David and David’s Son on Love and Power

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

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

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

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

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

The Trinitarian Gospel of Paul

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17).

I love Paul’s angle on the gospel here. This is good news for a prodigal child, as we all are in some way. It’s good news for one who returns thinking they’ll live as a slave, only to have their Abba run out to meet them with a full embrace and insist that, not only are they a beloved child, they are a full heir. Bring on the music and dancing! Let the angels rejoice!

You might think the whole “suffering” theme puts a bit of a damper on this party. But when we read on we find that this suffering is the suffering of Christ as he joins in solidarity with the suffering of the world, even all creation. Jesus in his life and death walked in solidarity with the most wounded of sufferers and outcast of sinners. We are invited to join in this suffering in solidarity with the world, so that all people might one day recognize the truth of their belovedness as God’s children. Cue the music once again! Look at those angels dance!

This, then, is the Trinitarian gospel of Paul in Romans 8: we who walk in suffering and sin are beloved children of God the Father, joint heirs with Christ the Son, birthed of the Holy Spirit. May this good news prompt us to praise and stir us to step out in faith and hope and love this week.

The Not-So-Nice, Not-So-Safe Spirit of God

We have walked with the resurrected Jesus to his ascension and exaltation, and now this coming Sunday we are at Pentecost. Naturally, then, our lectionary texts for this Sunday are filled with references to the Spirit.

Mennonites haven’t been entirely sure what to do with Pentecost, I’d say. To be honest, we haven’t always been sure what to do with the Spirit. Yes, we have developed our nice, safe ways of interpreting the Pentecost coming of the Spirit, mostly around things like “God’s presence is with us” and a lot of stuff about “communal discernment” as the work of the Spirit.

But I’m struck by this reality regarding the Spirit in our upcoming lectionary texts: the Spirit isn’t “nice and safe.”

When the Spirit comes in Acts 2, there are tongues of fire and the sound of a rushing wind (in southern Manitoba these days, this doesn’t sound all that safe). There is a cacophony of voices and languages, exuberantly declaring God’s praises (in most of our Mennonite churches, this would be frowned upon).

There is a declaration of the Spirit’s prophetic presence, falling on old and young, women and men equally (it’s dangerous having one prophet, let alone a whole church full of them, crossing gender and class lines). There is a cut-to-the-heart repentance for complicity with state violence, and a radical turn to a generous and simple common life, a life held together by breaking bread and prayers and the teaching about Jesus (in our nationalistic and capitalistic society, these things are far from safe).

And that’s just Acts 2.

Elsewhere in our Scripture texts, the coming of the Spirit brings sudden life out of dusty, dry-bones death (Psalm 104, politicized in Ezekiel 37 as the return of conquered and enslaved Israel from exile). The Spirit groans with us in our deepest griefs and longings—indeed with all creation, groaning under the weight of human greed and hubris—anticipating with hope the fullness of redemption (Romans 8). The Spirit convicts the world of its harmful ways and guides Jesus’ followers into the fullness of truth regarding Jesus and his justice-bringing ways of love (John 16).

It turns out that while the Spirit is unquestionably good, the Spirit is not necessarily safe. While the Spirit does make us secure in God’s love, the Spirit does not guarantee our physical or social security. While the Spirit does bring us comfort, the coming of the Spirit is not comfortable. The wind of the Spirit blows the doors off our categories, it shatters our illusions and self-delusions, it turns power on its head and our world’s values upside-down.

As we enter Pentecost, let’s attune ourselves to the true Pentecost Spirit in our churches and in the world around us: the not-so-nice, not-so-safe Spirit of God. And let’s ask ourselves: how, then, can we support one another as we follow this dangerous Pentecost Spirit into the world?

Dwelling Embodied in the World

I’m writing this in our new house, looking out at a busy West End intersection. Busy—and it’s Sunday. During a pandemic lockdown.

We’re not in Morden anymore, Toto.

In the first day of our initial “campout” in the new place, I’ve seen ambulances wail by, heard fire trucks head out, watched intoxicated men stumble past, witnessed meth users yelling at their invisible demons. I’ve also seen young moms pushing strollers with toddlers in tow, and couples out for a walk with their dogs. I’ve met our next-door neighbours, a courageous immigrant mother caring for half a dozen friendly children on her own.

Cars whiz by on their way from Point A to Point B, unaware of the menagerie of life on this single block in inner city Winnipeg.

I hear this word from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the prayer of Jesus for his disciples: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15,18).

We aren’t called to whiz by the messy reality of life from Point A to Point B. We are called to live life incarnate, like Jesus, dwelling embodied in the stuff of earth. For us, now, this will mean dwelling embodied in this West End neighbourhood.

I’m also reminded of “the world” we are leaving behind in Morden. It’s no more the “rural haven” many imagine than West End Winnipeg is the “urban blight” everyone thinks it is. Within those immaculate rural homes there are untold stories of domestic and sexual abuse. The quiet streets and friendly smiles paper over the evidence of a toxic mix of unaddressed poverty and racism. And don’t get me started on anti-vaxxer religion.

“The world” is all around us, whether in Winnipeg or beyond the perimeter. “The world”—in all its dappled shadows and light, all its many-hued array of goodness and evil, love and harm. May we have courage to follow Jesus in fully dwelling embodied in the world in which we live, exposing the shadows with grace as we bear witness to the light in love.

Living and Loving in the Way of Jesus

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  (1 John 3:16-17).

The whole passage from this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings is worth reading: 1 John 3:16-24. It’s a good summary of what the Christian faith is all about.

It’s all there: a focus on Jesus, on his life and teachings of love, on his death as the ultimate example of love, on his resurrection presence in which we abide, alongside a call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, praying boldly and relying on the Spirit to love not with mere words but “in truth and action.”

The passage reminds me of words from earlier in the Elder’s sermon-letter: “By this we may be sure that we are in [Jesus]: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:5-6).

And this in turn reminds me of the famous words of early Anabaptist Hans Denck: “No one may truly know Christ except one who follows him in life.”

May we keep it simple in our Christian lives: day by day focusing on living and loving in the way of Jesus. In this moment, and now in this moment, and now in this: how can I live out the love of Christ for those around me, for the person right in front of me?

Love Builds Up

Looking ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, I’m struck by the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.

It’s a fairly well known text, but a strange one. Paul is dealing with the issue of meat that has been sacrificed to a god or goddess in one of Corinth’s many temples. Corinthian Christians could get this meat at a discount in the local market. Should they buy it? Should they eat it? Should they eat it if someone offers it to them in their home? Should they attend a feast in one of these temples, and eat this meat there? (Should I eat it in a house? Should I eat it with a mouse?)

We all know what it’s like to live and worship together with others who have different religious sensibilities than ours. The thing that really matters to that person might not matter at all to me. But then there’s that thing which I think is really important—why can’t this person see how important it is? So much of church life is navigating these diverse sensibilities, around liturgy, mission, theology, and whether Henry should really be the one leading the singing over Zoom since God knows he can never hit those high E-flats.

The words that struck me this time are the words Paul opens with: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

How often does my knowledge, my certainty that I am right, puff me up in arrogant condescension of others? How often, then, do I miss the knowledge which is really most necessary—the knowledge of God through love? When we act in love for God—devotion to God through compassion for others—then we find we not only know God truly, we are truly and fully known by God.

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.