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.

Jesus and Hell

I preach the good news of Jesus, including Jesus’ way of radical, nonviolent love. As one might expect, I get some pushback on this. “What about sin?” I hear frequently. “What about God’s judgment?” “What about God’s wrath?”

“What about hell?”

Yes, what about hell? After all, Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. There’s this handy bit of practical advice, for example: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Or this lovely bit of encouragement: “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”

I’ll admit that my first thought when I hear these kinds of questions is that if anyone thinks my idea of love doesn’t include ideas of sin and its consequences, they aren’t listening. More on point, though, is this: if we want to understand Jesus on hell, we need to read these Gospel teachings carefully, in context, across the Testaments.

Most of the time in the Gospels, the “hell” Jesus mentions is “Gehenna.” The other times when Jesus refers to a hellish judgment, ideas of “Gehenna” are probably still in the background.

“Gehenna” is a reference to a very particular place—and it’s not some location under the earth run by the devil and staffed by his demons. “Ge-henna” refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” a small valley running along the south and west of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Gehenna today

I’ve been there—there’s nothing hellish about it at all. Nor was there in Jesus’ day.

Sometimes you’ll hear that in Jesus’ day there was a perpetually burning garbage dump in the Hinnom valley. But that’s not the case. This idea seems to have originated from a Rabbi centuries after Jesus. In Jesus’ day there was nothing hellish about Gehenna at all.

What was hellish about the valley of Hinnom was its history. There are several Old Testament passages that describe the hellish history of Gehenna. They’re all similar, but to get a taste of hell let’s focus in on one of these—Jeremiah 7, starting with 7:31:

And they [the people of Judah] go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I [Yahweh, the Lord] did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Here we learn three key points about Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom.

1) The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.

In fact, 2) God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.

And why did God so despise the fires of Gehenna? Because 3) they were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.

But there’s more to the story of Jeremiah 7. The people of Judah are appealing to their own special status before God, hoping this will save them from foreign invasion. “The temple of Yahweh is here!” they cry—as if that will help them. “Look,” they say, “we offer all the proper sacrifices!”—as if that will make a difference.

But any special status they think they have is an illusion, all their acts of righteousness are irrelevant, because they are “oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shedding innocent blood.” They are committing grave injustices against the most vulnerable among them—of which burning their sons and daughters in the fires of Gehenna was the most horrific.

All this explains why the tables turn at the end of the chapter:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

Gehenna back in Moloch’s day

It’s a soul-shuddering reference to Jerusalem’s impending doom, the city’s destruction at the hands of the ruthless Babylonian armies. The people’s religiously righteous acts and supposed special status aren’t going to save them.

And all their injustice, all their oppression, all their senseless violence against the most vulnerable? It’s going to rebound against them in equally horrific fashion, until the valley of Hinnom becomes an enduring symbol of God’s judgment on the self-righteous strong who oppress the marginalized weak.

To our three points about Gehenna’s fires above we can now add three more:

4) Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.

It’s a 5) “reap what you sow” judgment—if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, very natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.

It’s a 6) judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarchies.

With this background on Gehenna in mind, we can now fully appreciate Jesus’ words on hell in the Gospels.

Jesus isn’t talking about a “literal hell” where unrepentant unbelievers go after they die to be tortured in God’s inferno for all eternity.

He’s talking about the violent consequences of our own violent actions, right here in our lived lives, right here in human history.

He’s talking about such consequences especially for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grave injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized.

And he’s talking in particular to the uber-religious, the people who think they’re on God’s side because they believe the right things or do the right rituals—but they burden others with moral demands while doing nothing to help them, they focus on minor moral issues while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and allegiance to God above all other powers that be.

These are sobering words, serious warnings, for every age and certainly our own. But all this is right in line with the good news of Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

After all, there’s nothing more loving, nothing more like Jesus, than standing in solidarity with the powerless, the stepped-upon, the pushed-to-the-side, and standing up to the oppressive powers that be—whatever the cost to ourselves.

And it is this hell of our own harmful actions and their destructive consequences—our sin and all its death—that Jesus has come to save us from. Jesus calls us to leave behind our damaging, violent ways and follow him in his path of compassionate, inclusive, forgiving, self-giving love. If we don’t do this the result will only be death for ourselves, for others, for the world. But if we do this we will find life, full and flourishing life for all.

This is love. This is Jesus. This is good news indeed.

Christians, We’re Bluffing on Love

Christians, I’m calling our bluff.

All of us. Me included.

Pick your hot topic, your emotional issue, your heart-in-throat or blood-pressure-rising reality. Doesn’t matter what it is. Muslims and immigration. LGBTQ inclusion and same-sex marriage. Racism and policing—both north and south of the border. Anything related to politics, religion, or sex, in other words.

In all these things and everything else, Christians on both sides of the conversation polarizing debate throw the word “love” around pretty easily.

But we’re bluffing.

love sinnerSome of us say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.”

Others of us say, “Love, not hate.”

Both are bluffing.

One of us might say, “But I love him/her/them. We should be able to be together.”

Another might say, “But I do love him/her/them. I just don’t like what they do.”

Both are bluffing.

“Love wins.” “Love is love.” “All we need is love.” “I love them—but I don’t need to like them.” “We just need to love each other!”

We say all these things and more about “love,” but we’re bluffing. And I’m calling our bluff.

I say we’re bluffing because we use the word “love” but we’re not actually talking about “love,” at least not Christian love, not the love God shows us in Jesus.

Some of us use the word “love” but we mean “natural attraction.” “I am attracted to him/her/them. We should be able to be together.”

Some of us use the word “love” but we mean a kind of “courteous amiability,” a.k.a. “being nice.” “Be nice to the sinner but hate the sin.”

Some of us use the word “love” but we mean a “permissive tolerance.” “Acceptance, not hate.” “Tolerance wins.”

I get it: these are just the ways we use the word “love” in our world.

And it’s not that these kinds of “love” are bad. They are good, even vital. Who doesn’t smile at the thought of “falling in love”? Who doesn’t think our world needs a greater dose of “niceness,” or a greater willingness to just accept people the way they are?

But none of these, in itself, on its own, is the Christian ideal of “love.” None of these gets at the way “love” is talked about in the New Testament, not fully. None of these is the way God has taught us to love—has in fact loved us—in Jesus.

The problem with all our nice words about “love” is not that they’re necessarily wrong—it’s that they don’t go nearly far enough.

It’s not, “For God so loved the world that God had warm feelings when he thought about us.”

It’s not, “But God demonstrates God’s own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, God gave us a smile as she held the door open for us at the grocery store.”

It’s not, “This is how we know what love is: that Jesus put up with someone with a different skin colour/sexual orientation/[insert social distinction here] living next door.”

No, it’s “For God so loved the world that God gave his one-and-only Son.

It’s “But God demonstrates God’s own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

It’s “This is how we know what love is: that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

For Christians, this is love. It is Jesus-love. It is “Jesus died for us” love. For Christians, “love” is not about natural attraction or permissive tolerance or just “being nice”; it’s about giving oneself for the good of the other, for the good of all.

It’s about suffering and dying for the good of sinners and outcasts, friends and enemies alike. It’s about looking not only to our own interests and needs, but also to the interests and needs of others, even to the needs of all.

It’s about kindness and acceptance and enjoying each other, yes. But it’s also about patience and perseverance when it’s hard, and gentleness and respect when the other person is a jerk, and giving when we’ve got nothing left to give.

That’s why I say we’re bluffing on love. Both conservatives and progressives, both evangelicals and liberals—we talk about love, but we don’t really mean it. Or, more accurately, perhaps, we don’t really know what it means.

If we’re going to say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin,” then here’s our task: leave our comfortable Christian bubble, find the worst sinners we know, get to know them by name, hear their story, share meals with them, share our life with them, give our life for them—all the while being careful not to nurture harmful attitudes and words and actions ourselves.

If we’re going to say, “Love, not hate,” then here’s our task: don’t just “not hate,” don’t just tolerate, but actively give our time and energy and money and skills and more to help those around us flourish, whether it’s trendy or not, whether they’ve earned it or not, whether we agree with them or not, whether they spout hate at us or not, whether we get the credit or not.

If we’re going to say, “But I love him/her/them. We should be able to be together,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Really? I’m ready to commit to them even when the roof is leaking and there’s no money for food until Friday? Even when their body is sagging and our sex life is flagging? Even when they’re old and they smell bad and they can’t move from the chair to the toilet without my help?”

If we’re going to say, “But I do love him/her/them. I just don’t like what they do,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Really? Do we even know what they do? They’re human, so probably they eat and drink and breathe and have sex and laugh and cry and tell stories and make jokes and share meals and do rituals together. Which of these things don’t we like, and why? Do those things even affect us or others? Are they actually even harmful?”

If we’re going to say, “But I do love him/her/them. If they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Really? This is love? ‘Live and let live, just stay out of my way’? What about when they’re hurting, when they’re feeling threatened, when they’re being discriminated against? ‘Let them fight their own battles’—this is love?”

If we’re going to say, “We must love the other—the different, the stranger, even the enemy,” then we should be asking ourselves: “Who is different from us, in any way? Seriously, who do we personally know who is different from us in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, language, whatever? Who is a stranger in our midst, the real-live person who doesn’t fit in? Who is our ‘enemy,’ the flesh-and-blood person who opposes us or wishes us harm? And how can we actively give ourselves for this person’s good, for our common good together?”

Conservative, progressive, fundamentalist, liberal, Evangelical, Anabaptist—whatever kind of Christian we call ourselves, whatever side we find ourselves on in whatever issue, let’s stop bluffing on love. Let’s stop throwing the L-word around so casually. When we say it, let’s really mean it—and let’s know what it means.

Yes, Jesus calls us to love one another. This is indeed The Answer, but it demands much more of us than mere attraction or common courtesy or basic tolerance.

This love demands our very selves.

Frankly, I’m not sure I’m up for it. But I am sure there is no other way forward. And we can start on that way by refusing to bluff on love, by genuinely seeking to follow in the footsteps of the one who loved us first.

You Know, “Love One Another” Really Is Enough

The 4th-century theologian Jerome tells a story about the Apostle John. John was old and frail, unable to walk, so his disciples would carry him into the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day. Every week these were his words to the congregation: “Little children, love one another.”

This went on week after week, until at last, more than a little weary of these repeated words, his disciples asked him, “Master, why do you always say this?”

“Because,” John replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”

We have no way of verifying Jerome’s story, but it certainly sounds like John—that is, the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Those writings are filled with exhortations to love.

I can sympathize with John in this story. I, too, feel the pressure of this regular question: “Michael, why do you always talk about ‘love’?” Sometimes this is simple curiosity, but often the criticism is plain: this teaching, that we are to “love one another,” is somehow seen as insufficient.

That’s odd, quite frankly. After all, Jesus was emphatic about what the greatest commandments of God were: love God and love others, and you can’t have one without the other. In fact, Jesus says, this love of God/others sums up everything else God commands. All Scripture hangs like a seamless coat on this single hook: love God by loving others.

And Jesus’ first followers were equally clear on this. Loving others is the benchmark of genuine faith, they said—if you don’t love others you’re not a true disciple of Jesusyou don’t even truly know God. You want to fulfill God’s Law? Love others, they said, simple as that. The only thing that matters, in fact, is a faith that works itself out in love. Love is the virtue that binds together all other virtues. It is the most excellent way to live. It’s the one thing that remains always and forever.

According to both Jesus and the Apostles, love is it.

So it’s more than a little odd when Christians, whether back in John’s day or our own, get impatient with those of us who emphasize love above all else.

But why do some Christians react this way? Why is a simple insistence on loving others so wearisome, even so aggravating, to some?

Some insist that “love one another” is too wishy-washy. It’s too soft on sin, not strong enough on holiness. What about God’s judgment of sin seen throughout the Bible, after all, even in Jesus’ own teaching?

Others say that “love one another” is too simplistic, too impractical. The world is far too complicated for mere love, especially once we get beyond one-on-one relationships. What place does “love one another” have in the worlds of bottom-line business or high-stakes politics, or in sovereign countries defending their national interests?

These sound like the criticisms Jesus received, come to think of it. “Soft on sin, weak on holiness,” some of the most religious folks muttered around Jesus. “He sets aside God’s commands!” others among them frowned. “Love our enemies? That will only get us crucified by them!” all the “Make Israel Great Again” zealots exclaimed.

Yes, indeed.

I think much of the problem is that we don’t really know the love that Jesus taught, the love that Jesus lived. And if we know this love, we don’t really trust in this love, not really. This can be true of both “sides,” it seems to me, both those who think love alone is the stairway to a heaven of harmonious society, and those who think “love alone” is the highway to a hell of moral relativism.

Many imagine this love to be mere tolerance. They imagine “love one another” to mean “live and let live,” a sort of “Whatever floats your boat, as long as you let me float mine.”

Others imagine this love to be a kind of affection, good feelings toward others. “Love one another,” then, means “Get rid of all that negativity—good vibes for everyone!”

Still others imagine this love to be basic decency. “Be nice to each other, use your manners, be polite”—this is what “Love one another” means.

Now there’s nothing wrong with tolerance, or affection, or basic decency. In fact, these are a bare minimum for being human together, I would think. They’re bottom-line attitudes and behaviours for a functioning human society.

But these, in themselves, are not the love that Jesus taught, the love he lived. Jesus’ love transcends mere feelings of affection, and it’s exponentially harder than simple kindness or even basic tolerance. People don’t get crucified for being nice.

So what is this love that Jesus says is the be-all and end-all of human living? Thankfully we’ve got a lot to go on in the Gospels, both from Jesus’ teaching and from the way he lived.

Love starts with a stance of openness toward another person. It’s like a father scanning the horizon for a long-lost son. It’s like a holy man embracing a lowly child. It’s like a busy healer stopping in a crowd to find the ill woman who touched him.

Love is freely given, expecting nothing in return. It’s like patiently healing crowds of the world’s poorest, no cost to user. It’s like forgiving the sins of society’s worst offenders, no blood sacrifice required.

Love is given whether we feel the recipient deserves it or notneighbours, strangers, sinners, even enemies. It’s like someone welcoming the least among us: clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick. It’s like a despised enemy-of-us compassionately tending the wounds of one-of-us.

Love is giving one’s very self for the other, even when it hurts the giver. It’s like someone standing up to injustice on behalf of the over-burdened, shifting the target to their own back. It’s like a king giving himself to be crucified by an oppressive power in order to save his people from annihilation.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing: giver and receiver, all people, experiencing abundant life together. It’s like a final banquet where the lost and found, the last and first, the least and greatest, all feast together with food enough for all who want to be there.

This is the love Jesus taught. This is the love Jesus lived, all the way to the cross. This 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.

Make no mistake: there’s nothing wishy-washy about this love. It’s damned hard (sorry, but it is). Seriously, think about the people you know. Think about the people you fear. Think about the people you despise. Think about the people you condemn. Then imagine loving them like that.

This love is in no way soft on sin—but it can turn our “sin lists” upside down. Yes, Jesus speaks God’s judgment on human sin. But it is the most religious who earn Jesus’ harshest criticism, especially religious people with power, because they wield their religion like a club instead of spreading it like a salve. Injustice of all kinds gets roundly condemned by Jesus, including injustice masquerading as justice. Jesus stands alongside the most vulnerable in society: the poor, children, foreigners in an ethnocentric world, women in a patriarchal world. Those who abuse their religion, or abuse their power, or otherwise cause harm to the vulnerable—these are the ones who get threatened by Jesus with divine judgment.

In a world of Jesus-love, then, sin and evil still exist—if anything they are even sharper, more pungent. In a world of Jesus-love, sin and evil are things to be actively, albeit non-violently, resisted, even if this demands your very life. In a world of Jesus-love, your own personal sins are for you to repent of, others’ personal sins are for you to forgive, and the world’s public sins are for you to resist.

This love is, in fact, what holiness is really all about. Jesus overturns common conceptions of “clean” and “unclean,” “pure” and “impure,” “holy” and “profane.” Compassion trumps purity, every time. Heal on a holy day? Touch an unclean leper? Share a meal with impure sinners? In all these ways and more, Jesus agrees with the more liberal of his fellow Jews—liberal with love, that is. Mercy is the new holiness.

And this love is the most practical, the most necessary thing in the world.Eye for an eye” is still the norm in our world, whether in our private vendettas, our societal notions of justice, or our national defense strategies. In fact, “eye for an eye” might actually be better than what we often see, which is more about “pre-emptive strikes” and “total war”—both as nations and as individuals (think about that a moment). How long until the whole world is blind?

I’m reminded here of a quote by G. K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” That’s how I hear criticisms that love is simplistic or impractical. We prefer our sanctified greed and justified violence to the narrow path of loving in the way of Jesus. How long until we’re really willing to trust in Jesus alone for our salvation?

I’m with the Apostle John in this: “love one another” really is enough. Who’s with me?