

We Mennonites are especially prone to this, because in our veneration of peace we often strive to avoid conflict. Or we look for a middle-way compromise between two extremes, mistakenly calling this a “third way.” Thoughtful, empathetic compromise is certainly an important tool for simply getting along with each other in a diverse community. But neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other Apostle advocates for a middle-way compromise when injustice or oppression is on the table.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

To be more biblically precise, death is our enemy. Our sins of harm that create forms of death for others and our world, all the ways we cause harm or hinder well-being through our thoughts and words and actions, or inaction. Our systems and cultures of death that perpetuate these harms on a larger scale: economic inequity, corporate greed, militarism, colonialism, misogyny, racism, and more.

Death, we’re told, is the ultimate enemy, the “last enemy to be destroyed,” thrown deep into the fiery chasm from whence it came (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy that Jesus relentlessly pursued in every healing, every teaching, every interaction with a death-struck person, right through his own death into resurrection life.

And this is our calling as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to be united in the Spirit of Christ, being one in the body of Christ, centred on Jesus. Christian unity is not a unity that merely tries to keep a group of people together regardless of what they value and how they live. Christian unity is being united in walking in the loving, life-giving way of Jesus by the living, life-giving Spirit of Jesus.

All are welcome in this family of God, yes and amen! But this means people who cannot fully welcome the ones our world doesn’t welcome—the impoverished, the marginalized, those most vulnerable to harm, those perpetually oppressed by the powers that be—people who cannot fully welcome these our world calls “least” and “last” can never be fully welcome themselves until they can do so.

When we are complicit in injustice and oppression, complicit in sins of harm and systems of death, Jesus calls us to repentance. And when we repent, when we turn from our death-dealing ways of harm and embrace God’s life-giving ways of compassion and justice, Jesus assures us of God’s forgiveness.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

I am as concerned as any church leader about polarization in our churches and in our society. But polarization itself is not the enemy anymore than flesh-and-blood people on the other side of our divides are the enemy.

I long for churches to be united in the Spirit of Christ to follow the way of Christ, being the body of Christ in the world, seeking first God’s justice-bringing, life-generating reign on earth. May we have wisdom to discern how best to speak and act to bring about this true unity in Christ, and the courage to do so—even if the path to that unity first reveals some deep divisions among us.

Communion: Open or Closed?

Who should be allowed to receive communion?

It’s a question that comes up frequently in church circles, occasionally bursting into mainstream media. Among Mennonites, the question is typically framed like this: should the Lord’s Supper be “closed” only to the baptized, or should it be “open” to the un-baptized?*

Both sides are motivated by good impulses.

The best impulse of the closed communion folks is to protect abused, violated, or at-risk people among them from being forced to share the Lord’s Table with their oppressors. The best impulse of the open communion folks is to ensure that those often pushed out of church circles are welcome to share in the full life of the church. One side wants to protect the vulnerable, the other wants to remove barriers for the marginalized.

Of course, there are less admirable impulses on both sides as well.

Closed communion churches can be motivated by a desire of the powerful to maintain the status quo, gatekeeping to keep out undesirables. Open communion churches can be motivated by a bland form of acceptance or tolerance, unwilling to hold to account those among them living lives based on abuse of power, violence, greed, or injustice.

A simplistic “the Bible is clear on this” is another less-than-admirable motivation. It’s also not true.

Closed communion churches tend to point to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. The wealthy among the Corinthian believers had been coming to their shared meals early, filling up on food and wine and leaving nothing for the poorer Christians who had to work until late. Paul’s words are harsh and pointed: this abuse of the poor is a travesty of the Lord’s Supper, and the wealthy offenders must “examine themselves” to root out greed and inequity and “discern the body” of which all are equal members.

Yet Paul doesn’t tie his comments to baptism. Sure, it’s likely nearly everyone present at these communion meals was baptized. After all, baptism in Corinth, like elsewhere among the first generation of Christians, was probably as straightforward as professing belief in Jesus and being baptized as soon after as possible. But still, while Paul elsewhere does ground ethical appeals in baptism, he doesn’t do so with the Lord’s Supper. This could be because Paul in 1 Corinthians is reluctant to make too much of baptism: it was one of the things people were using to distinguish their partisan takes on Christian faith and life, aligning themselves with the one who baptized them. We may wish to ground communion theologically in baptism, but there’s no direct basis in 1 Corinthians (or anywhere in the New Testament, for that matter) for doing so.

Open communion churches tend to point to the stories of Jesus’ shared meals in the Gospels. Jesus became known as a “friend of sinners” and a “glutton and drunkard” because of his meals with those considered “least” and “last” and “lost” by the powers-that-be, turning patron-client and honour-shame conventions around meals on their head. He likewise told stories of God’s reign being like a meal in which those on the lowest rungs of society were welcomed. And the Last Supper, on which the Lord’s Supper is based, was a hodge-podge of disciples, sinners and tax-collectors and oft-despised Galileans themselves.

Yet the Last Supper doesn’t provide a perfect example of an “open” meal. While women disciples may have been present on the periphery, only male disciples are mentioned at table with Jesus. And yes, Jesus broke bread with a tax collector who had been on the side of Roman oppression and at least one Zealot who had been on the side of violence in opposition to Rome, but Jesus had called them to repentance and had lived and taught a radical alternative to these opposites. And sure, Jesus knowingly broke bread with both his denier and his betrayer, yet that act in itself could not keep these men from their actions. In fact, as closed-communion advocate Melissa Florer-Bixler has wryly noted, John’s Gospel pointedly states that it was “after [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.”

No, the Bible is not as clear on open versus closed communion as we might like it to be.

Still, these biblical texts highlight at least two realities all Mennonites (and all Christians) should take to heart.

First, regardless of a church’s stance on communion, we are called both to hold abusers of power to account and to remove barriers for the marginalized. We can tie these into our theology and practice of communion if we wish, but we had better be doing more than that in our wider theology and practice as a church. If unjust oppressors only feel uneasy when it comes time for communion, or if those cast aside by society only feel welcome when it comes time for communion, we’re not doing church right.

And second, Paul’s approach to baptism and communion strikes me as more Mennonite than some Mennonites. Some among us have almost made an idol of baptism and/or communion, even if we’re now more tolerant than we used to be about modes of baptism or ways of doing communion. Paul’s reluctance to make much of baptism in 1 Corinthians when he does so elsewhere is one of several examples of his ad hoc pastoral theology. Consistent, Paul was not. Or rather, Paul was guided by underlying values that overrode his commitment to particular forms or rituals.

And this, my Mennonite friends, is a very Mennonite way to approach church life. Our early Mennonite and other Anabaptist forebears were among the “radical Reformers,” striving for faithfulness to the words and ways of Jesus beyond any other form of religious (or political, economic, cultural, social) commitment.

If one congregation discerns that in their context closed communion allows them to live more faithfully to the way of Jesus, then peace be upon them. Likewise if a congregation discerns that open communion is where they need to be to follow Jesus faithfully in their setting: may they be blessed in this.

If, however, your church is making this decision out of more base impulses—powerful people gatekeeping those deemed undesirable, an unwillingness to confront injustice or abuse, even “the Bible is clear” or “it’s in our Confession of Faith” or “we’ve always done it this way”—then I encourage you to re-visit this question.

Regardless of where we end up as churches on open versus closed communion, may we be motivated by the love of Jesus, a way of love that pays special attention to the disempowered and calls to account the powerful, that seeks to orient our way of life together around God’s ways of equity and justice, so that we might all together participate in God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

*I realize there are other ways of defining “open” and “closed” communion, but for Mennonites baptism is where the line is typically drawn. I realize, too, that this debate is not confined to Mennonites, and that sometimes the question is whether a baptized member can be refused communion.

Eugène Burnand, The Great Banquet

Following Jesus Is Not Enough

Okay, let me start by saying I really do believe following Jesus is “enough,” in the sense that “following Jesus” nicely sums up what it means to be a Christian. Following Jesus in his teachings and way of life, united with him in his death and resurrection, and so being conformed by the Spirit to the image of God’s Son—this is what being a Christian means.

But here’s the problem: “following Jesus” can so easily be used to mean whatever we want it to mean.

We pick and choose which teachings of Jesus we think are really important. We make morality solely about inward intentions or private sexuality. We make the cross about an individual transaction with God. We view the resurrection as something still to come, no bearing on the here and now.

And then we can go on amassing our possessions, condemning “sinners,” ignoring the poor at our gates, and otherwise living in stark contrast to the way of Jesus.

It’s a well-worn path, a broad road even, this individualizing and privatizing and genericizing and spiritualizing of “following Jesus,” so we can justify our comfort and privilege, maintain our sense of piety and morality, and otherwise feel good about the life we lead.

It’s a path I find myself on often.

And so we need something to help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus,” to be “united with Christ,” to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son.”

Here’s where I’ve been helped by Black theologians like James Cone, by feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, by liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez. Here’s where the practical theology of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. has been important to me.

It’s from these followers of Jesus and others like them that I have learned of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

“The poor” in biblical context does not simply refer to the financially destitute. The phrase is aligned with “widows” and “orphans,” “aliens” and “strangers.” Jesus used words like “last” and “least” to refer to these children of God who were left at the bottom rung of society. “The poor” is often used, then, as a kind of cipher for all who are impoverished in power—economic power, yes, but also political power, social power, the power to change one’s circumstances for their wellbeing.

“Remembering the poor”—in the sense of “paying attention to those who are impoverished in power”—was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It was a crucial emphasis of his teaching. It was the way he lived. It gives greater meaning to the cross as God’s solidarity with the powerless, the evil-oppressed. It brings Jesus’ resurrection, God’s life-giving liberation, into the here and now.

This divine attention to the impoverished in power is the lens that can help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus.” When we “remember the poor” as we follow Jesus, we begin to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. We pay attention to those marginalized or even oppressed by powerful forces beyond their control, both spiritual and material. We see the ways we might be complicit with these powerful forces, whether by circumstance or by choice. We are Spirit-prompted to repent of this complicity and to walk in solidarity with the power-impoverished, even if it means a cross.

All this recalibrates our love of God and neighbour. It realigns our sense of morality and our ethics. It reforms our theology and heightens our worship. It draws us more closely to the way of Jesus. It unites us in practical ways with Christ in his death and resurrection, revealing us to be conformed to the image of Christ.

“Remembering the poor” helps us to follow Jesus. And this is indeed enough.

Reframing Unity

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

It’s an appeal for unity that sounds tailor-made for polarized congregations today. Churches are divided over LGBTQ+ inclusion, COVID precautions, rights and freedoms, penal substitution, critical race theory… It feels like too many things to name.

When we hear this appeal to “be of the same mind,” we probably think this means being in agreement about a set of beliefs or having the same positions on the important issues of the day. For many of us, this is what unity in the church looks like: it’s when everyone fully agrees on crucial doctrines or pressing social issues.

When there is disunity, then (meaning divisive disagreement on positions or beliefs), the typical appeal is for each side to listen to the other, to understand the other’s point of view, even to seek a compromise position or “middle way” (sometimes mistakenly labeled a “third way”—more on this later). In this understanding, both sides need to give a little if there’s going to be unity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to others and trying hard to understand their point of view. In fact, that’s crucial to living well with each other in any community. That’s also how we learn and grow.

But I’d like to suggest a different way of understanding unity, a reframing of unity that is better rooted in Paul’s language of being “of the same mind.”

Because here’s the thing: Paul never calls on divided congregations to come to a middle-ground compromise. Even more, Paul’s language of “being of the same mind” is not about “thinking the same way about doctrine or issues.” Rather, it’s about having a particular kind of “mind”: the “mind of Christ.”

The “one mind” we are to be “in accord” with is the “mind”—the way of thinking and living, the way of being—which Jesus displayed. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (Phil 2:5)—and then goes on to describe what this “mind of Christ” is.

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that divests ourselves of our individual power and privilege for the good of others, just as Jesus “emptied himself” of his divine status and prerogatives in becoming human for our liberation (2:5-7).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that enters into the life and suffering of the most disempowered and underprivileged, just as Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and even died a slave’s death, a conquered and oppressed people’s death—“death on a cross” (2:7-8).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that does all this to bring about a divine reversal, where those who have experienced oppression by the powers of our age enter with Jesus into his resurrection life and glorious exaltation (2:9-11).

Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

This is the “same mind,” the “one mind” which Paul has called the Philippians to be “in accord” with (2:2). This is the mind which Paul himself strives to enter into, living in Christ’s sufferings in order to enter Christ’s resurrection life (3:7-14). And this is the “same mind” which Paul urges mature Christians to hold—“and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15).

There’s no compromise sought here, no middle way between two apparently uncompromising positions. It’s a genuine “third way,” an alternative to two contrasting perspectives, and Paul expects full buy-in to this third-way “mind of Christ.”

Christian unity, then, is not about agreement with a Confession of Faith. It’s not about agreement with a set of positions on social issues. Confessions of faith are useful as theological guides, and it can at times be vital for us to take a particular stance on a significant issue in our world. But Christian unity isn’t found in our strong agreement with a set of doctrines or positions.

Being “united in Christ” is about our shared commitment to walk together in the way of Jesus, his liberating way of love. We are united in Christ when we commit together to hold our power lightly in our interactions with each other, to walk in humility and patience, kindness and compassion, with those who are different from us, especially with those who hold less power or privilege than we do. We are united in Christ when we commit together to pay attention to the marginalized and disempowered among us and around us, to walk in solidarity with these considered “last,” “least,” or “lost” in society toward justice and peace and flourishing life. This is “the Spirit of Christ” in which we are united, the Spirit who shapes us individually and collectively into the image of Jesus Christ.

Rather than asking two opposing “sides” in a congregation to get together and find a compromise position for the sake of unity, we’d be much better off with the whole congregation asking a few pointed questions:

  • What power and privilege do we hold—do I hold—within this congregation, within this community, this society?
  • How can we—and I myself—hold that power and privilege lightly as we walk with each other in humility, patience, kindness, and compassion, especially with those who are different from us?
  • Who are the genuinely disempowered and underprivileged, those who have historically or regularly been most vulnerable to actual physical and mental and spiritual harm, among us in this congregation and around us in this community?
  • How can we—and I—give up our power and privilege in order to empower these disempowered among us and around us, in order to walk in solidarity with them—knowing we will suffer with them, knowing we will be changed in the process—in order to bring about greater justice and more flourishing life for them and ultimately for all of us together?

When this is our shared stance, our shared way of thinking and living, our shared way of being—our “one mind”—then we can truly say we have discovered “unity in Christ.” May we, like Paul, “press on to make this our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own” (Phil 3:12).


Edited since originally posted. For some thoughts on parallels in other Pauline letters, including thoughts on how diversity works within this unity, see my comment below.

Christians, Freedom, and Human Rights

Over the past two years, many of us as Christians have forgotten our baptism.

Oh, sure, we might remember when we were baptized, or maybe we have the certificate or pictures to prove it. But we’ve forgotten what we were baptized into. We’ve forgotten what our baptism means.

The Christian understanding of freedom and human rights, like pretty much everything that is meaningfully “Christian,” grows out of our understanding of Jesus: his teachings, his way of life, his death and resurrection.

Jesus looked to his Scriptures, the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament), and he read them with a highlighter. He highlighted passages like “Love your neighbour as yourself,” claiming that this was bound up with the command to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” We show our love for God by loving our neighbours as ourselves.

And Jesus defined our “neighbour” broadly, yet with special emphasis. The neighbours we are to love include anyone we come across as we go through life, even if that includes the stranger or the foreigner—the outsider to our circles, the socially “other.” Yet Jesus, following the Torah and the Prophets, emphasized love for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the enslaved, the downtrodden—those especially vulnerable to harm, the socially powerless.

This comes through in another passage Jesus highlighted in his Scriptures, a passage from the Prophet Isaiah which he took as his life’s mission:

“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 favour.”

Jesus didn’t just teach these things, he lived them.

As the Apostle Paul puts it, Jesus set aside his own divine privileges—his own “rights” as God, you might say—in order to serve humanity in love. He sought out the powerless, he healed the sick, he blessed the poor, he spoke out against oppression and abuse of power against those most at risk. Jesus walked in solidarity with the lowest of the low, even dying a slave’s death, an oppressed and colonized people’s death, executed by the state on a cross. All out of love of neighbour.

This is the basis for a Christian view of freedom and human rights. Human rights are about ensuring basic rights for all people, for all people are created in God’s image. Yet in considering human rights Christians follow Jesus in seeking especially to ensure the rights of those most vulnerable to harm by powerful people and those most prone to oppression or marginalization by the powers that be.

And no, Christians in North America, that’s not us.

And freedom for Christians is about freedom to love our neighbours as ourselves, freedom to walk in Jesus’ way of love, again paying special attention to the socially “other” and the socially powerless. This is what true freedom is: loving others with the liberating love of God, so that they might be freed from all forms of bondage and oppression.

And no, Christians in North America, we are not being oppressed.

Here, then, is where too many of us as Christians have forgotten our baptism.

We have been baptized into Christ to follow the way of Christ, Jesus’ way of love. We have been baptized into Christ to walk in the freedom Jesus brings: liberated from the power of sin, our selfish ways of harm, to walk in Jesus’ way of love. In Christ we have the freedom not to pursue our own self-interest but the interests of others. In Christ we have the freedom to set aside our own rights and privileges to serve one another in love.

If you consider yourself a Christian, I urge you to remember your baptism. Remember the calling to which you were called. Remember the freedom for which Christ has set you free, and don’t settle for some pale imitation of the real thing. There are a lot of Christians right now peddling this fake freedom, and doing so in the name of Christ—don’t buy it, it’s not of Jesus.

And for God’s sake, and your neighbours’, get vaccinated if you can and wear a mask when you need to.

Following the Discomforting Jesus

Mark 8:27-38 is one of my favourite passages of Scripture. One of the things I love about it is that, after years of reading it and re-reading it, studying it and preaching it and teaching it, I’m not sure how well I actually understand it.

Why does Jesus want to know what people are saying about him? Why do so many people think he’s a long-dead (or recently dead) prophet? What does Peter mean by “You are the Messiah”? What might Jesus have meant by this? Why does Jesus order the disciples not to tell others this?

Why does Jesus switch from “Messiah” language to “Son of Man” language? Where did Jesus get these ideas of a suffering, rejected, murdered, and resurrected Son of Man from? How does this connect with the confession of Jesus as the Messiah? Why exactly does Peter rebuke Jesus for this? Why does Jesus see in Peter “the Satan” who had previously tempted him? What exactly was it about Peter’s rebuke that reflected “human ways” as opposed to “God’s ways”?

Where does “the crowd” suddenly come from, and why are they invited into the conversation? How does Jesus’ call to discipleship connect with Peter’s previous confession and Jesus’ Son of Man teaching and his rebuke of Peter? What does it mean to “deny yourself,” to “take up your cross,” and “follow Jesus”? How in the world can we save our lives by losing them?

Over the years I’ve developed what I think are good answers to most of these questions. Nevertheless, I am never fully comfortable with my answers.

And maybe that’s as it should be. These words of Jesus should always be discomforting, perpetually pulling us out of our comfortable ways of believing and thinking and living, drawing us ever toward the peculiar magnet that is Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah and Lord. Somewhere deep down we’re all like Peter in John’s version of this episode: “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

As we return to the rhythms of fall set against the drumbeat of COVID, may we be prepared to encounter Jesus afresh. And may we be prepared for some “holy discomfort” in this encounter, a sacred unease that compels us to follow Jesus in new ways into the uncharted future before us, a future filled with life even through death.

My Journey Toward Being Affirming

I have been fully affirming of LGBTQ+ folx and supportive of equal marriage for a few years now. This was the culmination of many years of research and reflection and, most importantly, relationship with LGBTQ+ people. Although my story of becoming affirming is not the most important story to be heard in this, my story might be helpful to others. Here it is.

Note that my views do not necessarily reflect those of my current or previous employers.

Finding Our Home

Home is something we all long for. We shape our living spaces to create a home, a place of safety, some creature comforts, and, for most of us, a family of some sort (pets included!). When we don’t have this home, we yearn for it. Immigrants to a new land are filled with nostalgia for the home they knew. Refugees weep as they leave their home, yet long for a home yet to come, which they only see by faith.

Right now, our own home is pretty chaotic. We’ve got two reno projects going simultaneously, upstairs in the bathroom and downstairs in the kitchen. We’ve still got boxes sitting in unhappy places, waiting for their own home in our unsettled home. We are in our house, and it’s feeling more like home every day, but it’s not quite there yet.

In this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, home is a common theme.

In 1 Kings 8 Solomon dedicates the new temple to God, describing it as God’s home on earth even as he recognizes that no building can contain the Creator. As Genesis 1 describes, the heavens and the earth collectively are God’s true home.

Psalm 84 expresses the joy of worshiping, even simply being, in God’s earthly home. (I love the image of the sparrows “finding a home” within God’s home—I imagine sparrows nesting among the gold and cedar of Solomon’s glorious temple.)

Then there’s John 6. In John’s Gospel Jesus is set up as God’s eternal Word made flesh, God’s very “dwelling” on earth (John 1:14 uses the Greek word for the tabernacle). In Jesus, God makes God’s home among us. When we are with Jesus, we are at home in God. No wonder, when the crowds start leaving Jesus because his teaching is too difficult, Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In other words, “Jesus, you are our home. Why would we go anywhere else?”

As this summer winds down and fall sneaks up, whether our own homes are chaotic or calm, whether we still have plans to find some time away from home or we’ve finished our vacations, may we learn to see the spiritually and physically homeless around us and help them find their home, and may we find our ultimate home in God, the one who made their home among us in Jesus, who still makes their home in us and among us by the Spirit.

David and David’s Son on Love and Power

In this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts there’s quite the juxtaposition between the Old Testament reading and the New Testament epistle.

On the one hand there’s 2 Samuel 11:1-15. The headings in the NRSV describe the story as, first, “David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba,” and second, “David Has Uriah Killed.” More accurately, these should be “David Rapes Bathsheba” and “David Murders Uriah.” This is Israel’s favoured king, the king who would form the template for the Messiah to come. But instead of walking in righteousness and establishing justice through self-giving love, David’s lust and abuse of power leads him to rape and murder.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Carl Bloch, “Healing of the Blind Man”)

On the other hand there’s Ephesians 3:14-21. This is a prayer of Paul (or a Pauline disciple) for power and perception, but not the kind that David displayed. This prayer is for spiritual power, to be “strengthened in our inner being” by the presence of the risen Christ and to “know the love of Christ” in all its multi-dimensional fullness. This is a power that walks in righteousness and establishes justice through self-giving love. It’s the power of Jesus the teacher and healer from Nazareth, crucified and risen. It’s the power of the Son of David, the Messiah who surpasses the expectations of his template.

In these days of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, of #EveryChildMatters and #CancelCanadaDay, David’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when we wed ourselves to earthly power and then abuse that power for our own selfish ends. Paul’s prayer points to a different way: living in the infinite love of God, the Jesus-love that compels us toward justice and peace and joy in the kingdom of God.