Communion: Open or Closed?

Who should be allowed to receive communion?

It’s a question that comes up frequently in church circles, occasionally bursting into mainstream media. Among Mennonites, the question is typically framed like this: should the Lord’s Supper be “closed” only to the baptized, or should it be “open” to the un-baptized?*

Both sides are motivated by good impulses.

The best impulse of the closed communion folks is to protect abused, violated, or at-risk people among them from being forced to share the Lord’s Table with their oppressors. The best impulse of the open communion folks is to ensure that those often pushed out of church circles are welcome to share in the full life of the church. One side wants to protect the vulnerable, the other wants to remove barriers for the marginalized.

Of course, there are less admirable impulses on both sides as well.

Closed communion churches can be motivated by a desire of the powerful to maintain the status quo, gatekeeping to keep out undesirables. Open communion churches can be motivated by a bland form of acceptance or tolerance, unwilling to hold to account those among them living lives based on abuse of power, violence, greed, or injustice.

A simplistic “the Bible is clear on this” is another less-than-admirable motivation. It’s also not true.

Closed communion churches tend to point to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. The wealthy among the Corinthian believers had been coming to their shared meals early, filling up on food and wine and leaving nothing for the poorer Christians who had to work until late. Paul’s words are harsh and pointed: this abuse of the poor is a travesty of the Lord’s Supper, and the wealthy offenders must “examine themselves” to root out greed and inequity and “discern the body” of which all are equal members.

Yet Paul doesn’t tie his comments to baptism. Sure, it’s likely nearly everyone present at these communion meals was baptized. After all, baptism in Corinth, like elsewhere among the first generation of Christians, was probably as straightforward as professing belief in Jesus and being baptized as soon after as possible. But still, while Paul elsewhere does ground ethical appeals in baptism, he doesn’t do so with the Lord’s Supper. This could be because Paul in 1 Corinthians is reluctant to make too much of baptism: it was one of the things people were using to distinguish their partisan takes on Christian faith and life, aligning themselves with the one who baptized them. We may wish to ground communion theologically in baptism, but there’s no direct basis in 1 Corinthians (or anywhere in the New Testament, for that matter) for doing so.

Open communion churches tend to point to the stories of Jesus’ shared meals in the Gospels. Jesus became known as a “friend of sinners” and a “glutton and drunkard” because of his meals with those considered “least” and “last” and “lost” by the powers-that-be, turning patron-client and honour-shame conventions around meals on their head. He likewise told stories of God’s reign being like a meal in which those on the lowest rungs of society were welcomed. And the Last Supper, on which the Lord’s Supper is based, was a hodge-podge of disciples, sinners and tax-collectors and oft-despised Galileans themselves.

Yet the Last Supper doesn’t provide a perfect example of an “open” meal. While women disciples may have been present on the periphery, only male disciples are mentioned at table with Jesus. And yes, Jesus broke bread with a tax collector who had been on the side of Roman oppression and at least one Zealot who had been on the side of violence in opposition to Rome, but Jesus had called them to repentance and had lived and taught a radical alternative to these opposites. And sure, Jesus knowingly broke bread with both his denier and his betrayer, yet that act in itself could not keep these men from their actions. In fact, as closed-communion advocate Melissa Florer-Bixler has wryly noted, John’s Gospel pointedly states that it was “after [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.”

No, the Bible is not as clear on open versus closed communion as we might like it to be.

Still, these biblical texts highlight at least two realities all Mennonites (and all Christians) should take to heart.

First, regardless of a church’s stance on communion, we are called both to hold abusers of power to account and to remove barriers for the marginalized. We can tie these into our theology and practice of communion if we wish, but we had better be doing more than that in our wider theology and practice as a church. If unjust oppressors only feel uneasy when it comes time for communion, or if those cast aside by society only feel welcome when it comes time for communion, we’re not doing church right.

And second, Paul’s approach to baptism and communion strikes me as more Mennonite than some Mennonites. Some among us have almost made an idol of baptism and/or communion, even if we’re now more tolerant than we used to be about modes of baptism or ways of doing communion. Paul’s reluctance to make much of baptism in 1 Corinthians when he does so elsewhere is one of several examples of his ad hoc pastoral theology. Consistent, Paul was not. Or rather, Paul was guided by underlying values that overrode his commitment to particular forms or rituals.

And this, my Mennonite friends, is a very Mennonite way to approach church life. Our early Mennonite and other Anabaptist forebears were among the “radical Reformers,” striving for faithfulness to the words and ways of Jesus beyond any other form of religious (or political, economic, cultural, social) commitment.

If one congregation discerns that in their context closed communion allows them to live more faithfully to the way of Jesus, then peace be upon them. Likewise if a congregation discerns that open communion is where they need to be to follow Jesus faithfully in their setting: may they be blessed in this.

If, however, your church is making this decision out of more base impulses—powerful people gatekeeping those deemed undesirable, an unwillingness to confront injustice or abuse, even “the Bible is clear” or “it’s in our Confession of Faith” or “we’ve always done it this way”—then I encourage you to re-visit this question.

Regardless of where we end up as churches on open versus closed communion, may we be motivated by the love of Jesus, a way of love that pays special attention to the disempowered and calls to account the powerful, that seeks to orient our way of life together around God’s ways of equity and justice, so that we might all together participate in God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

*I realize there are other ways of defining “open” and “closed” communion, but for Mennonites baptism is where the line is typically drawn. I realize, too, that this debate is not confined to Mennonites, and that sometimes the question is whether a baptized member can be refused communion.

Eugène Burnand, The Great Banquet

Following Jesus Is Not Enough

Okay, let me start by saying I really do believe following Jesus is “enough,” in the sense that “following Jesus” nicely sums up what it means to be a Christian. Following Jesus in his teachings and way of life, united with him in his death and resurrection, and so being conformed by the Spirit to the image of God’s Son—this is what being a Christian means.

But here’s the problem: “following Jesus” can so easily be used to mean whatever we want it to mean.

We pick and choose which teachings of Jesus we think are really important. We make morality solely about inward intentions or private sexuality. We make the cross about an individual transaction with God. We view the resurrection as something still to come, no bearing on the here and now.

And then we can go on amassing our possessions, condemning “sinners,” ignoring the poor at our gates, and otherwise living in stark contrast to the way of Jesus.

It’s a well-worn path, a broad road even, this individualizing and privatizing and genericizing and spiritualizing of “following Jesus,” so we can justify our comfort and privilege, maintain our sense of piety and morality, and otherwise feel good about the life we lead.

It’s a path I find myself on often.

And so we need something to help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus,” to be “united with Christ,” to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son.”

Here’s where I’ve been helped by Black theologians like James Cone, by feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, by liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez. Here’s where the practical theology of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. has been important to me.

It’s from these followers of Jesus and others like them that I have learned of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

“The poor” in biblical context does not simply refer to the financially destitute. The phrase is aligned with “widows” and “orphans,” “aliens” and “strangers.” Jesus used words like “last” and “least” to refer to these children of God who were left at the bottom rung of society. “The poor” is often used, then, as a kind of cipher for all who are impoverished in power—economic power, yes, but also political power, social power, the power to change one’s circumstances for their wellbeing.

“Remembering the poor”—in the sense of “paying attention to those who are impoverished in power”—was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It was a crucial emphasis of his teaching. It was the way he lived. It gives greater meaning to the cross as God’s solidarity with the powerless, the evil-oppressed. It brings Jesus’ resurrection, God’s life-giving liberation, into the here and now.

This divine attention to the impoverished in power is the lens that can help us focus what it means to “follow Jesus.” When we “remember the poor” as we follow Jesus, we begin to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. We pay attention to those marginalized or even oppressed by powerful forces beyond their control, both spiritual and material. We see the ways we might be complicit with these powerful forces, whether by circumstance or by choice. We are Spirit-prompted to repent of this complicity and to walk in solidarity with the power-impoverished, even if it means a cross.

All this recalibrates our love of God and neighbour. It realigns our sense of morality and our ethics. It reforms our theology and heightens our worship. It draws us more closely to the way of Jesus. It unites us in practical ways with Christ in his death and resurrection, revealing us to be conformed to the image of Christ.

“Remembering the poor” helps us to follow Jesus. And this is indeed enough.

Reframing Unity

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

It’s an appeal for unity that sounds tailor-made for polarized congregations today. Churches are divided over LGBTQ+ inclusion, COVID precautions, rights and freedoms, penal substitution, critical race theory… It feels like too many things to name.

When we hear this appeal to “be of the same mind,” we probably think this means being in agreement about a set of beliefs or having the same positions on the important issues of the day. For many of us, this is what unity in the church looks like: it’s when everyone fully agrees on crucial doctrines or pressing social issues.

When there is disunity, then (meaning divisive disagreement on positions or beliefs), the typical appeal is for each side to listen to the other, to understand the other’s point of view, even to seek a compromise position or “middle way” (sometimes mistakenly labeled a “third way”—more on this later). In this understanding, both sides need to give a little if there’s going to be unity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to others and trying hard to understand their point of view. In fact, that’s crucial to living well with each other in any community. That’s also how we learn and grow.

But I’d like to suggest a different way of understanding unity, a reframing of unity that is better rooted in Paul’s language of being “of the same mind.”

Because here’s the thing: Paul never calls on divided congregations to come to a middle-ground compromise. Even more, Paul’s language of “being of the same mind” is not about “thinking the same way about doctrine or issues.” Rather, it’s about having a particular kind of “mind”: the “mind of Christ.”

The “one mind” we are to be “in accord” with is the “mind”—the way of thinking and living, the way of being—which Jesus displayed. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (Phil 2:5)—and then goes on to describe what this “mind of Christ” is.

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that divests ourselves of our individual power and privilege for the good of others, just as Jesus “emptied himself” of his divine status and prerogatives in becoming human for our liberation (2:5-7).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that enters into the life and suffering of the most disempowered and underprivileged, just as Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and even died a slave’s death, a conquered and oppressed people’s death—“death on a cross” (2:7-8).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that does all this to bring about a divine reversal, where those who have experienced oppression by the powers of our age enter with Jesus into his resurrection life and glorious exaltation (2:9-11).

Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

This is the “same mind,” the “one mind” which Paul has called the Philippians to be “in accord” with (2:2). This is the mind which Paul himself strives to enter into, living in Christ’s sufferings in order to enter Christ’s resurrection life (3:7-14). And this is the “same mind” which Paul urges mature Christians to hold—“and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15).

There’s no compromise sought here, no middle way between two apparently uncompromising positions. It’s a genuine “third way,” an alternative to two contrasting perspectives, and Paul expects full buy-in to this third-way “mind of Christ.”

Christian unity, then, is not about agreement with a Confession of Faith. It’s not about agreement with a set of positions on social issues. Confessions of faith are useful as theological guides, and it can at times be vital for us to take a particular stance on a significant issue in our world. But Christian unity isn’t found in our strong agreement with a set of doctrines or positions.

Being “united in Christ” is about our shared commitment to walk together in the way of Jesus, his liberating way of love. We are united in Christ when we commit together to hold our power lightly in our interactions with each other, to walk in humility and patience, kindness and compassion, with those who are different from us, especially with those who hold less power or privilege than we do. We are united in Christ when we commit together to pay attention to the marginalized and disempowered among us and around us, to walk in solidarity with these considered “last,” “least,” or “lost” in society toward justice and peace and flourishing life. This is “the Spirit of Christ” in which we are united, the Spirit who shapes us individually and collectively into the image of Jesus Christ.

Rather than asking two opposing “sides” in a congregation to get together and find a compromise position for the sake of unity, we’d be much better off with the whole congregation asking a few pointed questions:

  • What power and privilege do we hold—do I hold—within this congregation, within this community, this society?
  • How can we—and I myself—hold that power and privilege lightly as we walk with each other in humility, patience, kindness, and compassion, especially with those who are different from us?
  • Who are the genuinely disempowered and underprivileged, those who have historically or regularly been most vulnerable to actual physical and mental and spiritual harm, among us in this congregation and around us in this community?
  • How can we—and I—give up our power and privilege in order to empower these disempowered among us and around us, in order to walk in solidarity with them—knowing we will suffer with them, knowing we will be changed in the process—in order to bring about greater justice and more flourishing life for them and ultimately for all of us together?

When this is our shared stance, our shared way of thinking and living, our shared way of being—our “one mind”—then we can truly say we have discovered “unity in Christ.” May we, like Paul, “press on to make this our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own” (Phil 3:12).


Edited since originally posted. For some thoughts on parallels in other Pauline letters, including thoughts on how diversity works within this unity, see my comment below.

“Remember the Poor”

“Remember the poor.”

Those are the words of the Jerusalem apostles—Simon Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John—to the Apostle Paul (Galatians 2:10). In his preaching of his gospel to the Gentiles, these first witnesses to Jesus wanted an assurance from Paul that he would do this one thing: “Remember the poor.”

Theologians speak of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that, because God is love, God pays particular attention to the poor. God acts especially on behalf of the poor, because they especially need God’s help. We see this emphasis throughout the Bible. The Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms all highlight concern for “the poor” alongside “widows and orphans,” often also including “the alien” or “the stranger.”

The apostles’ appeal to Paul to “remember the poor” is likely a specific reference to the poor in Jerusalem, a group that included a high proportion of widows (Acts 6:1). In the Gospels, Jesus focuses his ministry on “the last,” “the least,” and “the lost,” groups that include people who were sick, outcast, indebted, and imprisoned.

These descriptions suggest that “the poor” does not simply refer to the financially destitute. Or we might better say that various forms of poverty—a poverty of belonging, of support, of health, of respect, of purpose, really a poverty of power—intersect with economic poverty in significant ways. And so the God who is love pursues economic and social justice for the poor, seeking the empowerment of all who are impoverished.

Remember the poor.

This is a vital instruction for us in our evangelism or outreach, a necessary reminder that we cannot separate “evangelism” from “social justice” as some Christians attempt to do. It is also an important guide for us as we navigate group dynamics in our churches and communities.

If God is on the side of the powerless (Luke 1:46-55), if the gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18-19), if the poor hold God’s blessing and God’s kingdom (Luke 6:10), if in the impoverished in power we see the face of Jesus (Matthew 25:34-40), then it is vital for us as Christians to pay attention to power dynamics among us. In every situation we face, in every decision before us, we should ask ourselves, “Who holds power here? Who has less power here, or is even powerless?”

Power, in this sense, is one’s ability to shape circumstances to meet one’s basic human needs and the needs of others: physical needs like food and water, clothing and housing, health and safety and security; social needs related to belonging, loving and being loved; and spiritual needs like making sense of the world and one’s place in it, connecting to a purpose larger than oneself.

We acquire this social power in many ways, often simply because of who we are. In most Canadian social contexts, men have greater social power than women, white people have greater power than BIPOC, cisgender heterosexual people have more than LGBTQ+ people, adults have more than children, the middle-aged more than the elderly, the non-disabled more than persons with disabilities, the neurotypical person more than the neurodivergent, the wealthy more than the poor, those with approved pedigrees more than those without.

Our social power—the ability to shape circumstances to meet our needs and the needs of others—is a function of where we sit at the intersection of these diverse factors, and our power can vary depending on the particular situation.

All this means it is critical for us, in any given situation, to be aware of how we hold power, what gives us this power, and how our use of this social power affects others, especially those who are powerless. And then, following the way of God, we need to empower these who are impoverished in power. This is God’s kingdom way of justice, which we are to seek first before our own material needs (Matthew 6:33).

Remember the poor.

In our council and board meetings, in each decision we make—remember the poor.

In our congregational care meetings, our mission discussions, our visioning processes—remember the poor.

In our worship and communion, our preaching and teaching, our fellowship and service—remember the poor.

In our discerning of what love demands from us this day—remember the poor.

Attend to those who are impoverished in power. Remember the poor.

May our lives echo Paul’s own response to this challenge: “This is the very thing we are eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).

Published in Canadian Mennonite 25, no. 24 (2021): 14.

God Regards the Lowly

A sermon preached at Glenlea Mennonite Church on June 6, 2021.

The Queen, the Golden Boy, and the Children’s Shoes

This past week I went to the Manitoba Legislature.

It was my first time there, the first time I had ever walked the grounds. They are beautiful, with their lush green lawns and expansive spaces. Soon the flower beds will all be planted and the grounds will be even more beautiful.

And, of course, there’s the magnificent architecture and decoration. Statues of important people adorn grounds and building, from nameless soldiers to the Famous Five, from Louis Riel to Queen Elizabeth II.

There’s Queen Victoria on her throne, holding her royal sceptre in one hand and her royal orb in the other, symbolizing her reign over the British Empire throughout the earth as the representative of Christ.

And wrapped around her feet is a plain orange cloth, with children’s teddy bears collected at its base, framed by simple wooden crosses bound with orange ribbons.

Sculpted into the façade on the north side of the Leg there are the symbols of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, with a woman representing Manitoba in the very centre, in the position of authority.

And on the grass below is a tipi with orange flags, the words “Bringing our children home” painted on its side.

High above Queen Victoria  and Lady Manitoba there’s the Golden Boy, the god Mercury, the god of Prosperity. He faces the north, with all its raw minerals and forests and mighty rivers, ready to harness these for Manitoba’s wealth and success.

And far below, on the steps of the Legislature, there are hundreds of children’s shoes laid out, interspersed with other trinkets of innocent childhood. A sacred fire burns, tended by Indigenous elders and volunteers.

As you’ll now have guessed, I was at the Leg for the vigil this past week for the 215 children whose remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. It was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve ever had.

I stood in front of those shoes, transfixed. There was a pair of shoes just like the ones our son Michael wore when he was a boy. There was a monkey teddy bear just like the one our son Matthew used to sleep with. There was a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic bag, ready for a student’s lunch. There was an apple, polished to give to a teacher. Sounds of living Indigenous children echoed around me as they played on those beautiful grounds.

All so very normal.

Yet what happened to these 215 children, and thousands more like them, was not anything that should ever be normal. Taken from their families. Forced to renounce their language, their culture, their identity. Many of them beaten, some of them raped. These 215 killed through disease or malnutrition or abuse, their families never told.

When I got to the sacred fire, I took my pinch of tobacco (with my left hand, because it’s closer to the heart), I spoke my name to the fire, and then all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

I stood there on these grounds filled with their imagery of colonialism, from Queen Victoria to the Golden Boy, yet dotted with these symbols of the colonized, the colonized themselves scattered around me, and I could only say, “I’m sorry.”

Where was God in the midst of all this? Was God in the Queen, the British Empire’s proclaimed representative of Christ on earth?

Where is God right now? Is God in the Manitoba Legislature, with its power propped up by its daily Judeo-Christian prayer, its Golden Boy still focused on extracting prosperity from the earth?

“God Regards the Lowly”

The words from one of our lectionary texts for today, Psalm 138, speak to me in these questions. Maybe they will speak to you as well. Listen to verses 4-6 once again:

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of God’s ways,
for great is the glory of God.
For though God is on high, God regards the lowly;
but the proud and mighty God perceives from far away.

It’s quite the image. All the royalty of the earth is gathered before the Creator God: kings and queens, emperors and empresses, lords and pharaohs, earthly rulers of all kinds. And in this image, all these mighty ones praise the one true and living God, the Creator. They have heard the words of God’s mouth, God’s supreme law, and so they sing of God’s power and righteousness.

So far even Queen Victoria in all her powerful state would have agreed with this. Like all Christian monarchs through history, she saw herself as under the power and authority of God—the only monarch to which she would bow. Like all Christian monarchs before her and since, Queen Victoria gave praise to God as the High King above all kings and queens of the earth, the Great King whose word is supreme law.

But I can’t help but wonder how Queen Victoria might have thought of the rest of this passage.

“Great is the glory of God,” the Psalm says, then goes on to define “God’s glory” in an unexpected way.

The glory of God is not that God is great and powerful, though this is true.

The glory of God is not that God’s words are reliable and authoritative, though this is also true.

Rather, the glory of God is that “even though God is on high, God regards the lowly.” The “proud and mighty God perceive from far away,” but God regards the lowly. This is the glory of God.

This is the glory of God. That the almighty God, the Creator of all things, hears the cries of the oppressed, sees injustice committed against the dispossessed, pays close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and comes to them, walks with them, strengthens them, and lifts them up toward wholeness.

And this, in David’s vision, is ultimately why the “kings of the earth” shall praise God. Because they will one day see God’s glory, the glory of the God who regards the lowly.

I would dare say that this would have been harder for Queen Victoria to hear, and most other Christian monarchs through history. Especially when Jesus shows us the full implications of this view of God, when King Jesus shows us the full glory of God.

The Glory of God in Jesus

“We have seen God’s glory,” John says in his Gospel, in John 1:14. And how has John seen God’s glory? “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The eternal Word of God—the Word behind all the true and trustworthy words of God spoken through Moses and the Prophets, spoken in creation—this eternal Word of God has become flesh and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah, our King. This is how we, too, have seen the glory of God.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus bearing the burdens of the sick and the disabled, bringing healing to those who most need it, who can’t give him anything for it.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus welcoming the children, embracing them in joyful, protective love, naming them heirs of God’s kingdom.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus reaching out to the outcast, pulling in the pushed-aside, honouring the shamed, forgiving the repentant sinner.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus blessing the poor and the pressed-down, walking in solidarity with them, naming them, also, heirs of God’s kingdom.

The glory of God, that God regards the lowly—seen in Jesus walking in solidarity with these wounded and humbled and outcast and shamed and sinners and poor and oppressed, all the way to the cross—a criminal’s death, a slave’s death, a shameful death, a death for oppressed and dispossessed peoples.

Jesus not only lives in solidarity with the lowly, he dies in solidarity with them.

It is in these ways that we see most clearly the glory of God in Jesus, the glory of the God who regards the lowly above the proud and mighty. The glory of God is in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of love.

God With #215IndigenousChildren

So, where was God when these 215 children were neglected, perhaps beaten, perhaps raped, dying without their mothers and fathers?

Was God in the Queen, the British Empire’s proclaimed representative of Christ on earth? Was God in the Prime Minister or in the Department of Indian Affairs, the orchestrator and perpetuators of these schools? Was God in the residential school principals and teachers who allowed these things to happen, even, for some of them, directly causing these things to happen? Was God with the mighty?

As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we must say “No.” God was with these powerful people only as much as God is everywhere, with everyone.

But God regards the lowly. God in Jesus walks in solidarity with the lowly. God in Jesus walks with the crucified.

So where was God? God was with the children. God was in their suffering, in their wounds, in their cries of pain and anger, in their tears of loneliness and rejection. God was with the children. They were the very least of “the least of these,” in whom we see Jesus, whom we are called to clothe and feed and welcome and protect in the way of Jesus.

And so, I must ask, where is God right now? Is God in the Manitoba Legislature, with its power propped up by daily Christian prayer, its Golden Boy still focused on extracting prosperity from the earth? Is God in other powerful people, in other human systems of power and prestige, in the wealthy and the esteemed?

God is where God has always been. God is with the children. God is with the widow and orphan. God is with the poor and stranger. God is with the suffering. God is with the outcast. God is with the least of these. God is with the lowly.

The almighty God, the Creator of all things, hears the cries of the oppressed, sees injustice committed against the dispossessed, pays close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and comes to them, walks with them, strengthens them, and lifts them up toward wholeness. This is where God is. This is the glory of God.

And so, my friends in Christ, this is where we must be. If we want to be with God, if we want to reflect the glory of God as those in the image of God, if we want to walk in the way of Jesus, we, too, must regard the lowly above the powerful.

We, too, must hear the cries of the oppressed, we must see the injustices committed against the dispossessed, we must pay close attention to the most vulnerable and powerless—and then we must go to them, walk with them, strengthen them, and lift them up toward wholeness.

May we have the courage to walk in this way of Jesus, his way of the cross, his way of love, and so prove ourselves to be his disciples. And, as we do this, may we be encouraged by two profound realities: Jesus has promised that when we walk in Jesus’ way of love, the way of his cross, that we will then find true life; and, Jesus has promised to be with us all the way, strengthened by his Spirit, until the very end of the age. Amen.

The Glory of God: Walking with the Lowly

“All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God.
    for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of God’s ways,
    for great is the glory of God.
For though God is high, God regards the lowly;
    but the haughty God perceives from far away.” (Ps 138:4-6)

In this psalm of David, what is it that especially makes the kings of the earth praise the God of Israel, the one true and living God? They “hear the words of God’s mouth,” yes, God’s Torah words of justice and equity. But ultimately it is that, “though God is high, God regards the lowly.”

What makes the powers-that-be in this world really sit up and take notice of God is not that God is more exalted than they are (which is true), it is that even in God’s exalted state God pays special attention to the lowly: the weak, the suffering, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the dispossessed. This is “the glory of God.”

I’m not sure how often this is true, that the powerful of this world—presidents and prime ministers, the super-wealthy and those celebrity influencers—admire God because God loves the lowly. Maybe, as David says, this will happen some day yet future.

Nevertheless, this is what we should sit up and take notice about God. As God’s people, we praise God for God’s words to us—as Christians especially God’s living Word, Jesus—but even more we praise God because God pays special attention to the lowly. This is “the glory of God” revealed to us in Jesus, and this is the divine glory which we are called to reflect as image-bearers of God.

When we are among the lowly, may we be encouraged to know that God’s eye is upon us, God’s ear is attuned to our cries, and we are held in God’s loving hands. And when we are not among the lowly, may we reflect this glory of God by walking in these ways of God with the lowly among us and around us.

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Or, another way to put it: Who are the commandments for? Who is being expected to obey these commandments?

For most Christians, the assumption is that these are universal moral laws: they are for everyone. The “you” in the Ten Commandments is “every person.”

This can make a lot of sense—with some of these commands. We read, “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” or “You shall not steal,” and it can make perfect sense to hear these as “You—every person—must not do these things.”

But other commandments complicate this assumption.

Take the commandment to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Exod 20:8-10).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? If you still think it’s “every person,” go back and read that last bit again.

Or, take the commandment not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? Or, more appropriately, who’s the “neighbour”?

The “you,” and the “neighbour,” in these commandments is not “every person.” It’s not a universal “you.” The “you” does not include wives, sons or daughters, male or female slaves, or resident foreigners. The “you” here has a wife, sons and daughters, and male and female slaves.

The “you” in these commandments is a man, not a woman or a child. The “you” is a free man, not a slave. The “you” is a property-owning free man, a free man with a “household,” not someone landless and without wealth.

I’ve pointed this out in different teaching contexts, and responses range from bemusement to confusion to shock to denial. Even with the text staring them in the face, some insist that the “you” in the Ten Commandments must be “every person.”

“That’s your interpretation,” they say.

“Read it again,” I say. “That’s the text.”

Now, my point in raising this in teaching contexts is not to deny that the Ten Commandments have any ongoing moral relevance. I believe they do.

Rather, my point is that there is no straight line between the text of Scripture and what it means for us today. We do need to interpret the text—we all do anyway, actually, whether we realize it or not—and if we want to interpret the text well we must grapple with the reality of Scripture’s ancient cultural contexts.

And a big part of this is grappling with the various forms of patriarchy that underlie every single book in our Bibles.

This is disconcerting for us, even disturbing. And it should be.

The Ten Commandments assume—and even support—a patriarchy centred on free men with households, including wives, children, slaves, and other property. This is a slaveholding society, a society which allowed not only bonded servitude to pay a debt but also chattel slavery of conquered foreigners (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). It’s a society in which women are, at least in some sense, the “property” of a man: their father, then their husband (Exod 20:17; Numbers 30; Deut 22:13-21).

This should be disturbing for us.

And it’s not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes—and often supports—a similar form of patriarchy centred on free men with households, including subject wives and owned slaves. “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, like Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’” (1 Pet 3:1-6). “Slaves, obey your masters in everything” (Col 3:22).

This should be disturbing for us.

But running right through the Bible, from Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a parallel thread highlighting God’s concern for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Actually, it’s even stronger than that: there is a thread running through the Bible that emphasizes God’s solidarity with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Even the Ten Commandments, which assume and support a slave-owning, patriarchal society, open with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The God of Israel is the God of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Any other “god” is not the true and living God, the Creator-of-All, the Redeemer-from-Slavery, the Sustainer-of-the-Oppressed.

Here’s a good way to see this biblical thread represented in a single passage. According to Luke’s Gospel, these are the words of Jesus in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

I say these are the words of Jesus through the Evangelist Luke (Luke 4:18-19), but this is Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2), and referencing the Year of Jubilee in the Law of Moses (Lev 25). From Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a thread through the Bible that highlights God’s concern for, even God’s solidarity with, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The poor in a world of shocking economic disparity. The incarcerated in a world of authoritarian violence against minorities. The disabled in an ableist world. The indigenous in a colonized world. The queer in a heteronormative world.

And women in a patriarchal world.

The “you” in the Ten Commandments is not “every person”; it is people with power, especially men with power, people who need a law to restrain the abuse of their power.

But God is decidedly on the side of the powerless. The God who is enthroned in the heavens comes down to the lowest of the lowly, and dwells with them, and takes up their cause, and overthrows the powerful who violate the powerless.

This is how God is revealed in the Law and the Prophets. And this is how God is revealed in Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to use to his advantage,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even execution on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

Trial by Fire

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 14, 2018, based on Daniel 3.

When I was a child this was one of my favorite Bible stories. There’s an evil king with a fiery furnace, a supreme act of heroic courage, and the good guys win in the end. The heroes even have uber-cool names: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” What 10-year old wouldn’t like this story?

Even as adults, the story appeals to our natural desire for a clear “evil” and an obvious “good.” You don’t have to get far into the Ten Commandments to know that bowing down to a 90-foot idol is probably a bad idea.

If only the idols of our world were so easy to identify. If only avoiding idolatry in our day and age were as straightforward (if still as demanding) as this story suggests.

One way into this story for us is to reflect on two ideas: “civil religion” and “civil disobedience.” Civil religion, as the study material notes, is when the state or its leaders take on the role of a “god”: demanding allegiance expressed in acts of devotion, grounded in a founding narrative and reinforced with meaningful symbols and rituals. It isn’t difficult to spot these elements of civil religion in American or Canadian society.

Civil disobedience, particularly of the “peaceful protest” sort noted in the leader’s guide, is an appropriate Christian response to the idolatry of civil religion, especially when there is a clash of allegiances between God’s kingdom and the earthly kingdom in which we live. As Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, so we can thoughtfully and nonviolently, yet resolutely, refuse to participate in the civil religion of our day.

However, to be effective this needs to be more than simply refusing to say some words about a flag. It requires us to examine the deeper supporting structures of our nation’s particular brand of civil religion—the power imbalances in society, the ethnocentric nationalism, the coercive manipulation of truth, the belief in redemptive violence—and reflect on how we can challenge or even change these realities.

How specifically do you see civil religion in American or Canadian society? How have we as Christians unthinkingly bought into this civil religion? How does this lessen our allegiance to Jesus as Lord or weaken our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ? What specific steps can we take to challenge or even change the deeper structures that support American or Canadian civil religion?

Who or What Is in Control?

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 10, 2017, based on Acts 13:1-12.

Acts 13:6-12 is a story of identity and power.

Names are important in the story. There’s Bar-Jesus (“son of Jesus”) also called Elymas (“the sorcerer”), and “Saul also called Paul,” as well as Sergius Paulus (that is, also “Paul”). It can be confusing, but all this narrative naming boils down to this question: which of these is a true “son of Jesus,” and which is actually a “son of the devil”? This is a story of identity.

It’s also a story of power. On the one hand you’ve got Elymas cozying up to the powerful, seeking to use the powers that be (both human and supernatural) for his own ends. On the other hand there’s Paul speaking truth to power, the truth of the gospel, the good news of One who died at the hands of the powers that be to free us from all evil powers (both natural and spiritual).

Even Paul participates in a display of supernatural power, speaking a temporary blindness upon Elymas. Yet notice what wins over the proconsul Paulus in the end: “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12). It was the persuasive gospel, not coercive sorcery, that brought about change. It was the strange story of a crucified king, not the sheer force of a supernatural power, that saved the day.

We have many temptations today to seek or maintain worldly power. This is especially so when our lofty plans for bringing about good in the world seem to be thwarted. We can then become frustrated and impatient, and start to look for alternate ways to accomplish those good ends. If only we had some real power on our side, imagine all the good we could do! If only we had political control, judicial authority, economic clout, cultural influence, spiritual dominance, or even just sheer physical force, imagine what we could accomplish for the kingdom!

But this is not the way of Jesus, who deliberately rejected worldly power at both the beginning and end of his career (Matt 4:1-11; 26:36-56). It’s not the way of the gospel, the beautiful good news of a crucified and resurrected king bringing about an upside-down kingdom through patient, persistent, selfless love.

In the end, it is those who trust in and live out this “weak power” of God (1 Cor 1:21-25) who prove themselves to be the true “Bar-Jesus.”

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.