Sin, Salvation, and Climate Action

Excerpted from a sermon at Altona Mennonite Church on September 11, 2022, called “The Gospel for All Creation.”

The Apostle Paul speaks of salvation often as “liberation” or “redemption” from “evil powers.”

For Paul these “evil powers” are forces that control us, yet which seem to be beyond our control. And for Paul the most basic of these evil powers is human sin: our individual habits of harm that wound ourselves and others, and our collective systems of harm that do the same but on a larger scale.

Let me name three of these evil powers that are especially strong within us and among us, causing devastation and destruction and death not just for humanity but for all creation: the sins of pride, greed, and violence.

In our pride, we as humanity have centered ourselves within creation and elevated ourselves above creation, instead of centering the Creator and lifting up creation. In our pride we have subjugated creation for our own ends instead of caring for creation as an end in itself.

For centuries now we as a western, industrialized society have sought to master creation in order to extract as many resources as we can out of it, all for our own purposes without any thought of the impact on the rest of creation, or even future generations. Even when we have known better, as we surely have for decades now, in our arrogance we have downplayed or ignored the problem.

As for greed, our greed as a western society is well-known. We have developed deeply ingrained habits of consumption and accumulation, always striving for more and newer and bigger and better. We have developed an entire economic system dependent upon consumption and accumulation.

This has caused tremendous harm to ourselves as human beings. We have objectified each other, seeing our core identity as producers and consumers and even objects to consume rather than as persons created in God’s image, having inherent worth and dignity regardless of our ability to produce or consume.

But our greed has also caused tremendous harm to the rest of creation. Instead of seeing the earth as a sanctuary created by God for the flourishing of life, the earth is viewed as a repository of resources to be extracted in order to sustain the capitalist engine of production and consumption and accumulation.

The consequences to species and ecosystems, and the impact on vulnerable peoples as the earth heats up, are catastrophic.

Out of our hubris and to sustain our greed, we have committed violence against creation and one another, causing destruction and death. We as so-called “developed” nations have exploited and violated the poorest and most vulnerable among us, including vulnerable ecosystems and species, all in order to maintain our lifestyles of convenience built on consumption and accumulation.

Our pride, our greed, and our violence. These are three of the most evil powers of sin at work both in human hearts and in the structures and systems of our society. And, as Paul says in Romans 8, “the wages of sin is death”: our pride, our greed, and our violence has paid as wages a devastating death not just for humans but also for the rest of creation.

But this is the good news of Jesus Christ: that in Jesus we can be liberated from our pride, our greed, and our violence. We can be liberated from these evil powers that dominate and destroy us and the world which is our home.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Jesus shows us a better way, where we are freed to live in humility and compassion instead of hubris, in simplicity and generosity instead of greed, in ways of justice and peace instead of violence. Jesus taught and lived out these things in resistance to the pride, greed, and violence of his day.

Jesus “humbled himself,” Paul says in another Christ hymn in Philippians 2, “he humbled himself, took on the form of a slave,” and died a slave’s death on a Roman cross.

And this humility was driven by compassion: multiple times the Gospels say that Jesus was “moved by compassion” to respond to the needs of others. Jesus shows us a better way than human pride, a way that prompts us to work together for the good of each other and all creation.

Instead of greed, Jesus taught and lived out simplicity. Freeing ourselves from the need to accumulate more, being freed from the chains of Mammon. Instead, trusting in God for our daily bread: just what we need, no more, just when we need it, not before.

This way of simplicity leads to generosity. Because we can hold our possessions lightly, because we trust that God will provide for us when we need it, we can be generous with what we have when others are in need.

And Jesus taught and lived out the way of nonviolence, living in harmony with one other and all creation: loving both neighbours and enemies, and attending to “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field.” This is a way that resists evil non-violently, walking in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable even if that means a cross.

This is the good news of Jesus: that we can be liberated from the evil powers that dominate and destroy us, including our own pride and greed and violence. And the key to experiencing this good news? It is as Jesus himself said when he first came proclaiming the gospel: “Repent and believe.”

We need to turn away from our habits and systems of harm, our ways of pride and greed and violence—we need to repent.

And we need to believe—not simply “believing certain things to be true,” that’s not what biblical faith is. Rather, biblical faith is trusting in God and committing ourselves to God’s way. Walking in Jesus’ way of faith, walking in Jesus’ way of hope, and walking in Jesus’ way of love.

My friends, here is where the good news of Jesus intersects with our eco-mission as a church: when we live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, when we live out the faith and hope and love of Jesus, when we live out our liberation from pride and greed and violence, we will see creation renewed.

Polarization and the Way of Jesus

Ask pastors and church leaders what their greatest concerns are in these latter days, and one of the words that will float to the top is “polarization.”

There’s little doubt that our society has become more polarized, more afflicted by extremes, less attuned to compromise and middle ground. And the church has followed suit, as it often does, sometimes even leading the way. The political partisanship and the culture clash of left versus right has permeated our congregations and denominations.

Any follower of Jesus worth their salt and light who wants to address polarization is faced with two conflicting beliefs.

On the one hand, we believe that Jesus came to heal divisions, to bring peace between people. Unity is one of our loftiest goals, a unity of the Spirit grounded in Jesus, a unity which does not erase diversity but celebrates it. Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that he might “create in himself one new humanity…thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).

On the other hand, we believe that following Jesus sometimes provokes hostility, even revealing divisions. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks his stunned disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:51-53).

What does the division-healing, division-revealing Spirit of Jesus have to say to us today in our polarized world? Let me suggest one overarching thought that then needs some explanation.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

Let’s step back even further. In case we Jesus-followers need to be reminded of this fact, no human person is ultimately our enemy. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh,” and “we do not wage war as the world does” with its “fleshly weapons” (Eph 6:12; 2 Cor 10:3-4).

This is Jesus’ Nonviolence 101. Humans may participate with the “spiritual forces of evil” in this world, and if so they need to be resisted, but ultimate they are not our enemy. God’s desire is for their redemption, and our redemption is bound up with theirs.

When it comes to how we treat individuals, then, we treat them as Jesus did: with compassion.

Here’s a striking contrast in the Gospels. Jesus speaks harsh, public words denouncing a group of people: woes to the rich oppressors, condemnations of unjust religious leaders (Luke 6:24-25; Matt 23). Yet he still shares meals with these people (Luke 7:36-50), and when he engages with individuals from among those groups he does so with deep compassion for them (John 3:1-15). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit, after all.

However, don’t miss this fact: Jesus does not shy away from speaking strong words against powerful oppressors, even individually. In fact, all his teaching and his healings, his whole way of life, was a subversion of the values of those powerful oppressors. And this brought division in his wake. Ultimately, it led to his crucifixion by the powers that be.

Jesus was a polarizing figure. Yet he was driven by compassion toward all, a devoted love for God expressed in compassionate love for neighbour.

Jesus’ love for all, though, had an important corollary: a strong sense of justice.

Jesus’ compassion for the powerless, impoverished crowds drove him to heal freely, to teach freely about God’s role-reversing reign of justice come near (Matt 9:35-36). The love of God compelled him to follow in the footsteps of the Prophets: denouncing injustice and oppression, pronouncing God’s judgment on unjust oppressors, and proclaiming God’s good news to the poor and liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21).

The love of God drove Jesus to walk in solidarity with the poor, the enslaved, oppressed and conquered peoples, right to the symbolic heart of that oppression: a Roman cross.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

As Christians today we look at polarization and see it as the opposite of peace. Ultimately, yes. There will be no polarization in God’s peaceable kingdom.

However, the path of peace can sometimes run through polarization, because, as Jesus’ life and death remind us, there is no peace without justice. And confronting injustice to create true peace will bring division. It will. Jesus has told us so. Jesus’ life and death has proved it to be so.

Don’t misunderstand me, or worse, Jesus. We can create division by being “jerks for Jesus.” That’s not what Jesus is talking about. That’s not the way of Jesus.

James Tissot, The Sermon of the Beatitudes

But when we patiently, persistently, compassionately seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, we will encounter hostility. Jesus doesn’t call us to a persecution complex, seeing persecution behind every opposition. But make no mistake: those who “hunger and thirst for justice” will be “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:6, 10).

Divisions will be revealed, sometimes gaping chasms of difference in values and goals and ways and means. These divisions will cut across family lines, as Jesus directly says, so we should not be surprised when they sometimes slice through our churches.

And when this happens, we cannot soft-pedal God’s desire for justice in order to create an artificial peace.

We Mennonites are especially prone to this, because in our veneration of peace we often strive to avoid conflict. Or we look for a middle-way compromise between two extremes, mistakenly calling this a “third way.” Thoughtful, empathetic compromise is certainly an important tool for simply getting along with each other in a diverse community. But neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other Apostle advocates for a middle-way compromise when injustice or oppression is on the table.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

To be more biblically precise, death is our enemy. Our sins of harm that create forms of death for others and our world, all the ways we cause harm or hinder well-being through our thoughts and words and actions, or inaction. Our systems and cultures of death that perpetuate these harms on a larger scale: economic inequity, corporate greed, militarism, colonialism, misogyny, racism, and more.

Death, we’re told, is the ultimate enemy, the “last enemy to be destroyed,” thrown deep into the fiery chasm from whence it came (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy that Jesus relentlessly pursued in every healing, every teaching, every interaction with a death-struck person, right through his own death into resurrection life.

And this is our calling as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to be united in the Spirit of Christ, being one in the body of Christ, centred on Jesus. Christian unity is not a unity that merely tries to keep a group of people together regardless of what they value and how they live. Christian unity is being united in walking in the loving, life-giving way of Jesus by the living, life-giving Spirit of Jesus.

All are welcome in this family of God, yes and amen! But this means people who cannot fully welcome the ones our world doesn’t welcome—the impoverished, the marginalized, those most vulnerable to harm, those perpetually oppressed by the powers that be—people who cannot fully welcome these our world calls “least” and “last” can never be fully welcome themselves until they can do so.

When we are complicit in injustice and oppression, complicit in sins of harm and systems of death, Jesus calls us to repentance. And when we repent, when we turn from our death-dealing ways of harm and embrace God’s life-giving ways of compassion and justice, Jesus assures us of God’s forgiveness.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

I am as concerned as any church leader about polarization in our churches and in our society. But polarization itself is not the enemy anymore than flesh-and-blood people on the other side of our divides are the enemy.

I long for churches to be united in the Spirit of Christ to follow the way of Christ, being the body of Christ in the world, seeking first God’s justice-bringing, life-generating reign on earth. May we have wisdom to discern how best to speak and act to bring about this true unity in Christ, and the courage to do so—even if the path to that unity first reveals some deep divisions among us.

Walking Together in Unity

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 31, 2017, based on Ephesians 4.

We live in a divided world, and it seems increasingly to be so. Where once there might have been allowance for nuanced positions that do not fit neatly into an either/or—a “third way,” even—there now seems to be a “you’re either with us or against us” kind of mindset in western society.

“Unity,” in this us-versus-them world, means “absolute solidarity,” “total agreement,” or even “complete uniformity” of belief and practice, whether we are talking about religion or politics or social issues. This “unity” is achieved through acts of power: decisive leadership giving firm direction, backroom deals and deceitful manipulation if necessary, enforced agreement with established dogma, harsh public shaming if someone steps out of line.

 You’re either with us in all things—blessed “unity”—or you’re against us—accursed “other,” beyond the pale.

Ephesians 4:1-16 gives us a very different picture of unity. It is a unity grounded in the simple one-ness of God, yet with a diversity reflected in the complex three-ness of God’s redemptive work. There is one-and-only-one Spirit at work among us all, one-and-only-one Lord to whom we owe our allegiance, one-and-only-one God who is “above all and in all and through all”—therefore we must walk in this one-ness. Yet God the Father’s work is through the Lord Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, who gives manifold gifts to all—therefore we must walk in this many-ness.

This one-yet-many unity is a gift given to us: it already is, we just need to walk in it, to live it out, to “keep” or maintain it. And we maintain this unity of the Spirit “through the bond of peace”: not through power politics or strong-arm tactics, but through Christ-like humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance in love.

Leaders among us are not to lord it over those whom they lead; they are not “the deciders” or “the doers,” or even visionaries with great personal charisma. They are God’s gifts to us, whose sole task is to equip us to do works of service so that we might fully realize our calling to be Christ’s body in the world, continuing Jesus’ mission in the world: the unity of all things (1:9-10), including the reconciliation of all “others” (2:13-18).

What might happen in our world if we fully embraced this radical vision of unity in our churches, instead of the superficial “unity” our world promotes?

#MLK50

It was 50 years ago today that the “shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned about MLK, of course, but growing up in Canada I didn’t learn a lot. And coming of age in the early ’90s as a white Evangelical, what I did learn was that Martin Luther King was one of those “iffy” Christians, one of those “social justice” Christians who didn’t preach the true gospel and whose salvation status was uncertain.

My perspective has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, of course, and over the last 10 years I have deliberately engaged MLK’s writing and preaching, learning from his life and legacy. He was a flawed man, no question, but he was just as certainly one of the great lights of the twentieth century, even of all human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., has appeared in my preaching several times over the past few years. Here are the times he also made it into my blogging. Rest in peace, MLK, until the coming of our Lord and the renewal of all things, and the dream is fully realized.

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.

Christianity is Far More Radical than You (or I) Think

Not my family. But that food looks good.

I like having my family gathered together around the table, eating together, just being together. I like the puns that banter to and fro, the laughter and groans that ensue. I like the spontaneous singing that erupts, or the complex table rhythms that generate from one person’s tap-tap-tippety-tap. I like the conversations about life and learning and love.

I like having good food to eat, clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, comfortable clothes to wear. I like having a spacious home, and I like most of the stuff in it: gizmos and gadgets that cook and bake and clean and entertain and inform and communicate. And books, lots of books.

I like being able to live my life relatively free of fear of violence or destitution. I like being able to meet with whomever I want, to do pretty much whatever we want, including worshiping the God we believe in in the way that we want. I like being able to think and speak freely without thinking someone might harm me or my family (well, I guess there were those two times).

In other words, I like my rights and freedoms. I like my safety and security. I like my comforts. And I’m pretty sure most of us white middle-class Christians in North America feel the same way.

But there’s a problem with this: it keeps us from truly hearing and living out the radical message of Jesus, the radical message of the gospel.

Here’s Jesus, giving the “altar call” of his gospel proclamation:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:34-36)

This is no altar call like we might be used to. This is no “pray the Sinner’s Prayer and you’ll be saved,” no “read your Bible and go to church and you’ll get rid of those nasty habits”—but otherwise carry on with your lives, business (and pleasure) as usual.

Every Jew in Jesus’ day knew what it meant to “deny oneself.” They heard it every year in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Denying oneself” was equivalent to “fasting” and related to “Sabbath-keeping.” It meant voluntarily giving up your work and your food, giving up the basic necessities and comforts of life and the means by which those are attained, in devotion to God.

And every Jew—indeed, every conquered people in the Roman Empire—knew what it meant to “take up one’s cross.” They saw it with inhuman frequency outside the major cities on the edges of Empire. “Taking up one’s cross” meant carrying a cross-beam to the outskirts of the city, where one would then be suspended from that beam on a post or tree until one died. It meant condemnation and execution. It meant shameful, painful, and certain death.

And “following Jesus”? It soon became clear what that meant, for not too long after Jesus said these words he himself “denied himself”—gave up his rights and privileges in devotion to God—and “took up his cross”—was executed in condemnation and shame and excruciating pain.

This is Jesus’ “altar call.” This is Jesus’ call for response to the gospel of God’s kingdom.

And it is gospel, it is “good news.” I know, it might not sound like it, not to our modern western ears. But Jesus says that if we do this—if we “lose our lives” in this way—we will in fact gain life. And if we don’t do this—if we instead seek to “preserve our lives,” our lives of comfort and security—we will in fact lose our lives in the end.

It’s a paradox, right at the heart of the gospel. Here’s how I understand this.

We naturally and rightly desire justice, peace, health, security, comfort—flourishing life—for ourselves and those close to us. But fulfilling those desires for ourselves often means impeding others from fulfilling those same basic human desires: our peace and security come at the expense of others’ welfare, our comfortable lives are made possible by others’ lives of hardship, and so on.

In our day, these “others” are often outside our immediate vision. They can even be on the other side of the world. Faceless. Nameless. Poor. Not-white. They suffer so that we might have all the comforts of home.

In the long run this system cannot be sustained. Whether on a personal level or a global scale, in the end the comfortable and well-fed will lose their lives of relative abundance. It’s inevitable. And then the scales will tip, the down will move up, the up will move down, and it starts all over again.

Into this never-ending cycle of inequity, even injustice and oppression, Jesus speaks these words: “Deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me. Only if you lose your life in this way will you save it.” It is only if we give up our privileges and comforts for the good of others, only if we let go of our claim to our own rights and freedoms for the good of all, that we can experience the true life God desires for us.

Lentz - Christ of MaryknollIn other words, if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet, the only way forward is to follow the self-denying, self-giving way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, then, we would hold our possessions loosely, living simply. We might even sell all we have and give the money to the poor.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would also hold our rights and privileges loosely, living free of expectation and entitlement. We might even stand up for the rights of others at great cost to ourselves.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would seek out society’s cast-offs, those clinging to the bottom rung, and lift them up alongside us. We might even, if necessary, switch places with them.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would forgive, forgive, and forgive again. We might even walk the extra mile and do good things for those who hate us, even our outright enemies.

I’ll be honest: I don’t think I can do this. We all—myself included—are pretty good at justifying our comfortable existence. And we all—myself included—are pretty well attached to our life of relative ease.

I like my coffee, my housecoat, my family gathered around, my home and clothes and food and drink and health and safety and security and freedom.

Yet Jesus’ gospel call always stands before me. It calls me perpetually to repentance, my self-justified selfishness laid bare. It summons me always, over and over again, to a better way, a better way to be human in the world. It beckons me onward to a life of devoted faith in God, selfless love for others, and enduring hope for justice and peace and abundant life for all.

Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing

I have been teaching the Bible and writing about Christian theology in various ways, in a variety of settings, for over twenty years now. This has mostly been a rewarding task. I love learning new things or discovering new ways of seeing things, and I love seeing the same light bulb turn on for others. But this has also, at times, proven to be disheartening, even tremendously discouraging.

So why is it that I keep teaching and preaching? Why do I keep blogging and writing? Well, beyond the basic fascination I have with the Bible and theology, deeper than the enjoyment I get from interacting with others about these things, there is simply this: our world—including we who are Christians—desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am convinced of this: the gospel is our only hope. Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

“Wait a minute, Michael. That sounds so exclusive, so fundamentalist even. I thought you were one of those progressives.”

Well, I don’t know what box I fit into, to be honest. I say a hearty “Amen!” to all the gospel texts—John 3:16, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” “There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved,” “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” and more. Yet I’m convinced that many modern understandings of the gospel are in fact misunderstandings of the gospel.

While I would be delighted to have more and more people claiming to be followers of Jesus, I’m far more concerned about having more and more people actually following Jesus. While I would be thrilled to have crowds of people claiming the name of Jesus, I’m far more interested in seeing human beings—regardless of their religion—living out the way of Jesus. This is, in fact, the point of the Great Commission: not to make converts to a religion, but to make disciples of Jesus.

And when I hear key Bible words like “salvation” and “life,” I don’t hear these as “salvation from hell to heaven” or “living forever with God after death.” Yes, we have the promise of being “with the Lord” beyond death. But the biblical language of “salvation” is about rescue and restoration: rescuing us from all the ways we harm ourselves, others, and our world (our “sin,” in other words) and restoring us and all humanity and all creation to the way God originally intended things to be. This is why these words, “salvation” and “life,” are so often connected to other key words in the Bible: God’s “kingdom,” “new creation,” “justice,” “peace,” “liberation,” “reconciliation,” and more.

So here’s what I mean when I say “the gospel is our only hope” and that “Jesus offers us the only way to true life”: if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—salvation, in other words—the only way forward is to follow the way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” teaching can be summarized with the word “love”: we are to love God with every dimension of our being, and we are to love other persons as we love ourselves. These two loves are inseparable: our love for God is shown by our love for others. Jesus taught that loving others means giving ourselves for their good, even when this means sacrifice or suffering for us. He taught that those whom we are to love include not only persons who are like us, but also those who are different from us, even those who are opposed to us, who may even wish us harm.

Jesus’ gospel teaching on love included the way of peace. This way of peace is the difficult path of nonviolent resistance to sin and evil powers: resisting harmful attitudes, words, and actions both within ourselves individually and among us collectively, in order to effect positive change; but doing so in creative, nonviolent ways that seek restoration and reconciliation and not retribution, ways that may involve the voluntary suffering of oneself in order to bring about a greater good for all.

Jesus’ way of love and peace requires a devoted faith in God: freely committing ourselves to the God who is love, whatever may come. It also requires a resilient hope in God: persistently trusting in God to bring about good even, potentially, through our own suffering and death.

All this Jesus not only taught, he lived it out: forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, showing compassion, healing freely, standing up to oppressive powers-that-be, even enduring suffering and death because of sin and evil, ultimately experiencing true justice and peace and flourishing life through death, having been resurrected by God. Jesus taught the gospel, and he lived out the gospel—and so he modeled the gospel and planted the seed of the gospel in the world.

If we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—true salvation—the only way forward is to follow this way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus: loving God through loving others, nonviolently resisting sin and evil both in ourselves and in the world, trusting in God to bring about good among us and in the world through this way of Jesus.

This is what I mean when I say that the gospel is our only hope. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

And this is why I do not cease teaching and writing. This is what motivates me to keep on keeping on, even when I get discouraged, even in the face of opposition. Our world is filled with too much bigotry, cruelty, injustice, and oppression, for me to stop speaking the gospel. There are too many different being excluded, too many vulnerable being exploited, too many sick who are dying and poor who are trampled on for me to stop teaching the way of Jesus. There is too much guilt and shame and ignorance and fear for me to stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

menno-simonsAll you Mennonite history buffs will know that I’ve pilfered the title of this blog post from Menno Simons himself. He wrote a tract with this title, and some of the themes of my blog post are echoes of the original Menno Simons tract (other themes from his tract I’m happy to leave aside). Let me conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes from the very Menno in Mennonite:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

And then Simons’ concluding words:

Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.

Amen, brother Menno. Amen.

What is “Pacifism”?

Pacifism is on the way out in some circles, even as it’s trending in others.

I’m certainly not the first or the only one to have noticed this. Many churches and individuals with historic or traditional ties to pacifism are shrugging off that label, while many others are trying pacifism on for size, and liking the fit very much.

A large part of what’s going on in all this is that “pacifism” means different things to different people.

For some it is associated almost entirely with “conscientious objection,” refusing to participate in military service or specifically combat roles. For many it is understood to be all about “nonresistance,” passively accepting harm done to you even if unjustly deserved. Most of the people that I’ve talked to who have rejected pacifism have understood it in one of these ways.

However, those who are newly embracing pacifism—the “new pacifists,” one might say—see these understandings of “pacifism” as far too narrow, and perhaps even missing the point. In fact, because of those common understandings of the term—along with connotations of “cowardice” and the like—many neo-Anabaptists and other “new pacifists” prefer not to use the word “pacifism” at all.

I’m one of those “new pacifists” or neo-Anabaptists. Sure, I grew up going to an evangelical Anabaptist church, but my thinking there was shaped more toward evangelicalism than Anabaptism. It was not until much later, when I began studying and teaching the New Testament in an academic context, that I found myself articulating an Anabaptist theology—including pacifism.

So what do I mean when I talk about “pacifism”? If it’s more than “conscientious objection,” if it’s not about “nonresistance,” if it’s got nothing to do with “cowardice,” what is it?

Here’s my attempt to encapsulate “pacifism” in a nutshell—more technically, this is a “theistic pacifism,” even a “Christian pacifism” shaped very much by my understanding of Jesus and the Christian gospel:

God’s goal for all things is a comprehensive peace: humans living in harmony with God, one another, and the rest of creation, together experiencing the flourishing life of God. God uses peaceful means to achieve that goal, and calls us to do the same: resisting evil nonviolently, including the sin within us, the sins against us, and the systemic or structural sin among us as human societies; seeking reconciliation with others across all divisions and despite all harms; and building relationships and social structures and systems that promote harmony and well-being and flourishing life for all people and all creation.

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

MLK and “The Things that Make for Peace”

On December 20, 2015, I preached a sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on “The Things that Make for Peace.” I’ve excerpted some of that sermon already in a previous post, but in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. I’m posting another excerpt, my conclusion to that sermon.

Many of you will know that a month ago I went to a theological conference down in Atlanta. While I was there I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church Martin Luther King grew up in, the church he served as pastor for part of his career.

MLK Light LoveAs I’ve been reflecting on these “things that make for peace” this week, I’ve been reminded of Martin Luther King and his struggle for racial justice in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. King developed several principles of nonviolent resistance—principles of peacemaking, in other words—that sound a whole lot like what I’ve just described from Luke’s Gospel. This is no coincidence, as King based these principles in large part on the life and teachings of Jesus.

First, Martin Luther King emphasized that peacemaking is not passive, and it’s not for cowards. To use King’s words, peacemaking “is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” This takes tremendous moral courage, because it means standing against evil on one side while facing ridicule on the other. This takes tremendous inner strength, because it means resisting violence and injustice without resorting to violence or injustice oneself.

Another of King’s principles of peacemaking: in his words, it is “directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.” The goal is to defeat injustice, not unjust persons. The goal is to defeat fear and ignorance and hatred, not fearful or ignorant or hateful persons. The goal is to bring peace, what King called the “beloved community.”

Here’s the next of MLK’s principles: we must be willing to accept suffering without retaliation. How can we do this? King says “the answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive.” The goal is to reduce or even eliminate unearned suffering for everyone; but sometimes, this requires that some people—or even just one person—needs to suffer unjustly before the eyes of the world in order to bring about that redemptive transformation.

Underlying these principles of peacemaking are two further principles, spiritual principles. In King’s words, this brand of nonviolent peacemaking “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.” There’s an important correlation between inner peace and outward peace: peace among us requires peace within us.

We need to know forgiveness ourselves in order to forgive others. We need to have empathy awoken within ourselves if we want to have compassion for others. We need to rid our hearts of hatred if we want to see the world rid of violence. We need peace in our own souls if we hope to have lasting peace in society.

And underlying all this is one final principle: the principle of faith. This peacemaking, King says, is “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.” In our active struggle for peace, a struggle that may require our own suffering, we must believe that “there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”

You see, Martin Luther King realized something that many of us miss: God has already revealed his peace in Jesus. God has shown us “the things that make for peace.” God has laid out for all to see God’s “way of peace,” peace within us, peace among us.

The question is, will we walk in it? Will we “recognize the things that make for peace”? Will we follow Jesus in “the way of peace”? Or does Jesus weep over us as he wept over Jerusalem?

May God give us eyes to see the path of peace laid out for us in Jesus. And may God give us the faith, the hope, the love—the moral courage and selfless compassion—to trust in God’s way of peace and walk in Jesus’ way of love.

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

“The Things that Make for Peace”

“Peace? Sure, we have peace. Jesus brings us peace with God. But no more war? Not in this world!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this sentiment. Not necessarily in those exact words, but the idea has been repeated so many times it’s become a truism.

“Yes, Jesus came to bring peace: peace with God and peace with each other. But while we can have peace with God now, which gives us peace in our hearts, and while we should strive for peace with each other, we need Jesus to come back before that ‘no more conflict, no more violence, no more war’ thing can become reality.”

Hogwash, I say.

Jesus has given us everything we need for peace now, peace in every way. Either we just don’t realize it, or we don’t really believe it.

At least, that’s how Luke describes things.

In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is the well-known Advent-y story of John the Baptist’s birth. His father, the priest Zechariah, had been struck dumb during Elizabeth’s pregnancy. But now that the child is born and named he bursts out in praise of God. In the middle of all the hubbub, Zechariah speaks this prophecy:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah’s prophecy is linking back to Isaiah 40, the “Comfort, comfort my people” passage. And that prophecy, Isaiah 40, is written for Israel in Exile, scattered among the nations, immersed in a world of violence and oppression and injustice and fear. A world, in other words, that needed peace.

So here’s what Isaiah promised, and what Zechariah repeats: Good news! Yahweh, the God of Israel, is coming! The Lord, the Most High, is coming, and we must get ready! His coming will be like the coming of the dawn for a dark and dying world! His coming will bring salvation from our most ominous enemies, forgiveness from our most devastating and destructive sins! He will guide us in the way of peace!

What a promise! Imagine if, in our world of darkness and death, our world of genocide and carpet bombs, our world of armed robberies and hate crimes, our own hearts soaked in fear and anxiety—imagine if those words were said to us today. Don’t worry! Someone is coming who will show you how to have peace—peace within you, peace among you!

This is the first of Luke’s peace prophecies—exactly what that world needed, exactly what our world needs.

Simonet - Jesus Weeps Over JerusalemBut jump ahead now to a second peace prophecy, this one in Luke 19. It’s the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. After years of intense ministry, Jesus is coming to his God-ordained end. And as he sees the city and its glorious temple, the jewel of his people, Jesus weeps. He weeps, and speaks this prophecy:

If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.

Jesus is speaking of the future destruction of Jerusalem, which happened within a generation of his prediction. The Roman armies indeed set up ramparts around Jerusalem and laid siege to the city. The citizens of Jerusalem were indeed crushed to the ground, they and their children within them. The city and its glorious temple were indeed pulled down, stone by stone by massive stone.

And why did that happen? According to Jesus here in Luke, because the people “did not recognize the time of their visitation from God.” They did not recognize “the things that make for peace.”

Luke is linking Jesus’ prophecy here to Zechariah’s prophecy back in chapter one. There, God is coming, God’s visitation is near. Here, God’s visitation has happened, but they’ve missed it. There, God in his coming would “guide their feet into the way of peace.” Here, God has come, but they have missed “the things that make for peace”—and so they would find themselves on the wrong side of a bloody, destructive war.

These two passages—one looking ahead to Jesus’ ministry, the other looking back at it—suggest that the “way of peace,” the “things that make for peace,” have in fact already been revealed during Jesus’ earthly ministry. According to Luke, then, if we want to know the “things that make for peace,” if we want to know God’s “way of peace” for the world, we need to look back at all those peace-making things Jesus has already done.

Here’s just a few of these “lessons in the way of peace” Luke’s Jesus has taught.

Luke 3: Jesus is baptized by John, anointed by the Spirit and appointed by God. He is God’s Son, the Messiah, the King who will bring in God’s kingdom, but he is also the well-pleasing Servant of Isaiah, who will bring about God’s purposes through suffering and death. The lesson? The way of peace is a path of self-giving, maybe even suffering.

Luke 4: Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, three times. He says no to satisfying his own needs through his power. He says no to keeping himself safe because of his special status. He says no to ruling over the world if it means venerating evil. The lesson? The way of peace requires us to resist the temptation to bring about even good things through raw power or evil means, or by putting our own provision and protection ahead of others.

Luke 5-6: Jesus heals any who are sick, laying hands on them, touching them in compassion in spite of any regulations about clean and unclean, in spite of any laws about Sabbath and holy days. The lesson? The way of peace is a way of compassion, choosing compassion over fear, choosing compassion over rules, choosing compassion regardless of what society thinks.

Tissot - Jesus TeachingLuke 6: Jesus pronounces both blessings and woes, and it’s absolutely the opposite of what we expect: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, are the blessed ones, while the rich, the full, the laughing, are warned with woe. And then Jesus keeps the surprises coming: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Give to everyone who asks. Do not judge, but instead forgive. In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” The lesson? The way of peace requires us to embrace the other, even the completely opposite other, with generous love.

Luke 11: Jesus teaches his followers to pray. “Father, you are holy. May your rule be established on earth. Provide for all of us, all our daily needs. Forgive all of us, all our sins, as we forgive each other. Protect all of us, from every evil.” The lesson? The way of peace means recognizing that we’re all in this together, one humanity under God, and basic provision and security and mercy for one requires provision and security and mercy for all.

Luke 12: Jesus teaches his followers to trust, and not to fear. “Don’t put your trust in riches, things that spoil and fade! Don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body but not touch the soul! Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear! Trust in God, who watches over even the smallest sparrow and clothes even the simplest flower.” The lesson? The way of peace is a path of faith, patiently trusting in God for all things and through all things.

These, and more, are Jesus’ lessons in the “way of peace.” Show compassion. Be generous. Reject violence and fear. Don’t judge others. Forgive them. Remember, we’re all in this together. In all things, trust in God.

In Luke’s Gospel these “things that make for peace” are repeated over and over, in many different ways. Deny yourself and take up your cross, daily. Love others like a good Samaritan. Joyfully embrace repentant sinners like a father of a prodigal son returned. Attend to those on the lowest rungs of society: the poor man outside your gates, the children sitting along the edges. Trust in God for the long haul, like a farmer patiently waiting for that little mustard seed to grow, like a baker patiently waiting for that yeast to do its work.

Simple things, but so hard to put into practice moment by moment and day by day. They go against the grain of our “fight or flight” instincts. They run counter to our inclination to fear, to judge, to lash out, to look out for number one. Yet these are the “things that make for peace,” these are God’s “way of peace,” peace within us, and peace among us.

Jesus has already brought everything we need for peace, in every way. And yet here we are, two thousand years later, still fighting wars and telling rumours of wars, still engaged in global conflicts and petty catfights, still resorting to physical and psychological and verbal and emotional violence against one another.

Will we learn “the things that make for peace”? Will we learn God’s “way of peace” through Jesus?

Or does Jesus weep over us as he wept over Jerusalem, because we too refuse to recognize the time of God’s visitation two thousand years ago, bringing God’s way of peace?

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on December 20, 2015. For more from this sermon see my follow-up post, “MLK and ‘The Things that Make for Peace.'” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl