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.

What does it mean to say that “God is love”?

It’s one of the foundational beliefs of Christianity: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). But what does it mean to say this? Here are a few thoughts.

“God is love” means that God always loves. God cannot not love. Everything God does is motivated by love and enacted in love. This means that anything we experience that is not of love is not of God. God is not the author of evil or suffering or harm.

“God is love” means that love is at the heart of who God is. The Bible says that “God is holy,” but it never says that “God is holiness.” Love is the essence of God in a way that God’s other attributes are not. God’s holiness is a holy love. God’s justice is a just love. God’s wisdom is a wise love. God’s power is a powerful love.

“God is love” means that all has been created in love. As all things exist out of the overflow of God’s being, so all things exist out of the overflow of God’s love.

“God is love” means that all is being moved by love towards God’s good purposes. Love is stronger than injustice or violence. Love is stronger than every other power. Love is stronger than death. In the end, love will win, and all will be well.

“God is love” means that all that is not-love is not-God; it is anti-God. This, then, is “sin”: thinking and acting and speaking out of apathy or antipathy, causing harm to others, ourselves, or other creatures, and thus grieving the God who is love. And this is “death”: dying, or even living, in the consequences of this non-love.

“God is love” means that you are beloved by God. This is your most basic identity: God’s Beloved. And this is true of each and every person, every creature, all of creation.

“God is love” means that when you are at your lowest, or your loneliest, you are never alone. There is a Presence always with you, embracing you in their love.

“God is love” means that when you are at your worst, and you know it, or when you have done your worst, and you know it, there is One who is already moving toward you, to forgive you and restore you, to make you whole.

“God is love” means that God is calling us into a Beloved Community, a society of friends where peace with justice prevails over violence and injustice, where love and trust triumphs over fear and hatred. It means that, ultimately, God is moving all things toward a Peaceable Kingdom, God’s vision of true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life for all creation.

Then God, who is love, will be all in all.

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.

God’s Good News

There’s a lot of bad news in our world. Poverty, disease, violence, injustice, cruelty, war, famine, fire, flood—each day the news seems to be filled with these things. It’s easy to be discouraged by all this, even to despair for our future. It can also be easy to blame God for it all—after all, God’s in charge, right?

But this is not who God is, and this is not what God wants for the world. In fact, God has some very good news for us.


God loves the whole world and has a beautiful vision for our future.

God our Creator loves all creation—you, me, every person, all living things. Because of this, God wants true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all people together, where every person has their deepest needs met, no exceptions. God wants the earth and the water and the sky to be healthy and whole, so that all living things can thrive. This vision for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” come down to earth. It’s what the Bible also calls “salvation” and “eternal life.”

“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

“I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16)

“The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy.” (Romans 14:17)


We are under the sway of powerful forces that keep us from fully realizing God’s vision for the world.

The Bible talks about “sin”—it’s what we need “salvation” from. Sin is the harmful  things  we think  and say and do, but it is also harmful patterns of thought or behaviour, deep ruts of dysfunction we fall into and can’t seem to escape from.

These harmful patterns of thought or behaviour also show up in groups of people, even whole societies. A group can do terrible things that none of those people would do individually. Sometimes these harmful patterns become a part of the very structures and systems of a society—in unjust laws, for example.

The result of all this is what the Bible often calls “death”: not just physically dying, but also living in guilt, shame, fear, hostility, violence, oppression, and more. The Bible talks about all these manifestations of “sin” and “death” as “powers” that control us, that we seem to have no control over. They keep us from experiencing the life God wants for us.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

“All people are under the power of sin.” (Romans 3:9)

“Sin pays us death as wages, but God gives us eternal life through Jesus.” (Romans 6:23)


Jesus came to liberate us from these powerful forces and to bring about God’s vision for the world.

Jesus of Nazareth showed us God’s vision for the world. He taught God’s way of love for all and of peace through nonviolence. He freely healed and forgave people. He shared meals with those considered “sinners” and denounced those who oppressed the vulnerable. He was killed by the powers-that-be for living out God’s vision, but God raised him from the dead to a new life untouched by sin and death. In doing so God declared Jesus to be “Lord” over all powerful forces.

“Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Messiah Jesus—he is Lord of all…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…” (Acts 10:34-43)


If we resist these forces at work in us and in our world, and we commit ourselves to Jesus’ way of love, God’s vision for the world will become a reality.

Jesus calls us to “repent”: to resist our own sin, all those ways we harm others, and to resist the evil we see in the world through love, without violence. Jesus calls us to “believe in God’s good news”: to trust in God’s love for us and to commit to Jesus’ way of love in solidarity with others. When we do this, God’s presence is with us to make real God’s vision for the world: true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all. We will share in Jesus’ new life—even his life beyond death.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-34)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

“We know that we have passed from death to life when we love one another.” (1 John 3:14)


“The kingdom of God is like the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Will you allow God’s vision for the world to be planted in your own life, in your own small corner of the world? Will you trust in the God who loves you far beyond what you can even imagine? Will you commit to living out Jesus’ way of love?

If you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him in his way of love, here are some suggested first steps in the journey:

  • Join a faith community that is committed to following Jesus. In North America check out home.mennonitechurch.ca/churches or mennoniteusa.org/find-a-church.
  • Read the Bible to learn more about Jesus, his teaching, and his way of life. Try starting with the Gospel of Mark, and then read the other Gospels. Read online at biblegateway.com.
  • Pray regularly—being aware of God’s presence, communicating with God—in a way that works for you. Check out the “Take Our Moments and Our Days” (Android, Apple) and “Common Prayer” (Android, Apple) apps for your smart phone.

Here is this tract as a PDF. Here are instructions for printing and assembling it. Feel free to use, just use responsibly! For some background on how this tract came to be developed please see here.

A Prayer of Confession, a Plea for Forgiveness

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 21, 2018, based on Daniel 9:1-19.

The study guide helpfully prompts us toward reflection on personal confession of individual sin. But there is another angle on this prayer of Daniel that has often struck me: this prayer is a personal confession of collective sin.

Daniel, according to all the stories in the book which bears his name, was a righteous man. It was not his fault his people were in exile. Yet he prays as if the guilt of his forebears is his own. He includes himself among previous, sinful generations, in order to make a clean break with the sins of the past and allow God to move him and his people toward a better future.

Is it appropriate for children to bear the guilt of their parents, or even their grandparents? Most of us would cringe at the idea. The Bible itself gives mixed messages on this (Exod 34:7; Ezek 18:20). Yet there are some helpful lessons for us that derive from the Bible’s personal confessions of collective sin.

One lesson is that sin is not merely an individual, private matter. Collective, even systemic, sin runs just as deep among us. If we think of “sin” as all the ways in which we harm one another and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, then it’s not hard to see how sin has both individual and collective dimensions. Churches can develop settled attitudes that run counter to God’s life-bringing ways. Societies can nurture values that encourage abuse of power or the use of violence. Nations can enshrine injustice in the very laws that are supposed to ensure justice.

A second lesson is that sometimes what’s needed to break from the collective sins of the past is collective soul-searching and confession. This has nothing to do with whether or not we ourselves are personally guilty for the wrongdoing. Rather, it has everything to with naming the wrongs of our forebears, recognizing our inclination to continue in those wrongs if nothing is done, and committing ourselves to doing better, rectifying those wrongs if we are able, avoiding those wrongs as much as we can. This is why initiatives such as the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada are so important.

There’s a third lesson for us. Daniel’s prayer confesses, “We have not listened to your servants the prophets” (9:6). In every generation God sends prophets to speak truth, to call God’s people to faithfulness, to warn of the consequences of unfaithfulness, to promise the blessings of faithfulness—and yet, all too often, we crucify these prophets instead of heeding them (see Matt 23:29-39). Who are the prophets of our generation, calling us to renewed faithfulness to the way of Jesus? Are we willing to listen, to repent, and to obey?

What’s up with Paul’s language of “the flesh”?

Last night our church held a prayer service in which I invited the congregation to listen for God’s voice to us as I read Scripture. We then responded to this “word of the Lord” through silence, prayer, and song. It was a wonderfully simple service.

One of the extended Bible readings we did was Galatians 5:13–6:10. This is a “how should we then live” passage, the kind found in many New Testament letters sketching out what it looks like for followers of Jesus to live in community with one another in light of the great theological truths just expounded.

As I read this passage, I stumbled over Paul’s use of the word “flesh.” This happens sometimes when I read Paul’s letters publicly. The reason? I fear that people will get the wrong idea.

“The flesh” is a common expression, especially in Paul’s letters, and especially in Romans and Galatians. Just a few examples:

  • “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5).
  • “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
  • “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want” (Gal 5:16-17).
  • “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Gal 6:8).

Many Christians have taken “the flesh” in these and similar verses to mean quite literally “the physical body”: our eyes and ears, our feet and hands, even (or even especially) our genitalia. All the language about “not living according to the flesh” or “making no provision for the flesh” or “not sowing to the flesh,” is about denying our physical body in some way in favour of some inner spirituality (“bodies are bad, the spiritual is good”). Often this is expressed as downplaying or even rejecting our bodily desires, our desires for food, drink, sex, intimacy, and more.

But this doesn’t quite work. It’s true that the Greek word sarx in common usage meant “flesh” or even “the fleshy parts of a body.” But it could also take on a variety of figurative uses. “All flesh,” for example, means “all living creatures.” “Flesh and blood” can mean “human beings,” or even “one’s own kin.” “One flesh” refers to “shared kinship.”

Paul can use the word “flesh” in these sorts of ways, none of which is inherently negative toward our bodies. Paul can even say, positively, that “the life I now live in the flesh (sarx) I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Paul also uses the word “body” (sōma) quite a bit, and many of these uses are positive. Paul describes the believer’s “body” as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). He calls on Christians to offer our “bodies” to God as an act of worship (Rom 12:1). He insists that our future resurrection state—imperishable, immortal, untouched by sin and death—will still involve a sōma, a “body” (1 Cor 15:35-44).

In other words, it’s complicated.

I think we can get at what Paul means in verses like those I quoted above if we dig into the contrast Paul makes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” (stick with me here, it’s worth it).

Paul likes these kinds of binary contrasts: “flesh” in contrast to “Spirit”; “Law” in contrast to “Christ” or “faith”; “this present age” in contrast to “the coming age.” It’s this last one—“this present age” in contrast to “the coming age”—that helps make sense of the rest of them.

You see, Paul held to a common Jewish notion that human history was divided into two “ages.”

The “present age” is the one we’re in, and it is characterized by “powers” that have influence over us, even control over us. Human kingdoms and rulers and authorities. The internal forces that animate these groups and leaders. The structures and systems they create. These “powers” are not necessarily bad, but they can become “evil powers,” perpetuating injustice and oppression, committing violence and bringing destruction. Behind these “evil powers” is the worst of them all, evident in each and every human life: “sin” and the wide-ranging “death” that accompanies it.

The “coming age,” by contrast, is the promised “kingdom of God,” the “new creation,” in which the powers of sin and death are eradicated and all things are brought under God’s liberating, loving reign. The end result? Life: abundant, eternal, harmonious, flourishing life. Shalom, you could also say.

Here’s the thing: because the Messiah has come, the “coming age” is already here, though it is not yet fully here. The kingdom of God, God’s new creation, has entered this present age in anticipation of its future fulfillment. As followers of Jesus the Christ we are called to live out God’s reign, to live out God’s new creation, resisting the evil powers of this age which are over us, among us, and within us.

This is what the contrast between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” is all about. These are, effectively, contrasting ways of being human in the world.

“Living according to the flesh” means “living according to a self-centered, selfish way of being human,” which is at the root of our sin and all its deathly consequences. Indeed, this “self-centered, selfish way of being human” is what lies behind all the evil powers of this present age: corrupt governments and corporations and presidents and CEOs and more, animated by a spirit of greed or vanity or domination, creating oppressive structures and unjust systems within society.

“Living according to the Spirit,” by contrast, means “living according to a God-centered, other-oriented way of being human” which Jesus taught and lived out among us. The “Spirit,” after all, is “the Spirit of Christ,” shaping us into the image of Jesus. When we “live according to the Spirit,” or we “walk in the Spirit,” we are choosing to walk in the way of Jesus, Jesus’ way of love: a deep devotion to God expressed through humble compassion and care for others.

When Paul talks about “the flesh” in these passages, then, he is not talking about our natural, bodily desires for food, drink, sex, and more. He’s talking about those desires turned inward, distorted through our self-centered selfishness.

The antidote is not to deny our bodily desires. These are part and parcel of what it means to be human. They are God-given, a part of God’s “very good” creation.

Rather, the antidote is to rightly order those natural desires around love for God and others, seeking the common good. It is to strive to fulfill those desires through this God-centred, other-oriented way of love, empowered by the very presence of the resurrected Jesus in us and among us.

It is, in other words, to “live by the Spirit.”

Not the Gospel

Last week our kids took the dogs for a walk (bless them). Along the way they encountered a couple of friendly folks handing out free fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, otherwise known as a “gospel tract.”

Not the gospel.

You know what I mean. Maybe you’ve had someone stop by your house with a “gospel tract,” or you’ve seen one left on a restaurant table or in a public bathroom (yes, people do that). Maybe you’ve even handed them out yourself at some point (full disclosure: I have).

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

The tract my kids brought home is entitled, “Heaven: How Do I Get There?” It assures its reader that they can “KNOW how to get to Heaven” based on “the very Word of God,” by which is meant the Bible. Quoting Bible verses, then, the tract proceeds to outline the gospel in four points: i) “We are all sinners.” ii) “There is a penalty for our sin,” described as “death in Hell.” iii) “Jesus Christ paid that penalty for us.” And, iv) “Trust and take Jesus as your personal Saviour.” The tract then gives a prayer the reader can pray, affirming these four things, and it declares that if you have prayed this prayer “You will go to Heaven, not by what man teaches, but by God’s Word.”

It’s a nice tract: attractive, simple, clear, and confident. There’s only one problem with it: it doesn’t actually present the gospel. This “gospel tract” my kids brought home is, in fact, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, this is a bit of a touchy topic. Most Christians likely believe some form of the message found in this “gospel tract”: we all sin, and so we all deserve God’s penalty for our sin; but Jesus has died to pay the penalty for our sin and so, if we believe this, we will go to heaven when we die. Even more, most Christians likely believe this “gospel” is clearly taught in the Bible, and that it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. So, when someone questions this, accusations of “rejecting the Bible” and “denying the gospel” and “not believing in heaven” and “not believing in Jesus” and “not being a true Christian” fly fast and furious.

That is ironic, and terribly tragic, given that it is actually the “gospel” of these “gospel tracts” that is not the biblical gospel.

I’d encourage anyone who doubts this to do some simple Bible study. Go to all the places in the New Testament where “gospel” or “good news” is mentioned, and read around those verses to see how this “gospel” is described. Then read through the evangelistic speeches in the book of Acts, all those places where the Apostles preach a message of salvation to people. Take some notes on what the gospel is, what the message of salvation is, what is included—and not included—in the true “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

If you do that, here are just two of the surprising things you’ll discover.

First, the gospel is not about us leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven. It’s about God’s kingdom coming near, God’s reign of justice and peace and life being established on earth. None of the New Testament descriptions of the gospel even mentions “hell,” and any time “heaven” is mentioned it’s talking about blessings coming from heaven to earth.

Mark’s Gospel says this quite directly: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.’” In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus states what this “come near” means: it means God’s kingdom coming “on earth.” This was the Jewish expectation of God’s kingdom: however the reign of God would come about, it would come about on earth, bringing true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life. This was in fact the “gospel” promised by the Prophet Isaiah: that God would come and establish God’s reign on earth, a reign of liberation for the captives and justice for the oppressed.

Also not the gospel.

In various ways the rest of the New Testament affirms this. Every time Jesus is called “Christ” or “Messiah,” for example, it is like a mini-statement of faith: Jesus is the promised king bringing in God’s kingdom on earth. To say that the gospel is a story about “Jesus Christ” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ whole life and ministry. To say that “Christ died for our sins,” or to “preach Christ crucified,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ death. To say that “Christ was raised on the third day,” that by resurrecting him from the dead “God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ resurrection.

This leads right into the second thing: the gospel doesn’t just focus on Jesus’ death, but as much or more on Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the gospel encompasses Jesus’ whole life and ministry. There are only a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus’ death is the sole focus of the gospel being described. Most often there are other things about Jesus also mentioned, and sometimes Jesus’ death isn’t even in the picture.

Jesus’ lineage, being in the family line of David, is gospel—because it gives credence to the claim that he is indeed the promised Messiah come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’ teaching is gospel—because it teaches how we can participate in bringing about justice and peace on earth. Jesus’ miracles are gospel—because they are signs that God’s kingdom has come near, bringing flourishing life where there was none before.

Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion are gospel—because by bearing the sins of others and resisting evil powers nonviolently, even out of love, even unto death, Jesus has overcome those powers and delivered us from sin. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are gospel—because they are God’s declaration that Jesus is indeed the Messiah bringing about God’s kingdom through self-giving love, that he is even the true Lord over all, including any and all powers of this world.

So, when we make the gospel about leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven, we are proclaiming a false gospel. When we focus our attention solely on Jesus’ death in a way that doesn’t mesh with Jesus’ life, teachings, and especially his resurrection, we are proclaiming a false gospel. Sounds harsh, I know, but these popular understandings of the gospel are simply not biblical. They are not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the Bible emphasizes that sin is a reality—all those ways we cause harm through our attitudes, words, and actions. And yes, the Bible underscores that when we sin there are consequences—we experience “death,” all that is not-life, including guilt and shame and hostility and pain and even physical death. And so, yes, the Bible points us to the need to be “saved” from our sins, delivered from our harmful ways. But the gospel is not merely a private transaction between me and God, the problem solved by praying a prayer.

And yes, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on a cross was “for us,” “for our sins.” But Jesus’ death is not the whole of the gospel, and when that is divorced from the larger story of Jesus the Messiah bringing in God’s kingdom on earth, we can even end up with a distortion of the gospel.

And yes, the Bible assures believers that we will be “with the Lord” after death. But that is not the gospel. In fact, it’s not even the end of the story: the New Testament affirms that at the end of all things we will be resurrected to a transformed bodily existence on a renewed earth. In the end, heaven, in all its fullness, will come to earth.

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

[Update: Here’s a follow-up post on creating a gospel tract, and here’s the tract I’ve created!]

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

Jesus and Hell

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

“What about hell?”

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

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

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

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

Gehenna today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gehenna back in Moloch’s day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Know, “Love One Another” Really Is Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the love Jesus taught. This is the love Jesus lived, all the way to the cross. This is love: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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