Seeking the True King: The True Story

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 24, 2017, based on Matthew 2:1-12.

This is a tale of two kings, with two very different kingdoms.

The first is “King Herod,” known to history as “Herod the Great.” A ruthless tyrant, he murdered a wife and some children out of jealousy and suspicion. He is known to history as “the Great” because of his grand building programs—built intentionally to increase his fame, a vain attempt at immortality. Herod had been pronounced “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate. He seized on this title, and despite his impure lineage and dubious religious devotion he called himself “King of the Judeans”—that is, “King of the Jews.”

The second is a baby, called “king of the Jews” by others—he would never, at any time in his life, claim the title himself. This king was born in questionable circumstances himself, though his lineage from the great Israelite kings of old was secure (Matt 1:1-25). He would become known as a prophet like Elijah, speaking truth to power while lifting up the lowly through merciful miracles. He would become known as a teacher like Moses, giving divine instruction from the mountain and further explanation along the way. He was the Messiah, the promised Jewish king who establishes God’s kingdom on earth.

Herod’s kingdom represents the way of the world: concerned with power and privilege and prestige for the few, to hell with the weak and the lowly. Jesus’ kingdom represents the way of God: concerned with compassion and equity and true life for all, to hell with the rich and mighty—should they continue their hellish, destructive ways.

It is precisely at the conjunction of these two kingdoms in history that the Magi arrive on the scene. They are seekers of secret wisdom, and they have seen the signs: a new kingdom is dawning, and the old kingdoms of this world are fading into obscurity. And so, they do what any wise person would do: they pledge allegiance to the greater king and his divine kingdom, child though he be. They offer their kingly gifts to the only worthy king they have met on their journey.

The conflict between these two kingdoms occurs in every generation. The kingdoms of our world—the world’s ways of establishing human relationships, of organizing and governing societies, based around power and privilege and prestige—these kingdoms continue with ever-fading allure. We hear stories of sexual abuse, political deceit, oppressive legislation, and deadly foreign policy—these are the hallmarks of Herod’s kingdom, stumbling into self-destruction.

Yet God’s kingdom—with relationships characterized by humble compassion and geared toward mutual flourishing—this kingdom is evident among us with ever-increasing glory. Will we follow the Magi in bringing our gifts to Jesus, pledging our allegiance to this greater king and his divine kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life for all?

The Sermon on the Mount, Twitter Edition

James Tissot, Jésus enseigne le peuple près de la mer

I’ve just been reflecting on the year-long sermon series I did last year at our church on Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, that wonderful collection of some of Jesus’ core kingdom teachings. It was a series in three parts: the first part walking through “The Beatitudes,” the blessings that open the Sermon; the second part reflecting on the central section of the Sermon as “Lessons in the Way of Love”; and the third part reflecting on certain “spiritual practices” that Jesus refers to in the second half of the Sermon, which I called “Habits of Holy Love.” (Most, if not all, of these sermons are available for listening at the church website here.)

Along the way I created some pithy sayings to summarize some of my thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount. All of them are “tweetable,” able to post in a single Twitter update; some of those I even tweeted along the way. Here they are all collected together.

The Beatitudes

Our encounters with God begin with blessing. “Blessed are…” “Fear not…” “Peace be with you.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

Jesus’ most demanding moral teaching is grounded in grace, founded on mercy. “Blessed are…” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

God’s blessing—favour and flourishing—is for those who need it, and know they need it. “…the poor in spirit.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

All who know true “poverty in spirit”—God’s vision of a flourishing creation was conceived with you in mind. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“Happy” are those who mourn? No, but “blessed”—favoured by God now, sure to flourish one day. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

All who grieve with humanity and all creation over sin and death—you will be comforted. “…those who mourn.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

Lament in the way of the Psalms, in the way of Jesus, is a powerful salve for suffering. “…those who mourn.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

The downtrodden, the stamped-upon, the pressed-into-the-earth—one day that earth will be yours. “…the meek.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“The meek” is not only a “who” it is a “how”—we inherit the earth thru gentle humility not violent aggression. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“They will inherit the earth”=“theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (“Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”) #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for *justice*, for they will be filled.” #kingdomrighteousness #sermononthemount #beatitudes

God’s kingdom “righteousness” = justice = equity = flourishing for all “…hunger and thirst for justice.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

All you persistent, relentless, come-hell-or-high-water justice-seekers—don’t give up! Justice is coming! #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“Justice is what love looks like in public.” – Cornel West “…those who hunger and thirst for justice.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – MLK et al “…they will be filled.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

Be merciful—show compassion and kindness, give and forgive—and others (including God) will return the favour. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

(Of course, God is the one who does this first—“Be merciful just as God is merciful.” Welcome to the mysteries of mercy multiplied.)

“Be merciful just as God is merciful.” In other words “love enemies, give, don’t judge, forgive” (Lk 6:35-38). #sermononthemount #beatitudes

Impurity is not contagious; mercy is. It spreads, and expands, and returns to us. Mercy is the new holiness. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” – Jesus “…blessed are the merciful.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“Blest the pure in heart”—clean from the inside out, not whitewashed tombs who speak holiness but harm others. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

Those who pursue not an outward purity that excludes, but a purity from within that loves—these will see God. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

Want to see God? Know you are beloved by God, and live in God’s love with others. “…pure in heart.” 1Jn3-4 #sermononthemount #beatitudes

God’s favour is upon the peacemakers—not the vengeance-seekers, sword-wielders, and warmongers. #upsidedownkingdom #sermononthemount #beatitudes #peaceweek

You who pray and work for a world in which all can flourish together with God, others, and all creation—you are God’s blessed child. “…the peacemakers.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes #peaceweek

You say you are “born again,” “born of God,” yet justify violence and violate justice? Here’s who God calls “my child”: peacemakers. #sermononthemount #beatitudes #peaceweek

“Persecuted for righteousness” does not mean “opposed for being a jerk.” Jesus isn’t a jerk. Be like Jesus. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

“Persecuted for righteousness” doesn’t mean “persecuted for being right, for believing the right things.” It means “persecuted for doing right by others, for making wrongs right.” Doing justice, in other words. #sermononthemount #beatitudes

If you follow Jesus’ kingdom way of seeking justice and rejecting violence and loving enemies and eating with sinners and forgiving freely and healing indiscriminately—you will make enemies. More people to love. “…persecuted for righteousness.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

If you’re working toward greater justice and peace in the world and people oppose you, even seek to harm you—don’t be surprised. That’s what happens to prophets. “…persecuted for righteousness.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life come from heaven to earth—this is for all who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, seeking justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted for justice. “…theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” #sermononthemount #beatitudes

The Way of Love

Jesus gives us a new Law, a Law which is really a Way, a way of life, the way of love. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

In the way of love, the ends do not justify the means. The means (love) are the ends (love) in the process of becoming. – Zahnd et al #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love is concerned not just with external actions, but with the internal roots of those actions. The way of love nurtures our God-given desires, rightly ordered around faithful devotion to God and compassionate care for others. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love attends to our own hostility toward others. The way of love also pays attention to others’ grievances against us. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love seeks to rectify wrongs and reconcile with others. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love doesn’t treat others as objects to possess, or things that exist to satisfy our desires. The way of love treats all others as persons created in God’s image and loved by God. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love takes our own sin seriously, all the ways we harm others through our attitudes, words, and actions. The way of love doesn’t force others to live a certain way in order to keep us from sinning. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love resists evil and injustice, but not through retaliation or retribution. The way of love unmasks evil by doing good; it overpowers evil through love. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love is the way of forgiveness, of kindness, of blessing—even toward those who oppose us or seek to harm us. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love is never the way of violence. The way of violence is never the way of love. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love nurtures simple sincerity with God and others. It encourages mutual vulnerability with others before God. There is no place for pride or need for deceit in the way of love, including spiritual pride and religious manipulation. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love is the way of justice for all, including (and even especially) economic justice. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

The way of love trusts in God for daily needs, and gives out of that daily bread to others who have need. The way of love is the way of generous simplicity. #sermononthemount #lawoflove

Habits of Holy Love

Prayer centers us on God, our personal, loving Creator, the Mothering Father of us all. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

When we pray we are not merely praying to someone who is like us, only bigger and better; we are praying to God, the one in whom and through whom and for whom we exist. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

God’s will for all things is flourishing life, a life filled with love and peace—and this is exactly what God’s kingdom is all about. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

God’s goal is not to provide us an escape from earth down here to heaven up there. Rather God’s goal is to bring heaven down to earth—and God invites us to participate in the process. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

Provision, forgiveness, and protection—these are kingdom matters, wrapped up in God. And these are not just for each of us individually, but for us collectively, as Jesus’ followers and as a human race. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

“Give us this day our daily bread”: Trust in God for just what you need, no more, just when you need it, not before. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”: Don’t accumulate things; do good deeds. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed”: True life is not about having lots of stuff. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

“Seek first the kingdom of God”: Show allegiance to God and God’s way of justice, and God will take care of you. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return”: Be like God, and give generously to everyone—even beggars, thieves, and enemies! #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

Forgiveness is a necessary part of the very fabric of the universe; it should be as ordinary as breathing, as everyday as eating and drinking. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

We are bound together by the sin that has occurred between us, creating a chain of debt; only forgiveness can break this chain. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

The simple yet necessary liturgy of forgiveness: “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”—and in response—“I forgive you.” #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

Underlying Jesus’ call to faith are these truths: “You are valuable to God. God knows what you need. God will take care of you.” #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

“Humble faith” in the way of Jesus involves both personal trust in God and personal commitment to God’s way. There is a “rest” in faith—resting in God’s love and care—but there is also a “pursuit”—pursuing God’s kingdom vision. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

Persistent prayer. Generous simplicity. Merciful forgiveness. Humble faith. These are not merely the way to become more like Jesus, the way God’s kingdom comes about on earth—they are in fact what Christlikeness and God’s kingdom are all about. #sermononthemount #habitsoflove

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.

The Great Commission: Make Decisions? Make Converts? Or Make Disciples?

I literally cannot count the number of times (bad memory? too few fingers?) I heard sermons on Matthew 28:18-20 in my early adulthood. Every missions conference, every year, there was at least one urgent exhortation to “Go—go, don’t stay!—and make disciples of all nations!”

James Tissot, Christ Sends Out the Seventy

I remember, too, some more nuanced conversations around this “Great Commission” given by Jesus. Did the “go” mean “go!” as in a command to get off your duff and head out into the hinterlands to make disciples? Or did the “go” mean “as you go,” meaning “as you go about your daily lives” make disciples? In other words, do we all have to be missionaries in Africa, or can I stay home?

I also remember some conversations around how exactly we were to “make disciples.” The general gist?

We make disciples by sharing the gospel with people, that is, sharing the good news that Jesus died to take the punishment for their sins and so, if they simply confess their sins and believe Jesus died for them in this way, they can be forgiven by God and have the assurance of eternal life in heaven. This would be followed at some point by baptism, of course—the “baptizing them” clause of the Great Commission.

And then there is to be some “follow-up” to this evangelism. After they’ve made a decision for Jesus, after they have accepted Jesus into their hearts, they should go to church and read their Bibles and pray and strive to live a godly life by God’s grace and power. Ideally someone mentors them in all this. This is the “teaching them” clause of the Great Commission.

At some point, however, this way of understanding the Great Commission didn’t cut it for me. I read and studied the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, and I realized Matthew’s Great Commission didn’t mean what my evangelical guides had taught me it meant.

If sharing that particular version of the gospel is so important for fulfilling the Great Commission, why isn’t that actually stated? (And while we’re on the topic, why isn’t that “penal substitution” version of the gospel found in any of the evangelistic sermons in Acts? or in any of the summary descriptions of the “gospel” anywhere in the New Testament, for that matter?)

What makes baptism the important marker for new Christ-followers in Matthew’s Gospel and not a “decision” or “conversion”? (Pro tip: go back to Matthew’s account of John’s baptism, including John’s baptism of Jesus, and see how that shapes what “baptism” signifies in Matthew’s Gospel. One hint: “repentance” is different than mere “confession.”)

The “teaching them” is qualified by “to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Sure, in Matthew’s Gospel this includes church participation (yes, “church”), prayer, and living in righteousness. But what about all the other things Jesus teaches in Matthew, that are all part of the “everything” Jesus commanded? (Like those uncomfortable bits about hungering for justice, showing mercy, building peace, not retaliating, loving enemies, not serving wealth, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and generally seeking God’s kingdom and justice first.)

And, most importantly, how does this understanding of the Great Commission fit with what Jesus has to say in Matthew’s Gospel about being a “disciple”? (Like that bit about denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus if you want to be his disciple…)

As I asked and answered these questions for myself, I came to the conclusion that modern Christians—and especially evangelical, evangelizing Christians—had made the Great Commission into their own image. The Great Commission means “go and make modern evangelical Christians who will make more evangelical Christians, thus perpetuating evangelicalism unto the end of the age.”

Okay, maybe that’s a bit cynical. But you get my drift.

The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “make decisions for Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t care if we say the right words in the right way—many call him “Lord” but don’t do what he says, or they babble senselessly in prayer. “Decisions for Jesus” and “sinner’s prayers” are meaningless markers, in and of themselves. Stop counting “decisions.”

The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “make converts to Christianity.” Jesus doesn’t care if we call ourselves “Christians” and fit into the religion we call “Christianity”—or “Evangelicals” or “Anabaptists” or “Catholics” or “Mennonites” or whatever. He himself was a practicing Jew. He didn’t come to found a new religion. Stop making converts to your special version of religion.

Rather, the Great Commission calls us to “make disciples of Jesus,” people who will follow the resurrected Jesus in his cross-shaped footsteps, expressing their devoted love of God through their committed, compassionate, peacemaking, justice-seeking love of others—neighbours, strangers, and enemies alike, and especially the last, the least, and the lost in our world.

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.

Scripture and Jesus on Love

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

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

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

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

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Let’s start with a quick survey of some biblical texts. It’s not just that “love” is mentioned a lot in the Bible—that’s true, but it’s more than that. It’s the way love is talked about in the Bible that’s so significant.

Take the Great (or Greatest) Commandment. Here’s Matthew’s version of the story:

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘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 22:35-40; cf. Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18)

Jesus’ response is right in line with similar teachings from other great Rabbis (e.g. Hillel), and the first part is straight out of the Shema, the daily recitation of devout Jews. But Jesus does something distinctive if not novel: he binds a second command to the “greatest and first,” he connects loving people with loving God. These two loves go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other.

The final statement is crucial. All the Law and the Prophets, the Jewish Scriptures, the entire Old Testament—every command, every promise, every story, every poem—hangs on the hook of these two commandments. This two-dimensional love—vertical love for God, horizontal love for others—is the point of everything in Scripture, it is Scripture’s end goal. If we read anything in Scripture in a way that does not lead us to greater love for God and love for others, we have not read Scripture correctly.

The earliest Christians got this. Take Paul in Romans 13:

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. (Rom 13:8-10; cf. Gal 5:14)

What’s the one thing we owe each other? The one, single thing? Love.

And what sums up every commandment God has ever given? I mean, every single one—including commands like “Be holy” or “Speak the truth”? Love.

And what is it that expresses the underlying intention and overarching goal of the Law of Moses, that brings the whole Torah to fruition? Love.

Sounds a whole lot like Jesus to me.

Interesting, too, to note why these things are true: because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Love does not cause harm to others. Put the other way, love brings good to others. Love is life-giving. That’s why love is the fulfillment of the Torah, whose purpose was to bring God’s people life (Deut 30:11-20).

Then take 1 John. This is hard to quote and summarize because these themes of love are woven throughout the letter, but some key texts are 1 John 3:11-20 and 4:7-21. A few highlights:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Strong words, all of them. Yet they are right in line with Jesus’ Great Commandment teaching: love is at the essence of life, at the heart of God’s will for us, and our love for God is inseparable from our love for others. No wonder another text of John’s depicts Jesus saying that love is the hallmark of true disciples of Jesus (John 13:35).

There’s more. Much more.

There’s Jesus teaching on love throughout the Gospels, in all the Gospels. Loving neighbours the same way a Samaritan does (Luke 10:25-37). Loving enemies the same way the Creator does (Matt 5:43-48; cf. Luke 6:27-31). Loving prodigal sinners and self-righteous brothers the same way a Father does (Luke 15:11-32). Loving fellow disciples the same way Jesus does (John 13:34-35).

There’s Paul speaking of love in his letters. That love is the “most excellent way,” a far greater way than seeking knowledge of right doctrine, or pursuing mountaintop spiritual experiences, or striving for an ascetic, avoid-it-all, moral purity (1 Cor 12:31-13:13; cf. 8:1-3). That the “only thing that counts,” the thing that really matters most, is “faith working—or being expressed—through love” (Gal 5:6). That love is the virtue that is “over all” other virtues, that “binds together” all other virtues (Col 3:14), including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (3:5-14).

There’s John’s three-layered love theology that circles through his writings over and over again: the Father loves the Son, the Father loves us through the Son, and so we are to love one another in the way of the Son (e.g. John 15:9-12). There’s James’ Jesus-like description of “fulfilling the royal law found in Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Jas 2:8). There’s Peter’s Paul-like summary: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

It’s everywhere. This bottom-line, heart-of-the-matter, sums-it-all-up kind of perspective on love is everywhere in the New Testament, weaving together threads of love that run through the Old Testament.

Love really is all we need.

But what is this love? What does it look like? That’s the next post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the text from Matthew’s Gospel:

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

This is immediately followed by another seemingly impossible command:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Yoke is Easy” – Really, Jesus?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).

These words have given comfort to many Christians throughout history: whatever the “burdens,” whatever the cause of “soul weariness,” many have heard in these words of Jesus just what they’ve needed to hear. These words are like Psalm 23: comfort food for the soul, regardless of the situation.

Rembrandt ProdigalBut I have to confess these words are not always a comfort to me. I “come to Jesus” in the midst of my world-weariness, carrying emotional or physical or psychological burdens impossible to bear—and I find no rest. I “take on Jesus’ yoke,” seeking to learn from him, to follow his teachings and example—and I find there’s nothing easy about it. And what about all those Christians through history and around the world who have endured hardship after hardship for following Jesus?

Sometimes I hear these words, and I want to say, “Really, Jesus?”

It helps to understand these words in their context. That helps because it gives us some realistic expectations of what Jesus actually promises.

The image of the “yoke,” of course, refers to the way an ox would have a yoke placed on them in order to harness them to a plough—it brings to mind submission and obedience. Later Rabbis referred to students of the Law taking up the “yoke of the Torah”—committing themselves to studying the Law of Moses, to submit to it and obey it.

This metaphor was around well before Jesus’ time, though. Two centuries earlier another Jesus, Jesus ben Sirach, called on his readers to seek wisdom through studying the Torah: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated…Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by” (Sirach 51:23-26).

Jesus’ “yoke,” then, is his particular teaching of Torah, and Matthew is contrasting Jesus’ teaching with the teaching of others.

Matthew’s story continues with some of Jesus’ well-known “Sabbath controversies”: Jesus lets his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, and then Jesus heals a man with a deformed hand on the Sabbath. This, of course, gets Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees, who have strict and precise views on what should and should not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with some direct challenges to their Sabbath teaching: Jesus, the self-giving “Son of Humanity,” is the “Lord of the Sabbath,” and the Sabbath—God’s blessed rest—is about divine mercy, not human judgment (12:1-14).

Now back to Jesus’ comforting words. Jesus promises true Sabbath, God’s blessed rest, to all who take up the yoke of his teaching. This doesn’t mean that following Jesus’ teachings is easy, or that we will never have difficulties in this world—he’s just promised his disciples persecution and rejection (Matt 10:16-39), and his beatitudes have set the stage for a life of hardship and grief (Matt 5:3-12). This doesn’t even mean that we will always have “inner peace” through it all, though we can always trust in God to provide for us even through the difficulties (Matt 6:25-34; 10:26-31).

What Jesus’ promise of rest means is this: following Jesus in the way of Jesus frees you from the burdens of strict and precise ways of righteousness, and the burdens of others’ harsh judgments when you fail to meet those artificial standards.

To put this another way, it means that, like Jesus, we don’t need to dance to the world’s tune: we are free to move to the rhythms of divine mercy, receiving, and giving, God’s welcoming grace. That’s the point of a curious snippet of Jesus’ teaching earlier in the chapter:

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 11:16-19).

So take up the yoke of Jesus’ teaching—follow Jesus, in the way of Jesus, the way of love—and you will find God’s true Sabbath rest, free in God’s mercy to give and receive God’s welcoming grace along with all who need it, even those who least deserve it.

Yes, really.

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

What is the “Narrow Way” of Jesus?

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

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

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

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

And what is this teaching?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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