Life Finds a Way

In this second week of Easter, this verse from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings has lodged itself in my brain: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). It’s in Peter’s address to those “men of Israel” (not all Jews!) who colluded with their rulers and Rome to execute Jesus.

There are three astounding claims in this verse.

First astounding claim: Jesus is “the Author of life.” Jesus is the origin of life, the ruler of life (archēgos). Everything Jesus did, he did to bring about life. Everything Jesus continues to do by the Spirit, he does to bring about life. This, then is who God is: the Author of life, the one who writes our stories toward a full and thriving life. That which brings about death is not-God; this is the Satan, the anti-God, the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus has come to bring life, a life that is abundant (John 10:10).

Second astounding claim: Jesus, the Author of life, was killed. Humans killed the origin of life. Powerful humans, coalescing in the powers-that-be—human structures and systems of injustice and oppression—killed the ruler of life. The Author of life was written out of his own story. While God always moves creation toward life, we can do things that bring about death—even the death of God.

Third astounding claim: God raised the Author of life from the dead. God overturned the verdict of the human powers-that-be; God undid the death and destruction of the Satan, the anti-God, the thief. To quote that well-known theologian, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.” The God who always and only moves creation toward life, finds a way to bring life even out of death.

May we be chastened by the reality that we as humans can do things that bring death, even writing the Author of life out of their own story. But may we be encouraged that the Author of life still lives, and God is writing our story toward a full and thriving life, an abundant life for all persons and all creation.

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.

What is Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

diversityIn our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need always and forever.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I say this, because, as I outlined in my last post, I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

But what is this love? What does it look like?

Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Some people 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.” Some, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy.

But the love I’m talking about is not merely affection for others, though feelings of affection are good and beautiful. This love is not merely tolerance of others, though it is important that we acknowledge and accept others’ differences. This love cannot be reduced to simple self-sacrifice, though it is true that we need to break through our selfishness and give of ourselves to others. And although physical and emotional intimacy is a necessary, God-given gift, by itself this is not the love that saves us.

Acceptance. Affection. Self-sacrifice. Intimacy.

Each of these is good and necessary. Each of these gives a glimpse of love, one angle on a multi-faceted love. But none of these by itself is the love we need.

When the biblical authors attempt to describe “love” they consistently point to God’s love for us. In the New Testament, more particularly, they point to God’s love for us in Jesus. To get even more specific, the New Testament often points to Jesus’ suffering and death to portray what true love is all about.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

So, for example, in the Hebrew Bible we hear of God’s hesed, Yahweh’s loyal love for ancient Israel, standing at the very centre of God’s self-revelation (e.g. Exod 34:6; Ps 145:8-9). We see this loyal love in action from creation on, Yahweh providing and protecting, giving and forgiving, rescuing and restoring, time and time and time again.

In the Gospels we hear Jesus speaking of an Abba Father who cares for the least and last, who seeks the lost, who loves sinners with a ring-and-robe and fatted-calf-feast kind of love (e.g. Luke 15). In the Epistles we hear that “God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), that “we know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16), and that we are to be “imitators of God” by “living in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2).

“God is love,” we are told, and Jesus comes as “the image of the invisible God,” the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” the ultimate revelation of the God who is love (1 John 4:8, 16; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; John 1:18).

So in light of God’s love for us, and especially God’s love for us in Jesus, what is this love, this one thing we really need? A few reflections, and then a summary description.

Love starts with a stance of openness. It doesn’t stand aloof, arms crossed in suspicion or scorn, waiting for the other to prove themselves. Love steps forward with arms open wide, even running toward the other. It sees the other as a person, inherently worthy of welcome, of compassion, of affection, of respect. It sees these things, even when the other person cannot see it themselves.

Love is freely given. It is “freely given” in that it is voluntary, not coerced. A forced “love” is no love at all. It is also “freely given” in that it expects nothing in return. That is barter or bribery, or crass capitalism—it is not love.

Love is a giving of oneself. Our time, our attention, our listening ear, our gracious words, our empathy, our loyalty, our experiences, our material resources—all the things that make us who we are as persons, all the things we value as humans, given for the other person. This puts us in a precarious position, because we love without knowing how our love will be perceived, without knowing how it will be received. There is always risk in love.

Love is given whether the recipient deserves it or not. It is loving anyone we cross paths with day by day, our “neighbours.” It is loving “strangers” or “sinners,” those who are different than us in any way, even in ways we vehemently disagree with. It is loving even those who oppose us in anything, even if they do so violently: our “enemies.”

Love is given even when it hurts the giver. This is not an excuse for abuse—remember, love is freely given, never coerced, never forced. This is not the weak being oppressed by the strong, but the strong giving themselves for the weak. Love, at one time or another, in one way or another, will always suffer for the other person. To love is to suffer.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing, giver and receiver together. The objective is life shared together: not merely surviving but thriving. It is the opposite of what Christians call “sin,” those attitudes and actions that cause harm to others and ourselves.

Think of our most basic needs as human beings. We’ve got those basic physical needs, what we need just to exist: clean air and water, nourishing food, adequate warmth in clothing and shelter, simple health and safety. Then there are those basic psychological, emotional, and social needs we all have, without which we are diminished as persons: positive relationships with others, a sense of belonging in a group, a sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world.

These are universal human needs. They can give us a minimal, rough sketch of what “flourishing life” can look like. Which means they can give us a working description of what love should strive for: ensuring others have these basic human needs met, meeting these basic needs for others, for one another together.

This, then, is love: 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.

Let that sink in a little.

Go back and read that again.

As you do, pause to think about different people in your life, people you encounter day by day—those you’re close to, those you’re not, those you like, those you don’t.

What would it look like to love them like this?

What would our world be like if we loved one another like this?

Stay tuned for part four.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

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

“Aha” Moments: Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories: Michael Pahl

This post first appeared on Pete Enns’ blog. Re-posted here on February 15, 2017, though dated back to the original date of its first appearance.

profileToday’s “aha” moment is by Michael Pahl (PhD, University of Birmingham). Pahl, as you may recall, was one of the casualties of Cedarville University’s theological purge of 2012. He is now pastor of Morden Mennonite Church (Canada). You can find more about Pahl at his website. Pahl has written 3 books including The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions and co-edited 2 others including Issues in Luke-Acts: Selected Essays.

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I still remember winning the VBS Sword Drill one summer. I was maybe seven, and I could already pick out Obadiah with the best of them. I could also quote John 3:16, Romans 3:23 and 6:23, and all the other must-have-in-your-back-pocket verses crucial for salvation. Our church had prophecy conferences, where smart men in suits quoted the Bible left and right in building their towers of end-times prophecy, right to the new heavens.

I knew the Bible. I loved the Bible. And with that particular knowledge and love of the Bible came a whole set of expectations about what the Bible is and what it’s all about.

It is God’s word straight from God’s mouth, internally consistent from cover to cover. It is God’s literal, inerrant truth about anything that matters, but what matters most is personal salvation: people being saved from eternal hell, God’s just judgment for their sin, in order to spend eternity with God in heaven.

A lot changed for me over the years following my VBS triumph. We attended a different church through my teen years, not quite so hard-and-fast conservative. I then went through some crises of life and faith that pushed me to explore other denominations, even other religions.

I was hungry for meaning, and this hunger became so intense I did the only thing I could think to do: I read the Bible.

I skipped my university English classes to binge-read the Bible, devouring it not in single sword-drill verses but in large chunks: all of Isaiah in one sitting, all of Paul’s letters in another, then all of Genesis, then all of Luke, and so on.

This Bible binging was just what I needed—I found the meaning for life I was craving—but it was also the beginning of the end for the view of the Bible I had grown up with.

For the first time I saw the Obadiahs and John 3:16s of the Bible as pieces of a much larger narrative, a narrative centered on Jesus and encompassing the entire creation.

I realized God wasn’t concerned so much with personal salvation but with cosmic restoration.

I discovered that this world really mattered, that our bodies really mattered, that this life with all its joys and sorrows really mattered, that God created all things good and longed to return all things to that original goodness—or even better.

For the first time I also read the pieces of the Bible alongside each other: two creation stories in Genesis, two renditions of the Ten Commandments, two accounts of Israel’s kingdoms, four Gospel stories of Jesus.

This raised all sorts of questions for me that I wasn’t yet prepared to answer, but there was no doubt in my mind that these parallel pieces were different from each other.

It wasn’t until later, when I began to explore historical setting and source criticism and literary genre that these questions began to be answered—but in a way that made it impossible for me to hold on to the view of Bible I had inherited.

“I was always taught the Bible says X but now I just don’t see it.”

I could fill in that X with quite a few things.

I was taught that Genesis 1 was all about when and how God created the world—in six literal days a few thousand years ago, directly by a series of divine commands. I was taught that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that Deuteronomy’s account of his death and mysterious burial was an instance of prophetic foresight.

I was taught that Jesus’ words in the Gospels were word-for-word what Jesus said. I was taught that there are no real contradictions among the Gospel accounts, that if you just look hard enough there is always a harmonizing explanation.

I was taught that Paul’s gospel was all about how individual sinners get saved, so that after death we can escape hell and enter heaven. I was taught that Revelation was all about when and how God would wrap it all up—pretty much like Left Behind, only for real.

I was taught a bunch of things “the Bible says” that I no longer believe the Bible says.

But yet I still believe.

I remain a committed Christian, in many ways a deeply conservative Christian (hey, I can recite the Apostles’ Creed without crossing my fingers—just one little asterisk by “he descended into hell”). How can that be, when so many have abandoned their faith after leaving behind their conservative bibliology?

I think the answer to that comes down to two things.

First, early on in my journey I came to the realization that Jesus, not the Bible, is the foundation and center and standard and goal of genuine Christian faith and life.

During those early days of reading the Bible in large swaths, I found Jesus, and that makes all the difference: paradoxically, the Bible matters less even as it matters all the more.

And second, along the way, even in the strictest of conservative environments, I always found people who gave me space to ask hard questions and avoid simplistic answers—because they themselves were in that space. It’s a dangerous place, that risky grace of a humble search for truth.

I’m grateful to those who have created those “dangerous places” for me in my life, even at great risk to themselves—and I’m committed to providing that same space of grace for others.