“From sea to sea”: On Canada, the Church, and the Kingdom of God

This post is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday. It was prompted by the reading from Zechariah 9:9-12 in light of both Canada Day and the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly this past week.

Update (July 2018): Here’s the audio of a recent revision of the full sermon:

A mari usque ad mare. “From sea to sea.”

That’s Canada’s motto, a symbol of our national unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic.

Canada Flag 2Most Canadians probably know the motto, but they might not know it comes from Psalm 72. It’s a psalm that was likely part of the coronation liturgy of ancient Israel. It’s a prayer for each new king in David’s dynasty, expressing all the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel with each successive king:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth… (Ps 72:1-8)

It’s quite the prayer, whether for ancient Israel or for twenty-first century Canada. In fact, ancient Israel and modern Canada have a few things in common: both relatively young nations in their eras, both small nations in the shadow of giants, both with big dreams for a glorious future.

While most Canadians might know our nation’s motto, and some might know its biblical origins, I suspect very few are aware that it also comes up in a later biblical book, in a much different setting.

The book is Zechariah, and in Zechariah’s day things were not at all like they used to be. Israel has been divided and conquered, their grand hopes for the future crushed. The people have been cast into exile, and a few have just recently returned from that exile to re-build Jerusalem’s walls and temple.

In many ways this ragged band of Jewish returnees felt much like many Christians feel in Canada today: the glory days are behind us, the days of a sanctuary bursting at the seams, bustling with worshipers and filled with choirs. Like the old-timers in Zechariah’s day who remembered the original temple of Solomon, many among us today remember the old days, and weep (Ezra 3:12).

But here’s what Zechariah does: he takes this ancient song of Israel’s kings and uses it as a powerful symbol of hope for the future:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:9-10)

One day, Zechariah promises, God will come again among his people. One day there will again be an anointed king of Israel who will fulfill those ancient hopes. One day the prayer of Psalm 72 will be answered.

Jesus is this king. So we as Christians believe. The prayer of Psalm 72, the promised answer to that prayer in Zechariah 9—these are fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus is the world’s true Lord and King. Jesus has come to bring justice to the world and peace on earth, the full shalom of God. Jesus has come to bring flourishing life to all God’s creation: a healing of wounds, a restoration of brokenness, a very reversal of death. Jesus is this promised king, who brings in God’s promised kingdom, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what the New Testament means when it declares that “Jesus is the Christ,” the Messiah, or “Jesus is the Son of God.” This is what it means when it proclaims that “Jesus is Lord.” This is what the gospel is all about, “the gospel of the kingdom” or “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But while God’s kingdom will come on earth, this kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). It’s not like any kingdom this world has ever seen, unlike any nation on earth. It operates by a different set of rules, values that are upside-down compared to the values of earthly realms.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the poor are richly blessed, where the sick are freely healed, where the outcasts are at the center.

God’s kingdom is a realm where enemies are loved as neighbours, where neighbours are loved as ourselves, where our selves are denied for the sake of others.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the king is a servant who suffers in love, and that sets the agenda for everything else.

But God’s kingdom is also a realm where real life is found, resurrection life, through that self-giving love.

God’s kingdom is a realm where parties break out when the lost are found, where banquets are laid out for the last and the least.

God’s kingdom is a realm where water for ceremony is turned into wine for celebration.

God’s kingdom is a realm where the whole world is invited: from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, men and women and children of every tribe and nation.

In fact, God’s kingdom is not any nation at all, nor any organization. It’s a perpetual grassroots movement, starting with a ragged band of followers: a tiny seed that grows into a world-shading tree. God’s kingdom is the dynamic reign of God, the Creator God ruling over all creation in love and faithfulness, bringing justice and peace and flourishing life.

MC Canada doveWhat does this all have to do with Canada’s future, and with the future of the church in Canada? Just this: our hope for the future lies in Jesus, the one who truly answers the Psalmist’s prayer and fulfills Zechariah’s expectation, the one who has truly been given all authority from sea to sea.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any nation, even one so glorious and free as Canada—may God keep it so. Should Canada fade from history, should the world map be radically re-drawn, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The kingdom of God cannot be identified with any nation. A nation can reflect kingdom values to a greater or lesser degree, but no nation is the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is bigger than any nation—it has no borders, in fact it breaks down borders of geography and race, economics and social status. God’s kingdom is outside the power structures we create, our governments, our laws, our law enforcement, judicial system—because however good those things may be, they are inevitably abused and corrupted, always in danger of supporting systemic evil.

God’s kingdom is among us as people, not among us as a nation.

Our hope for the future does not lie in any church organization, whether globally or nationally or regionally—or even us locally. Should Mennonite Church Canada or Manitoba be dissolved, should Morden Mennonite Church even cease to be, God’s kingdom would remain. Jesus would still be Lord.

The church is not the kingdom of God.

The church is called to be a witness to God’s kingdom, a signpost of the kingdom, pointing people to God’s dream for the world. Local churches like Morden Mennonite are to be a kind of outpost of God’s kingdom on earth, nurturing the upside-down values of the kingdom, a test plot showing what the kingdom of God can be like.

But God’s kingdom is bigger than any local church, broader than any particular denomination—it encompasses the world.

Our hope for the future lies with Jesus, the world’s true Lord and King. And this means our hope for the future lies in the extent to which we follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom.

Do we truly want to follow the way of Jesus, the way of God’s kingdom? Do we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice? Then let’s count the cost. Let’s ask ourselves some hard questions—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the last and the least among us? The vulnerable, the marginalized, those outside our white, middle-class, heterosexual norm? Who are the lost? The doubting, the confused, the spiritually seeking, even the most egregious sinners?

To the extent that we first the last, feast the least, and find the lost, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are the poor among us? The needy in our community, the homeless in our cities? Who are the sick? The dying, the mentally ill? Who are the outcasts? The elderly, the lonely, the disabled? The refugees, the immigrants, our host indigenous peoples? The convicted criminals, the shamed victims?

To the extent that we richly bless the poor, freely heal the sick, and center ourselves on the outcasts, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

Who are our enemies? Our theological enemies, our political enemies, those difficult people who seem to always be against us, those who seek to harm us? Who are our neighbours? The people next door, the people down the street, the people in that other church, the people in that city next door?

To the extent that we love our enemies as neighbours, and love our neighbours as ourselves, denying ourselves for the sake of others, God’s kingdom is among us—as a nation, and as a church.

These things have nothing to do with how many people we have in our pews or how many programs we have in our church. They have nothing to do with how closely our society’s laws parallel our sexual ethics, or how well Canada’s economy is going. These may well be good things, but they are not signs of the kingdom.

Rather, Jesus says the signs of the kingdom are these: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In other words, the last are first, the least are feasted, the lost are found, enemies and neighbours are loved alike.

To the extent that we do these things as a church and as a nation, God’s kingdom is among us—and Jesus, the world’s true King, reigns from sea to sea to sea, a mari usque ad mare.

May it be so.

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

On Being “Mennonite”

Okay, so being “Mennonite” is not as straightforward as it might seem.

For some, the word “Mennonite” brings to mind plain dress and beards, head coverings and communal living. For others, it means having a “Mennonite” name like Friesen or Wiebe or Dyck. For some it involves speaking low German and eating Borscht with Zwieback as you play the “Mennonite game” of finding all the relatives you have in common.

But Menno Simons himself, the very “Menno” in “Mennonite,” didn’t fit most of these cultural descriptions of “Mennonite.” And neither do most of the Mennonites in the world today, as the video above nicely demonstrates.

So what does it mean to be “Mennonite”?

Like all questions of identity, it’s a complicated one, and different people will answer differently. I am a Mennonite by choice, not by birth, and I’ve reflected on this quite a bit for myself in coming to that decision. If I had to boil “being Mennonite” down to three things, here’s what they would be.

First and foremost, being Mennonite means being committed to Jesus. I know, I know: all Christians are committed to Jesus in some sense, either as God worthy of worship, or as Saviour bringing deliverance from sin, or as Healer of our infirmities and diseases, or otherwise. Mennonites agree with these understandings of Jesus. But Mennonites are distinguished by their commitment to Jesus in a particular sense: we strive to take seriously Jesus as Lord, especially in following Jesus’ teachings and way of life as presented in the Gospels.

This particular commitment to Jesus has several implications. One is that we try to read Scripture with Jesus at the centre. Jesus provides the clearest window on God and God’s will, so we read Scripture to know and follow Jesus, which in turn (we hope) makes us better readers of Scripture. Another is that we refuse to give ultimate allegiance to anything or anyone else, whether nations or political systems or economic structures. We are not anarchists, and we do seek to live within the laws of whatever land we find ourselves in, but Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, not any of these “powers of this age.”

A second commitment flows out of this ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to community. Jesus gathered disciples around himself to be with him and learn from him and follow him, so we as disciples of Jesus continue to gather around him for these same reasons. We see the church as God’s family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, caring for each other. We see the church as Christ’s body, united in our diversity to serve each other and continue Jesus’ kingdom work in the world.

Again, I hear you: all Christians are committed to community in some sense. But Mennonites have taken this commitment as seriously as any other Christian tradition and more seriously than most. Sometimes this serious commitment to community has not been healthy, as some Mennonites have insulated and isolated their communities from the world to such an extent they have been unable to obey Jesus’ call to be salt and light in the world. But some of the most caring, most challenging, most encouraging, most welcoming, and most egalitarian communities I have been involved in or have seen have been Mennonite.

A third commitment stands out for Mennonites, again flowing out of our ultimate commitment to Jesus: being Mennonite means being committed to peace. The Mennonite churches are among the historic “peace churches,” those Christian traditions that have particularly emphasized nonviolence and peacemaking.

This means taking Jesus’ teaching seriously, that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that we are not to resist evil with evil, but with acts of mercy. This means following in Jesus’ path of love and nonviolence: overcoming evil in the world not by violence or aggression, but with self-giving, even suffering, love. This means dedicating ourselves to Jesus’ kingdom vision, seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, yearning and praying and so striving for this kingdom to come on earth: a vision of swords turned into plows, of justice and mercy met together; a vision of good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed; a vision of the least being feasted, the last being first, and the lost being found.

Someone might well think what I’ve described is more generally what it means to be “Anabaptist,” not particularly “Mennonite.” Undoubtedly that’s true: these are really Anabaptist commitments. And I’ve known Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, United Church and other folk who hold these commitments in much the same way I do.

To this I would say, “Praise God!”—though in four-part harmony, slowly, a cappella. (Yes, another Mennonite stereotype, which, like Borscht and Zwieback, I happen to like. So sue me—I’ll give you my cloak.)

But I would also say that, while one can be Anabaptist and Anglican, or a kind of Anabaptist-Catholic, or otherwise bring Anabaptist commitments into conversation with other Christian traditions, it is in being Mennonite that I am most comfortable, and most challenged, in my commitment to peace, my commitment to community, and ultimately my commitment to Jesus.

We Mennonites don’t do this perfectly by any means. Sometimes we mess it up badly. But mostly we do it pretty well.

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

Passive Pacifists?

There are about a zillion misconceptions out there about Mennonites. These include a whole cluster of wrong—or at least very thin—ideas about pacifism. Some of these thin ideas about pacifism even come from Mennonites themselves.

“I’m no pacifist,” I hear people say, with great fervour. “I tell you, if someone was coming after one of my kids with a knife, I wouldn’t be turning the other cheek!”

It’s probably the most visceral objection to pacifism, and it’s certainly a question pacifists need to wrestle with. How would we respond to violent aggression against someone we love?

I’ll get back to the question, but here’s the thing: when we make this our objection to pacifism, it demonstrates we’re thinking about pacifism entirely in the wrong way.

What do I mean by this?

First, the best of Christian pacifism is not just about individuals and each person’s response to violence, but also—in a way, even more—about groups and communities and societies and nations, and our collective attitudes toward violence and use of violence. Yes, collectively we are made up of individuals, and the values we cultivate as individuals will influence or even become the values we insist on as groups. But when we make pacifism into merely a private matter—my own individual response in the face of personal violence against me or mine—we miss the broad scope of the peace God desires for the world.

Turn Other CheekIn fact, Christian pacifists don’t agree on what one should do in our extreme hypothetical scenario above. In saying “Turn the other cheek,” was Jesus speaking only about violence against ourselves? Or would Jesus allow us—or even expect us—to intervene when violence is being committed against someone else? Or, pushing further, in saying “Turn the other cheek,” was Jesus even calling for a passive acceptance of violence against us? Or was this perhaps an illustration of creative resistance—non-violent, yes, but resistance nonetheless—against violent oppressors, taking the sting out of their oppression by maintaining one’s composure, one’s dignity, one’s principled stand, even directly in the face of their attempt at subjugation?

And this leads to a second feature of the best of Christian pacifism: it’s not passive at all, but active. Pacifism is not passive-ism. It is intentionally, creatively, radically active. And it’s not primarily negative—against war, against violence—but positive—it is for peace, it is for justice. The best of Christian pacifism works to create the conditions in which peace and justice can flourish, and it works to resolve conflict and address injustice when peace and justice are floundering. But it does so in the way of Jesus, refusing to play the same game as the oppressors, where coercion and deception and violence are the game’s unwritten rules.

This is no thin view of pacifism. It looks beyond my world to the world around me, encompassing my family, my community, my society, the global village, the entire cosmos. It demands more of me than just a non-response in an extreme situation that, thankfully, few of us in North America will ever have to face. And it reflects much more than just a few red letters of Jesus’ teaching in our Bible—it reflects the larger purposes of God throughout the Scriptures, God’s greater gospel, God’s wider kingdom.

So what would I do if someone was coming after one of my kids with a knife? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know until they’re faced with this. And none of us can stand in judgment on those who have faced such a situation and acted in a way different than our ideals. But I pray that if possible I would be able to resolve things with no harm done to my child, the aggressor, or myself; and if that is not possible, that I would die protecting my child—one whose angel stands in the presence of God—from harm (Matt 18:1-10).

This response, though, while shaped by my pacifist ideals, is not the sum total of my pacifism. In a way it hardly scratches the surface of my pacifism; in a sense it’s not even the best reflection of it.

It’s only the thin edge of a much larger, much wider, much more comprehensive striving for a greater peace throughout God’s Christ-loved, Spirit-haunted world.

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