Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.

An Anabaptist Ecclesiology for a Global Pandemic

I’m convinced that the church is the gathered people of God.

In the New Testament, even when the word ekklēsia points beyond local gatherings to the universal church, it still has the idea of “the church that gathers”: followers of Jesus who live together in the world as Christ’s body, God’s family, a new humanity formed by the Spirit. This gathered people of God is together “a holy priesthood”: while some are called to spiritual leadership as “pastors” or “shepherd-teachers,” there are no human mediators between God and individual believers and each one is distinctly gifted by the Spirit of Christ so that together we can be the body of Christ in the world.

This understanding of “church” is part of what makes me “Anabaptist” in my Christian convictions. And this Anabaptist ecclesiology has some direct implications for how we “do church,” to use a modern phrase.

This ecclesiology means worship services are not performances. Worship services are the gathered people of God, gathered to worship God collectively, with everyone contributing in worship.

We don’t speak of a “stage” and an “audience”; we are a “congregation” gathered together in a “sanctuary,” or even, deep in our tradition, simply a “meeting house.” We don’t dim the “audience lights” and throw spotlights on the people “on stage.”

“Worship leaders” are neither priests nor performers. They are not even the “song leaders.” Worship leaders are exactly that: those in any given service (often lay people) who guide the congregation in our collective worship, all aspects of it (not just the music).

The building is closed. The church is still open.

Sermons are neither more nor less important than any other part of the service. Congregational singing, congregational sharing and prayer, sharing our creative gifts, sharing our financial resources, reading Scripture together, intentionally listening together for God’s voice to us as a congregation—these are just as important as, and some weeks more important than, what the preacher shares.

This ecclesiology also means worship services are not all that “church” is. We don’t simply “do church” on Sunday mornings; we “do church”—or better, we are the church—all throughout the week.

Yes, this means we live out our individual and family lives as Christians through the week, striving in the Spirit to follow Jesus in the ordinary everyday. But it also means we continue to be the church, gathering together throughout the week in various ways: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes.

Sometimes this way of thinking about “church” is considered “low church,” in contrast to “high church” ecclesiologies that include liturgy, sacraments, vestments, icons, candles, bells, and incense. I appreciate the distinction, and I myself love liturgy and worship that engages the senses. But I have to confess I bristle a bit at the idea that an Anabaptist view of church is “low”: we take church as seriously as any other group of Christians, and more seriously than many.

But what happens when “the gathered people of God” can no longer gather? How can we be the church in a pandemic?

In some ways the answer to this is simple: we continue to find creative ways to love our neighbours as ourselves, loving all others (and especially the most vulnerable) in the way of Jesus. There is never any shortage of people who need to be loved.

But this is really an individual Christian response to a pandemic. How do we do this specifically as the church, the gathered people of God? And how do we do all the things that nurture and support the faith and hope that form the root of this love? How do we worship together, pray together, learn together, hear God’s voice to us together, serve together?

How do we sing together? How do we break bread together?

When we dig a little deeper into this question—how can we be the church in a pandemic?—we find the answers aren’t simple and easy at all.

Since there are no simple and easy answers to this, I won’t stand in judgment on any other church or pastor and how they work through this question. (Unless you’ve been given specific guidelines, even orders, by your local health authorities not to gather in large groups, but you still do—then may God have mercy on your souls, and on the bodies of the rest of us who might end up paying for your foolish hubris disguised as “faith.”)

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts roiling around in my brain, circling around this conviction:

The church hasn’t changed. We are still the gathered people of God.

Because of this conviction, I’ll confess I have no appetite for recording or livestreaming a “worship service” of people performing in front of empty pews. I do understand the impulse behind these efforts, and I sympathize with those who have decided to do this. But that’s never been what our worship services are—they’ve never been about the people “on stage” doing something which the people “in the audience” observe.

Since our worship services are more participatory than that, I’m working at finding ways to include as many people as possible in the “virtual worship services” we as a church are providing, and I’m working at finding ways to encourage people to participate in those online worship services. We’re recording various church folks praying and singing and playing music to accompany our hymns, for example, so those gifts can be shared on a Sunday morning.

Also, because of this conviction that the church is still the gathered people of God, I am encouraging our church to lean into the idea that our worship services are not all that “church” is. We may not be able to gather in person, but we are committed to finding ways to “gather” throughout each week for all the reasons we’ve always gathered: in prayer, in learning, in service, and breaking bread together as often as we can around tables in our church building or in our homes. Some of this “breaking bread together” might have to happen as households host one another for a meal via Zoom, but we’ll find a way.

The goal of all this faith- and hope-formation, the fruit we’re hoping to see among us, is still the same: love. Loving each other, loving all others, and especially loving the most vulnerable, in the way of Jesus.

For many of us, for now at least, this “love in the way of Jesus” means being physically separated from others, especially the most vulnerable. That’s counter-intuitive for all of us, but especially Mennonites, who like a hands-on kind of Jesus-love.

Social distancing, Dirk!

For all of us, this “love in the way of Jesus” means finding creative ways to walk in solidarity with those most at-risk and those most affected and afflicted. Following social distancing requirements to the letter, but doing so to help stock the local food bank. Checking in with our elderly and immune compromised church folks, making sure they have the things they need. And more.

All churches are having to find creative ways to “do church” and “be the church” in these days. But for those with strong Anabaptist convictions about church? We’ve got some unique challenges—and opportunities—ahead of us.

How is your church “doing” and “being” the church during COVID-19?

If your church is a Mennonite or other Anabaptist church, how is your church trying to maintain the conviction that the church is “the gathered people of God?”

Most pressing for Mennonites, how in the world are you singing together and breaking bread together? 🙂

I’d love to hear constructive responses!

Note: This post has been edited slightly since its original publication.

“The Bible is Clear”: No, It’s Not—But That’s Okay

“The Bible clearly says…”

I’ve heard this many, many times over the years, always spoken with great fervour. I’ve even been known to say something like this myself a time or two.

So I get it, I really do.

You read a passage in the Bible, and it just makes sense. It fits with what you already know to be true. It might add to your knowledge, it might explain or expand your knowledge, but still it fits well with what you already know. It’s what anyone with an ounce of common sense would understand the passage to mean. It’s plain. It’s clear.

But there are at least two problems with this. And they’re rather large problems.

First, you’re likely reading the Bible in English. Or maybe German, or Korean, or some other reading language that’s comfortable for you. But the Bible wasn’t originally written in English or any other modern language. The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, first written in ancient languages: the Old Testament in Hebrew and smatterings of Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. These writings—or “books” of the Bible, as they are conventionally called—were written over many centuries and from within several ancient cultures. And they were each written—and then often edited, sometimes repeatedly—within very specific historical communities, for very specific historical purposes.

In other words, unless you’re reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, say, in Koine Greek, and you’re fluent in the language, and you’re familiar with the particular circumstances surrounding the letter, and you’ve got a good grasp of Paul’s and the Roman Christians’ specific cultural settings, you can’t really claim that anything in the book of Romans is “clear” to you. You’re reading someone else’s translation of an ancient text, with all of that depth of nuance flattened into a modern English version that makes some superficial “sense” to you in your setting today.

That’s one problem with claiming that “the Bible is clear” in this or that passage. Here’s another: someone else can read that very same passage with the same depth of devotion and the same careful, prayerful attention—the same ounce of common sense, even—and come to a very different reading of the passage that is just as obvious to them, just as plain, just as clear.

Exhibit A: the many churches and denominations that have been created out of divisions because what was so very clear to one group about this biblical passage or that biblical idea was not at all clear to another group (*cough* Mennonite history *cough*).

Exhibit B: the many times the vast majority of Christians have been convinced this or that was the clear teaching of the Bible, only to conveniently forget within a few generations that Christians had actually believed such foolishness (Gentile conversion to Judaism, a geocentric universe, the Crusades, the Inquisition, White superiority, Indigenous genocide, African slavery, women’s subordination…).

There have been, and still are, many competing claims of what “the Bible clearly says.” This is what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” and it is the death knell of any claim to possess “the clear teaching of the Bible.”

No, the Bible is not “clear.” And if you’re one of those people who needs to have a prooftext, here’s a clip from 2 Peter 3:15-16:

…ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἡμῶν ἀδελφὸς Παῦλος κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν αὐτῷ σοφίαν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν, ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων, ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα…

So, what do we do?

Well, I suppose you could close your browser, turn off your computer, pretend you never read this post, and go back to your comfortable Christian life. Or, you could go all in and start splitting churches and burning heretics until you’re the only one left who believes The Truth about The Things. Or, you could chuck out your entire faith because it’s built on a “Bible” that doesn’t exist.

Needless to say (which means “I feel I must say”), these are not my recommended options. Here are a few things I would recommend.

First, read the Bible with humility. Recognize that you are reading the Bible without a full grasp of the linguistic nuances and historical details and cultural subtleties. Acknowledge that other people might be just as sincere as you in their desire to hear and obey God’s voice. Admit that you might even be wrong about this or that biblical passage.

Second, read the Bible in multiple translations. I’m assuming (perhaps naively) that most people are not going to become experts in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Find a good modern translation that you feel comfortable reading and use that for your regular Bible reading. God can use that reading to shape you in the way of Jesus.

But if you’re going to go beyond devotional reading into teaching or preaching, helping a community of faith to discern God’s will together, then at least read from multiple versions. This will give you some sense of the nuances (and difficulties in translation) of the ancient texts. If you really want to get serious, then do some work also in trying to understand the cultural setting and historical circumstances of the specific biblical writing you are reading. Good commentaries and Bible reference works are the tools you need here.

Third, read the Bible in community. This is really, really important. It exposes our own blind spots in reading the Bible. It opens up ways of reading the Bible that we would never have discovered on our own. It helps keep us humble. It helps us better discern truth.

This reading the Bible in community can—and probably should—be done in a few different ways. The most important is reading the Bible within a real, flesh-and-blood community of people. Read the Bible together, think about it together, talk about it together, wrestle with it together. But there are other ways of reading the Bible in community, other kinds of “community” that are important: authors who write on the Bible, speakers who speak on the Bible, from a variety of faith (or non-faith) traditions, from a diversity of social backgrounds, from around the globe and throughout history.

Finally, read the Bible charitably. I mean this in at least two ways. We should read the Bible with charity toward the biblical authors. They were writing for a different time, in a different world. Yet we hold much in common with them, not least the desire to know and be known by our common Creator. Be charitable toward the biblical authors, then, working hard to understand the spirit/Spirit that has motivated and animated their writing.

Even more importantly, though, we should read the Bible with charity toward others. The Bible has been used in a lot of harmful ways throughout Christian history. Splitting hairs over Bible verses has led to splitting churches. Self-righteously claiming The Truth about The Things in the Bible—and combining this with brute power—has led to burning heretics. Christians have a long history of excluding whole classes of people, enslaving whole groups of people, justifying the destruction of whole societies of people, based on the “clear teaching” of the Bible.

Instead, Jesus models for us a hermeneutic of love: reading the Scriptures to bring liberation, reconciliation, justice, and human flourishing. In our Bible reading we need to heed Jesus’ call to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” and this sometimes means saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.”

Then, if nothing else, we can at least become clear about this: that the entire message of the Bible is summed up in one word, “love.”

Holding on to Identity as a Minority Faith

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 7, 2018, based on Daniel 1.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with an estimated 2.3 billion adherents. As of 2015, three-quarters of Americans and two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christians. We are hardly a minority faith.

Still, it is true that Christianity’s public influence has declined. Christianity is no longer the touchstone of North American culture that it once was. Christianity no longer defines social values or public policy in quite the way it once did. The institutions of Christianity are not as prominent or as powerful as they once were, and the institutions of our western society are no longer exclusively or even predominantly Christian—if they ever were. Christendom is no more.

This means that although Christianity is not a minority faith in North America it can often feel like it is. For some, this presents a challenge, even a catastrophe. I think it presents an opportunity.

This changed situation is an opportunity for us to reflect on and sharpen our identity as Christians: What does it really mean to be “Christian”? What marks us off as “Christian”? What distinctive beliefs or rituals or symbols or sacred stories are at the heart of this thing called “Christianity”?

The story of Daniel and his three companions in Daniel 1 is a story about early Jewish identity. Ostensibly about Israelites exiled in ancient Babylonia, yet really about Maccabean Jews under pressure to Hellenize, the story remains for Jews a powerful symbol of maintaining their religious and cultural identity in the face of enormous pressure to assimilate. For us as Christians, it can stand as a biblical call to reflect on our identity as Christians, asking those same questions forced upon us by our own post-Christendom context.

So, what does mark us off as “Christian”? Contra Daniel 1, the New Testament insists it’s not our diet—“all foods are clean,” Mark concludes based on Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7:14-19), and Paul declares that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink” (Rom 14:14-17). Likewise, it’s not the observance of holy days like the Sabbath (Rom 14:5-6; Col 2:16-17) or covenant rituals like circumcision (Gal 5:6; 6:15).

For Christians, beliefs, rituals, symbols, and sacred stories have tremendous value in nurturing the things that matter most, but they are not themselves those essentials of Christianity. Rather, as markers of Christian identity Jesus and the Apostles consistently point us to a cluster of lived-out virtues: a trusting, obedient faith, a persevering, persistent hope, and, above all, a self-giving, other-delighting love, all in the way of Jesus, all nurtured by the Spirit.

My Confession of Faith

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

In Jesus I see God embodied, a God who is a friend of sinners, who finds the lost and feasts the least and firsts the last. In Jesus I see a God who runs to wayward children, welcoming them in lavish banquets of love.

In Jesus I see a God who stands in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the stranger. In Jesus I see a God who stands firm against oppression and exclusion by the powerful and privileged.

In Jesus I see a God who loves stories and riddles, flowers and children, and eating good food with good friends and the very best of wine.

In Jesus I see a God who dreams of a better world, a kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life, and who dares to plant that dream in the world with such a small and insignificant seed: love.

In Jesus I see a God who is willing to die rather than kill, following his own words of nonviolence on his own way of the cross.

In Jesus I see a God who turns death into new life, shame into honour, guilt into forgiveness, futility into purpose, brokenness into wholeness, suffering into joy, despair into hope—and this gives me hope.

In Jesus I also see, then, humanity as we are meant to be: walking in all these ways of Jesus, centered on devotion to our Creator expressed through compassion and care for other humans and all creation, paying special attention to the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.

I am not a Christian because of other Christians, though I know many good Christians. I am not a Christian because of the Bible, though the Bible points me to Jesus and tells me his story.

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

On Being—and Doing—Church

There are many good New Testament passages one can explore to envision what the church should be and do: Romans 12-15, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4-5 are all good options, among others. Still, when I think about the church there’s one specific verse that always seems to come to mind first:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

To me this description of the first Jesus followers on the day of Pentecost nicely sums up what it means for us as Christians to “be the church,” to “do church” together.

As the church we are “devoted” to certain things. These are the things that we commit ourselves to, that we are centred on as a church—which is a way of saying that there are lots of other things, maybe even some good things, that aren’t so central, that we’re not as devoted to. There are lots of things we can be and do as a church, but these things are at the heart of them all.

First and foremost, we are devoted to learning and living the way of Jesus as taught by his Apostles: “the apostles’ teaching.” This means we commit ourselves to studying the Christian Scriptures, and in particular the New Testament where we find “the apostles’ teaching,” in order to learn about Jesus and his way of love. As we faithfully follow Jesus in his way of love, God’s justice and peace and flourishing life (“God’s kingdom,” or “salvation”) is manifest in and among and through us.

We are also devoted to the community of fellow Jesus followers, the common life we share together: “the fellowship.” This means we commit ourselves to one another within the church, to each other’s wellbeing, to caring for one another and helping to meet one another’s needs. At bottom this is because, in the midst of our diversity, we hold the absolute essentials in common: everything we are and do centres around Jesus and his way of love.

We are devoted to gathering together in worship and hospitality: “the breaking of bread.” This means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together around the Lord’s Table, along with other acts of worship (symbols, stories, songs) that likewise orient us around the central story of Jesus. This also means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together in our homes, following Jesus’ example of radical hospitality for all—not only friends and family, but also sinners and strangers, outcasts and enemies.

And we are devoted to regular times of prayer together: “the prayers.” This means we not only pray as individuals as an act of private devotion, but we also gather together regularly to pray: to meditate on who God is and what God has done for us, to praise and thank God for these good gifts, to confess our sins to God and accept God’s forgiveness, and to entreat God to move among us and through us in the world.

Jan Richardson, The Best Supper

For many Christians, this is not the church they envision. Or, perhaps more accurately, they might nod in agreement with this vision of church in theory, but in practice they are either not fully devoted to these things, or they are devoted to other things above these things.

Many Christians envision a church that has lots of programs—especially programs aimed at their particular demographic. These programs are not bad in themselves, of course, and they can in fact be wonderful ways of expressing and nurturing the devotion Acts 2:42 describes.

The problem comes when people want programs that have little if anything to do with that fourfold devotion—they really want a social club with a religious veneer, which they can participate in at their convenience and for their pleasure. Fine, but that’s not a church.

Many Christians envision a church filled with people, often recalling a bygone era of buzzing foyers and bursting sanctuaries. There’s nothing wrong this either—Acts 2 itself describes large numbers of people joining the Jesus movement and participating in new Jesus communities. However, a preoccupation with numbers can be problematic for at least a couple of reasons.

First, many Christians want the large numbers without having to devote themselves to studying the Scriptures and learning the way of Jesus, gathering together regularly for Jesus-centred worship and prayer, and showing radical hospitality in the way of Jesus. It’s ironic—though not terribly surprising—that the Christians who are most critical of “the way things are being done” at church are often the ones who don’t attend Bible studies and prayer meetings and only show up for Sunday worship once or twice a month.

Second, many Christians have bought into a “free market” notion of church. We are competing with other churches for “market share.” We need to produce a good church “product” in order to attract Christians, our “buyers.” If people don’t like our product they’ll go find another “seller,” another church with a better product: high quality music in a style they enjoy, interesting preaching that increases their happiness through moderate self-improvement, vibrant programs catering to their particular demographic, et cetera. So, if we want to increase our market share (i.e. “grow our church”) we need to produce a better product.

Not only is this view of the church thoroughly unbiblical, it’s also unethical—it’s church growth through sheep-stealing, not sheep-finding.

Programs and numbers, then, while being potentially good things, are not central to being and doing church. What is central is this: devotion to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Lest anyone think I’m being too idealistic, raising a bar too high for the church in the real world, let me add this: Jesus welcomes all to his table, whatever the level of their devotion. Jesus in his way of love stands at the centre of the church like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing people in by its warmth and light. Some gather close around the fire, freely sharing their songs and stories, bread and wine. Others stay back in the shadows, content to listen and observe. Some drift in and out.

However, while the level of devotion varies among Christians and even changes throughout our lives, the things we are devoted to remain the same: not programs and numbers, not pleasurable music or comfortable teaching or enjoyable socializing, not even correct doctrine or proper behaviour or rituals done right, but learning and living the way of Jesus together, gathering in worship and prayer, in radical hospitality and mutual care, all of this in love.

Anything less—and anything else—is simply not church.

But a church that looks like this? It’s what the world—and we ourselves—desperately need: a living embodiment of God’s kingdom vision of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all.

Being Disturbed toward Love and Good Deeds

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Tucked away in the sermon-letter known as Hebrews, in its summary of its central section, is this evocative statement: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (10:24).

The Greek word translated “provoke” in this version is paroxysmos, and it’s actually a noun. It’s almost always negative in connotation. It’s the word used in Acts 15:39, for example, to describe the “sharp disagreement” between Barnabas and Paul—a convulsive eruption of thoughts and emotions and words. A paroxysmos is when something deeply disturbing—something that stirs you up emotionally and psychologically, that aggravates and agitates you in a gut-wrenchingly visceral way—pushes you to act.

Here’s the evocative image, then: We are to be deeply disturbed—provoked, incited, aggravated, agitated—not toward anger or violence, but toward love and good deeds.

This past weekend our church hosted Theatre of the Beat and their latest production, #ChurchToo. The play tackles the issue of sexual violence—discrimination, harassment, abuse, and more—within the church. It’s a timely topic, to be sure. Yet it’s also a difficult one—even a deeply disturbing one.

Those who have seen the play know how deeply disturbing it is. As I watched the final scene I could feel my own gut wrenching—physically clenching—as the actors brilliantly portrayed the bodily impact of sexual violence, an impact that is felt long after the violence has occurred. Afterward, the show’s artistic director talked about how every audience responds the same way: looking away from the stage in shock or shame or agonizing pain, but then looking back; rocking on their chairs as if to leave, but remaining riveted in their seats.

It’s disturbing—and it’s supposed to be disturbing.

But it’s not needlessly disturbing. It portrays the real-life impact of sexual violence for victims, and so invites us to experience this vicariously ourselves, in order to understand better, to be more sympathetic and compassionate, to push us to raise awareness of sexual violence, to prompt us to prevent sexual violence if possible and to respond well to it when it happens.

The play is, in fact, all about “being disturbed toward love and good deeds.”

I’m thankful this is not the only way we can be motivated toward love and good deeds. We can be comforted toward love and good deeds—we might experience compassion, for example, or see compassion modeled, and so be prompted toward greater compassion ourselves. But sometimes we need to be discomforted toward love and good deeds—agitated, aggravated, provoked, incited, deeply disturbed.

As the saying goes, “The gospel comforts the disturbed, but it disturbs the comfortable.” Jesus brings us comfort—Amen! But Jesus does not make us comfortable. Selah.

May God give us a holy discomfort, a willingness to step into the hard realities of this world, to sit with the pain and suffering of others, in order to understand their experiences and show compassion and seek justice. May we be willing to be disturbed by the things that disturb God, so that we can show an ever-increasing love to others in the way God has shown love to us in Jesus.

Jesus Fulfills the Law—in Love

You don’t have to read far into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to hear this astounding claim by Jesus:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt 5:17-18)

Jesus’ warning that follows is just as astounding:

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19)

It’s no wonder many Christians have insisted that we must obey the Old Testament Law. These are strong words!

But what did Jesus mean when he says, “I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it?”

We get an answer by following the most basic principle of good interpretation: Keep reading.

When we keep reading, for instance, we discover that Jesus can’t mean we’re supposed to literally obey every commandment in the Law. How do we know this? Because immediately after this Jesus reinterprets some Old Testament laws, and even outright overturns some of them.

I’m talking about all the “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you” teachings that follow in Matthew 5. The “you’ve heard it said” each time is a reference to an Old Testament command; the “but I say to you” is Jesus’ new interpretation of that command.

So, for example, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not murder.” But Jesus says: “Do not even harbor anger in your heart against another person.”

Or, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not commit adultery.” But Jesus says: “Do not even nurture lust for another woman in your heart.”

And on it goes, until we get to the last two. The Law of Moses commanded a form of retributive justice, a principle of “proportional retaliation,” for any violent act committed: whatever the offender did to someone, they were to have that very thing done to them. The full commandment in Deuteronomy 19 is this: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21).

And, while the Law of Moses in fact commands kindness for one’s everyday enemies, it does direct the Israelites more than once to annihilate their enemies in battle. The promise of Leviticus 26:7 sums this up: “You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.”

These commands of the Law, Jesus doesn’t just reinterpret. Jesus outright overturns them. No retribution of any kind is allowed. No violence of any kind is permitted. “Do not retaliate against an evil person,” Jesus says. “Love your enemies.”

If we keep reading some more, all the way through Matthew’s Gospel, we also find that this isn’t the only place that Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” That’s a clue, by the way. Jesus doesn’t just fulfill the Law, but the Law and the Prophets. All the Jewish Scriptures find their completion in Jesus. All the biblical threads of God’s ways in the world and God’s will for us, all these are woven together in Jesus.

The next reference to “the Law and the Prophets” is also in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, the Sermon is framed by these two uses of “the Law and the Prophets”: our passage near the beginning, introducing the main part of the Sermon, and the next one near the end, as the Sermon is wrapping up.

And what is this summing-up reference to “the Law and the Prophets”? It’s something we all know, the famous Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).

Doing for others what you would like done for you is the Law and the Prophets—it’s what the Bible is all about. Turning outside of ourselves and looking to others, treating others with the same respect, compassion, kindness, and care that we would like to receive—this fulfills all our obligations under God.

If we keep reading through Matthew’s Gospel, we come to another significant time Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” It’s in Matthew 22, Jesus’ response to the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”

We all know Jesus’ answer—it’s the Great Commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 22:36-40)

Love—devoted love for God and others—is what the Law and the Prophets are all about. Everything—all God’s ways in the world, all God’s will for us—hangs on these two commandments: love God and love others.

Or, in other words, love is the fulfillment of the Law.

Other early Christians got the message. The Apostle Paul sums this up as neatly as any of them, in Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.

Jesus oriented his life around love—not holiness, not purity, not strength or power, not truth or even wisdom, not even justice or peace. He oriented his life around love: devoted love for God and devoted love for others. And in doing so, Jesus demonstrated true holiness and purity, he showed true strength and power, he revealed true wisdom, he carved out the path toward true justice and peace.

In other words, all the things the Law pointed to—holiness, purity, wisdom, truth, mercy, justice, peace—Jesus fulfilled them all in love.

And likewise, when we orient our life around love, we too fulfill the Law. If we orient our life around striving for holiness or spotless purity, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around some pure search for truth, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around a relentless quest for justice, or even peace, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us.

But when we orient our life around love in the way of Jesus—devoted love for God expressed in devoted love for others—then we discover true holiness and purity, true strength and wisdom, true justice and peace along the way.

I know, I know. Love can seem like a pretty flimsy foundation for a life of holiness, or for the pursuit of truth, or for producing peaceful and just societies. But this is what Jesus teaches, and the rest of the New Testament confirms it for us.

The question is, do we really believe it? Are we willing to put it into practice? Relentlessly, persistently, above all else, seeking to love God and others?

Adapted from a sermon given at Morden Mennonite Church on January 7, 2018.

Bishop Curry, Luke and Acts, and “Christianity Lite”

There was a lot of buzz this past weekend about the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, now the Duchess and Duke of Sussex. And a good bit of that buzz was about the sermon by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Responses to Bishop Curry’s sermon have ranged from astonishment to amusement, from enthusiastic applause to sharp criticism. Some of that criticism has come from Christians, including a former chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen who claimed that Bishop Curry’s sermon represented a watered down version of Christianity, a kind of “Christianity Lite.” The specific critiques are diverse, but in general they seem to boil down to three things: there was too much love, too much social justice, and not enough cross.

However, if this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then Luke the Evangelist, author of a good 27% of our New Testament, is also implicated.

Yep: Luke and Acts are also “Christianity Lite.”

Consider the cross.

Like Bishop Curry in his sermon, Luke does in fact mention Jesus’ death—dozens of times in the Gospel and Acts. What’s more, Jesus’ death is mentioned at significant points in Luke’s accounts of Jesus and the Apostles: in the Gospel’s creed-like “passion predictions” taken up from Mark’s Gospel, anticipating Jesus’ death yet to come; in the Gospel’s “passion narrative,” as rich in meaning as that of any of the Gospels; and in Acts’ several “evangelistic speeches,” where the saving message about Jesus is proclaimed to those who don’t yet believe. In other words, as with Bishop Curry, the cross is pretty important to Luke’s theology.

However, the cross isn’t talked about by Luke in the way at least some of Bishop Curry’s detractors call for. There’s no “You’re a sinner and you’re going to hell, but—good news!—Jesus has died to pay the penalty for your sins” in Luke or Acts—not even in the Apostles’ evangelistic speeches. In fact, “penal substitution” is entirely absent from Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ death—there is nothing in Luke or Acts indicating that Jesus is punished on the cross for our sins, paying a penalty that should be ours to pay.

For Luke, that “Christ died for our sins” means that “Christ died because of our sins,” and “Christ died to show us the way out of our sins.”

The most common interpretation of Jesus’ death by Luke is this stark contrast: human powers have killed Jesus, but God has raised Jesus from the dead. This idea is found in both the Gospel and Acts, explicitly and repeatedly. This refrain fits a Christus victor view of atonement: God has resurrected the crucified Jesus, thus declaring him to be Lord over all powers. The necessary response? Repentance of our collaboration with the evil powers of this world—rulers and idols alike—and walking in the Way in full allegiance to Jesus, Messiah and Lord. And this, of course, is where the gospel preaching of Acts always goes.

The next most common interpretation of Jesus’ death in Luke-Acts is that of Jesus as example to follow: Jesus has taught the way of nonviolent, self-giving love for both neighbours and enemies, and in his own suffering and death he exemplifies this teaching. This is “the way of peace” anticipated by John the Baptist’s father. These are “the things that make for peace” that Jesus laments the people of Jerusalem have missed. Jesus’ followers are to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him” in these very ways—following Jesus in bringing about peace through nonviolent, self-giving love.

That’s the cross in Luke’s writings—unlikely to pass inspection from at least some of Bishop Curry’s critics. How about love?

Luke’s Gospel, of course, has the same key references to love found in Mark’s Gospel (which Luke almost certainly used) and Matthew’s (which Luke probably used). Love as the Greatest Commandment that sums up the whole Law of Moses: loving God with our whole being, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Love of enemy as a distinctive hallmark of Jesus-followers.

But Luke also blends in a good-sized helping of other sayings and stories of Jesus about love.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

It is Luke’s Gospel that fleshes out love of neighbour by telling the story of the Good Samaritan—shockingly making a despised foreigner the epitome of neighbour love. It is Luke’s Gospel that has all three stories of lostness: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In this last story the father’s love for his prodigal son is particularly scandalous: generous from start to finish, watching for the prodigal and running for him without care for propriety, welcoming him home without any amends made or demanded.

Luke’s Gospel has more than the normal quota of stories of Jesus healing people and sharing meals with them, crossing bounds of purity and propriety to do so. He also tells his share of stories about Jesus forgiving sins on God’s behalf—sometimes in response to repentance, sometimes not. And it is Luke’s Gospel (or some manuscripts of it) that has Jesus calling on God to forgive his executioners even as he hangs on the cross, even while they remain ignorant of their heinous sin.

I suspect, then, that Luke’s Gospel has far too much emphasis on love for some—which brings us right to social justice.

One of the strangest criticisms of Bishop Curry’s sermon I’ve seen is that it focused too much on things like racial justice and poverty and the like. The thinking goes like this: the goal of Jesus’ ministry was to bring people into “the kingdom of heaven” (by which is meant simply “heaven,” or “an eternal, spiritual afterlife with God”). His ministry was “spiritual,” not “political”—and, in any case, things like sexism or racism or poverty aren’t really going to change in this world (you know, “the poor you will always have with you”).

But Luke the Evangelist will have none of this.

Leave aside the fact that “kingdom of heaven” is parallel to “kingdom of God,” and that the Jewish expectation of “God’s kingdom” was very much a this-earthly reality. Leave aside the fact that “give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and give to God that which belongs to God” would make any devout Jew think, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” And leave aside the fact that “the poor you will always have with you” is an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:11 where Moses is in fact urging generosity toward the poor.

Quite apart from these things, Luke’s Gospel is explicit in promoting what we today call “social justice,” even specifically along the lines of sex, race, and economics. There’s far too much to mention, so let’s just consider the issue of poverty.

James Tissot, Le magnificat

It is Luke’s Gospel that has Mary sing these words in anticipation of Jesus’ birth: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

It is Luke that makes Isaiah 61 into Jesus’ personal mission statement: “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” (in other words, Jubilee—look it up).

It is Luke that presents Jesus’ beatitudes this way: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And he includes some accompanying woes in case we’re tempted to spiritualize this: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” And just to hammer this home, these are among his following words: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

It is Luke’s Gospel that says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” It is Luke that tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, making sure his hearers know the rich man was being judged for his callous disregard of poor Lazarus at his very gate. It is Luke that tells the story of Zacchaeus, declaring, once Zacchaeus had promised to give half his wealth to the poor and make restitution to any he had defrauded, that “Today salvation has come to this house.”

It is Luke that tells of the early Christians selling their property and giving to the poor among them, even holding all their possessions in common. It is Luke that describes the Apostles’ concern for widows in need, ensuring all received sufficient help regardless of cultural background. It is Luke that mentions the concern of believers in Antioch to provide aid for the poor in Jerusalem affected by famine.

If this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then it’s not just Bishop Curry who is guilty of it. That’s Luke the Evangelist implicated as well, and—at least according to Luke—even Jesus himself.

Not bad company, I’d say.

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.