#MLK50

It was 50 years ago today that the “shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned about MLK, of course, but growing up in Canada I didn’t learn a lot. And coming of age in the early ’90s as a white Evangelical, what I did learn was that Martin Luther King was one of those “iffy” Christians, one of those “social justice” Christians who didn’t preach the true gospel and whose salvation status was uncertain.

My perspective has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, of course, and over the last 10 years I have deliberately engaged MLK’s writing and preaching, learning from his life and legacy. He was a flawed man, no question, but he was just as certainly one of the great lights of the twentieth century, even of all human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., has appeared in my preaching several times over the past few years. Here are the times he also made it into my blogging. Rest in peace, MLK, until the coming of our Lord and the renewal of all things, and the dream is fully realized.

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.

Celebrating Canada and the Reformation: Uneasy Gratitude and Semper Reformanda

If you are a Protestant Christian in Canada, 2017 is a pretty big year. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, which took effect on July 1, 1867. This year also marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—or, at least, 500 years since the Reformation’s symbolic beginning, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Celebrations of all sorts are already underway for both anniversaries, and they’ll be ramped up even more once the magic dates hit. Tomorrow is going to be quite the party, all across the country.

But if you read the news, both the mainstream news and the news in Christian circles, you’ll know that not everyone is celebrating Canada’s 150th or the Reformation’s 500th. These celebrations—well, it’s complicated.

I remember when both Canada and the Reformation were easy things to celebrate for me.

I’ve always been among those millions of Canadians cheering Canada on in all the big hockey games. Canada Day has been a big date on our family calendar, whether it has meant parades or fireworks or a private celebration during our brief sojourn in the U.S. “I am Canadian”—born and bred and blood bright red.

As far as the Reformation, well, I identified for most of my life as an evangelical Christian. This meant, among other things, believing we evangelicals were the true heirs of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s story was told for us in evangelical terms: his conversion out of a heretical works-righteousness tradition-bound Roman Catholicism to a Scripture-alone grace-alone faith-alone Christ-alone salvation is a staple of evangelical lore.

Now, however, I think I’d characterize my thoughts and feelings about both Canada and the Reformation as a kind of “uneasy gratitude.”

The gratitude is strong. Very strong.

I am grateful that I live in a country that has a high quality of life: a liberal democracy with an excellent education system, publicly funded health care, and opportunities for meaningful work, all governed by the rule of law and so safe and secure and peaceful for most people, most of the time. I am grateful, even proud, to be a citizen of a country that more often than not has welcomed refugees, promoted multiculturalism, celebrated diversity, and played the role of peacemaker abroad.

I am also grateful for the Reformation. The medieval western church needed reform, even a resurrection, not just theologically but also culturally, socially, ethically, and more. I am grateful, then, for the Reformation’s focus on not just ecclesiastical reform but also individual repentance and societal transformation. I am grateful also for its application of Renaissance humanism to Christian faith and life: ad fontes (to the sources!), a critique of traditional authority structures, and more.

Yet this gratitude is mixed with a strong dose of unease.

Over the past few years I have become ever conscious of Canada’s colonialist and racist past and present. What I had understood earlier in my life as merely “bumps along the road” of an otherwise glorious Canadian journey were—and still are—massive barriers of systemic bigotry and injustice toward our host indigenous peoples and others of non-European descent. I’ve also become increasingly aware of nationalist and protectionist undercurrents in Canadian society, much of which ain’t pretty. Sometimes these things scare me, quite frankly.

As for the Reformation, I’ve come to recognize its ugly aftermath of schismatic ecclesiology (“Disagree? Split the church!”) and individualistic soteriology (“I’m saved—phew!”) and quasi-gnostic every-ology (“Give me heaven, earth be damned!”) that have little to do with the theologies reflected in the Bible. I no longer view Catholics as heretics, and I’m not convinced Luther got “justification by faith” right. And, of course, as an Anabaptist, I’m not all that fond of the general Protestant pining for the good old days of Christendom (just let it die already).

One of the realities of growing up is a realization that the world is not so neatly sliced into “good” and “bad.” When we’re kids it can seem as if the world is that way: people, things, ideas, are either thoroughly good or completely bad. But as we grow up we put away those childish ways (or so we should—the recent “you’re either for us or against us” polarization within our society on nearly every issue makes me wonder). We realize that good people do bad things and bad people do good things. We recognize that many good ideas, many good ideals, have bad elements to them. Politics, economics, people, church, society, history, theology, ethics—well, it’s complicated.

So it is with Canada, and so it is with the Reformation: there is much that is good, much to celebrate, but they’re peppered with elements that are bad—some things simply wrong, others unjust—and need to be changed. It’s a sign to us that, however many positive steps we may make toward a more just and peaceful and good and beautiful world, we have not yet arrived.

This is where my favourite Reformation-related phrase comes in: semper reformanda, “always reforming.” Karl Barth may have coined the phrase in reference to the church less than a century ago, but it expresses something good at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, the Radical Reformers who pushed even further, and all those who keep pressing on the status quo to make the world a better place.

We haven’t arrived. The road goes ever on. The arc of history must continually be pressed toward justice. We may have reformed—somewhat, in some ways—but we are still always reforming, still repenting, always resurrecting, until God’s kingdom comes, God’s will is fully done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So we continue to pray, and for this we continue to strive.

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?

Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing

I have been teaching the Bible and writing about Christian theology in various ways, in a variety of settings, for over twenty years now. This has mostly been a rewarding task. I love learning new things or discovering new ways of seeing things, and I love seeing the same light bulb turn on for others. But this has also, at times, proven to be disheartening, even tremendously discouraging.

So why is it that I keep teaching and preaching? Why do I keep blogging and writing? Well, beyond the basic fascination I have with the Bible and theology, deeper than the enjoyment I get from interacting with others about these things, there is simply this: our world—including we who are Christians—desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am convinced of this: the gospel is our only hope. Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

“Wait a minute, Michael. That sounds so exclusive, so fundamentalist even. I thought you were one of those progressives.”

Well, I don’t know what box I fit into, to be honest. I say a hearty “Amen!” to all the gospel texts—John 3:16, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” “There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved,” “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” and more. Yet I’m convinced that many modern understandings of the gospel are in fact misunderstandings of the gospel.

While I would be delighted to have more and more people claiming to be followers of Jesus, I’m far more concerned about having more and more people actually following Jesus. While I would be thrilled to have crowds of people claiming the name of Jesus, I’m far more interested in seeing human beings—regardless of their religion—living out the way of Jesus. This is, in fact, the point of the Great Commission: not to make converts to a religion, but to make disciples of Jesus.

And when I hear key Bible words like “salvation” and “life,” I don’t hear these as “salvation from hell to heaven” or “living forever with God after death.” Yes, we have the promise of being “with the Lord” beyond death. But the biblical language of “salvation” is about rescue and restoration: rescuing us from all the ways we harm ourselves, others, and our world (our “sin,” in other words) and restoring us and all humanity and all creation to the way God originally intended things to be. This is why these words, “salvation” and “life,” are so often connected to other key words in the Bible: God’s “kingdom,” “new creation,” “justice,” “peace,” “liberation,” “reconciliation,” and more.

So here’s what I mean when I say “the gospel is our only hope” and that “Jesus offers us the only way to true life”: if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—salvation, in other words—the only way forward is to follow the way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” teaching can be summarized with the word “love”: we are to love God with every dimension of our being, and we are to love other persons as we love ourselves. These two loves are inseparable: our love for God is shown by our love for others. Jesus taught that loving others means giving ourselves for their good, even when this means sacrifice or suffering for us. He taught that those whom we are to love include not only persons who are like us, but also those who are different from us, even those who are opposed to us, who may even wish us harm.

Jesus’ gospel teaching on love included the way of peace. This way of peace is the difficult path of nonviolent resistance to sin and evil powers: resisting harmful attitudes, words, and actions both within ourselves individually and among us collectively, in order to effect positive change; but doing so in creative, nonviolent ways that seek restoration and reconciliation and not retribution, ways that may involve the voluntary suffering of oneself in order to bring about a greater good for all.

Jesus’ way of love and peace requires a devoted faith in God: freely committing ourselves to the God who is love, whatever may come. It also requires a resilient hope in God: persistently trusting in God to bring about good even, potentially, through our own suffering and death.

All this Jesus not only taught, he lived it out: forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, showing compassion, healing freely, standing up to oppressive powers-that-be, even enduring suffering and death because of sin and evil, ultimately experiencing true justice and peace and flourishing life through death, having been resurrected by God. Jesus taught the gospel, and he lived out the gospel—and so he modeled the gospel and planted the seed of the gospel in the world.

If we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—true salvation—the only way forward is to follow this way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus: loving God through loving others, nonviolently resisting sin and evil both in ourselves and in the world, trusting in God to bring about good among us and in the world through this way of Jesus.

This is what I mean when I say that the gospel is our only hope. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

And this is why I do not cease teaching and writing. This is what motivates me to keep on keeping on, even when I get discouraged, even in the face of opposition. Our world is filled with too much bigotry, cruelty, injustice, and oppression, for me to stop speaking the gospel. There are too many different being excluded, too many vulnerable being exploited, too many sick who are dying and poor who are trampled on for me to stop teaching the way of Jesus. There is too much guilt and shame and ignorance and fear for me to stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

menno-simonsAll you Mennonite history buffs will know that I’ve pilfered the title of this blog post from Menno Simons himself. He wrote a tract with this title, and some of the themes of my blog post are echoes of the original Menno Simons tract (other themes from his tract I’m happy to leave aside). Let me conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes from the very Menno in Mennonite:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

And then Simons’ concluding words:

Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.

Amen, brother Menno. Amen.

Christ Our Crucified King

Christ the “King.”

The “kingdom” of God.

I wonder if we’re too used to these words, “king” and “kingdom.” They don’t unnerve us quite the way they should. They should be deeply unsettling.

After all, “kings” are absolute rulers. Each one is a single chain in a dynasty of absolute rulers. They rule over a “kingdom,” a geographical area inhabited by their subjects. The language of “king” and “kingdom” evokes power and privilege: servants at their beck and call, armies under their command, courtiers seeking their favour, their word the law of the land.

And kings have not had a good track record through history, especially not in ancient history. Their kingdoms have, by and large, been oppressive and unjust for all but those at the very top of the social pyramid, those closest to the king. Kingdoms are hierarchies of the strictest order, patriarchies of the strongest kind.

With ancient kings and kingdoms we’re a million miles away from Queen Elizabeth II, a million light-years from a representative democracy like Canada.

And it was into this jarring world of “kings” and “kingdoms” that Jesus came—and turned things on their head. Because Jesus was no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

No king would be born in a barn, attended by the local riff-raff. But Jesus was.

No king would grow up in near-poverty, in a no-name village on the way to nowhere. But Jesus did.

No king would be heralded by a camel-hide-wearing, insect-eating, power-denouncing prophet. But Jesus was.

No king would choose both political insiders and political revolutionaries as his dinner guests, sharing bread and cup with them at his table. But Jesus did.

No king would heal sick peasants for free, or cure the daughter of foreign woman, or the servant of an enemy soldier. But Jesus did.

No king would promise their kingdom to the poor and oppressed and warn off the wealthy and powerful. But Jesus did.

A king would ride into the capital on a warhorse, armor gleaming and armies marching—not on a lowly donkey followed by religious pilgrims, like Jesus did.

A king would demand an audience with the powers-that-be and exact vengeance for his shameful suffering—not stand bloodied before them in dignified silence, exposing their injustice for all to see, like Jesus did.

Velazquez - Christ CrucifiedA king would be enthroned on a grand dais in pomp and ceremony—not lifted up on an executioner’s cross in darkness and storm, like Jesus was.

Jesus was no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

We’ve seen this already in our previous text from Luke’s Gospel—God’s Messiah, the King of the Jews, dying on a Roman cross, making promises of paradise to a condemned criminal. But we also see it in the opening chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Here Paul talks about God’s kingdom this way:

God’s kingdom is the “kingdom of his beloved Son.” That sounds like ancient patriarchy—men holding all the cards in the game of life. But Paul’s point is to use these words to recall Jesus’ baptism—“You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Which means Paul’s point is to use these words to bring to mind all those ancient promises about Israel’s Messiah—Jesus is the true “Son of God,” the “Messiah,” the one who will bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

God’s kingdom is a “kingdom of light.” It is here on earth—make no mistake about it. But it’s not about a geographical location. God’s kingdom is “not of this world”: it is from beyond this world of darkness and death. But it is coming “on earth just as it already is in heaven”: God’s kingdom brings heaven to earth.

Wherever the light touches—this is where God reigns. Wherever oppressive evil is banished—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever life blooms in the midst of inevitable death—this is God, reigning from his throne.

Wherever God’s will is done—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever daily bread is provided for all—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever sins are forgiven, both “us” and “them”—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever people are delivered from the time of trial, wherever people are protected from evil—there God is, reigning as king.

All this and more is what Paul means when he says that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

God’s kingdom is also a “kingdom for all creation.” All things, Paul repeats, all things have been created in Jesus and through Jesus and for Jesus. All things are sustained in Jesus, held together in him. All things, all things are reconciled to God through Jesus. All things: visible and invisible, both on earth and in the heavens. All things.

And so God’s kingdom is a “kingdom of reconciliation.” Paul’s words here don’t just mean, “There’s no more fighting.” When Paul speaks here of Christ “reconciling” and “making peace,” he speaks of restoring something broken back to a harmonious whole. All is justice. All is life. All is peace. Shalom.

And so this reconciling work of God overturns the human hierarchies of this world, whether based on gender or race or wealth or status. There’s a reason why the New Testament says that we will “reign with Christ”—the fulfillment of God’s kingdom is a communal reign, all of us gathered together around Jesus, fulfilling the promise of being created in God’s image. And this communal reign has already started: “in Christ,” Paul says, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

Remember, Jesus is no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

Excerpted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on November 20, 2016, for Christ the King Sunday. Image: Velázquez, “Christ Crucified.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Love will win. Love must win, or we all lose.

I was getting ready for a busy Sunday at church when I saw something on my news feed about a “shooting in Orlando.” I thought little more than “Here we go again” as I put the finishing touches on my sermon. A sermon on the Greatest Commandment, as it happens, the command to love.

At church someone mentioned it to me, saying it looked like the worst mass shooting in American history. I raised my eyebrows at this with a “Really?” and knew I’d have to check it out once the church day was done.

APTOPIX Nightclub Shooting FloridaBy the time I heard the full story it was already late afternoon. My mind was filled with Sunday school wrap-up, church picnic and races, church people’s stories and faces—and my sermon from the morning, that sermon on the Greatest Commandment, the command to love.

It’s a strange feeling, that grief you feel for someone you never knew. Especially when it’s multiplied 50 times, then multiplied again for their parents, sisters, brothers, and friends, then multiplied yet again for the injured, the traumatized, and all their kith and kin.

I was numbed into silence, this strange grief an ever-present aura even as we went about a normal Sunday evening as a family. Talking, teasing, laughing. Eating, cleaning up, singing. Playing games, watching hockey, praying. That’s what we did. And always in the back of my mind—all those families, what were they doing?

Mourning. Weeping. Consoling each other. Seeking answers. Demanding an end to all this death.

No doubt some were ashamed. Ashamed of their child, where they were found. No doubt some of these felt a pang of guilt at their flush of shame, maybe even greater guilt at the way they had treated their child, the things they had said, or left unsaid.

I can’t think of any recent tragedy this close to home visited by so many of the scourges currently plaguing humanity. Homophobia. Religious extremism. Gun violence.

When will we repent of our stark greed, our desire for power over others, our willful ignorance and fear of the other, our propensity toward violence in word and deed? We who have power and privilege—especially middle-aged, white, straight males like myself—when will we be willing to set aside our own desires and needs, to give up our own rights and privileges, to ensure a better future for all of us together?

In other words, when will we be willing to follow Jesus?

I grieve that strange grief for those I do not know, those who have died, those who have been injured, all their families and friends. But I grieve another grief as well, a grief for those touched more indirectly—yet just as truly—by this tragedy.

I grieve for LGBTQ+ persons, who have already borne the brunt of so much misunderstanding, rejection, and violence, even in places that should be safe spaces, like homes and churches. O God, may you keep them safe in the aftermath of this horrific act of hate.

Among the American Muslims to denounce the terror attack at a gay night club in Orlando was Muhammad Musri, the imam of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.I grieve for Muslims, the vast majority of whom simply want to live in peace and safety with their families and friends, able to practise their religion and work an honest living and watch their children and grandchildren grow up. O God, may you keep them safe from backlash to this horrific act of hate.

And I grieve for all humanity, sometimes even despairing for the human race, until I am reminded of God’s relentless love, and the moral universe’s long-bending arc toward justice, and the many times in human history when heaven has broken through the hell of earth, resurrection bursting out from death. O God, may your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom without borders, your will for justice and peace, on earth as it is in heaven.

Love will win. Love must win, or we all lose.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34)

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

The Lord’s Prayer Fulfilled

What do we see when we read Revelation 21-22?

“Streets of gold,” “no more tears”—sounds like “heaven,” by which we mean “where we go when we die, where we will spend eternity.” But is that what’s really going on here?

What do we see in Revelation 21-22? What should we see?

In Revelation 21-22, we see the Lord’s Prayer fulfilled.

You probably know the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

There it is, the overarching desire of the whole prayer. Not, “May we enter your kingdom in heaven.” But rather, “May your kingdom come on earth.” God, may you fully reign, may your will be fully realized, here on earth just as it already is in heaven, in your immediate presence.

That’s the goal of all things: God’s kingdom coming on earth, God reigning over all things on earth, God’s good desires for all things being brought about on earth.

Put another way: God does not want to take us from earth to heaven; God wants to bring heaven down to earth.

And this is in fact what we find in Revelation 21—here are the opening verses:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.

In Revelation 21 and 22, we see God dwelling among us on earth, God’s immediate presence among us on earth.

In other words, we see heaven come down to earth. We see God’s kingdom come on earth.

We see the Lord’s Prayer fulfilled.

In Revelation 21-22, we see God’s people beatified.

Okay, that word might seem a little strange—but I use it intentionally. The word “beatitude” means “divine blessing,” and it’s usually associated with the eternal blessing of God’s people in God’s glorious presence.

Elder 2And this vision of Revelation is loaded with language and imagery that points to the people of God in the presence of God.

The new Jerusalem, the city of God come down from heaven, is described as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” It is prepared as a bride on her wedding day, arrayed in beautiful gems and sparkling jewels and glittering gold.

The bride of Christ? This should be enough of a clue what’s going on.

But then we’re told that the city has 12 gates named for the 12 tribes of Israel; its wall has 12 foundations named for the 12 apostles of Christ.

All Israel and the whole Church represented? That clinches it.

The city is not a literal city. The city is not where God’s people live—the city itself is God’s people, Jews and Gentiles together united with Christ.

There is no temple among God’s people, no special place where God meets with them—because God dwells among all of them, among all people on earth. God is immediately present among God’s people, God’s glory shining like a light for all the earth.

And God’s people “will see God’s face,” Revelation 22 says. Think of that: throughout Scripture we’re told we cannot see God’s face, at most we can catch glimpses of God, until Jesus comes and we see the face of God in Jesus. And here, in this new creation, God’s people see God’s face—they are eternally blessed by God in God’s glorious presence. They are “beatified.”

But there’s another reason I use the word “beatified” to describe what’s going on here. I want to recall the “Beatitudes”—Jesus’ specific promises of divine blessing in the Sermon on the Mount. Here at the end of Revelation, we see God’s people “beatified”—experiencing the fulfillment of those Beatitude promises.

Those who were lowly and poor in spirit—God’s kingdom is now theirs.

Those who mourned—they are now comforted.

Those who were meek—they have now inherited the earth.

Those who hungered and thirsted for justice—they are now eating and drinking their fill of it.

Those who were pure in heart—they are now seeing God.

Those who were peacemakers—they are now pronounced God’s children.

Those who were persecuted and oppressed and unjustly treated for the sake of justice—God’s kingdom is now theirs.

In Revelation 21 and 22, we see God eternally blessing God’s people in God’s glorious presence.

In other words, we see all wrongs made right, all injustices overturned, all oppression ceasing, all who have yearned for God’s kingdom being finally and fully satisfied in the immediate presence of God.

We see God’s people beatified.

In Revelation 21-22, we see the nations of the earth healed.

After the people of God are described as this beautiful city, with God’s glorious presence immediately among them, we hear these words:

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

“Nations” here doesn’t mean “nation states,” but more “peoples,” “tribes,” all the different ethnic groups of the world with their distinctive languages and cultures. In this new creation, the “nations,” all the “peoples of the earth,” live by the light of God and the Lamb. In this new creation, the peoples of the earth bring their glory and honour into the city of God—the cultural riches of all peoples are woven into the life of God’s people.

And so the nations of the earth are healed.

Listen to the way Revelation 22 starts:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Lion-Lamb 2The tree of life hasn’t been seen since the city was a garden, back at creation, in Genesis 2-3. There humans were banned from eating of the tree of life because of their sin. But here again, in this new creation, the tree of life is accessible once more—and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

In Revelation 21 and 22, we see God dwelling gloriously among God’s people—yet this is not just for our benefit. It is for the benefit of all peoples of the earth, who are made whole by the tree of life sustained by the waters of life.

In other words, we see justice and peace and flourishing life for all the peoples of the earth, every tribe and language, from Anishinaabe to Chokwe to Faroese to Han to Kurds to Maori to Tatars to Zhuang—and everyone in between.

We see the nations of the earth healed.

In Revelation 21-22, we see all creation renewed.

Revelation 21 opens with the vision of a “new heavens and earth,” a brand new creation. The “first heaven and earth” are no more—the world saturated by human sin, the world permeated with powers that be gone wrong, that world is gone. Creation needs a new start, a new beginning.

In this new world, Revelation 21 says, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” In a nutshell: “There will be no more curse.” All the harms we inflict on one another, on ourselves, on our world, all the devastating consequences of our human sin and evil—all this will be done away with.

“Behold,” God says, reigning from the throne, “I am making all things new.”

All things. Humans and nations, persons and peoples. But also rivers, lakes, and streams. Oceans and seas. Mountains and trees and valleys. Fish and fowl, flora and fauna. All renewed, entire ecosystems cleansed from the tragic effects of our human selfishness, pride, and greed.

All creation, made whole again.

What a vision! This is so much more than “where we go when we die, where we will spend eternity.”

This is a vision of heaven come down to earth, God’s kingdom come on earth, the Lord’s Prayer fulfilled.

This is a vision of God’s people eternally blessed in God’s glorious presence, God’s people beatified.

This is a vision of all peoples experiencing justice and peace and flourishing life, the nations of the earth healed.

This is a vision of all creation made new, restored to glow with the glory of God.

And as Revelation 1:19 promised, this is a vision of both the present and the future, both “what is now, and what will be.”

What is now—because, as Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you.”
What is now—because, as Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
What is now—here, right now, heaven can come to earth if we seek it, if we let it.

What will be—because, as Jesus teaches, we continue to pray, “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
What will be—because, as Paul teaches, we groan along with all creation, along with God’s Spirit, for creation’s full liberation and our complete redemption.
What will be—when Jesus comes to finish what he started, to renew all things.

May God give us the strong assurance that we will always be with the Lord, both in life and in death. May there be no doubt about that.

But may God give us an equally strong assurance, an assurance of faith that gives birth to the yearning of hope, that God is at work even now to bring about God’s new creation, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life, heaven come down to earth.

“The one who testifies to these things”—Jesus the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the end which is a new beginning—“The one who testifies to all these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on May 8, 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.

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.

Entering the Apocalypse

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Revelation,” as in the last book in the Bible?

Chances are pretty good you think about “end times prophecy” in some way, Revelation as depicting the end of the world at the end of human history. Probably a “rapture” comes to mind, with all the Christians being snatched up to heaven. There’s likely an “Antichrist” in the mix along with some “tribulation”—you know, with the “mark of the beast” inscribed on people’s foreheads (or micro-chipped under their skin). Almost certainly there’s an all-out “Armageddon” of war and a cataclysmic destruction of the world or “apocalypse” involved.

But these popular ideas about Revelation—and there is no easy way to say this—are simply wrong.

New Testament scholars have pretty much come to consensus on this: while Revelation may well culminate in a vision of a future new creation, the book for the most part is describing realities that were present at the time it was written in the first century Roman Empire. How do they know this?

Lion-Lamb 2First, Revelation is written as a letter: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace…” A man named John wrote this as a letter to seven actual churches, seven ancient churches in Asia Minor or what is now western Turkey (1:4). It is, in other words, much like all the other letters we have in the New Testament—written as a message for specific people at a specific time long past.

And Revelation directly says as much. In describing what John “has seen” in his visions it is portraying both “what is”—realities during the time he was writing at the end of the first century—and “what will happen after this”—in the time that immediately followed (1:19).

Second, Revelation is a kind of ancient literature that historians now know quite a bit about, what is called “apocalyptic literature.” These ancient Jewish writings have similar kinds of images in them: terrifying multi-headed beasts, unusual heavenly creatures, and significant numbers like 3 and 4 and 7 and 12. And all of these are symbolic. This doesn’t mean they are not true—they point to something real, something true, but they do so through symbol and metaphor. All these images and numbers mean something.

And in all these ancient Jewish apocalyptic writings—whether it’s 1 Enoch or 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch or Revelation itself—what these images and numbers point to are realities before or during the time the particular apocalypse was written, with at most a glorious glimpse of an anticipated final future.

So if Revelation is not about some future end-time tribulation and antichrist world leader and total cataclysmic world destruction, what is it all about? What can we expect to find when we read Revelation responsibly? Here are three broad themes that tie in to the original purpose of the book and have profound relevance to us today.

Revelation gives us a critique of power and evil in the world. Structures and systems of power—political, economic, religious, and more—can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. (That’s what the “beasts” are all about.) And we can ourselves participate in these “evil powers” by turning a blind eye to their corruption and injustice in order to maintain our way of life. (That’s what the “mark of the beast” is all about.)

Elder 1Revelation gives us a vision of God’s reign over all things. God reigns as Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer, working out God’s purposes even through all the chaos and conflict on earth. God’s reign of justice and peace through the crucified and risen Jesus is the alternative to the evil powers of our world. (That’s what the “divine throne” and “Lion/Lamb” stuff is all about.)

And so Revelation invites us to worship God, to be devoted to God and God’s ways, and not to swear allegiance to the ways of the world. Revelation calls us to live under the reign of God, seeking justice and mercy even if it means our own suffering, even as we live in a world of human rulers and authorities and powers that often go astray. And Revelation calls us to trust in God, even through our own suffering, even through our own death, that God will bring about true life.

Revelation gives us a unique encounter with Jesus. The word “apocalypse” actually means “revelation,” an “unveiling” of something previously concealed, and this is what the book’s opening statement announces it is: “A revelation of Jesus Christ.” From this opening declaration to the book’s closing benediction, Revelation shows us Jesus—in ways unlike any other portrait of Jesus we find in the New Testament.

We see Jesus as a majestic Lion that rules as a slaughtered Lamb. We see Jesus born as a child-king on earth while all hell breaks loose in the heavens. We see Jesus as a terrifying warrior on his warhorse, wielding a sword which turns out to be a word. We see Jesus as the light of heaven come down to earth, illuminating the nations in a never-ending festival of celebration.

It is Jesus who shows us who God is. It is Jesus who brings about God’s kingdom on earth, who shows us what it means to say “our God reigns.” Jesus, as Revelation states at its beginning and repeats at its end, is “the first and the last.”

Join us at Morden Mennonite over the coming Sundays as we dive into a few key chapters of Revelation, drawing these three threads together: the evil powers of the world, replaced by God’s reign of justice and peace, through Jesus the crucified Lamb and risen Lord. Join us as we join heaven and all creation in worshiping God and the Lamb, who are worthy of our praise. And join us as we seek to follow Jesus more faithfully, witnessing in word and deed to the Lamb who has been slain.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “Why Worship? Why Worship Together?”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 3, 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.