“Confess and believe, and you will be saved!”

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)

This is one of those classic evangelistic texts, the kind that get painted on signs and propped up on billboards, like John 3:16. It’s a gospel text, a mission text, a conversion text: it gets right down to the core of what we should believe, and it promises salvation for those who do.

Here’s how I used to understand these verses. I used to think they are telling us what we need to do to be saved from God’s eternal punishment for our sin. We need to confess with our mouth and believe with our whole heart: we need to confess our own personal sin and confess Jesus as our own personal Saviour, and we need to believe in our hearts that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

The problem is, that’s not what these verses actually say.

Check it out again: “if you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

No mention of sin.

No mention of Jesus as personal Saviour.

No mention of the cross at all, let alone of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.

Paul does talk elsewhere about some of these things. Sin and the cross are even pretty important to Paul. But why doesn’t Paul specifically mention them here, in this “classic evangelistic text”? How exactly can this particular “confession” and “belief” bring about “salvation”?

“You will be saved…”

Well, to make sense of this the first thing we have to get right is what Paul means by “salvation.” And to get that right, we need to go back to Paul’s Scriptures, our Old Testament. And a good place to start there is with the biblical writings Paul most quotes here in Romans 10: Deuteronomy and Isaiah.

Take Deuteronomy 30. Moses is speaking to the ancient Israelites before they enter into the Promised Land. Through Moses God promises to bring the Israelites blessings and life if they keep the commandments of the covenant. But God also warns them of curses and death if they disobey—in particular, being conquered by foreign armies and being sent into exile among the nations.

And then Moses makes this prediction: Israel will in fact fail to keep the covenant (which they did), they will be exiled (which they were), but if they return to the Lord they will be “saved”—they will be rescued from their exile and restored to their land to thrive once again.

This, then, is “salvation” according to Deuteronomy. Salvation is about God delivering God’s people from the powers of the world that have oppressed them, restoring them after they have experienced the consequences of their collective sin, bringing them back to where they can again experience life and liberty.

van Gogh - BibleThen take Isaiah 52. Isaiah speaks of God’s “messenger” who announces God’s “salvation”: “How beautiful are the feet of those who announce peace, who bring good news, who announce salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

This, like Moses’ promise of God’s future salvation, is a message of salvation to the exiled people of Israel a few hundred years before Christ, scattered as slaves and refugees throughout the world. And the message of salvation is this: God is returning to his throne to reign over all, and God’s reign will bring peace and justice once again for God’s people.

Now back to Romans 10. This is what Paul is talking about when he talks about “salvation”: he’s referring to Israel’s promised salvation, drawing on these and other Old Testament passages.

But Paul says something new, something completely unexpected. He says this promised salvation is not just for Israel, but it’s also for the nations, for the Gentiles—for everyone. As he puts it: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This, then, is the salvation that Paul promises to those who confess and believe: God’s reign of justice and peace has arrived through Jesus, bringing deliverance from oppressive powers and restoration to flourishing life.

“…if you confess and believe.”

But what does it mean then to “confess that Jesus is Lord”? What does it mean to “believe that God raised him from the dead”? And how does this confession and belief bring about that salvation? To get at these questions we need to put ourselves in the sandals of those first Christians in Rome.

For us, it seems pretty simple to say, “Jesus is Lord.” But for those first Christians in Rome, confessing that “Jesus is Lord” was not mere words.

No, in Paul’s day, to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was a bold declaration of allegiance.

As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 8, there were many “lords” and “gods” in the ancient world, many “powers that be” that called for allegiance. And at the very top of the heap, king of the castle, was the Roman Emperor, Caesar. For good Romans—and anyone who cared about their lives—this was one of the most self-evident truths around: Caesar is Lord, master over any and all other powers that be. For them, this was the most fundamental confession: “Caesar is Lord.”

So to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was potentially a dangerous act, a revolutionary act, a radical commitment. It wasn’t something that slipped easily off the lips. This explains why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 12, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”—you would need the Spirit’s boldness to confess such a thing!

Jesus is Lord.

He is Lord over any and all other lords and gods, any other powers that be in the world: whether Caesar or the President or Prime Minister Trudeau, whether nation states or church structures or social norms, whether Supreme Courts or vigilante militias, whether ISIS or the UN, whether constitutions or confessions of faith, whether the boss at work or the bully in the playground.

Any power at work in the world you can think of, Jesus is Lord over it.

Jesus is Lord over all—and so Jesus commands our ultimate allegiance.

But Jesus is not like any other powers that be, whether back then or today. And that’s where the next part comes in: “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.”

Our Lord that we confess, the One to whom we hold fast with total allegiance, is a man who was executed by the powers that be, but was vindicated by God by raising him from the dead.

Love DisciplesThat’s the point of the resurrection. The powers of this world have assessed Jesus and vilified him; but God has assessed Jesus and vindicated him. The resurrection is God’s loud shout of “Amen!” to everything about Jesus: his teachings, his way of life, his self-giving suffering, his selfless death.

So we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” Jesus is Master over all, including us. But we follow a Lord who gave himself for us. We obey a Master who taught us to love one another, and who showed us what that love looks like. And we follow this Lord and Master because he is the one whom God has given his “Yes” to, he is the one whom God has stamped with his full approval, confirming that Jesus’ way is the only way to true blessing and real life.

It’s easy to say the words, “Jesus is Lord.” But it’s hard to truly “confess that Jesus is Lord,” that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life, and so we need to commit ourselves fully to Jesus’ way of self-giving love.

But that’s what it means to “confess that Jesus is Lord.”

It’s easy to agree with the words, “God raised Jesus from the dead.” But it’s hard to truly “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead,” that God has given his resounding “Yes!” to a man who spent his time with misfits and sinners, to a man who embraced the sick and the poor and the outcasts and the enemy others, to a man who would rather die than kill, to a man who willingly gave up his life for others—even if it meant being pronounced a blasphemer and condemned as a criminal and executed by the state.

But that’s what it means to “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

And this, Paul insists, is the only way to true salvation. This is the only way for all of us together to experience true justice and peace, to experience the flourishing life God desires for all humanity: following our resurrected Lord in his cross-shaped footsteps.

This post is adapted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on February 14, 2016. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

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

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

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

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

sometimes juxtaposed up against

“Why don’t you preach the gospel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gospel is about the kingdom of God?

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

The gospel is about Jesus being a descendant of David?

The gospel is about Jesus being Lord?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s because I’m preaching the gospel.

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

Jesus Was a Peacenik After All

This past weekend I hosted my seminar on Jesus in history called, “Was Jesus Married? …and other awkward questions.” (The answer to that one, by the way, was, “Almost certainly not—though it is not historically impossible, and shouldn’t be theologically problematic.” Can you say, “can of worms”?)

But one of those other “awkward questions” was this one: “Was Jesus actually a violent revolutionary (and not a peacenik)?” As I conceded in the seminar, a good prima facie case can be made for Jesus’ revolutionary tendencies.

Those tendencies were undeniably “in the air” in Jesus’ day. There was a proud history of zeal for Torah among Jews of Jesus’ day, including for some a willingness to do violence against foreigners and even fellow Jews in order to uphold “righteousness” according to the Law of Moses. There was also a “zealot” movement that developed against Rome that had roots going back to Galilee in the early first century A.D., right where and when Jesus grew up.

And then there’s what Jesus himself said and did. Jesus proclaimed the imminent kingdom of God, a reality commonly understood as a political kingdom that could well require military effort to bring about. Jesus said things one could interpret as promoting violence, things about bringing and buying swords. Jesus entered Jerusalem in messianic procession and caused a disturbance in the Temple. And to top it all off, Jesus was crucified by Rome, probably for treason.

So, at first blush, the idea of Jesus as a wannabe revolutionary can seem pretty compelling. However, it collapses under the cumulative weight of a host of sayings and deeds of Jesus.

Jesus’ ethical teachings, such as in Matthew 5-7, and his mission teachings, like those in Matthew 10, are among the best attested teachings of Jesus we have. We find many of them in both Matthew and Luke in slightly different versions, we see them reflected in Paul’s writings before the Gospels were even written (e.g. Romans 12-13; 1 Corinthians 9), and we hear them in other early Christian writings of the first century (e.g. James 5, Didache 1).

Tissot - Lord's PrayerIt’s in these teachings that we find Jesus’ strongest words of peace and non-violence. “Love your neighbour,” “love your enemies,” “do not hate your brother,” “turn the other cheek,” “bless those who persecute you,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and more are found in his ethical teachings, all connected to the “kingdom of God” which we are to pray for and to seek first. Among his mission teachings are calls for Jesus’ followers to proclaim God’s kingdom and heal the sick, giving freely and living simply. If they are rejected they are not to retaliate but simply to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on, leaving the rejecters to God’s judgment.

Other teachings of Jesus may be less widely attested in earliest Christianity, but fit snugly within these basic contours. Jesus’ kingdom parables, for example, repeatedly emphasize the idea that God’s kingdom does not come about suddenly—by force, you might say—but is planted in the world and grows quietly and slowly until its fruition. Or, for instance, Jesus’ controversies with religious leaders include the famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s”—a recognition of human authorities in this age, yet a declaration that God holds our ultimate and total allegiance. And running through the Synoptic Gospels is a recurring focus on the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” as who God’s kingdom is for, as those who inhabit God’s kingdom—not the powerful or mighty but the meek and the humble, not the violent and coercive but the gentle and those who serve.

All told, the whole thrust of Jesus’ teaching is that God’s kingdom—God’s universal reign of justice and peace—is being established on earth, brought about through his, and his followers’, self-giving, suffering love for the other. This involves both love for God and for other people, including love for those marginalized among us and for those deemed to be hostile to us.

Jesus’ actions were fully in line with these teachings. One of the regular activities of Jesus widely acknowledged among historians is his practice of “communal meals.” These he viewed as symbolic of God’s kingdom, and the guest lists included repentant sinners, the socially marginalized, and other outsiders—the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” who inherit God’s kingdom. Likewise, Jesus’ healings—he was certainly acknowledged as a healer, even if his opponents questioned the source and legitimacy of his healings—were also seen as signs of God’s kingdom, and focused on things like mercy over strict Sabbath observance, compassion over ritual purity, and inclusion of the marginalized in God’s kingdom.

Then there’s Jesus’ suffering and death. At least some early Christians viewed Jesus’ death as the crucial event for establishing God’s kingdom on earth (e.g. Mark). Certainly the manner of Jesus’ suffering and death reflected the teachings he had given—he walked the talk. He “turned the other cheek,” standing up to the powers that be and refusing to retaliate, thus exposing their violence and injustice for the evil that it was. He gave himself for the good of others, even through extreme suffering. He modeled the love he commanded.

The overwhelming portrayal of Jesus in our earliest and most extensive sources is that of one who proclaimed and lived out a counter-cultural kingdom of God—one not characterized by violence, but by non-violence, even active peacemaking.

What do we do, then, with the few anomalies, those sayings and actions of Jesus that don’t seem to fit the mould? Well, let’s take a closer look.

The “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” saying (Matt 10:34-36) is part of Jesus’ mission teaching, instructions for his disciples as they preach the gospel and heal the sick. “Sword” here is used figuratively to describe the turmoil that will result from Jesus’ kingdom message and way of life. His point—evident from the surrounding context of this statement—is simply that his kingdom message and actions will provoke resistance from the world, so his followers should be prepared for this and persevere through it.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossWhat about “Those who do not have a sword should sell their cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-38)? Jesus has just alluded to his previous mission teaching, but now intensifies it: this is, once again, a warning about coming resistance to Jesus’ kingdom way. That Luke understands the particular statement as figurative is evident from the way the narrative continues. First, Jesus responds to the disciples that two swords is “enough”—rather ludicrous if Jesus was speaking literally about arming themselves either for rebellion or for defense. And second, when the disciples ask about literally using the sword to fight the mob and one of them cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus responds with “No more of this!,” heals the man’s ear, and says, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a lēstēs (brigand, revolutionary)?” (In other words, “I’m not a lēstēs, people.”) Matthew’s account gets at the gist of Jesus’ real feelings about this, stripped of all irony: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (26:52).

Then there’s the “temple cleansing,” as it is often called. Yes, Jesus does exhibit violence here, something that should caution us against an unrealistic ideal of non-violence. But it’s important to temper that concession with a few other thoughts.

First, none of the Gospels indicate that Jesus committed physical violence against human persons—only John describes the “whip,” and he states this was used to “drive out” the animals. Second, scholarly consensus is that Jesus’ temple action was symbolic and prophetic, like the symbolic-prophetic actions of Ezekiel, for example. Jesus was not realistically going to stop the temple sales of animals with a one-man temple tantrum, but he could symbolically highlight the problems he saw and prophetically pronounce God’s judgment. And third, this action was motivated by a desire for justice and inclusion in the face of injustice and exclusion. Poor Jews, especially non-Judeans who had traveled from around the Empire, relied upon the animals sold in the temple courts for their sacrifices. The temple merchants, it seems, were taking advantage of their situation, keeping the temple from being a “house of prayer for all nations.”

In sum, then, Jesus’ kingdom teaching was overwhelmingly non-violent and constructive in orientation, Jesus’ kingdom actions were overwhelmingly non-violent and restorative in nature, and these realities need to govern how seemingly contradictory realities are understood.

It’s important to note that none of this makes Jesus into a modern pacifist. You don’t hear any prohibition of military service from Jesus even when interacting with Roman soldiers—in this he followed the example of John the Baptist (we Mennonites need to pause and reflect on this more). He doesn’t organize his followers toward collective acts of protest or resistance against the powers that be or their acts of violence. He doesn’t develop a program of restorative justice in contrast to the retributive models of justice around him. He doesn’t establish hospitals or schools in war torn areas in order to build a peaceful society.

Nevertheless, Jesus was a thoroughgoing peacenik—and his teachings and example provide the building blocks for a robust, active Christian pacifism that includes all these things, and more.

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

The Lord’s Prayer

This post is excerpted from my sermon this past Sunday, February 1, 2015.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

That’s how Luke’s Gospel introduces the prayer that we today call the Lord’s Prayer: Jesus’ disciples so moved by Jesus’ own praying that one of them asks Jesus to teach them to pray.

Tissot - Lord's PrayerAnd so Jesus does. He gives his disciples a prayer to pray. But it is also a pattern for prayer, a way of praying. It highlights the attitudes and perspectives we should have in prayer, it sketches out the kinds of things we should focus on in our prayers—and in our lives.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully and patiently, we find ourselves becoming more and more aligned with Jesus, more and more in tune with Jesus’ way of seeing things and doing things. We not only learn how to pray in the way of Jesus, we are also shaped by this prayer into the image of Jesus.

Centered on God, Focused on God’s Kingdom

Jesus begins his prayer by centering on God:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.

Prayer is directed to God. It’s not merely inward reflection or meditation—as helpful as those things can be, and as much as those things can even be a part of prayer. But prayer itself is centered on God, not ourselves, not our world. It is a looking to God, turning our thoughts toward God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

This is a very personal prayer. Jesus called God “Father,” “Abba.” That’s an Aramic word that both young children and grown-up children used to refer to their fathers. It’s a term of endearment, a term that combines affection with respect. Calling God our Abba, our Father, highlights the fact that prayer is a very personal thing: we as persons relate to our Creator as a person.

But this is also a collective prayer, even a universal prayer. You see this throughout the Lord’s Prayer: it’s not “my Father,” it’s not “I” and “me” throughout. It’s “our Father,” it’s about “we” and “us.” This loving Creator is the mothering Father of us all on earth: all humanity, every nation, every tribe, every culture, in every time and place.

If “our Father in heaven” highlights this as a universal prayer to the Creator, “hallowed be your name” emphasizes that our Creator is the God of ancient Israel in particular. In the Old Testament, God’s “name” is YHWH, and this name was viewed as sacred, never to be used “in vain,” that is, in empty, meaningless ways (Exod 20:7).

But this idea is not just about God’s name being special, as if there’s something magical about the name YHWH. It’s a way of saying that God himself is holy: God is utterly unique, completely unlike anything or anyone else. It’s a reminder that we are not merely praying to someone who is like us, only bigger and better; we are praying to God, the one in whom and through whom and for whom we exist.

The whole prayer is God-centered: it’s a prayer to YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the everlasting I Am, who is the personal, loving Creator of all peoples. Jesus calls us to center our prayer on this God, the one true and living God.

But the prayer is also kingdom-focused.

The kingdom of God is the consistent theme of Jesus’ teaching. His miracles are like signposts pointing to God’s kingdom. Everything Jesus says and does is connected to the kingdom of God. Indeed, his whole mission given by God was to be the Messiah, the promised King, to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, to establish God’s rightful reign as King over all things, a reign characterized by love, life, justice, and peace—true shalom.

And so it’s no surprise at all that, after that opening address to God, Jesus’ prayer begins and ends by referring to God’s kingdom.

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done.” These are equivalent phrases: God’s “kingdom” is God’s “will”; God’s kingdom “coming” is God’s will “being done.” God’s will for all things is flourishing life, a life filled with love and peace—and this is exactly what God’s kingdom is all about.

“On earth as it is in heaven.” The biblical authors can use the language of “heaven” or (more often) “the heavens” to refer to the sky above us in contrast to the earth below. However, when they speak of God in connection to “heaven,” as here, the word “heaven” is more about being in God’s immediate presence, wherever that might be.

Here’s the point of Jesus’ prayer, then: it suggests that God’s reign, God’s will for justice and peace, is eternally evident in “heaven,” in God’s immediate presence, but it is not always evident on “earth,” in human experience and human history.

This explains a lot, doesn’t it? We long for life and love because God is life and love—God’s kingdom, God’s will, is fully manifest in his presence, for which we are created. Yet we don’t always experience flourishing life and genuine love because there are things about the human condition—sin and evil—that keep us from fully experiencing the life and love of God.

But here’s the thing: Jesus has planted the seed of God’s kingdom in the soil of earth, and it is growing slowly but surely until it will be fully present on earth, like a mustard seed growing into a plant that provides shade for all. And this is what we long for, what we pray for, what we strive for.

Concerned with Provision, Forgiveness, Protection—for All

Bloch Sermon MountThe Lord’s Prayer is God-centered and kingdom-focused, all the way through. This means that when we get to the petitions at the heart of the prayer we’re still centered on God and focused on God’s kingdom. Provision, forgiveness, and protection—these are kingdom matters, wrapped up in God. And again, note the “us” in all these: provision, forgiveness, and protection are not just for each of us individually, but for us collectively, as Jesus’ followers and as a human race.

Give us this day our daily bread.

The Greek word for “bread” here is a rare word—in the New Testament it’s only found in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s so rare no one is sure exactly what it means, but it probably has the idea of “what is necessary.” It’s not talking about extra things, luxuries in life, but life’s most basic necessities: food, water, clothing, shelter.

Using the word “bread” to translate this rare word is not a bad idea. It evokes a particular story that can help to appreciate what Jesus is saying here: the story of the ancient Israelites, wandering in the desert, collecting manna, bread from heaven, each day. God only gave them enough for one day at a time: if they tried to save it for two days (apart from the Sabbath) the manna spoiled.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, “God, give us just what we need, just when we need it.”

Again, though, remember the collective “we” here. We don’t all get just what we need, just when we need it. The reality is that some of us get more than we need and others less. But God does give us, collectively, just what we need. We have a responsibility to each other, then: when we have more than we need, we are called to share with those who do not have what they need; and when we do not have enough, we are encouraged to accept generosity from those who have more than enough.

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

We often separate out God’s forgiveness of our sins with our forgiveness of others’ sins against us. But Jesus brings them inseparably together. “For if you forgive others their trespasses,” Jesus goes on to say in Matthew’s Gospel, “your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Strong words! We cannot expect God to forgive us if we don’t forgive others. Hard words! But we need to hear them. Just as God has forgiven us so freely, so largely, so also are we called to forgive others: family, friends, strangers, even enemies.

If you think about it, this is just another angle on the Greatest Commandment. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” But he’s quick to point out that there’s a second commandment attached to it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God is inseparable from love of others. Likewise, forgiveness from God is inseparable from forgiveness for others.

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

We think of this as “temptation,” and most of us probably think of being tempted to do some private, personal sin. But the word here is more general than that. It means “trial” or “testing, not just “temptation”—it’s any weakness we may have, any hardship we may endure, any wrong desire we may experience.

This points to the reality of sin and evil in the world—in our own hearts, yes, but also the larger and wider sins and evils that are out there. Not just inward sins like lust, but social sins like materialism, systemic evils like racism, natural evils like cancer. These are all wrong, they are all outside God’s kingdom, God’s will, and so we pray for God to protect us—each of us, all of us—from these wrongs, or at least to preserve us through them.

Provision, forgiveness, and protection. These are at the heart of Jesus’ prayer, they’re at the heart of God’s kingdom. And these are the things our world so desperately needs. Provision for all of humanity’s most basic needs, not hoarding what we don’t need but sharing with all. Forgiveness of harms done against each other, not perpetuating the cycles of violence and vengeance. Protection from suffering and evil, especially for the most vulnerable, the most innocent in our world.

Centered on God, Focused on God’s Kingdom

Jesus’ prayer ends right where it began, centered on God, focused on God’s kingdom:

For the kingdom and the power and the glory
are yours forever. Amen.

We think these are ours, or we strive to achieve them. Having power over other people, over our circumstances. Our will being done, getting things our way. Receiving honour, fame, glory for how great we are, how good we are.

Yet these things are God’s, not ours. And it’s a good thing, too, because we humans have shown time and again that whenever we build our own kingdoms or pursue our own power or seek our own glory, we only increase the evil and suffering of this world.

God shows us a different way in Jesus: building a kingdom through self-giving love for the other, through weakness and humility. And it is only in this way that a kingdom can be built that will last forever, a kingdom of love, and life, and justice, and peace.

May God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Starting with you and me, right now, following in Jesus’ footsteps, shaped by this very prayer.

Check out “The Lord’s Prayer for All People,” an expanded version of the Lord’s Prayer I wrote last year which highlights these themes. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“Turn the Other Cheek” ≠ “Be a Doormat”

This past Sunday I taught our adult Sunday Study class. As always, it turned into a wide-ranging discussion only remotely connected to the topic, in which we noted and immediately solved all the world’s problems. (Just kidding, of course. It took us at least 45 minutes to solve them all.)

Turn Other CheekOne of the things that came up along the way was Jesus’ famous “turn the other cheek” command. It was suggested that maybe this and other commands like it are for an ideal, future “kingdom of God” and aren’t expected to work in the real world right now. Or, maybe these sorts of commands are simply for our individual relationships and not for our wider social relationships.

“Turn the other cheek.” Yep, it’s a hard one. It seems utterly unrealistic, unworkable in the real world of playground bullies or abusive spouses or oppressive regimes or violent extremists.

Here’s the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matt 5:38-41)

This is immediately followed by another seemingly impossible command:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)

What do we do with these commands? Is it true that they’re just for our individual relationships, or maybe that they’re simply for some time down the road, when God’s eternal kingdom comes to fruition?

To the idea that these commands are not intended for the real world right now, we have to say an unequivocal “No.” At least, that’s not the way Matthew sees them. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with Jesus’ emphatic declaration that he expects his followers to “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Matt 7:24-29), and the Gospel as a whole concludes with Jesus’ call for his followers to make disciples who will “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18-20). Everything. Even the hard bits.

But there’s something else from these teachings themselves that suggests these are not simply for some ideal “heavenly kingdom”: in that ideal kingdom there would be no need for these commands, because no one would strike you on the cheek to begin with. In fact, these commands of Jesus only make sense at the place where the kingdom of God collides with the kingdoms of this world. These commands only make sense in a world where there are oppressive enemies and violent retribution—clashing with a new world in which there are no enemies and there is no vengeance.

How would Jesus’ first disciples have heard these words? Who were their “enemies” who struck their cheeks or made them give up their cloaks or forced them to walk a mile? Probably, as time passed, there were several “enemies” who could be named. But for those first Jesus-followers the “enemies” that would have immediately come to mind were the Romans.

The Romans. Seen by many (by no means all) first-century Jews as godless oppressors, Gentile dogs trampling on God’s holy people all over God’s holy turf. And the immediate, flesh-and-blood symbol of this imperial oppression? The Roman soldier, with the power to knock heads and commandeer cloaks and force burden-bearing marches.

Suddenly Jesus’ commands here take on new meaning. “Turn the other cheek”? “Love your enemies”? This isn’t for some idealized future, nor is it just for our everyday relationships. This is about a clash of empires, a collision of kingdoms, two worlds coming head-to-head—and affecting all our real-world right-now relationships, from individuals to families to communities to societies to nation-states.

Think about this: if someone in a position of power over you “strikes you on the right cheek,” what are your options?

One option is to fight back, to strike them on the cheek, to go all “eye for eye” on them—but they have all that raw power behind them, and this is only going to get ugly fast. Violence, even “justified violence,” always, inevitably, begets violence—on you, on them, on innocent others.

A second option is to back away in abject submission, to be a “doormat.” This is what people typically think Jesus means here—just take your licks and accept your lot in life. But just as Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, strike them back,” so also Jesus does not say, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, bow down to them in subjection.”

No, Jesus commands a third way, a way that is neither the “return evil with evil” way nor the “passively submit to evil” way. Jesus commands his followers to stand up with dignity, look the oppressor in the eye, and challenge them to expose their injustice and inhumanity by inflicting another gratuitous blow.

In other words, Jesus advocates what Walter Wink calls “defiant vulnerability,” or what Tom Yoder Neufeld perhaps better calls “creative non-violent resistance”: “creative” because giving the extra garment or walking the extra mile are outside the normal rules of enemy engagement (Killing Enmity, 25). Glen Stassen and David Gushee go even further, saying Jesus’ commands here are “transforming initiatives”: they “take a nonviolent initiative that confronts injustice and initiates the possibility of reconciliation” (Kingdom Ethics, 139).

Creative, transforming, non-violent resistance. Just like all those in recent history who, inspired to various degrees by Jesus’ life and teachings, initiated some of the most momentous changes ever seen toward more just societies: Mahatma Gandhi in British colonial India; Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Jim Crow-era southern United States; Lech Wałęsa and Karol Józef Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) in Soviet Communist Poland; post-imprisonment Nelson Mandela under South Africa’s Apartheid.

It’s counter-intuitive, for sure. But contrary to popular opinion, “redemptive violence” is a myth while “turn the other cheek”—rightly understood—actually works.

It’s important to get this right. This is not a command to an abused wife that she should just stay with her husband and submissively accept the blows, whether physical or otherwise. This is not a command to terrorized Iraqi Christians that they should just accept what’s happening to them as God’s will. This is not a command to the boy being bullied after school that he should just take the black eye and slink away in fear. These kinds of things are most emphatically not what Jesus is saying here.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossIt’s helpful to look to Jesus’ own example. It is clear in Matthew’s Gospel that the many things Jesus commands his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount, he demonstrates for them as he goes to the cross. Turn the other cheek? Check. Love your enemies? Check. Pray for your persecutors? Check.

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not do these things for himself, but for others. For all the “poor in spirit” who are in “mourning,” for the “meek” who “hunger and thirst for justice” (Matt 5:3-6), Jesus steps into their place as “merciful peacemaker,” “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:7-11).

Jesus becomes the champion of the oppressed, taking the blow aimed at them, standing up for them with dignity, looking the oppressor in the eye and exposing their injustice and inhumanity with every gratuitous blow—and this becomes the spark for true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life.

This is what the bullied child, the abused spouse, the oppressed people, need. They need a champion. And not a champion who will strike back blow for blow, and just make the problem worse. They need a champion who will stand up to their oppressor on their behalf, who will expose the oppressor’s injustice and inhumanity and initiate the process toward justice and peace and new life, whatever the cost.

So how do we “turn the other cheek”? Not by being a “doormat,” passively submitting to violence or oppression or abuse over and over again, spiraling downward until all involved are de-humanized and eventually destroyed.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—which means imagining and enacting ways to expose evil and injustice which maintain our dignity, which do not demonize our “enemies” but instead show compassion toward them, and which open the door to possibilities of reconciliation and a better future.

We “turn the other cheek” with creative, transforming, non-violent resistance in the footsteps of Jesus—on our own behalf if there is no one else to take up our cause, and certainly on behalf of others who are beaten down and need a champion.

None of this makes Jesus’ commands to “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” any easier. If anything it makes them harder—because it commits us to not just speak of justice, not just pray for justice, but to actually step out and work for justice.

Maybe I should go back to solving the world’s problems with my Sunday school class. This “walking in the way of Jesus” thing is way too convicting, way too challenging, way too hard. Kind of like walking on a really narrow way

A special note for abused spouses and children… Please hear this clearly: You are under no obligation to remain with your abusive partner or parent. “Turn the other cheek” does not mean that, neither does “Wives, submit to your husbands” or “Children, respect your parents,” and if someone tells you otherwise they are wrong. Contact an organization like Genesis House that can provide advice and shelter for you and initiate the process of healing for you and any others involved. I know this is easy to say and hard to do, and if you are unable to take this step then I pray you will know God’s sufficient grace through your suffering and God’s power through your weakness—and that you will again consider taking this step if the abuse continues.

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

Christians and Israel (3) – God’s Kingdom is for All Peoples

This series is adapted from a sermon I preached on August 3, 2014, “What should we think about Israel?” See here for part one, “Describing the Crisis,” and here for part two, “Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel.” Follow the links throughout for sources and more information.

In the last post I claimed that modern Israel is not the heir to the biblical promises to ancient Israel. That claim is controversial among some Christians, to be sure, but I trust that my claim in this post will not be. At least, it shouldn’t be controversial, but all too often it seems that Christians act as if they don’t really believe it.

Here’s my second claim: as followers of Jesus seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

Jesus teaches us that we are to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Matt 6:33). This is a call to allegiance: Jesus is saying that our allegiance to God’s kingdom and God’s way of justice stands over and above our allegiance to any earthly kingdom or any worldly way of justice.

And God’s kingdom transcends borders, it transcends our geographical and political boundaries, it embraces our ethnic and cultural differences. God’s kingdom includes all peoples equally: every tribe, every nation, even all creation. To believe otherwise is, to be frank, not just un-Mennonite, it’s un-Christian—it is even anti-Christ, in opposition to Jesus and the global and cosmic scope of his reconciling work (e.g. Col 1:13-23; Rev 7:9-17).

So when Jesus calls us to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice,” he is calling us to give our allegiance to the reign of God that transcends national borders and includes all peoples, and to seek justice for all within God’s shalom.

This means that we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians, both Jews and Muslims.

This means that we are called to denounce violence wherever it is found, whether in Hamas rockets killing a 4-year old Israeli boy playing in the living room of his kibbutz home or in Israeli missiles killing Palestinian children playing soccer on the beach.

This means that we are called to put a spotlight on injustice and oppression, those situations where there is an imbalance of power leading to an abuse of power—as there certainly is in Israel taking over land in the West Bank for Israeli settlements, or in Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas rockets from Gaza (and no, the “human shields” argument doesn’t hold water).

1054px-Israel-Palestine_peaceThis means that we are called always to strive for the things that make for peace. There are many average Israelis and average Palestinians who do not want war, who want to share the land and live in peace. There are many Palestinians who do not support Hamas and its violent ways. There are many Israelis who oppose Israel’s offensive in Gaza, or even Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. There must be a better way forward, and as citizens of God’s kingdom we must encourage the search for that way, to be peacemakers, true children of God (Matt 5:9).

Christians here in North America don’t help the situation when we blindly support Israel in all her policies. Given the horrible history of anti-Semitism, there is good reason for supporting an Israeli state that makes special provision for citizenship of ethnic Jews. But there is no good biblical or historical basis for seeing modern Israel as the rightful heir to the land. And, in any case, our ultimate allegiance is not to any nation state on earth, but to God’s kingdom and God’s justice—and thus we must seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

I invite you to conclude this series the way we at Morden Mennonite Church concluded the original sermon on which the series is based: by praying the Lord’s Prayer, reflecting on it as a prayer for all people.

Our Father in heaven, in whose image all people have been created, hallowed be your name. 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…

Amen. Come, O Lord.

For some other Anabaptist perspectives and initiatives related to Israel and Palestine, check out these websites: Mennonite Palestine Israel NetworkChristian Peacemaker Teams – Peace and Justice Support Network. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

The Lord’s Prayer for All People

Tissot - Lord's PrayerOur Father in heaven,
in whose image
all people have been created,
hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
your kingdom without borders,
your will for justice and peace,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread,
all of us throughout the world,
just what we need,
just when we need it,
grace to give when we have more,
grace to receive when we have less.

Forgive us our sins,
each of us, both us and them,
as we forgive those who sin against us,
every one, neighbour and enemy.

Save us all—but especially the vulnerable—
from the time of trial,
the sufferings of this life,
and deliver us all—but especially the innocent—
from the evil
that plagues our world.

For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
—not ours, never ours—
now and for ever. Amen.

This rendition of the Lord’s Prayer was written for the August 3, 2014, worship service at Morden Mennonite Church. See also my later post on “The Lord’s Prayer.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

“From sea to sea”: On Canada, the Church, and the Kingdom of God

This post is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday. It was prompted by the reading from Zechariah 9:9-12 in light of both Canada Day and the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly this past week.

Update (July 2018): Here’s the audio of a recent revision of the full sermon:

A mari usque ad mare. “From sea to sea.”

That’s Canada’s motto, a symbol of our national unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic.

Canada Flag 2Most Canadians probably know the motto, but they might not know it comes from Psalm 72. It’s a psalm that was likely part of the coronation liturgy of ancient Israel. It’s a prayer for each new king in David’s dynasty, expressing all the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel with each successive king:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth… (Ps 72:1-8)

It’s quite the prayer, whether for ancient Israel or for twenty-first century Canada. In fact, ancient Israel and modern Canada have a few things in common: both relatively young nations in their eras, both small nations in the shadow of giants, both with big dreams for a glorious future.

While most Canadians might know our nation’s motto, and some might know its biblical origins, I suspect very few are aware that it also comes up in a later biblical book, in a much different setting.

The book is Zechariah, and in Zechariah’s day things were not at all like they used to be. Israel has been divided and conquered, their grand hopes for the future crushed. The people have been cast into exile, and a few have just recently returned from that exile to re-build Jerusalem’s walls and temple.

In many ways this ragged band of Jewish returnees felt much like many Christians feel in Canada today: the glory days are behind us, the days of a sanctuary bursting at the seams, bustling with worshipers and filled with choirs. Like the old-timers in Zechariah’s day who remembered the original temple of Solomon, many among us today remember the old days, and weep (Ezra 3:12).

But here’s what Zechariah does: he takes this ancient song of Israel’s kings and uses it as a powerful symbol of hope for the future:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:9-10)

One day, Zechariah promises, God will come again among his people. One day there will again be an anointed king of Israel who will fulfill those ancient hopes. One day the prayer of Psalm 72 will be answered.

Jesus is this king. So we as Christians believe. The prayer of Psalm 72, the promised answer to that prayer in Zechariah 9—these are fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus is the world’s true Lord and King. Jesus has come to bring justice to the world and peace on earth, the full shalom of God. Jesus has come to bring flourishing life to all God’s creation: a healing of wounds, a restoration of brokenness, a very reversal of death. Jesus is this promised king, who brings in God’s promised kingdom, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what the New Testament means when it declares that “Jesus is the Christ,” the Messiah, or “Jesus is the Son of God.” This is what it means when it proclaims that “Jesus is Lord.” This is what the gospel is all about, “the gospel of the kingdom” or “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But while God’s kingdom will come on earth, this kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). It’s not like any kingdom this world has ever seen, unlike any nation on earth. It operates by a different set of rules, values that are upside-down compared to the values of earthly realms.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the poor are richly blessed, where the sick are freely healed, where the outcasts are at the center.

God’s kingdom is a realm where enemies are loved as neighbours, where neighbours are loved as ourselves, where our selves are denied for the sake of others.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the king is a servant who suffers in love, and that sets the agenda for everything else.

But God’s kingdom is also a realm where real life is found, resurrection life, through that self-giving love.

God’s kingdom is a realm where parties break out when the lost are found, where banquets are laid out for the last and the least.

God’s kingdom is a realm where water for ceremony is turned into wine for celebration.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the whole world is invited: from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, men and women and children of every tribe and nation.

In fact, God’s kingdom is not any nation at all, nor any organization. It’s a perpetual grassroots movement, starting with a ragged band of followers: a tiny seed that grows into a world-shading tree. God’s kingdom is the dynamic reign of God, the Creator God ruling over all creation in love and faithfulness, bringing justice and peace and flourishing life.

MC Canada doveWhat does this all have to do with Canada’s future, and with the future of the church in Canada? Just this: our hope for the future lies in Jesus, the one who truly answers the Psalmist’s prayer and fulfills Zechariah’s expectation, the one who has truly been given all authority from sea to sea.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any nation, even one so glorious and free as Canada—may God keep it so. Should Canada fade from history, should the world map be radically re-drawn, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The kingdom of God cannot be identified with any nation. A nation can reflect kingdom values to a greater or lesser degree, but no nation is the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is bigger than any nation—it has no borders, in fact it breaks down borders of geography and race, economics and social status. God’s kingdom is outside the power structures we create, our governments, our laws, our law enforcement, judicial system—because however good those things may be, they are inevitably abused and corrupted, always in danger of supporting systemic evil.

God’s kingdom is among us as people, not among us as a nation.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any church organization, whether globally or nationally or regionally—or even us locally. Should Mennonite Church Canada or Manitoba be dissolved, should Morden Mennonite Church even cease to be, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The church is not the kingdom of God.

The church is called to be a witness to God’s kingdom, a signpost of the kingdom, pointing people to God’s dream for the world. Local churches like Morden Mennonite are to be a kind of outpost of God’s kingdom on earth, nurturing the upside-down values of the kingdom, a test plot showing what the kingdom of God can be like.

But God’s kingdom is bigger than any local church, broader than any particular denomination—it encompasses the world.

Our hope for the future lies with Jesus, the world’s true Lord and King. And this means our hope for the future lies in the extent to which we follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom.

Do we truly want to follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom? Do we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice? Then let’s count the cost. Let’s ask ourselves some hard questions—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the last and the least among us? The vulnerable, the marginalized, those outside our white, middle-class, heterosexual norm? Who are the lost? The doubting, the confused, the spiritually seeking, even the most egregious sinners?

To the extent that we first the last, feast the least, and find the lost, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the poor among us? The needy in our community, the homeless in our cities? Who are the sick? The dying, the mentally ill? Who are the outcasts? The elderly, the lonely, the disabled? The refugees, the immigrants, our host indigenous peoples? The convicted criminals, the shamed victims?

To the extent that we richly bless the poor, freely heal the sick, and center ourselves on the outcasts, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are our enemies? Our theological enemies, our political enemies, those difficult people who seem to always be against us, those who seek to harm us? Who are our neighbours? The people next door, the people down the street, the people in that other church, the people in that city next door?

To the extent that we love our enemies as neighbours, and love our neighbours as ourselves, denying ourselves for the sake of others, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

These things have nothing to do with how many people we have in our pews or how many programs we have in our church. They have nothing to do with how closely our society’s laws parallel our sexual ethics, or how well Canada’s economy is going. These may well be good things, but they are not signs of the kingdom.

Rather, Jesus says the signs of the kingdom are these: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In other words, the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found, enemies and neighbours are loved alike.

To the extent that we do these things as a church and as a nation, God’s kingdom is among us—and Jesus, the world’s true King, reigns from sea to sea to sea, a mari usque ad mare.

May it be so.

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

What is the “Narrow Way” of Jesus?

I’ve recently heard a couple of references to the “narrow way” or “narrow gate” of Jesus “that leads to life,” which “only a few find” (Matt 7:13-14; one example here). It’s the kind of statement that we would all like to have on our side: I want the “narrow way” to be the path I’m on, while the “broad road that leads to destruction” is the path of all those other people I disagree with. It’s also the kind of statement, then, that we tend to fill with whatever content we think it should have: the “narrow way” is the path of strict personal morality, or proper public morality, or correct conservative doctrine, or whatever minority viewpoint we think is right.

But what exactly is the “narrow way” that Jesus refers to?

Bloch Sermon MountThe image of the two ways, broad and narrow, comes as the Sermon on the Mount is wrapping up. As you read on in the Sermon’s conclusion, it becomes clear that the focus is on Jesus’ teaching, specifically his ethical teaching in the Sermon itself. You can see this most clearly in the concluding parable of the Sermon, where Jesus speaks of “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” being like the wise man who builds his house on a rock (7:24). Matthew’s Gospel also ends with the same focus: making disciples means “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:20). Yes, everything.

So, the “narrow way” is “hearing and obeying” Jesus’ teaching, even the hard teachings of Jesus, and most particularly his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7).

And what is this teaching?

We are to be characterized by the beatitudes, including being “poor in spirit” and “pure in heart” and “meek” and “hungering and thirsting for justice (dikaiosunē)” and being “merciful” and “peacemakers.”

We are to be “salt” and “light” by doing “good deeds” in the world. We are to cultivate an inner life free of anger and lust, characterized instead by faithfulness and trust and truthful speech. We are to love our enemies, doing good both to the just and unjust, and so being “perfect” as children of our “perfect” heavenly Father. We are to do these “good deeds” not to draw attention to ourselves but in true selflessness.

We are to long for God’s kingdom to come on earth, seeking first God’s kingdom of justice above all other kingdoms. We are to forgive others as God forgives us. We are to be characterized by a radical trust in God that shows itself in simplicity, relying on God to give us just what we need just when we need it. We are not to be judgmental of others, and instead to look first to our own sin before we attempt to help others with theirs.

In sum, and in fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets: We are to do to others as we would have them do to us. In fact, it is immediately after this statement—the golden rule—that Jesus speaks of the “narrow gate.”

So do we truly want to follow Jesus’ narrow way?

Then let’s seek first God’s kingdom, not the agenda of any particular nation, or a social or political agenda of our own making. This means…

Let’s long for and strive for God’s justice on earth, a justice in which God provides for the basic needs of both the just and unjust.

Let’s love our enemies; not seeking their harm, even their death, but instead working for peace.

Let’s not be judgmental of others, but let’s turn our scrutiny on ourselves and our own sinful attitudes and words and actions—only then can we help others with their own sin.

Let’s be as generous in forgiving others as God is in forgiving us.

Let’s live simply: freeing ourselves of the entanglements of money and power, and trusting in God to meet our needs.

Let’s be salt and light not by drawing attention to ourselves and our pious words but by quietly doing good deeds in the world.

To give another summary idea that might well have been in Jesus’ (or Matthew’s) mind in all this: “Do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

This way is indeed narrow, and few find it. It’s a hard road, and I stumble often on it. But it’s the way of Gods kingdom, the way to justice and peace and flourishing life for all. It’s the way of Jesus: he has walked this path, and he will walk it with us still.

So here’s the question, the most fundamental question we need to answer: Will we follow Jesus? Will I? Will you?