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Joined with Christ

July 13th, 2012 No comments

“Joined with Christ” (Mark 10:35-45; John 13:12-15)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 3, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The following was presented together with a digital presentation/outline.

A fancy title and a measure of power?
These past several weeks, you may recall, we’ve been talking about living as kingdom people. And we’ve talked about transformation and mission and yielding to God’s kingdom and purposes and demonstrating and proclaiming the kingdom and making kingdom people.

Now in Jesus. time, many people were eagerly awaiting the kingdom of God, and there was much discussion about what God’s kingdom would look like and how people would participate in it. So when Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom was at hand, why, of course he caught the attention of a wide variety of people. And actually, among Jesus’ ragtag little band of disciples was a at least one person who was known to have been a part of a political party that would today most likely be labeled a terrorist organization1 – sowing anger, hatred, and violence in hopes of establishing God’s kingdom!

But most people weren’t so extreme in their views or in their practices. Think of James and John in the first gospel reading for this morning. Now they’re certainly a precocious pair, presuming to ask Jesus to do whatever they may ask!

But is their request really that unreasonable? They want to sit on Jesus’ right and on his left in the glory of the kingdom. They’d been working hard, traveling throughout Galilee and Judea, healing, watching warily as their opponents were plotting against them. And they were just looking for a little recognition, a little status, a little comfort and respect after all the hard work.

And isn’t that the way it works? What’s wrong with wanting a cabinet seat in the new administration. You support your guy, and you get rewarded for your efforts. That’s the way the kingdoms of the world work. That’s what the kingdom life should look like, right? You need a little power and authority, a fancy title by your name if you’re going to change this world, don’t you? You work hard, you climb the ladder, and then you can finally make some changes, and yes, you get rewarded for it.

Well, no, that’s not how God’s kingdom works. “You know how that works out – how all these quests for power and status play out,” Jesus says: oppression, tyranny. God’s kingdom looks different, works differently. Much differently. In God’s kingdom, the greatest are actually servants, and the first are actually slaves. Because, you see, the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for a ransom for many!

You know, if you want to see what the kingdom life looks like, if you want to see how you can participate in the kingdom, well, it really is quite simple.

Joined with Jesus
As Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, people were starting to get excited! The kingdom was finally coming to the holy city! But Jesus had no army to oust those pig-headed Romans. No wealth. Just a bunch of disciples with dusty feet. So one day, as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, some of the Pharisees asked him when this thing was going to happen, when this kingdom was going to arrive, when things were gonna get rolling finally.

And Jesus looked at them and said, “People aren’t gong to say: ‘Here it is! Or There it is!’ The kingdom of God is among you!” (Luke 17:21). You see, if you really want to see the kingdom and catch a glimpse of the kingdom life, you don’t actually have to search high and low or figure out any great mystery or attain any great knowledge, because it’s right in front of us, among us. All you have to do is look to Jesus, and you’ll see the kingdom life.

If you read through the New Testament, you’ll find that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are constantly talking about following Jesus, or waking in his footsteps, or taking his example, or being transformed and conformed to his image, or imitating him, or letting him rule in our hearts, or making his life visible in our own life. . . the list could go on and on and on.2 But what all these have in common is being joined with Jesus, sharing his life, his death, his resurrection.

There’s much to be said about this, but I’d like to break it down into three ways to think about – and more importantly, actually practice – being joined with Jesus: Caring about what Jesus cared about, living as Jesus lived, and sharing Jesus’ inward character of heart and mind.

  1. Caring about what Jesus cared about
    1. Those the world kicks aside, forgets, and shuns

Jesus cared about those whom the world kicks aside as it goes speeding by: Lepers, poor, blind, lame, the sick, the prisoner, the hungry.3 Jesus came proclaiming good news for the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:17-19). He taught his disciples that those who tended to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner would inherit the kingdom (Mt. 25:34-36). He cared for those whom his culture thought insignificant: women, children, and despised Samaritans, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, and those unable to fulfill the law’s obligations.4

    1. The powerful

Jesus cared about those with power and authority as well. He invited the rich to a new life; he spent many hours with the religious elite of his day. So too, we are called to pray for those in power and authority.

    1. Transformation and new beginnings

Jesus cared deeply about transformation and new beginnings. He offered forgiveness so people could be released from sins, their old ways, their baggage and brokenness, and could be free to live for him and experience new life. Prostitutes got a fresh start. Corrupt tax collectors could find integrity. Those given to violence and hatred could experience peace and hope. Rich people drowning in their own wealth could live the generous, just, and simple life. The blind received their sight. The lame walked. The dead were raised. The poor had good news brought to them. In Jesus, we also can find freedom, forgiveness, a fresh start, and new life, and we can offer forgiveness, second chances, and a fresh start to our friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, and to those sitting in darkness.

    1. Love as the foundation of the Law

Jesus taught his followers that the greatest commandments were to love God with undivided heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love their neighbors and themselves (Mark 12:30-31 and par.). He taught his disciples that to do unto others as they would have others do to them was the law and the prophets. He told his followers that he gave them a new commandment: to love one another as he loved them (John 15:12), and they were to love even their enemies (Mt. 5:44; Luke 6:27). He called the religious elites to remember the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, faith, and love (Mt. 23:23; Luke 11:42).

    1. Faith

Jesus told his followers that those who trusted in him would know and see God (John 14:1, 7, 9). He nurtured and commended the faith of those who came to him for healing. He invited people to believe in him and offered eternal life. He trusted God with his life. We also are called to nurture our faith and faithfulness, and grow in trusting Jesus.

    1. Unity

Jesus prayed that his followers may be one, just as he and the Father are one. He prayed that they may be one, saying, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). We are to care about unity that the world may see and believe.

    1. Kingdom of God

Finally, the kingdom of God was Jesus passion, focus, and message. He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom, and that in him, it is arriving here. He demonstrated it by healing, forgiving, welcoming the stranger, demonstrating care and compassion for the vulnerable, fellowshiping with those who were ostracized, touching the untouchable. He told his followers to pray for the kingdom to happen on earth as in heaven. Likewise, we also are to make the kingdom our passion and focus, seeking it first.

  1. Living as Jesus lived
    1. Simply

Jesus once told a would-be follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt. 8:20). When he sent out his disciples, he told them to carry no purse and no money. Instead, Jesus trusted in God’s provision for his needs, the needs of his disciples, and the needs of the crowds when he fed the thousands. He taught his disciples to give to all who are in need, expecting nothing in return, and to store up treasure in God instead of in money. He told the poor they would inherit the kingdom, but warned the rich that they had already received their consolation. His followers were to live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field in God’s care and not to worry about tomorrow.

    1. Peaceably

When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples cut off a centurion’s ear. Jesus responded by healing the ear, and he warned his disciples that those who live by the sword perish by it. While on trial before Pilate, he said, “My kingdom is not of the ways of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23). With his dying breath, he prayed to his Father in heaven to forgive those who were crucifying him. He forgave those who wronged him and offered new beginnings.

    1. Prayer

Jesus lived a life of constant prayer. Though his ministry was incredibly rigorous and filled with travels and events, he always made time for prayer. It sustained him and united his will with God’s will. He taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, for forgiveness as one forgives, for daily bread, for deliverance from evil and rescue from trial.

    1. Friendship

Jesus was a friend to sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, rebels, religious teachers, Samaritans, Gentiles, and anyone who took no offense at him. He showed compassion to the wounded and vulnerable, and ate with those who were considered a blight on good society.

    1. Forgiveness and generosity – healing

Jesus was generous in offering forgiveness to those who came to him – even his executioners. He healed the crowds, curing diseases and casting out demons and offering deliverance from everything that distorted God’s good intention for life. He offered a new teaching with authority that contained the way of life.

    1. Courage and faithfulness – even to the point of death for both friends and enemies

Jesus did not waver from doing God’s will, even when it was unpopular or risky, even when it ended up getting him killed. He was faithful unto death, dying not only for his friends, but also for his enemies, and therefore God highly exalted him.

    1. Reversing worldly standards

Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated a kingdom that was the great reverse of the kingdoms of the world – a kingdom where the last are first, where the outcasts are welcome, where the poor are heroes, where cheaters, murderers, and prostitutes may find new life and become the models of faithfulness, where those who serve are the great ones, where the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought low, where security is not in wealth or possessions, but in God, where love is more powerful than carnal weaponry, where forgiveness triumphs over hatred, where death leads to life, where truth is practiced and religious devotion is not self-serving, but God-serving.

    1. Proclaiming and healing and inviting new followers

The majority of Jesus ministry was spent proclaiming and teaching the kingdom of God and demonstrating it by healing crowds, providing abundance, and welcoming people into a new life. Jesus continually extended the invitation for the crowds to come and follow him and become disciples.

  1. Sharing Jesus’ inward character of heart and mind

Jesus wants our actions; he also wants our hearts and minds, from which our actions flow.

    1. Humbleness

Though he was the Son of God, Jesus humbled himself, taking on human form, living as a peasant, enduring shame and ridicule, and finally, a painful, public execution. He associated with the lowly and endured ridicule without retaliation. He proclaimed his message with clarity, compassion, and courage, but never laid claim to worldly power.

    1. Servant

Jesus had a servant’s heart. Jesus stooped to wash his disciple’s feet and taught them to do the same. He fed people and healed them. He jeopardized his religious standing and risked his own health by welcoming and healing the sick. He delivered people from slavery to the powers of this world. He showed compassion to second-class citizens, such as women, children, Samaritans, and Gentiles. He even served his executioners. Jesus came to to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

    1. Trust in God

In all things, Jesus trusted and relied on God for strength and direction. He trusted God in poverty and hunger, in dangerous moments, in exhausting ministry, throughout every pain of this world, and finally even to death, saying, “Into your hands I commend my Spirit” (Luke 23:46). His trust in God never wavered, even we he knew he was called upon to relinquish life itself for the sake of the kingdom in suffering a cruel death.

    1. The way of the cross

Finally, as the church spread and grew and told the stories of Jesus over and over, it discovered that the symbol that captured the very essence of Jesus’ passion, his life, his heart and mind, was the cross. It was and is a symbol of incredible self-giving love, radical forgiveness, faithfulness unto death, trusting God even in suffering for the kingdom, humbleness and care for the least among us, the triumph of love over hatred, violence, and death, and the ultimate victory of God. Jesus told his followers, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”

Jesus told James and John that though they didn’t understand it, they too would share his cup and his baptism. They too would bear their cross, giving all for the Kingdom of God. When we are joined with Christ in the cross, we put to death our slavery to sin, we leave behind the old self and old ways of thinking and living, and we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus, joined with him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

May we all be conformed more and more to the image and likeness of Christ, that in us, his life may be made visible. Amen.

Notes:
1. Simon the Zealot, Luke 6:15.
2. E.g. Mt. 5:44-48; Mt. 6:12, 14-15; Mt. 16:24; Mt. 18:32-33; Mark 8:34; Mark 10:42-45; Mark 11:25 (undivided as God is); Luke 6:32-36; Luke 9:23; Luke 11:4; John 13:14-16; John 13:34-35; John 15:12-14; John 17:22-23; John 20:21; Rom. 5:5; Rom. 6; Rom. 8:11; Rom. 8:29; Rom. 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; 2 Cor. 8:7-9; Gal. 2:19-20; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 4:20-24; Eph. 4:32-5:2; Eph. 5:22-28; Php. 1:29; Php. 2:1-11; Php. 3:10; Php. 3:21; Col. 1:24; Col. 2:12; Col. 2:20; Col. 3:1; Col. 3:9-10, 13; 1 Thess. 1:6-7; 2 Tim. 3:12; Heb. 12:1-3; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 Peter 2:21-24; 1 Peter 3:14-18; 1 Peter 4:1-2; 1 Peter 4:12-19; 2 Peter 1:4-7; 1 John 1:5-7; 1 John 3:1-3; 1 John 3:11-16; 1 John 4:7-10; 1 John 4:17; Rev. 12:11
3. E.g Mt. 8:2-3; 10:8; 11:5; 25:35-36; Mark 1:40-41; Luke 5:12-13; 7:22; 14:13.
4. E.g. Matthew 9:10-11; 11:19; 21:31-32; 18:1-5; 19:13-15 (and parallels); Luke 15:2; John 4:1-42; 19:26. Those with various afflictions were unable to fulfill the law’s obligations.

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Blessed Are. . .

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Blessed are. . .” (Matthew 5:1-12)
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
June 19, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When Jesus ascended and took his place upon the mountain side, you knew something momentous and earth-changing was going to happen. In Matthew’s Gospel, mountains are the places of some of the most significant moments in Jesus’ life, the places of revelation. It is upon a high mountain peak that Jesus experienced the “third temptation,” where he was promised all of the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down to the devil, yet he passed the test. It is upon a mountain peak where Jesus is transfigured to shine like the sun, and where a voice from the clouds proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It is upon a mountain where Jesus commissions his followers to go and make disciples of all nations and where he promises that he will be with us always. And here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is upon a mountain where Jesus gives one of his longest discourses with teachings about the Kingdom of God. This testifies to what Jesus and his calling are all about. With this mountain top revelation, one hears echoes of Moses ascending to Mt Sinai and giving God’s people the Holy Law; for here, Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of the Law, the true intentions of the Law given on Sinai.

Anabaptists throughout the centuries have found deep meaning in the Sermon on the Mount, for we take Jesus and his life and teachings very seriously. We do not believe that these words preached from the mountain are only meant for some future age yet to come, but that they are also profoundly relevant for Jesus’ followers in the present. We believe that Jesus meant what he said and that he was talking to all of his followers. And the same is certainly true for the beautiful introduction to this “sermon”, this series of blessings, or beatitudes, upon those who the world itself does not consider to be so blessed: the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

This passage is certainly beautiful, but what did Jesus mean when he said it? Are these the entrance requirements to get into God’s kingdom? Will we be blessed only when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, or we are merciful, or pure in heart, or persecuted? Are these the ideals that we need to strive for? Would good things start happening if only more people would act according to these ideals? If these are the ideals we need to live by, then who could possibly fulfill them all besides Christ himself? If this is indeed how Christ meant the Beatitudes, I wonder if this focuses more on our own good works rather than on God’s abounding grace. If this is how Christ meant them, I wonder if they cause more feelings of guilt or futility since we cannot live up to these standards, rather than causing feelings of joy and blessedness.1

So what did Jesus mean? “Is Jesus saying, ‘Happy are those who mourn, because mourning makes them virtuous and they will get the reward that virtuous people deserve?’ Or is he saying, ‘Congratulations to those who mourn, because God is gracious and God is acting to deliver us from our sorrows?’”2

Now I certainly believe that Jesus does care about how we live, and that he was trying to teach his disciples and the crowds who had gathered what the lifestyle of one whose citizenship is in the Kingdom of God looks like. But I believe here, at the beginning of his “sermon,” he is focusing more on God’s deep and abounding grace. Jesus is emphasizing God’s saving action: what God has done, what God is presently doing, and what God will do in the future. Before we act, we are already experiencing God’s blessing. Just as before the Ten Commandments were given on Mt Sinai, God spoke through Moses to say, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”3 before the commandments were read; so also Jesus is reminding the people of God’s grace, that God is already working to deliver us, before he goes on to speak of what faithfulness to God’s kingdom looks like. God’s grace and mercy come first, even before we act in ways that “deserve” it.

If Jesus had meant that these blessings were only for those who most deserved it, he probably would have waited to give these blessings at the end of the sermon, saying, “If you have done all these things… then blessed are you.” But instead, he has chosen to use these blessings to introduce the teachings that are to follow, as if to say that God’s grace precedes all that we do. We respond to God’s grace by living in ways that are in keeping with the kingdom, not because we have to in order to be blessed, but we respond because we are already blessed.4

God is already acting to save creation, and that is indeed reason to be joyful. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Congratulations to you, because God will see to it that all that you hope for will happen, and that it is happening already through my life, ‘at least in mustard-seed size.’5” God’s grace goes before all that we do.

While Jesus is emphasizing God’s grace at the beginning of the “sermon,” these blessings still give us a glimpse of what it means to respond to God’s grace, what the lifestyle of the citizens of the Kingdom of God look like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven6

Now the poor in spirit “are those who experience poverty in many forms.”7 It refers to those who are economically poor, “those who are pushed to the edges of society, … those whose lives have come apart”8, as well as the spiritually humble, those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God. For who realizes their dependence on God better than those who have very little? For many of those who own a great deal of possessions believe that they have come by these either through their own doing, or because they have deserved them. And for those of us who have more possessions than most of the world, this is a good reminder that we should hold them lightly, to remember humbly that we are completely dependent on God, and not upon our own doing or upon our possessions.

The poor in spirit are not blessed because they are virtuous, but because God especially wishes to rescue the poor. God’s deep compassion for the poor was shown through the way that Jesus cared for them, how he fed them, and healed them, and made them his disciples. Jesus is indeed bringing good news to the poor because God is already seeking to deliver the poor, the humble, the lowly. And because God is already doing this, we can participate in this deliverance.

The poor in spirit are those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God, who surrender themselves to God, and thus participate in God’s deliverance in caring for the poor and the humble. They do not focus on their own humility and virtue, but upon God’s grace and redemption, both now and in the future. Our humility should not call attention to us, but to God’s grace in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

Mourning means the grief of those who have lost someone or something that they care about deeply, those for whom the power of death is very present and very real. And mourning also means the grief of those who see that the world is not as God has intended it to be. Those who mourn are those who see and feel the deep pain and the brokenness of the world, those who cry out, “God, do not let your creation hurt like this forever!” But God has promised that every tear will be wiped away, and that death and mourning will end, and that all who grieve will be comforted. Indeed, God has already begun to accomplish this through the deliverance brought through Jesus, and the promise given through his resurrection.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Often those described as “meek” are thought to be passive doormats, those who let others walk all over them. Yet nothing could be further from the way that the Bible uses this word. There are two people in particular who are described as “meek”: Moses9 and Jesus.10 “One of them defied the might of Egypt and the other couldn’t be cowed by a powerful Roman official. … Both … seemed absolutely fearless … and completely surrendered to the will of God.”11

To be meek is to be humble, or to completely surrender to God’s will. Or as the early Anabaptists liked to talk about this using the word “gelassenheit” which refers to one who is “yielded” to God, or one who places his or her life completely into God’s hands. Those who are meek patiently trust that God will act, and who “surrender their will to God so completely that God’s will becomes their will.”12

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

This refers both to those who literally hunger and thirst, as well as to those who hunger and thirst for God’s delivering justice in the world so that hunger and thirst might be no more. God’s righteousness was shown to us first through acts of saving deliverance, and we respond by participating in God’s righteousness. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who are generous with what they have, who speak out on behalf of God’s saving justice whenever possible, and who seek to do good to those around them.13

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy

We are called to be merciful, just as God is merciful.14 the merciful are those who show kindness and love to others, those who are more eager to forgive than to punish or take revenge, and those who show compassion rather than seek first for their own good. Our mercy grows out of the deep awareness that God’s own self is merciful. It is God who first showed us mercy, thus citizens of God’s kingdom are themselves merciful in response.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,”15 which suggests that a person’s whole being can be defiled, or that the heart can be corrupted. The way to purity is to surrender ourselves to the One who is pure. Those who are pure in heart are those whose faith is genuine, those whose outward deeds match their inner commitments, those who desire to do God’s will above all else.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God

During Jesus’ day, there were those who thought of themselves as the “sons of God” who sought to bring about God’s kingdom by violently overthrowing their oppressors or eliminating anyone who they saw as opposed to God’s will. But Jesus proclaims that it is those who actively seek peace who will be called God’s children. Citizens of God’s kingdom “abandon the effort to get our needs met through the destruction of enemies.”16 Those who are peacemakers are not just those who live in peace, but who actively seek that there will be peace in every corner of creation, those who imitate the God of peace 17by seeking reconciliation and by loving even our enemies and persecutors. “Being a peacemaker is part of being surrendered to God, for [it is] God who [ultimately] brings peace.”18

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

The world will not understand the ways of God’s kingdom, for the world preaches a different set of beatitudes. Instead of “Blessed are the meek,” the world proclaims, “Powerful are the self-assertive, for they will get their own way!” Instead of “Blessed are the merciful,” the world proclaims, “Advantaged are the ruthless, for nobody will get in their way!” Instead of “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” the world proclaims, “Safe are those who do not stir the waters, for their lives will remain convenient.”19 I was struck this past week during a class session in Bible School when, after telling a number of stories where people from the Bible followed the way of the cross rather than the way of the world, one of the second graders responded by saying, “These people are weird.” But he’s only expressing what we’re taught by the world; for we have two conflicting and completely different kingdoms vying for our attention and allegiance. But as all of the beatitudes testify to, we are called to ultimately surrender ourselves to God and to God’s kingdom and to God’s justice. And the world won’t always understand the way that we are living, and so there will be times when the world will lash out at us. And we will be in good company when that happens, with all of the other prophets who have gone before us, including THE Prophet himself, the One so committed to God’s kingdom that he died for it.

So blessed are you. And because you are blessed, you are empowered to be poor in spirit, to mourn when the world is not as God intended it to be, to be meek and surrender your will completely to God, to hunger and thirst for righteousness and God’s justice to be done, to be merciful, to be pure in heart and purpose, to be active peacemakers, and even to be persecuted for righteousness sake. It is ultimately God’s grace that all of these things point to, for God’s grace goes before us in all that we do. And because of this grace, we joyfully respond to God. We are blessed so that we can participate in the deliverance that God is bringing in Jesus Christ.20 “We love because God first loved us.”21

May God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Notes:
1. Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context.
2. Ibid., page 34.
3. Exodus 20:2, NRSV.
4. Fred Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing” from www.christiancentury.org
5. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 34.
6. Ideas for this section, and all the following sections on the Beatitudes come from Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, and Thomas Long’s commentary on Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion).
7. Long, Matthew, page 48.
8. Ibid.
9. Numbers 12:3 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same word for “meek”)
10. Matthew 11:29 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same Greek word used here)
11. Clarence Jordan quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
12. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
13. Long, Matthew.
14. Luke 6:36.
15. Matthew 15:11, NRSV.
16. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 45.
17. Romans 15:33, Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20.
18. Ibid.
19. Written by Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, and taken from Words for Worship 2, edited by Diane Zaerr Brenneman.
20. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics.
21. 1 John 4:19.

Following the Good Shepherd

June 8th, 2011 No comments

Following the Good Shepherd” (John 12:1-11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 15, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The Good Shepherd
Every year, my parents used to load up us boys in the van, and we’d drive to South Dakota to visit my aunt and uncle. If we got up early enough, we could go out with my uncle to chore the sheep. As we were walking out to the barn, the sheep would completely ignore our chatter until my uncle would start calling, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” And the timid-yet-gentle creatures would start making their way from the “pasture” to the barn, a little nervous to see us strangers. They came because they knew their shepherd’s voice and call. There was a familiarity to them in his step, in his face, and in his voice, and they trusted him

Little wonder that the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep is a favorite image of Jesus and his followers. Walls and picture Bibles and children’s postcards are adorned with pastoral images of Jesus with his gentle flock, and we cannot help but hear echoes of the ancient words of the famous 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Israel’s greatest king and Psalmist, after all, started out as a shepherd (David).

Thieves and Rebels
Jesus begins this famous chapter with a warning, most likely about those powers who are plotting against him. “Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a rebel.” Now that is sort of an odd pairing: thief and rebel. One is stealthy – a subtle embezzler, a cat burglar. The other is a violent insurrectionist – what the Roman Empire might have called the terrorists of its day. . .

There is only one thief mentioned by name in John’s gospel: Judas Iscariot, who kept the common purse, but stole the money from it instead of giving it to the poor (John 12:4-6). And there is only one rebel mentioned by name in John’s gospel: At the time of Passover, the Jewish authorities would later ask for the release, not of Jesus, but of the insurrectionist and murderer named Barabbas. They had chosen their shepherd, and his path would ultimately lead to destruction.1

Judas and Barabbas, thieves and violent insurrectionists, are always trying to sneak into the sheepfold, it seems. Defrauding and exploitation of the poor on the one hand, and violence and insurrection on the other are always trying to find a home among God’s people, always trying to speak in soft tones to urge a few sheep to follow them off into the night. Surely those crowds gathered around Jesus – especially those Pharisees who were there – knew the prophet Ezekiel’s warning to the Judases and Barabbases of his day, the impostor shepherds of his own time:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with violence and harshness you have ruled them. . . My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (34:2-4, 6, NRSV).

Judas and Barabbas
And Judas and Barabbas have been trying to gain entry to the sheepfold ever since, to steal and kill and destroy. And just think of how good Judas the embezzler and Barabbas the rebel are at what they do. Just think of how Judas’s advertisements for stuff – possessions, consumables – that surround us on TV and on the radio and on the Internet and along the Interstate keep seeping into the sheepfold with such friendly-sounding voices, saying, “It’s OK, come here. Follow me. You should have this. You deserve this. You need this, and you need it now. Boost your ego. It’ll make your life so much easier, happier.”

And of course, Judas’s hidden message is, “You don’t need to worry about the folks who can’t even afford any of this. . . just put them out of your mind.” I once ran into an economics professor who told me that the best thing I could do for our nation’s poor is to go shopping. Thieves speak ever so smoothly.

Or have you ever heard Barabbas the violent insurrectionist speaking to you? You know that rush of satisfaction and approval we all get when someone who willfully did something wrong finally gets what’s coming to them, or when that annoying, arrogant coworker or classmate finally gets the chewing out they deserve? Have you ever heard Barabbas telling you to respond to insult in kind? To shove back? To hit back because that’s the only think that’ll teach them a lesson?

Maybe you’ve heard Barabbas telling you that justice means an eye for an eye or a life for a life, perhaps whispering so convincingly in your ear that loving your enemies like God loves them has its limits, such as when your life, or your friends’ lives, or the well-being of your nation is threatened, and that you only have one option that will actually work, that you’ve gotta put down your cross and take up your sword if you wanna get anything done in this world.

Following the Good Shepherd’s Voice
But the Good shepherd’s sheep, Jesus says, they will not follow these smooth-talking, sinister strangers. They don’t know the voice of these strangers, and they scatter at the sight and sound of them. These sheep Jesus is talking about, you see, are to be smarter than what sheep are often maligned for being. They know whom to follow. They sense truth even amid all other voices and eagerly follow after it. The Good Shepherd enters by the gate, taking no shortcuts for the sake of expediency, and the sheep follow after him.

And do you notice how this Good Shepherd goes about his job? He doesn’t drive the sheep ahead of him. He doesn’t threaten them with loud shouts and furious gestures until they go where he wants them to. No, this shepherd calls his sheep by name. He leads them out of the safety of their fold and goes ahead of them into a dangerous world. And they follow because they’re his. They are never forced, but always have a choice. They must continually decide to follow, yet it’s almost like once they’re his sheep, their instincts are rewired in such a way (think work of the Holy Spirit) that they can hardly do anything but follow him (discipleship as rewired instincts!).

So when Jesus goes about proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, we follow him as a part of that proclamation, because we’re his flock. When Jesus invites other sheep into his fold, we welcome them as our own and seek to welcome others. We follow Jesus as he sets about healing God’s children, freeing them from the grip of pain, despair, and the possessive spirits of the world. We follow Jesus as he heads up the mount of transfiguration and find ourselves transformed as well. We join him in his temple demonstration in revealing injustice. We follow him on his path of tremendous and costly love for the least lovable.

We follow him as he forgives those who come to him, and we even follow him through the valley of the shadow of death, because he is the Good Shepherd, and we are his flock. We freely yield to his call to follow him even as we bear our crosses to the hill of Golgotha, being conformed to a death like his, that we might also share in a resurrection like his. For he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And as the lamb who was slain and rose again, he has gone ahead, left us a trail through the thorns and brambles to the hope of his kingdom and the safety of his fold.

The Gate for the Sheep
And this brings us to Jesus’ proclamation, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Again, we hear echoes from Ezekiel. In response to these impostor shepherds, God declares through the prophet:

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and . . . will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture. . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. . . I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. . . I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. I will make with them a covenant of peace (from 34:11-25, NRSV).

God responds to impostor shepherds by taking over the shepherd role to gather the sheep who are in exile back into the fold and passing that role on to the Messiah, that the sheep might be saved from such thieves and rebels and all the robbery, killing, and destruction they entail, and for something much greater.

Ancient sheepfolds were stone structures a few feet tall, with an opening for going in and coming out. The shepherd would lead the sheep into the fold for night for protection and lie down across the opening, becoming the door or gate, who keeps out all who would do harm to his flock.

Abundant Life!
Those who are the Good Shepherd’s sheep – those who respond to his call in faith – those who listen to his voice and come to him, enter into the safety and salvation of his fold. The Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep, is the one who is able to take it up again and lead them out of death as well.

This is how the sheep are saved into the sheepfold and into the flock. They don’t earn their way in by cashing in some sort of paycheck. They don’t try and sneak in over the wall. They hear their Shepherd’s gracious voice, and they trust him, and turning (aka repenting) from all the other sweet voices calling to them, they follow the Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death and into their pastures of eternal life.

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his listeners, “Which shepherd will you follow? Whose voice will you hear, and whose will you flee? Those impostor shepherds, those Judases and Barabbases, those short-cut thieves and exploiters, those violent rebels and murderers? Or will you follow the Good Shepherd, who will lead you beside the still water, restore your soul, take you through the valley of the shadow of death, and raise you to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection?

The Good Shepherd promises his flock abundant life of freedom and good pasture, both in the age to come, and now already. We heard from the Acts reading about the abundance of life the early church enjoyed by following the call of the Good Shepherd, even in times of persecution – even in this overlapping of the ages, with the world still dominated by violence and fear. The Shepherd’s Way has that ring of abundant truth that goes “with the grain of the universe.” We too may have that same sort of abundance of life that Jesus had as we hear him call our name and follow, with the hope that we may also one day enjoy the same abundance of life that the Good Shepherd now has in glory.

May we also know the Good shepherd’s step, recognize his face, rejoice at his voice, and gladly follow when he calls, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” Amen.

Notes:
1 The Judeans mounted an insurrection against Rome in AD 66-70. It was brutally crushed. In several important manuscripts, Matthew draws out the contrast by calling Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas.” The choice is then between Jesus Messiah and Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27:17). The crowd chooses the insurrectionist Jesus. May we guide our minds and actions against following this false “Jesus” of violence and insurrection.

Journeying with the Risen Lord

May 26th, 2011 No comments

“Journeying with the Risen Lord” (Luke 24:13-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 8, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This Week’s News
I watched and read this week, as I’m sure all of you did, with great interest as news and details of the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden unfolded. As the headlines pressed on so relentlessly all week long, I found myself grappling with many different emotions and thoughts and reflections about the significance of this news.

I felt at times a sense of relief that this particular chapter can now be closed; I grieved the tens of thousands who have lost their lives and the thousands more who will yet lose their lives or live in perpetual fear. I was frustrated at such vulgar celebration of death.

I was impressed with the precision with which the operation was executed and moved to a newfound sense of admiration and respect for those who train so diligently and serve what they believe in with such courage, conviction, and commitment, and I wondered, with Ronald Sider in his 1984 address to Mennonite World Conference, why I have not mustered such courage for the sake of my convictions.

But mostly, this past week, I have been saddened. I’ve been saddened by the casual use of the word “justice,” whose biblical demands go far beyond retribution and punishment, or “security,” which as Isaiah once cried, cannot be found in chariots or horsemen, nor tanks or planes, but only in God.

I have been saddened that though Jesus Christ has destroyed the power of death by dying on the cross (2 Tim. 1:10)1, it continues to find employment by the powers of this world. I was saddened that people celebrated and congratulated death in a season of Easter, which delights in new life.

I was saddened by reports of those promising revenge, perpetually playing the tired game of vengeance and retaliation. And I was saddened by those daily killings, molestations, oppressions, and starvations that will never grab the world’s collective attention. And I was saddened to think that I can only make such a tiny difference in this world.

Traveling the Emmaus Road
We all make that saddened journey to Emmaus, don’t we – at least sometimes? Don’t we all – at least sometimes – get so surrounded with sadness and pessimism that we find the report of the empty tomb difficult to square with how we experience the world?

Don’t we live in a world “where hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and the rich get richer, and the weak all eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate or another, and people hatch murderous plots, and dead people stay dead”?2

We believe there was an empty tomb some two thousand years ago – that’s the easy part to believe despite all the hoopla of skeptics, but do we really believe the tomb is still empty today? Deep down, do we really believe in our heart that Christ is still vindicated? That his way really still is the way today?

Isn’t it a big waste of time to bother feeding the hungry, relieving the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and visiting the prisoners, when there just keep being more hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned people? What difference does it make?

Isn’t it just plain silly and naïve to resist evil with love? Isn’t it frankly ridiculous to pretend that Christ’s armor of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and word of God is any match for the evil of this world? Seriously, who wants to sleep with the sword of the Spirit under your pillow when the intruder’s got an actual gun?! Who fights bullets by quoting Scripture? Only those who are still foolish enough to believe that the tomb is still empty, that Jesus is still alive, and that his Way is still vindicated for his followers.

Unlikely Reports
Of course, Cleopas and his companion cannot yet believe it either as they travel along the Emmaus road. Their Messiah, the “bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises of old,”3 the very revelation and incarnation of God, their hope for the redemption of Israel, has been publicly shamed and cruelly executed. The hope and truth once pulsing strong within his heart has been finally beaten out by the corrupt powers of the world. So as they journey along, they no are no doubt discussing the cross, this “monument to the sadness they felt in the soul, a confirmation of the cruel truth”4 that death finally has the last word over everything good and true and beautiful.

They were walking, as the Psalmist once put it, “through the valley of the shadow of death.” In that valley, Jesus draws near and journeys with them, yet in the valley’s shadows, they cannot even recognize Jesus, and there they stop with their faces downcast. There they tell their grief-filled story of how Jesus of Nazareth, the great prophet, their hope for the redemption of Israel, was condemned by the fearful and crucified by the mighty.

Even the report of the empty tomb and the message that Jesus is alive are not enough to deliver them from Friday’s valley of shadows. It is merely a report. And in a world of relentless plotting and dashed hopes, reports alone cannot redeem any downcast soul from the valley of shadows. The secondhand faith of others’ reports leaves one hungry. Not even the revelation of the scriptures, it seems, can raise these two companions to walk in newness of life by resurrection power

God’s “Yes”
The world had said “no” to Jesus; the empire despised his gospel; the religious system feared his way; the domination machine could not tolerate his liberating and prophetic truth, and lashed out with its final weapon. As far as anyone of any significance was concerned, the coroner had properly declared Jesus dead, the death certificate signed, the body wrapped in cloths and sealed securely in the tomb. . .

But what these two, Cleopas and his companion, for all their discussing, could not yet see, was the life-changing, creation-restoring, reality-altering story that can only be truly known through experience – that the tomb couldn’t hold the Lord of Life.

For God has said “Yes” to Jesus and his gospel and his way. God has said “yes” to the healing and wholeness embodied by Jesus, yes to the forgiveness and mercy offered by Jesus, yes to compassion and care for the vulnerable modeled by Jesus, yes to the grace, welcome, and hospitality practiced by Jesus, yes to the gospel of peace proclaimed by Jesus, and God has ordered the tomb unsealed and has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The tomb had been sealed, but it could not hold the Lord, for truth has risen from the grave, love has broken the power of hate, salvation has triumphed over corruption!

Yet for Cleopas and his companion and all of us travelers of the Emmaus road, Friday’s deathly valley continues to overshadow Sunday’s gardens of hope. What’s a report about some empty tomb worth in a world of tactical nuclear warheads, terrorist plots, homes and lives fractured by the violence sin does, multi-billion-dollar international corporations, grinding injustice, and global disregard for God’s good creation? Our eyes behold no hope emerging on this world’s horizon, no new creation rising from the deep oceans of chaos. We see no “risen conq’ring Son.”

Joined to the Risen Lord
But seeing with open eyes is an odd thing. Sometimes it means catching sight of the eternal in the ordinary. For the two companions, there were no bolts of lightning or burning bushes. There was just a fellow journeyer along the road, a study of the Scriptures, and it was finally the breaking of bread around the table that revealed the Risen Lord.

These two disciples surely picked up on that same cadence that catches our ears: Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. They knew it was Jesus because breaking bread in table fellowship was what Jesus did from the early days in Galilee to the last supper in Jerusalem. The resurrection becomes more than a report about an empty tomb when the life and actions of Jesus continue in the present time.

The breaking of bread is for us, of course, a sign of communion, the Lord’s Supper, something we do in remembrance of Jesus as we together become the physical manifestation of the body of the Crucified-and-Risen Christ in the world. It’s a sign that we are being joined to one another and to the Risen Lord, that we no longer live, but Christ lives within us, or as Menno Simons liked to put it, that we are “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.”

As those who break bread with the Risen Lord with opened eyes – as those who are joined to him as his very own body through the baptism of his death and the power of his resurrection, we can do no other than to live as he lived and to make our journey with him by the power of the resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.

We greet the Risen Lord when the gospel story becomes enacted in our lives as his body. Because God has said yes to Jesus, the resurrection calls us to live and die for what Jesus lived and died for. The resurrection calls upon us to decide to care about the things Jesus cared about, for the stories he told to find their home in our voices, for his Way to guide our feet.

The resurrection calls upon us to join the mission Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord – not just because it’s the right thing to do in God’s eyes, but also because the empty tomb reminds us that therein lies true power and wisdom.

And when we see that happening, then friends, we know that we have seen none other than the Risen Lord himself.

Christ has Risen! Christ is Risen!”
Then our eyes are opened; then we remember and give voice to that which burns within us as we encounter Jesus in our ancient scriptures. “The early communities of Jesus’ followers never thought they were simply remembering a Jesus of the past, however important his memory was to them. They believed Jesus to be alive—now! More, they believed him to be present with them through the Spirit, that is, through the living presence of God in their midst.”5

And we simply cannot keep the presence of the Risen Lord to ourselves. Our hearts burn to share what we ourselves have seen. Just as the disciples all gathered together to share what had happened, so our witness and confession of the good news begins with one another. For without our gathering together for worship and Sunday School and service, the empty tomb remains just a report.

And this is a confession we share with the whole world – perhaps the church’s oldest confession – “Christ has risen!” “We have seen the Lord!”

Every time we say, “Christ is risen,” we aren’t just making a historical statement. We bear witness to the hope that we live in a world where the violent, the powerful, and the rich do not have the last word after all, where the myth of redemptive violence is only a myth, where love rises victorious from hate’s tomb, where the dawn of peace is breaking upon rebellion’s long, dark night, where sin and death are cast down, where God really is making all things new. And we testify that we live in a world where not even the threat of death can be wielded against the onslaught of Christ’s cross-and-resurrection life and love.

And every time we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” we aren’t just quoting scripture. In a world where Caesar is the only Lord, this is a dangerous pledge of allegiance. It is a decision to repent and turn to Jesus, to obey his command and follow him in life and in death. And we also say “no” to the powers of the world that crucified him. We say no to their deceit, their rebellion and sin, their fear, and their violence; and we say “yes” to Jesus. We say yes to following his Way even unto a death like his; we say yes to his love, even of enemies; we say yes to repentance, yes to forgiveness, yes to truth, yes to the goodness of God’s creation; and even when the cave of despair is closing around us and the stones of suffering are sealing us in, we say yes to hope, because God already has.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t feel pain or walk through the valley of the shadow of death; doesn’t mean that we don’t have long nights of suffering, just as Jesus himself did, but the Risen Jesus has drawn near to journey with us in the land of shadows, to raise us to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection. He has been made known to us in the breaking of bread and wherever his life and love finds its beautiful expression in the community of God’s children.

And because he lives, we know, we trust, we believe that he really is Lord of all of life, that his way really is the way, and his gospel is power to save. I close with one of my favorite stories of the surprising power of the way of the Risen Lord, so much different from the stories we hear of the ways of the world:6

Welcoming the Enemy
Sarah Corson was a missionary to South America who helped to establish churches and technology centers in local villages. Elections in the country had just been held, but the military who had just come to power did not agree with the results. They suspected Americans living in the country of tampering with the results. There were many disappearances and outright deaths.

One evening about thirty soldiers rushed the missionary team’s house. Sarah was very afraid, but she prayed for faith and courage, that she would trust in God, and she suddenly sensed God with her. She raised her voice and said, “You’re all welcome. Everyone is welcome in this house.” At that, the commander put his gun to her stomach as his men searched the house for weapons.

Turning on her, he said, “What are you Americans doing here? You must be trying to stop our revolution.” Sarah responded that her team was there to teach self-help projects to the local women and to teach the Bible.

The commander looked perplexed, saying that he had never read the Bible. Sarah picked up a Spanish Bible and opened it to the Sermon on the Mount. “We teach about Jesus Christ,” she said, “God’s Son who came into the world to save us. He also taught us a better way than fighting. He taught us the way of love. Because of him I can tell you that even though you kill me, I will die loving you because God loves you. To follow him, I have to love you too.”

The commanding soldier read the paragraph captions: “Jesus teaches love your enemies,” and “return good for evil.”

“That’s impossible,” he burst out. “True, sir,” Sarah answered. “It isn’t humanly possible, but with God’s help it is possible.”

“I don’t believe it,” he said.

“You can prove it,” Sarah said. “I know you came here to kill us. If you do, we will die praying for you because God loves you, and we love you too.”

The soldier lowered his gun. “I could have fought any amount of guns you might have had,” he said, “but there is something here I cannot understand. I cannot fight it.”

The soldiers returned the following Sunday for worship. The congregation had lost many people to these soldiers, but with effort they welcomed them. One of the elders said, “Brother, we do not like what you have done in our village, but God loves you, and you are welcome here.”

Upon leaving, the soldier said, “I have fought many battles and killed many people. It was nothing to me. It was my job to exterminate them. But I never knew them. This is the first time I ever knew my enemy face to face, and I believe that if we knew each other, our guns would not be necessary.”

The story, I believe, would be no less amazing had the soldiers chosen their usual course of action. May it be so with us as well are we are join the journey of the Risen Lord. Amen.

Notes:
1 Also Rom. 6, 8; 1 Cor. 15:26, 54-57; Hebrews 2:14; Eph. 2:16; Revelation 20:14; 21:4
2 Thomas Long, Matthew in the Westminster Bible Companion Series, 322.
3 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, 111.
4 Thomas Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion, 322.
5 Thomas Yoder Neufeld, “Jesus and the Bible” in Jesus Matters, 53.
6 Adapted from Sarah Corson, “Welcoming the Enemy,” in What Would You Do?, 111-119.

Christ is Our Peace

April 6th, 2011 No comments

“Christ is Our Peace” (Ephesians 2:11-22; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
April 3, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Boundaries: Why we build
As we traveled throughout the Holy Land this past January, we came to appreciate why Paul liked to talk so much about walls and buildings and stones. Paul saw stones jutting out of the land everywhere he turned; he passed through walls upon entering the major cities; to see a structure even a thousand years old was not uncommon.

These buildings, it seems, were enduring monuments to the legacy and values of those who built them. If you wanted to demonstrate your conquest or superiority or dominion over someone else, you’d break down their most significant buildings (especially their holy places), and build your own on the very same spot. Like everyone else, Paul knew all about the importance of building sturdy structures.

If Paul told parables like Jesus did, I’m almost certain he worked bodies and buildings into his stories. And he returns again to tearing down and building up in this beautiful and powerful passage from Ephesians 2.

Well, the first thing Paul sees here is a hedge, a fence, a wall, a barrier of some sorts. Now as a good Jew, Paul understands well how come barriers and boundaries are important. Paul knows well his people’s long and “rocky” history among the nations. He is well aware of his people’s long struggle to remain loyal to God amid the lures of neighboring deities.

He knows the story of the faith crisis of repeated exile. He even now experiences the melting pot effect of repeated occupying forces. The fact that every NT book is written in Greek and not Hebrew (the “official” language of ancient Israel) is testament in itself to the cultural mudslide of occupation.

What does it mean to be a part of the distinctive covenant people in a cosmopolitan world of occupation and foreign hegemony? For Paul and his fellow Jewish people, “One way of nurturing covenant faithfulness was to instill a clear sense of difference from those not of the covenant.”1 A letter circulated among the Jewish community over a hundred years before Paul makes it clear:

To prevent our being perverted by contact with others or by mixing with bad influences, [Moses]. . . hedged us in on all sides with strict observances connected with meat and drink and touch and hearing and sight.2

Like many occupied peoples experiencing cultural pressure to give up their distinctiveness, Paul’s people put up barriers in the form of strict observances to maintain their particularity and identity as God’s covenant people.

Today, we may laugh at some of the disagreements of our faith heritage – over whether or not men could wear ties, or appropriate hair length for women, or zippers versus buttons – but these were not mere childish quibbles. These were the presenting issues of communities seeking to maintain their distinctive identity in a cosmopolitan world of seduction. The Anabaptist tradition in particular, like Paul’s own tradition, has known the importance of being different, of “radical obedience to God’s commands. . . [maintaining] the boundaries to ensure the integrity of the community’s faith and practice.”3

Paul knows that boundary markers between what is acceptable and what is not are important, and he recommends his own fair share of boundaries for the churches receiving his letters. I think Paul would encourage us to keep our boundaries before us.

We have a need for boundaries to restrict what influences us.4 We know the reality is that we need boundaries for the well-being and safety of our children. We need boundaries within ourselves – of how far we will go, of what we will and will not do.

We too need boundaries to maintain our identity. We need boundaries between ourselves and others. I need to know the boundaries of what makes me uniquely “me,” of who I am with respect to others. Where I end and where you begin. And our community of faith needs boundaries to maintain our identity.

We even need some sort of boundary between ourselves and God, so that we bear in mind that for all our skill and knowledge and intelligence, we are neither the Creator nor the Redeemer, nor the ultimate Judge; so that we remember it is God’s kingdom to build not ours.

As a good Jew, Paul knew full well the importance of boundaries and barriers.

Boundaries: When walls become eyesores
These boundaries and barriers are important to Paul – no doubt! – but here, in Ephesians, these barriers and walls have become for Paul a real eyesore on the horizon of faith. Centuries of war and hatred had driven the walls higher and higher and thicker and thicker. Gateways from one side to the other were closed off.

[It’s kind of like the story I once heard of a pastor whose church was just around the corner from a night club. And this pastor would frequent this night club to visit with the regulars there, and started really connecting with some of these folks. Well, his congregation heard about it, and they were not happy with the pastor. It’s not that they didn’t want to open their doors to whoever might come. They just feared the pastor was sending the message (especially to their children) that what went on at the night club – and particularly what went on when people left the night club two-by-two – was perfectly OK. Of course the congregation was right to want there to be some boundaries, but perhaps they had forgotten that Jesus got himself a reputation for associating with the wrong kind of folks, because for some people, that’s the only way he could invite them to follow him.]

Paul is looking specifically at this wall separating Jews from Gentiles, insiders from outsiders, a wall that was no doubt keeping the covenant people distinct. The problem is that this wall is obsolete – a part of the old regime, the old community, the old order. Gentiles who were following Christ were being excluded from the new people of God. A new order – a new creation – has arrived in Jesus Christ, and this dividing wall must now fall.

John Howard Yoder gets it exactly right: “The messianic age has begun; Paul simply proclaims that fact. . . Because it has begun, status differences – whether sexual, ritual, ethnic, or economic – are overarched in a new reality.”5

From the viewpoint of the folks inside the wall, the Gentiles were once “without Christ” (v. 12) – that is, “without the Messiah” – because this gigantic wall excluded them from the community to which the Messiah would come. As outsiders, beyond the wall, they were “aliens to the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise,” and they were therefore without hope, and from a certain perspective, without God.

But, now in Christ Jesus,” Paul says, that has all changed. The shocking surprise of God’s grace has arrived. Paul proclaims that through the cross, those who used to be outsiders, those who were once far off, those who were once in exile,6 have been brought near. Paul nearly quotes the famous “welcome home” text to the people who were in Exile in Babylon from Isaiah 57:19: “Peace, peace, to the far and the near” (cf. Eph. 2:17). The Gentiles have come home to the family of God.

Building Up
But “by no means” does Paul underestimate the enmity that exists between Jews and Gentiles. These were not only the theological skirmishes that continue to exist between Catholics and Protestants, or between Protestants and Anabaptists, or however you want to draw those boundaries. This was the life-and-death conflict of centuries of occupation and revolt, of centuries of hatred and dominance and fear.7 The wall was its own sort of peace agreement – if you can call peace by separation peace.

Yet together, they have become part of God’s family. The ugly wall has come down, and a new and sturdy structure is emerging and growing by the dynamic and surprising power of the Holy Spirit. Again, Yoder: “The message is that Christ has begun a new phase of world history. The primary characterization of that newness is that now within history there is a group of people whom it is not exaggerating to call a ‘new world’ or a ‘new humanity.’”8 The structure of the new order is emerging on the ruins of the old, as the living Christ leads erstwhile enemies across the old walls and presents them together before God.

The church Paul envisions

is not a collection of individuals, each with their own personal peace arrangement with God. The church is the familial community of reconciled enemies. . . If true to its Lord and its calling, the church is as such always a community on the lookout for walls to breach, for enemies to befriend – with each other and with God.9

When it comes to people estranged from God and God’s family, there’s always more room in God’s household. How odd and disheartening to think, then, how often throughout the past two millennia Christians have lined up opposite each other on the battlefield, or in the courtroom, or in those verbal and emotional hostilities – instead of gathering around the table as God’s family.

Yet we are not merely reconciled with each other. Those who were once without God, Paul says, are reconciled in one body to God. The widest and highest wall is finally not between two groups. As Mennonite scholar Thomas Yoder Neufeld observes, “Enmity in the human community constitutes a violation of God’s designs for humanity, and is thus a terrible affront to the loving Creator.”10

He goes on:

All of Ephesians is one long celebration of the fact that the same God whom humanity has offended is the one who has taken the initiative to end enmity. . . God has taken the initiative to reclaim humanity through Christ. The ultimate actor in this drama of Christ as peace is none other than God.11

During his career, the famous Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder spilled not a little ink to share with the wider Christian community the centrality of peace and reconciliation to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He puts it boldly: “If reconciliation between peoples and cultures is not happening, the Gospel’s truth is not being confirmed in that place.”12

Here in Ephesians 2 (one of Yoder’s favorites), Paul so eloquently proclaims that through none other but the cross, Jesus has made peace, has reconciled both groups to God, has put hostility to death by death, has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between enemies of God and God’s family, and has created a new building, a new humanity in place of the two. Indeed, the cross reveals that Christ himself is our peace, and that just as we have been reconciled to God through the cross, so too we are given the calling and mission of reconciling others – Amen!

Christ is our Peace
In closing, you may have noticed that I find the theological intricacies of this beautiful text to be fascinating and inspiring (and you can thank me later for letting you get home in time for lunch), but this is not finally some idea to be passed around in clever books or theology classrooms. This is finally a message of joy and hope to be proclaimed and to be lived.

When I read this beautiful passage of Scripture, especially during this Lenten season when the cross so tangibly awaits us on our pilgrimage, I cannot help but to be filled with wonder and hope for this broken world, because at the far end of every broken relationship, there is the cross; atop every wall of hostility, the cross of Jesus Christ is persistently hammering in cracks; for every estranged member of God’s family Jesus speaks the simple word, “Peace, come home.” Beyond every division and distinction and far beyond the reaches of any exclusion and enmity, I see Christ gathering up the new humanity from amid the ruins of boundaries and barriers, piecing together the household of God, as the new family of God.

If you would have asked me on June 1, 2002, how many brothers and sisters I had, I would have said, “Two. My two brothers James and John.” My brothers whom I dearly love. My brothers who share my genealogy, my brothers who share with me our family’s history and story and legacy of faith. My brothers who even probably all agree 90% of the time.

But the next day, that changed for me when I was baptized into the body of Christ and the family of God. That day, as I was joined to Christ and to his Body, I gained 200 brothers and sisters in my congregation, as part of the new family of God. That day, I gained over 100,000 brothers and sisters across the nation in my immediate Mennonite family; and 1.6 million brothers and sisters worldwide. If you ask me how many brothers and sisters I have, I can no longer say that I have just two brothers; now I have over 2 billion brothers and sisters worldwide – most of whom don’t look like I do, most of whom don’t think like I do, most of whom don’t speak like I do, and most with whom I have significant differences of theology, church, worship, and discipleship.

But we’re all one family because God has said so through the Cross of Christ, whom we all believe in, whom we all trust in, whom we all devote our lives to, whom we all seek to follow in truth in life. Some spend year in contemplating the many mysteries of God. Some have devoted their lives to worship; others to service and peacemaking, to being the face and hands of Christ; others to inviting folks outside the old wall to come on in; but all of us flow together into the one body of Christ

What that means to me is that whenever I meet someone whom I may consider to be an enemy or an outsider or a stranger – whether that person is a part of my family of faith or not – I am called to have the very same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself even to the point of death on the cross. I’m called to participate in the divine nature (as Peter put it) – the nature of God revealed first and foremost at the cross, where we see the primary means of God’s dealing with enemies (and outsiders and strangers): by absorbing hatred, violence, and even death itself by death on the cross.

Because I know that if there is ever any victory I can win, if there is any barrier or wall I can climb over, if there is ever any enemy I can overcome, if there is ever any stranger or alien I can embrace, it is not by my will (and perhaps not even truly of my desire), not by my power or strength or wisdom or abilities or any argument I could muster, nor by any carnal weapon made of human hands I could ever wield against any enemy –

But if I ever overcome anything, it is by the word of testimony to Jesus Christ, and by the blood of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 12), the blood through which we have all been brought near to God (Eph. 2:13), the blood which I trust courses through my own veins by the power of Christ who lives within me (Gal. 2:20), the same blood that I myself am called not to keep to myself but to pour out for others as I also seek to carry in the body the death of Jesus, that his life may also be made visible in me (2 Cor 4:10) in reconciliation, in welcome, and in embrace.

It is the Christ who lives within me through whose death God seeks reconciliation with God’s enemies, and through whose life God saves (Rom. 5:10). It is this Christ who tears down hostile walls and who is himself the cornerstone of the household of God, in whom we are all joined together and grow in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God, a truly sturdy, beautiful, and enduring household of God, by the reconciling grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the boundless love – even of enemies, strangers, outsiders, and aliens – of God, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Notes:
1 Thomas Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, 116.
2 Letter of Aristeas 139, 142; quoted in Yoder Neufeld, 116.
3 Yoder Neufeld, 134.
4 Or how it influences us. Spending time with a group of narcotics users could influence us positively – toward greater compassion and healing presence; or negatively – toward substance abuse.
5 John Howard Yoder, Body Politics, 37.
6 Paul’s language here hearkens back to Isaiah 52:7 and Isaiah 57:19 – two texts, interestingly enough, aimed at comforting the Hebrew exiles.
7 Of course, the 16-century violence does give us a window into the persistent suspicion, fear, and hatred.
8 Yoder, 37.
9 Yoder Neufeld, 134.
10 Yoder Neufeld, 121.
11 Yoder Neufeld, 121.
12 Yoder, 38.