The Straight Lifestyle

“This is one of the things that bothers me most about straight people: the heterosexual lifestyle. They live a life of unrepentant debauchery: casual sex, multiple partners, widespread adultery, easy divorce.”

“It’s all about sex for them: they always dress so provocatively, and their talk is filled with cheap sexual innuendo—‘locker room talk.’”

“For the straight community, sex is just a marketing ploy and people are nothing more than sexual objects.”

“They get fuelled up on pornography, then they harass and abuse and rape at will. Rape culture is straight culture.”

Imagine someone saying these things about heterosexual people. If you are straight, as I am, how would you respond? How would you feel?

My first thought would be: “But wait, I’m as straight as they come, and I don’t do those things. That’s not my ‘straight culture.’ That’s not my ‘heterosexual lifestyle.’”

That’s true—and that’s exactly how gay people feel when they hear straight folks talk about the “gay lifestyle.” Gay Christians even more so, since all the gay Christians I know desire just as much as straight Christians to live out a biblically-grounded, Jesus-centred morality. LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers among us reject sexual promiscuity, infidelity, exploitation, degradation, and abuse just as much as straight Christians do.

adichie-storyThere is no one-size-fits-all “gay lifestyle,” just as there is no monolithic “straight lifestyle.” This is “the danger of a single story,” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in a must-see TED Talk. When complex human beings and human situations are boiled down to one simplistic narrative, when “all Muslims” or “all natives” or “all gays” are painted with the same brush, we strip away their humanity and embolden our bigotry against them.

My brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Jesus.

My second thought, however, after some hard, honest reflection on this description of the “straight lifestyle,” would be: “But there is some truth to this.”

Rape culture is a reality in many settings—and it’s largely perpetuated by straight white males.

“Sex as marketing ploy” and “people as sex objects”? Heterosexuals perfected that.

And there’s no need to say much about adultery and divorce: that’s been the playground of straight men and women as long as there’s been marriage.

Of course this goes both ways. There’s no doubt that there are LGBTQ+ folks who are sexually promiscuous, who commit adultery, who exploit and abuse others sexually.

But that’s the thing: sexual promiscuity, infidelity, exploitation, degradation, and abuse—these are not homosexual problems, nor are they heterosexual problems, they are human problems.

Please, for the love of God and neighbour, let’s drop the “gay lifestyle” tag. It’s unfair and untrue—or at least as unfair and untrue as a “straight lifestyle” label would be.

And then, also for the love of God and neighbour, let’s focus on addressing the sexual sins that are truly destructive in our lives, our relationships, and our world.

Our Thoughts and Words Matter

us2016Nobody said U.S. politics were dull.

Like most of the world, I watched the recent U.S. presidential race alternating between fascination, amusement, and horror. Sometimes all three at the same time.

It’s the kind of election that will be analyzed from every angle for years to come. I’ve been sorting through my own thinking on “what this all means,” and one of the things that I keep coming back to is this: our thoughts and words matter.

Even more pointedly: As Christians, called to love both neighbour and enemy, it’s not enough that we act in loving ways. We must also think and speak in loving ways.

I’ve often reflected that, if I were set upon by bandits and left for dead by the side of the road, there’s no one I’d rather have find my nearly lifeless body than an Evangelical Christian. Say what you will about Evangelicals, but pretty much every red-blooded Evangelical I know of would stop and help someone in such desperate need, even at great cost to themselves. Evangelicals make great Good Samaritans.

However, I have heard some of those same people speak demeaning, even downright cruel words about others. I have seen some of those good Evangelical Christians manipulate and deceive and aggressively coerce in order to achieve what they believe to be good ends. I have witnessed their haughty looks, their patronizing gazes, their holier-than-thou disdain, their puffed-up egos run amok.

I have been on the receiving end of this. I know whereof I speak.

I know also that this is not merely an “Evangelical Christian” problem. It is a profoundly human problem.

I’ve heard politically correct liberals speak horrendously about conservatives behind closed doors. I’ve seen poverty-advocating progressives walk right by a homeless beggar on the street with not even a flicker of emotion.

The disjunction between outward action and underlying attitude can be found among all of us in one way or another. I’ve seen this problem all too often in myself, across the whole spectrum of ways. We’ve all got a problem, and it’s a deep-seated, far-reaching human problem: a “sin” problem, to use the Christian lingo.

But what has struck me most profoundly over the past few months of observing U.S. politics is this particular disjunction: we don’t seem to get that our outward actions are rooted in our underlying attitudes and fuelled by our shared speech.

We men might never walk up to a woman we don’t know and “grab her by the p*ssy”—but we tell blonde jokes behind closed doors, or we mansplain in our work meetings, or we smirk the words “PMS” to our buddy with a roll of the eyes.

We white people might never lay a finger on a non-white person—but we chuckle at the “drunk Indian” or “lazy Mexican” comment, or we  brush off the brouhaha over “Redskins” for a team name, or we think to ourselves that African Americans or Indigenous people just need to “get over it already.”

We straight folks might never assault the LGBTQ folks among us—but we perpetuate lies about some universal “gay lifestyle,” or we speak about bisexuality as if it’s a fake illness, or we’re not really sure we can trust the lesbian math teacher with our children all day.

We Christians might never bomb the nearest Mosque—but we assume the hijab-wearing woman is living in suppressed silence, or we choose the seat at the airport furthest from the Arabic-speaking men, or we forward the latest “Muslims are Taking Over Canada!!!” email to our family.

I’m not talking about those random thoughts that pop into our head from time to time. I’m talking about those attitudes that we allow to settle into our brains and dwell in our souls. We harbor these fearful, demeaning attitudes toward others, we speak fearful, demeaning words about others, and then we are all shocked when people actually act out of fear in cruelty and violence toward others.

But these things are connected. Our thoughts, our words, our actions—they are all of a piece.

Maybe we’re right about ourselves, that we would never physically harm others. But when we nurture harmful attitudes about others in our hearts and minds, when we encourage hurtful speech about others even in private, these thoughts and words will inevitably bear fruit in action—either ours or someone else’s.

This is what’s behind some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. “Adultery” is not just about sexual intercourse, Jesus declares, and “murder” is not just about the act of killing someone: these outward acts are rooted in our thoughts and anticipated in our words (Matt 5:21-30). In other words, Jesus asserts, “Evil things come from within, from the human heart,” and this is what truly defiles us before God and others (Mark 7:20-23).

Image result for seed sproutingTo borrow another favourite metaphor of Jesus—and some direct teaching from the Apostle Paul—“we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7-8). Our thoughts are like seeds that root themselves deep in the soil of our hearts, and they will shoot up in the words that we speak and bear fruit in the actions of our lives.

If we think otherwise, we are deceiving ourselves. We are mocking God; but God will not be mocked.

When we nurture harmful thoughts, even in the deep places of our heart, or speak harmful words, even behind closed doors, we sow seeds of harm that will bear the fruit of harm. This is true for us as individuals, as families and churches, and as a society.

But if we can instead develop settled attitudes toward others that are based on truth and love, and speak words that build up and don’t tear down, then we can sow seeds that will bear the fruit of goodness and truth and beauty in our lives and in the world.

Let’s stop pretending that our inner thoughts and private words don’t matter. They do.

For the love of God—with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves—let’s dig deep within ourselves and scrape out our stony hearts in repentance. After all, God has promised a heart of flesh ready and waiting for us, beating with the love of Christ.

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

The Horrors of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: domination, war, economic injustice, and death.

Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets and Three Woes: volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues of insects and disease, and war, always more war.

Revelation 12-13, the Dragon and his Two Beasts: persecution, suffering, martyrdom for those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 15-16, the Seven Bowls of Wrath: the earth, the rivers, the seas, the skies, all touched with degradation and devastation, and death, always more death.

Awful, terrible, horrific things. Things almost too monstrous to mention.

War. Poverty. Drought. Famine. Disease. Climate catastrophes. Natural disasters. Religious persecution. Overwhelming death.

It’s only in the White West where we have had the luxury of being able to imagine these horrors as something still future, some future seven-year tribulation. But tell that to the 40 million who died in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms War, or the tens of millions—half Europe’s population—who succumbed to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the millions of indigenous persons swept under the first waves of conquering Europeans, or the millions who perished in the Bengal Famine of 1770, or the tens of thousands of Christians killed for their faith each year around the world.

There is no need to imagine all this as some future tribulation. This has been the human experience throughout our history. It was, it is, and it is to come.

This can be hard to accept on its own, but there’s something else that makes all this even more difficult to accept for us as Christians: Revelation, and indeed several passages in the Bible, describe many of these horrific realities as divine judgment.

But does God, in righteous wrath against sin, actually employ violence and destruction and death to exact judgment, to bring about justice? If so, how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to nonviolence, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times? And if not, how do we make sense of this kind of language in Revelation, or even elsewhere in the Bible?

There are several things in Revelation that suggest that all this is more complex than it first seems, and that notions of God seeking “retributive justice” or using “redemptive violence” are missing the point of Revelation’s language of divine judgment.

Yes, God judges human sin—but not by zapping us with lightning bolts of violence, not by doling out destruction with one hand and death with the other.

Lion-Lamb 2Let’s start with the first major vision of Revelation, Revelation 4-5. This vision sets the stage for everything else that follows in Revelation. It sets the tone for how we should imagine Jesus and God. And there God reigns through Jesus, and Jesus is the Lion of Judah—Israel’s Messiah—who reigns as the Lamb who has been slain.

Jesus does not reign as a tyrant, as a bully, as a cruel and violent despot. Jesus reigns as the one who is willing to die rather than kill, who rejects violence and coercion as the path to justice and peace.

This should sit like a burr in our brain, making us uncomfortable with connecting all these horrific things on earth with God’s reign from heaven.

Then look ahead to one of the last major visions of Revelation, the judgment scene in Revelation 20. There we have another clue that things are not as they seem. There, at the end of God’s judgment of all things, we are told that “Death and Hades” are themselves condemned and eradicated. To put this into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

God does not deal in death; God is out to destroy it.

In short, both the first major vision of Revelation and one of the last visions highlight one crucial fact: violence and injustice and suffering and death are not the way of God, but they are the very enemies of God which God is seeking to eliminate.

So how do we make sense of all the visions in between that seem to say the opposite?

Think of those Four Horsemen of Revelation 6: domination, war, economic injustice, and death. Although these are portrayed as coming at the call of heaven, they are thoroughly human evils, originating in our own human greed and cruelty and reflecting a pattern seen throughout human history.

The same assessment could be made of all the expressions of “God’s wrath” in Revelation. Not just the killing and wars, but even the famines and diseases and degradations of the earth, the sea, and the skies—these are caused by human action, human harm, human sin. These are not “God directly inflicting punishment,” but rather “God giving people up to the consequences of their sinful actions.”

This is exactly how Paul describes “God’s wrath” in Romans 1. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And how is that “wrath of God” revealed? Paul goes on: by God “giving us over” to our sins, to experience the full impact of our own destructive attitudes and actions.

No wonder Revelation repeatedly calls on humans to repent.

Then take a look at the two beasts of Revelation 13. Revelation scholars agree that these beasts do not represent specific human leaders (e.g. Nicolae Carpathia) but rather the Roman empire and its imperial cult. These beasts, in other words, are human structures and systems of power gone wrong.

Our human structures for organizing society—our political structures, our economic systems, our religious structures—these can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. At that point, these “powers that be” become “evil powers.” They become beasts.

These beasts, then, and the diabolical ethos that animates them, are not God’s creation. God does not make them. They are not God’s instruments. God does not use them. They are God’s enemies. In fact, we discover by the end of Revelation that the devil and his beasts, all these evil “powers that be,” face the same fate as “Death and Hades”: they are condemned and eradicated.

Evil is not God’s instrument; it is God’s enemy.

God does not deal in death and destruction. God does not stand behind oppressive governments and unjust economic systems. All these things—all the horrors depicted in Revelation, all the horrors experienced in human history—all these things are the very things God condemns, the very things Jesus came to deliver us from.

This way of understanding Revelation is both comforting and disturbing.

It is comforting to know that God does not use violence and destruction and death at all, even to bring about good. As John 10 says, it is the thief who seeks to steal and kill and destroy, not Jesus—Jesus brings life. If there is anything that brings hurt or harm, damage or devastation or death, that thing is decidedly not-God.

SeraphAnd this means there is more than meets the eye in Revelation. All those depictions of God’s judgment being a sort of violent vengeance, a kind of retribution, cannot mean what we think they mean at first glance. God is out to eliminate human sin, evil powers, even death itself—but not human persons. As Ephesians 6 puts it, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

Yet in another way, all this is very disturbing. For it means that we are our own worst enemy. Our selfishness, our self-indulgence, our unbridled aggression, our prejudice, our capacity for cruelty, our political oppression, our corporate greed—this is what lies behind so much of the violence and death our world experiences, the degradation and devastation even of the earth itself.

This is the judgment of God. This is God’s assessment of the human predicament.

Hear, then, what the Spirit is saying to us. Hear the call of God for us to repent, to “come out of Babylon and not take part in her sins,” to resist the lure of our world’s “powers that be” gone wrong, to say a firm “No!” to the corruption and injustice and oppression of human structures of power gone bad. Hear the call of Jesus the Lamb to follow him in his cross-shaped footsteps, his footsteps of selfless self-giving for the good of the other, for the good of all, even in the face of death.

In this is the salvation of God. This is the path to the kingdom of God, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The (S)Word-Wielder”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 17, 2016. The first image is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. All other images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

You Are Forgiven

This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 17, 2016. See others in the series: “Loved,” “Needed,” “Not Alone.” Here is the audio of the full sermon:

Here’s a word we know all too well: guilt.

You know the feeling. You’ve done something, said something, something wrong, something that crossed the line. And you know it.

You might not be ready to admit it right after it happens. In the heat of the moment we are often too caught up, too riled up, to see the wrong we have just done. But later, after we’ve gone through all the self-justification, all the self-talk of “they deserved it” or “what else was I supposed to do?”—after we’ve spent our allotment of pride, we admit it to ourselves: we were wrong.

Then there’s guilt’s close cousin: shame.

You know that feeling too. You’ve done something, said something, something socially wrong—and so you pay the social consequences. You’re embarrassed, maybe even humiliated. You lower your eyes and turn away. Maybe you slink off into a corner, trying to avoid the looks of all those people. You’ve lost face, and you can’t show your face.

Guilt and shame. They are normal human experiences, normal human emotions, that we all experience at one time or another. They can even serve a good purpose: they help to shape our morality, our ethics, so that we become better people, treating each other in better ways.

But what if your life is defined by guilt and shame? What if you live in a world constructed out of rules and penalties? What if you spend a good bit of your time and energy trying to avoid being guilty and evade being ashamed?

What if your past is spotted with unresolved guilt and unmended shame? Or—heaven forbid—what if your experience is one moment of guilt after another, one shameful encounter after another, overfilled with false guilt and undeserved shame?

If any of this describes where you are at, then this is what you need to hear: you are forgiven.

You are forgiven. God stands ready to forgive you, always, at any time. And that forgiveness can be the doorway to forgiveness and restoration with others. You are forgiven.

“Whoa, wait a minute! Doesn’t forgiveness need confession and repentance? How can you simply say, ‘You are forgiven’?”

Good question. And to answer it, let’s listen carefully to what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians:

The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died… God reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Did you catch that? God has taken the initiative, God has taken the risky step of love, to reconcile the entire world to himself, and Jesus has died to seal that reconciliation. And so God no longer counts our trespasses against us. In love there is no record of wrongs.

It’s a bit mind-boggling, to be honest. But here’s how I understand this: in Christ God has done everything needed for our forgiveness. And so God stands ready to forgive us, arms open, hands empty, eyes scanning the horizon like a father waiting for a prodigal child. God stands ready to forgive us, always, at any time.

It is true that to receive that forgiveness we need to admit that we need it. But this is not some kind of hyper-spiritual Christianese God-talk. It’s just the reality of the way forgiveness works, with anybody: if we don’t think we’ve done anything wrong, we won’t think we need to be forgiven.

So if you’ve never done anything wrong in your life, if you’ve never felt guilty or been ashamed for something you’ve said or done, then this post isn’t for you. The healthy don’t need a doctor, only the sick.

But the reality is that we’ve all said or done things to hurt other people, we’ve all harmed others in our lives, intentionally or not. We all know what it’s like to feel guilt. We all know that feeling of shame.

And so when we are at that place where we feel that guilt or shame, whether real or imagined, that’s exactly the place where God stands ready to forgive us, always, at any time.

Rembrandt ProdigalIt’s the reason Jesus could simply say to the paralytic, right out of the blue: “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders of his day didn’t like it, Jesus forgiving sins just like that: no sinners’ prayer, no sacrifice of blood. Jesus saw his heart, and forgave him his sins.

It’s the beautiful, transcendent truth of 1 John’s first chapter: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If we know in our hearts before God that we have done harm to others, the faithful God forgives us.

If you need forgiveness, you are forgiven. It’s as simple as that.

If you are awash with guilt, stuck in the mud and mire of guilt, and you know it: you are forgiven.

If you wrestle with feelings of shame for who you are, what you’ve said, what you have done: you are forgiven.

When you say those hurtful words, when you do that harmful deed, when you don’t say or do that good thing you should have, and you know it: you are forgiven.

You are forgiven.

God stands ready to forgive you, always, at any time. And that forgiveness can be the doorway to forgiveness and restoration with others.

You are forgiven.

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

“All you ever do is talk about Jesus and love. Why don’t you preach the gospel?”

Okay, so I’ve never heard it put quite that starkly. And I don’t hear this in quite the critical tone of that title, at least not directly. (What’s said about me when I’m not around, well, that may be a different story!)

But I do hear some version of these kinds of questions fairly frequently, especially related to my preaching, mostly in a sort of puzzled tone:

“Why do you talk about Jesus and love all the time?”

sometimes juxtaposed up against

“Why don’t you preach the gospel?”

When that happens, I can’t help but smile to myself.

Many Christians have a particular idea of what it means to “preach the gospel.” For them it means to preach an “evangelistic sermon.” It means giving a Billy Graham-esque explanation of the gospel: that Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment that we deserved for our sin, and that if we confess our sins to God and believe in this message we can be saved, given the assurance of eternal life with God even beyond the grave. This gospel preaching is often completed with an altar call, an appeal to pray a particular prayer confessing one’s sins and expressing belief in this message.

If I don’t do these things, then, according to many Christians, I’m not “preaching the gospel.”

The problem is, this way of thinking about “preaching the gospel” is not really all that biblical.

Sure, it uses some biblical terms and ideas, words like “gospel” and “sin” and “Jesus” and “cross” and “belief” and “confession” and “salvation” and “eternal life.” But many of those words don’t mean what this popular notion of “preaching the gospel” means by them, and the way those terms and ideas are put together in this popular perspective doesn’t reflect the way the New Testament authors put those terms and ideas together.

Take a look at a few New Testament summaries of the “gospel” or “good news”:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” introducing Mark’s entire story of Jesus. (Mark 1:1)

“Jesus came to Galilee, 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)

Jesus “unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘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 favor’…Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21)

“…the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name.” (Rom 1:1-5)

“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved… For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” (1 Cor 15:1-11)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” (2 Tim 2:8)

That’s just a sample—the noun “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion) and the verb “preaching the gospel/good news” (euangelizomai) together occur about 125 times in the New Testament, and several of those sketch out what this “gospel” message is that’s being preached.

For sure, some of these passages can be read to fit the popular, Billy Graham-esque idea of the “gospel” I’ve described above. But many, if not most, just don’t make sense in that understanding of the gospel.

The gospel is about all of Jesus’ life, not just his death on the cross?

The gospel is about the kingdom of God?

The gospel is good news for the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed?

The gospel is about Jesus being a descendant of David?

The gospel is about Jesus being Lord?

Many of these ideas are prevalent in New Testament descriptions of the gospel, or of the early Christians’ gospel preaching in Acts, yet they are conspicuously absent from the popular Christian notion today of what the gospel is and what it means to “preach the gospel.”

Yet any understanding of the “gospel” we have must try to make sense of the entire witness of the New Testament to the gospel, not just a few ideas read into a few select passages. This means, also, that any understanding of the “gospel” we have must be flexible enough to allow for the varied descriptions of the gospel we find in the New Testament.

The “gospel” is euangelion, it is “good news,” a “good message,” a message of good things, a message that should bring joy to its hearers.

The “gospel” is “according to Scripture,” anticipated by and in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament.

The “gospel” is about God, the one true and living Creator, the one in whom all things exist, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who works in and through all things to bring about good purposes.

The “gospel” is about the man Jesus of Nazareth, about his life, teachings, good deeds, miracles, death on a Roman cross, and resurrection from the dead.

The “gospel” is about Jesus, that this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish “Messiah” or “Christ,” the “Son of God,” who is the promised King descended from David who fulfills ancient Israel’s longings for God’s eternal reign of justice and peace and flourishing life for the Jews, for all people, and for all creation.

The “gospel” is about Jesus, that this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is therefore “Lord,” the rightful ruler over God’s people, all people, the entire world.

The “gospel” is about “salvation” from “sin,” God rescuing the world through this crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth from all the ways we humans harm each other and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, and so work against God’s purposes and desires for us and all creation.

Simply put, the gospel is the good news that God has acted in Jesus to make right all that has gone wrong in the world because of human sin.

This “act of God in Jesus” is an act of grace and mercy, an act of undeserved favour, an act of restorative, self-giving love. And God calls us to respond to this divine love by persistently turning from our harmful, destructive ways (“repentance”), resolutely declaring our allegiance to the world’s true Lord, the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus (“faith”), and daily following in his footsteps of restorative, self-giving love for others and all creation (still “faith”).

Read the Gospels—there’s no “four spiritual laws.” The gospel is not about individual sinners being saved from hell to heaven, but about a sinful world being redeemed so that God’s reign of life and justice and peace might come on earth.

Read Acts—there’s no “sinner’s prayer.” The gospel addresses human sin, right down at its roots, but it does so in a way that impacts not just personal sins but also social sins, systemic sins, all the ways we harm and destroy.

Read Paul’s letters—there’s no “altar call.” The gospel does call for a response, but it’s a summons of allegiance to one who has given himself in humble, selfless love.

And all this is why, when I hear someone say something like, “All you ever do is talk about Jesus and love. Why don’t you preach the gospel?”—I smile to myself.

Yes, all I talk about is Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

That’s because I’m preaching the gospel.

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

What is Love?

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

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

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

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

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I say this, because, as I outlined in my last post, I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

But what is this love? What does it look like?

Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Some people hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Some, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy.

But the love I’m talking about is not merely affection for others, though feelings of affection are good and beautiful. This love is not merely tolerance of others, though it is important that we acknowledge and accept others’ differences. This love cannot be reduced to simple self-sacrifice, though it is true that we need to break through our selfishness and give of ourselves to others. And although physical and emotional intimacy is a necessary, God-given gift, by itself this is not the love that saves us.

Acceptance. Affection. Self-sacrifice. Intimacy.

Each of these is good and necessary. Each of these gives a glimpse of love, one angle on a multi-faceted love. But none of these by itself is the love we need.

When the biblical authors attempt to describe “love” they consistently point to God’s love for us. In the New Testament, more particularly, they point to God’s love for us in Jesus. To get even more specific, the New Testament often points to Jesus’ suffering and death to portray what true love is all about.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

So, for example, in the Hebrew Bible we hear of God’s hesed, Yahweh’s loyal love for ancient Israel, standing at the very centre of God’s self-revelation (e.g. Exod 34:6; Ps 145:8-9). We see this loyal love in action from creation on, Yahweh providing and protecting, giving and forgiving, rescuing and restoring, time and time and time again.

In the Gospels we hear Jesus speaking of an Abba Father who cares for the least and last, who seeks the lost, who loves sinners with a ring-and-robe and fatted-calf-feast kind of love (e.g. Luke 15). In the Epistles we hear that “God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), that “we know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16), and that we are to be “imitators of God” by “living in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2).

“God is love,” we are told, and Jesus comes as “the image of the invisible God,” the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” the ultimate revelation of the God who is love (1 John 4:8, 16; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; John 1:18).

So in light of God’s love for us, and especially God’s love for us in Jesus, what is this love, this one thing we really need? A few reflections, and then a summary description.

Love starts with a stance of openness. It doesn’t stand aloof, arms crossed in suspicion or scorn, waiting for the other to prove themselves. Love steps forward with arms open wide, even running toward the other. It sees the other as a person, inherently worthy of welcome, of compassion, of affection, of respect. It sees these things, even when the other person cannot see it themselves.

Love is freely given. It is “freely given” in that it is voluntary, not coerced. A forced “love” is no love at all. It is also “freely given” in that it expects nothing in return. That is barter or bribery, or crass capitalism—it is not love.

Love is a giving of oneself. Our time, our attention, our listening ear, our gracious words, our empathy, our loyalty, our experiences, our material resources—all the things that make us who we are as persons, all the things we value as humans, given for the other person. This puts us in a precarious position, because we love without knowing how our love will be perceived, without knowing how it will be received. There is always risk in love.

Love is given whether the recipient deserves it or not. It is loving anyone we cross paths with day by day, our “neighbours.” It is loving “strangers” or “sinners,” those who are different than us in any way, even in ways we vehemently disagree with. It is loving even those who oppose us in anything, even if they do so violently: our “enemies.”

Love is given even when it hurts the giver. This is not an excuse for abuse—remember, love is freely given, never coerced, never forced. This is not the weak being oppressed by the strong, but the strong giving themselves for the weak. Love, at one time or another, in one way or another, will always suffer for the other person. To love is to suffer.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing, giver and receiver together. The objective is life shared together: not merely surviving but thriving. It is the opposite of what Christians call “sin,” those attitudes and actions that cause harm to others and ourselves.

Think of our most basic needs as human beings. We’ve got those basic physical needs, what we need just to exist: clean air and water, nourishing food, adequate warmth in clothing and shelter, simple health and safety. Then there are those basic psychological, emotional, and social needs we all have, without which we are diminished as persons: positive relationships with others, a sense of belonging in a group, a sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world.

These are universal human needs. They can give us a minimal, rough sketch of what “flourishing life” can look like. Which means they can give us a working description of what love should strive for: ensuring others have these basic human needs met, meeting these basic needs for others, for one another together.

This, then, 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.

Let that sink in a little.

Go back and read that again.

As you do, pause to think about different people in your life, people you encounter day by day—those you’re close to, those you’re not, those you like, those you don’t.

What would it look like to love them like this?

What would our world be like if we loved one another like this?

Stay tuned for part four.

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

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

What is “Sin”?

The following is an excerpt from my sermon this past Sunday, part of our “Praying the Psalms” series. The sermon was focused on Psalm 51 and praying in confession of sin. There’s much more to be said on “sin” than can be said in a thousand words, but this excerpt gives a rough start.

My first introduction to the notion of “sin” was probably much like yours. We learn the Ten Commandments, and it’s easy: the “Thou shalt nots” are sin; and doing the opposite of the “Thou shalts,” that is also sin. Adultery? Sin. Not respecting my Mom and Dad? Sin. Lying? Sin. Stealing? Sin. Murder? Sin.

Michelangelo original sinOther commands are then added from elsewhere in the Bible (and sometimes from outside of it!), and these are then viewed through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount—or at least one common interpretation of it. So Jesus says that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matt 5:28)—and this is taken to mean not simply that our outward actions have roots in our inner desires, which I think is Jesus’ point, but that the desires themselves are sin. Or Jesus says that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matt 5:22)—and as a kid I was filled with guilt over every bit of inner anger with my older brother, even if it never saw the light of day in my actions, because that inner flash of anger is itself seen as sin.

So we start with the Big Ten and other commands, then we internalize them and privatize them with the Sermon on the Mount. But that isn’t all. In many Christian circles, this understanding of “sin” is then mixed in with a particular view of the world: that the world is an inherently evil place that is going to be destroyed in God’s judgment, and what really matters is the eternal spiritual realm that finds its perfection in “heaven,” being in a spiritual state for eternity with God. This idea is thoroughly unbiblical, and even heretical—it’s a modern, slimline version of Gnosticism, one of the earliest Christian heresies. But it is a pervasive and tenacious view of the world among Christians.

Here’s what often happens when all this is mixed together: it leads to an idea that this life is just a kind of preparation for the next, even a kind of test. If you pass the test—if you believe the right things and avoid these sins and ask God to forgive you when you do them—then you will make it into the “heaven” that is the real point of our existence.

“Sin,” in this view, is just part of the test: it’s a sort of abstract list of “thou shalt nots” that God has come up with to test our loyalty to him. The way we’ve interpreted Genesis doesn’t help in all this. Rather than seeing God’s command to Adam and Eve as symbolic of the moral struggle we all face, from ancient Israel to today, we see it as a pretty arbitrary command—eating fruit from a particular tree—created simply as a test of Adam and Eve’s loyalty.

The end result of all this is some peculiar notions of “sin.” Sin is a list of “don’ts.” Sin is inward and private. Sin is about religion or personal morality, only applying in certain areas of life.

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about sin. At bottom the language of “sin” is simply this: it’s a way of talking about the things we think, say, or do that cause harm to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and therefore cause harm to the God who created everyone and all things.

There are many biblical texts I could point to that reflect this perspective of “sin as harm,” but let me choose just one: Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm (evil, wrong, kakos) to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

According to Paul, here following Jesus, the commands of the Law of Moses as summarized in the Ten Commandments are further summed up in loving others just as we want to be loved. This is what true “righteousness” is: loving others. The opposite of this, according to Paul, is “harming” others, and this is therefore “unrighteousness,” or sin. “Sin,” then, is really about “harm”—harm to oneself, to others, to the rest of creation, and ultimately, to God.

This view of “sin as harm” fits well within the larger story of God in Scripture. God created all things, including us as humans within this world, as “very good” (Gen 1:31). God created us and all living things to flourish in a full and abundant life, to grow in health and wholeness and beauty and goodness and truth, to extend God’s loving and faithful rule throughout all creation in peace and justice and joyful delight. Sin, then, is a distortion of God’s good intentions, which are always for flourishing life. Sin brings a comprehensive, deep death to ourselves and others and the rest of creation, the opposite of real life. Sin is “causing harm”: hindering or stopping or even reversing the flourishing life God our Creator wants for us, for others, and for the whole earth.

When we understand sin along these lines, it keeps us grounded in the real world, not disconnected in some special “religious” world. God isn’t concerned about us keeping a list of rules. God wants us to love others as God loves us, nurturing the flourishing life of others around us.

When we understand sin this way, it helps us keep our inner life in proper perspective. As James puts it, “When one’s desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Our inner desires are not sin. What we do with them can, if harmful, be sin: the settled dispositions and behavioral patterns we develop out of these desires, what we say because of them, what we do to satisfy them. Our inner desires are not sin. But our inner desires are the place where our attitudes, our words, and our actions take root—either for good or for harm.

When we understand sin as “harm” in this way, it opens our eyes to wider, more pervasive, sins. God is not only concerned with our private lustful or angry thoughts and how those might take root and spread into our personal relationships. God is also concerned with the way our personal sins become systemic, social evils: the way our insatiable greed and our thirst for power fuels economic oppression that keeps people in poverty; the way our lust and our dehumanizing of others fuels sexual addiction and abuse that chains people in fear and silence; the way our willful ignorance and self-indulgence fuels environmental devastation that ruins ecosystems and kills off entire species.

And when we understand sin like this, as causing harm, it is not excessively negative. Yes, what I’ve just described is terrible: sin is still sin, and there is real evil in the world. But we are not burdening our children and ourselves with a label like “totally depraved.” We are not implying that some people are beyond the scope of redemption. We are starting with a positive story—God creating all things as “very good,” for a flourishing of life in love—and that story controls the way we think even about sin and evil in the world, in others, and in ourselves.

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