If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Christian life is formed by being a new people in Christ:1 Peter 2:4-10


*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on Sunday, July 22, 2012. It was the last in a series on Anabaptist Core Convictions.

We opened this series of sermons on Anabaptist Core Convictions with a biblical text that described Jesus as the foundation of a building. We conclude with a biblical text that describes him as the cornerstone of a building. 1 Corinthians speaks of Jesus as the foundation. The church is built upon that one foundation. 1 Peter speaks of Jesus as the “cornerstone” of a building. The cornerstone is the foundation stone of a building.  It determines the position of the entire structure. The church is composed of living stones built into a spiritual house, a temple, with Jesus being the cornerstone.  In each of these images Jesus is central to the church. And the church is central to the Christian life.

In the letter of 1 Peter this church, this community of Christ, is described as a distinct people, a holy community, a political body, set apart from the surrounding world; a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, aliens, and exiles. The early church saw itself as a peculiar people within the Roman Empire.  This image and reality all changed after Emperor Constantine proclaimed a wedding of the church and state by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church moved from being a distinct, persecuted minority at the margins of society, to being the majority of citizens of an empire and located at the center of society.

The 16th century Anabaptists sought to restore the New Testament model of the church.  The Anabaptist concept of a believers’ church, rooted in Jesus Christ and separate from the state, ran counter to the Christendom model of the church represented by emperor Constantine.   

Today, the Western church in Europe and North America are becoming more secular, post-Christendom societies.  The church has lost its privileged place in our culture. It is moving further to the margins of the social order and becoming an “alien institution” to society. In this post-Christendom context, the New Testament and Anabaptist models of church may be the most hopeful for the church’s survival within a post-Christendom empire.

Understanding the nature of the church is crucial for understanding Anabaptism. The following characteristics reflect an Anabaptist ecclesiology or understanding of the church.

The church is a body of believers called out from and sent into the world. Let’s analyze each of the phrases in this statement. First, the church is a body of believers. It is grounded in the voluntary confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and following him as Lord symbolized in baptism. Roman Emperor Constantine, during the 4th century, represented a major shift in the nature of the church from a voluntary association of believers in Jesus Christ to a church formed by state compulsion, the baptism of infants without personal choice or ability to confess and follow Christ, and the union of the church and state. This Christendom model gave a privileged place for the church in society. Within Christendom a person was a Christian by virtue of their citizenship; a citizenship that called upon everyone to support the aims, interests, and military defense of the state.

The Anabaptists rejected this Constantinian view of the church.  The church was not understood as a building, a parish or regional location, a social club, an association of ethnically similar or politically likeminded people, or synonymous with the state or society. The Anabaptist view of the church went radically counter to the view of the dominant culture. Adult believers’ baptism, a voluntary choice based upon personally and consciously following in the way of Christ, was a subversive political act, in that it not only shook the foundation of the church, but tore apart the fabric of the church and state union. Their view of the church was radical in its day. From an Anabaptist perspective, the church was a distinct body of baptized believers who followed Jesus Christ in life. 

Second, the church is ecclesia from the Greek word kaleo meaning “called out.”  It originally referred to a civic assembly gathered together from the community for political purposes. The church are those who have been called out of world to be a distinct people, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people, aliens and exiles, as Peter describes the early church. This description points to the gathering together of a unique people, separate and distinct from the state, society, and world. Thus, the church is a political body, not in the sense of participating in “partisan politics” like being Democrat and Republican or because it is involved in state political issues. But rather, the church is a political body because it is called out from the world as citizens of heaven, assembled as a distinct body, governed by God’s kingdom under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Third, the church is apostolic from the Greek word apostelo meaning “sent forth.” The church is not simply a body of believers that isolate themselves from the world.  The church is engaged in Missio Dei, the mission of God in the world. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” The church is apostolic, not in the sense that we can trace our leadership back to the apostles, but because the church, like the apostles, is “sent.” To simply come together for worship or teaching is not being the church. To truly be the church we should understand ourselves to be as much a “sent church” as we are a “gathered church.” 

Christians are formed by the church and its practices. As a gathered body of baptized believers, the church is where we are formed by communal spiritual practices. This is interconnected to what we talked about concerning discipleship or following Christ. Discipleship is not simply an individual private affair that I do on my own, but requires engagement in the corporate practices of the church. Rodney Clapp, an Episcopalian Anabaptist, states it clearly: there is no genuine Christian formation and life apart from the body of Christ. Church practices shape and form our identity as a distinct, peculiar people.

Baptism is a church practice that marks us as a distinct people. It is not simply, as some have put it, an “outward sign of an inward grace,” making baptism into a ritual that primarily marks a private, inner experience. For Anabaptists, baptism was a watery sign of faith in Jesus Christ, a commitment to follow him in life, and incorporation into the church. It was a radically, politically subversive act altering how one understood the church and society and was therefore a dangerous, seditious act worthy of death.

Baptism marks the church as different from the world. Baptism initiates incorporation into the Body of Christ, a community of resident aliens.  Baptism as incorporation into the church is a common belief which is held by most Christians, but which Anabaptists understood as being embodied in a local congregation of mutual accountability, a community distinct from the world. Miraslov Volf, an influential theologian at Yale University, sounds very much like an Anabaptist when he connects baptism and the church’s collective difference or distance from the world when he says,

No one can baptize himself or herself; everyone must be baptized into a given Christian community. Baptism is an incorporation into the Body of Christ, a doorway into a Christian community. Baptism will not do the distancing for you, but it will tell you that genuine Christian distance has ecclesial shape. It is lived in a community that lives as “aliens” in a larger social environment.

Our baptism marks the beginning of the journey of following Jesus, our identity as a people, and where our primary allegiance lies.  It marks us as a distinct people in the world.

Communion is a church practice that forms and identifies us into a peculiar people. Who else in this world would gather together and share bits of bread that would barely feed a squirrel and a tiny sip of grape juice to remember someone’s shed blood and call it a meal? A peculiar meal, indeed. Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper is a ritual meal that not only reminds us of Jesus death on the cross, but is a practice that forms us and identifies us as a distinct people. 

The Eucharist, as a symbol of sacrifice, forms us into a new people ready to be broken and poured out for others. Communion, as an open table, shapes us into a new people who are one in Christ, undivided by gender, race, ethnicity, economic class, or nationality. The Lord’s Supper, as a ritual of remembrance of Jesus death and the table of forgiveness, molds us into a people who take upon themselves the nonviolent way of the cross, forgiving our enemies.

If we had time we could explore worship, preaching, Bible reading, hospitality, prayer, singing, social witness, and peacemaking as practices of the church that form us corporately as a peculiar people. Let me simply say that the practices of the church play a significant role in shaping our identity as a people making the church essential to a distinctive Christian life.

The church is an alternative society, a new people in Christ. This distinctive relates to the church being “called out” from the world. For the church to be the church it must be dissimilar from the surrounding world, otherwise it is simply another version of the world. Jesus said that we are to be in the world but not of the world. Separate but engaged. This is not a tension that is easily maintained. If the church emphasizes separation or nonconformity, it can become disengaged from the world, the characterization we give of the Amish. If the church emphasizes being part of the world it can become so assimilated as to be indistinct from the world, which is the face of cultural or nominal Christianity. 

If the church is to be the church it must be countercultural, at least in certain ways and forms.  Many ethnic Mennonites have overreacted to this Anabaptist emphasis upon nonconformity and separation from the world.  I believe that is one reason so much of contemporary ethnic Mennonite culture reflects a significant assimilation into the American way of Life. We don’t like being different. We want to be like everyone else. So, in their overreaction to negative experiences of nonconformity and separation from the world ethnic Mennonites have thrown them away as Anabaptist practices.

Some members of Zion have grown up under the yoke of nonconformity expressed as forced rules and a rigid adherence to dress and cultural habits practiced with an air of superiority, all done in proper Mennonite humility, of course! I have noticed at Zion how this overreaction to early experiences of enforced distinctiveness has resulted in some hesitancy and even resistance to being more definitive and directive in leadership and clearer in direction for the congregation.

From the perspective of an outside observer, I think being more definitive and directive for some at Zion feels a bit like those old rigid rules. It smacks of exclusiveness or “my way is the only way,” even when that’s not what it is all about. I think a lack of clarity that exists around significant issues in the life of Zion may come from a hesitancy to be definitive because it smacks of exclusion and being authoritarian. We don’t want to exclude some by being too definitive. If we become more directive, it feels like “I am in and you are out” or “I am right and you are wrong.”

As someone who was not raised in this religious cultural environment, but in a Fundamentalist tradition with many similarities and differences, I need to simply say to some of you at Zion, “Get over it!” “Move on!” Let go of your fears of the four d’s: distinctiveness, directiveness, definitiveness, and decisiveness! Am I sounding too directive? Maybe a bit too decisive? This overreaction to early negative church experiences about how distinctiveness was rigidly practiced will be a roadblock to bringing greater clarity and definition about who we are as a people and a hindrance to more directive leadership, notice I didn’t say “authoritarian,” but “directive leadership.” 

The solution to rigid rules about nonconformity and separation is not to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” that is, to simply reject nonconformity and separation from the world by totally assimilating ourselves into the wider culture, or by being wishy-washy about our peculiar identity within the world, or by resisting clarity. We can translate the principles of nonconformity and separation, so that we become a holy nation, a peculiar people, and thrive as exiles and resident aliens in our own land and social context.  If the church is to be the church and not the world, it will need to learn how to translate Anabaptist principles of nonconformity and separation in our consumerist, Capitalist, materialistic individualistic world in ways that assist us in following Christ in our day and time.

The church participates in the divine mission (Missio Dei) Anabaptism was a missionary movement. They were one of the few Christian movements that believed that being a missionary was not as a special vocation for the gifted and trained or the commission of a mission agency, but was the practice of every Christian. They applied Christ’s Great Commission to every believer to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to follow Christ’s commands. Baptism was their ordination to evangelism, mission, and ministry.

As I said earlier, not only is the church “gathered,” but it is also “sent.” And God is the primary sending agent, not some church agency or the church itself. We are not released from engagement with God’s mission because we lack training, agency sponsorship, or because we are not on the evangelism, outreach, or service committees of our local congregation. As followers of Christ and members of the church through our baptism, we have been ordained by God as ministers and missionaries in the world!

The church is not only separate from the world, but sent into the world. To be a missional church, to be an Anabaptist church, is to be as much sent as it is gathered. Does each one of us here at Zion have that understanding and sense of being “sent” by God? Or are we only part of what we are and should be as Christ’s church; an assembly of believers who gather for worship? Jesus was speaking to you and me, followers of his way, when he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What does that mean for us as individuals and as the church in our relationship to our families, our communities, our nation, and our world?

One thing mission means is that we are sent to “call out” people from the world into the realm of God’s kingdom. And evangelism means more than proclaiming a message of personal salvation. It is a call to join in the new humanity, the people of God, a holy nation, the church. The church is essential to the divine mission.

Jesus is the center of our faith. The essence of the Christian life is discipleship. The Christian life is formed by being a new people in Christ. This interconnected web of Anabaptist Core Convictions can powerfully shape our identity as a distinctive people and a particular congregation. In a secular, post-Christendom world, the Anabaptist model offers a time-tested vision for radically and faithfully following in the way of Jesus, for living on the margins of society, where the church is headed in our culture, and for being a distinctive, practice-oriented church amid nominal Christianity. There are people who are hungry for churches that are shaped by these convictions. I believe that when we know these convictions, affirm them, celebrate them, and share them, we will have a better grasp upon who we are as a people and what is our particular mission in the world.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Essence of the Christian Life is Discipleship: Luke 9:23-25

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite, Hubbard, OR. It is the second in a series "Anabaptist Core Convictions."

No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life---Hans Denck

Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, and most of those who yet share their rich and “radical” Christian tradition, were “theologians of praxis rather than reflection.”---Barry Callen, Radical Christianity

Mennonite church historian Harold Bender made one of the most significant modern contributions to defining Anabaptism with his presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1942.  His classic statement on Anabaptism became known as the Anabaptist Vision. Although it would later be questioned as being too idealistic and for leaving out Anabaptists that diverged from his viewpoint , Bender’s Anabaptist Vision has provided a compelling synthesis of essential elements of Anabaptism.

Bender considered the first of his three concepts as the key element to the Anabaptist Vision.  His key element was discipleship, "a concept which meant the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ..." According to Bender discipleship, or following in the way of Jesus, was understood to be central to living the Christian life.

Discipleship is all about following in the way of Jesus. Jesus came to people fishing on the shore, collecting taxes, eating dinner, walking along the roadside, worshipping in the synagogue and called them to follow him. Since he was a peripatetic or traveling teacher, his first disciples literally followed him. They learned his way by listening to his teachings and learning from Jesus as he modeled his lessons within everyday life as he traveled here and there.

For the early disciples following Jesus was a challenge in that they had to leave aside their vocations and families to travel beside Jesus with no possessions and to depend upon God and the good will and hospitality of those they encountered along the way.  This all required self-denial, laying aside personal needs and desires in order to go where Jesus went and learn from him.

Their journey was made even more difficult in that Jesus was on a journey to Jerusalem and the cross to confront the powers that be. The disciples’ journey with Jesus took them to a destination they did not imagine and would have just as soon avoided. They were challenged to live in the way of Jesus and face the cost of what that would mean. To follow Jesus meant to take upon oneself the consequences of living by the teachings of this wandering prophet and imitating his example. And Jesus’ life and teachings led him into conflict with religious and political leaders of his day and ultimately to death on a Roman cross.

And so, Jesus made it clear to his disciples what following him meant: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Following Jesus was not an easy road to travel.  And even though  following Jesus for us will probably not mean literal crucifixion, a cross, it will mean following Jesus along his winding road to its ultimate end. Thus, “taking up one’s cross” represents whatever consequences we may encounter with our own personal struggles and in conflict with the powers that be on our journey with Christ and doing it all in the nonviolent way of Christ, represented by the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, leader of the Confessing Church, and opponent of Hitler, made clear the cost of discipleship by contrasting “cheap” and “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer said, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without  confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." Anabaptists would resonate with Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the cost of discipleship. Nochfolge Christi, following Christ, was at the center of Anabaptist faith. Harold Bender, in his Anabaptist Vision defined the essence of Anabaptism in this way:  The great word of the Anabaptists was not “faith” as it was with the reformers, but “following” (nachfolge Christi). The Anabaptists had faith, but their emphasis was upon living out their faith in life. The Anabaptists believed that discipleship was the essence of the Christian life. 

In this light we can better understand the saying of Anabaptist Hans Denck I quoted last Sunday: No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life. Discipleship is more than having knowledge of Christ. Discipleship is more than believing in Jesus with the heart and confessing him with the mouth. It is more than “getting saved and going to heaven.” It is more than obeying a rule book, even if it is the Bible. It is more than going to church on Sunday or observing the customs and habits of a church tradition. Discipleship is a journey, a sometimes difficult and costly journey. It is all about following Jesus in our day and time, ethically, nonviolently, and no matter what the consequences may be.

In this sense discipleship is a creative journey of following the living Christ in our lives today. It is more than a literal, “wooden” imitation of Jesus’ first century teachings and actions. We cannot simply read the story of Jesus healing the blind and go out on our streets and try to do the very same thing. Discipleship requires an act of translation; translating the life of Jesus into our day and time and then “living the translation.”  Discipleship calls for an imaginative application of his way of life then to our way of life now.

And as imaginative as this question might be, discipleship is more than simply asking ourselves: What would Jesus do?  Surprisingly enough, Evangelicals like quoting this question of Charles Sheldon, even though they are probably unaware that he was a Christian socialist! The letters of the question, WWJD, have been mass produced into arm bracelets for young Evangelicals to wear as a form of Christian identity. That seems a bit odd, since Sheldon was a Congregational Church minister and part of the Social Gospel movement. He proposed the question WWJD in a series of sermons, then in his novel In His Steps, as a way to face moral decisions, a way to discern how to “follow in the way of Jesus” in our own time, particularly regarding social issues. Walter Rauschenbusch, leader of the Social Gospel movement, attributed his inspiration for this movement to Sheldon’s novel.

Following Jesus goes beyond asking a question about how to imitate Christ in the face of moral and social issues. Discipleship calls for following the moves, impulses, callings, and Spirit of the living Christ through experience, Scripture, traditions, and practices of the church applied to our time and context. That requires creative imagination, openness, and a process for discerning the leading of the Spirit of Christ today.

So, discipleship is more than believing in the heart and confessing Jesus Christ with the mouth.  It is more than “being saved by grace and going to heaven.” Discipleship is more than going to church on Sunday mornings and obeying church rules or following its customs and habits. It is more than practicing a rote repetition of Jesus words and acts. Discipleship is an imaginative, Spirit-led journey of following in the way of Christ today in our personal lives, our believing communities, and within the world around us.

Discipleship has to do with our personal spiritual journey.  Jesus said that if we want to be a disciple, we must take up our cross.  It is a personal, cruciform journey. For the early disciples literally following Jesus was an essential part of becoming one of his students, since he was a travelling teacher. One had to personally choose to follow Jesus.

Following Jesus today is a personal spiritual journey. Daily we set off on this journey as a student apprentice or disciple of Jesus. A student apprentice learns both by gaining knowledge and by engaging in practices. As Jesus studied the Torah, prayed in the synagogue and in solitary places, observed life around him, developed relationships, welcomed the stranger and marginalized, healed the sick, liberated the captive, proclaimed good news, and witnessed to the ways of God’s kingdom, he grew in wisdom and practice.

So, as Jesus’ first disciples had to personally and daily decide to follow Jesus, we personally and daily choose to follow in his way. Discipleship calls us to personally engage in practices of reading the scriptures, gathering for worship, prayer and meditation, discerning God’s will, showing hospitality to strangers and immigrants, resisting the powers that oppress, and proclaiming in word and deed God’s coming reign.  These are classic practices that engage us in following in Christ’s path.

Discipleship involves engaging in communal practices. Anabaptism views discipleship not merely as a personal spiritual journey, but a communal practice of the church.  Western Christianity, with its emphasis upon individualism, has distorted the faith and its practice by turning it into personal and private matter. It’s between me and God. With this mindset the church in Western culture becomes a building where I, as an individual believer, gather to personally give thanks to my personal Savior, for my personal salvation confessing my personal faith, and worshiping my personal God. 

This very personal and individualistic understanding says, “We must not hold one another accountable for how we live, that’s a private matter. We don’t want others intruding into our personal faith and practice.” Church is a place where we individually gather to study, pray, worship God, meet friends, and go home to our private lives. This is a complete distortion of both discipleship and the church and definitely not an Anabaptist perspective.

Church is ecclesia, a people called out from the world, bound together by Christ, building up one another, holding one another accountable for our spiritual growth, encouraging one another in the use of our gifts, sharing in common ministries and practices, and sent into the world in mission and service.

The Christian life is not a solo performance. It takes an orchestra. Christian life is not my personal canoe I paddle downstream. It is a large row boat with everyone engaging together in the rowing upstream against the grain of our human nature and our culture and society. Discipleship is best performed in a covenant community. We are bound together to assist one another on the journey of discipleship; to encourage, build up, challenge, call to accountability, and pray for one another. Discipleship does not say “everyone for themselves.” But rather, discipleship says, “We are all in this together!”

That is why the corporate practices of the church are so important. We need each other to follow in the way of Christ. We need mutual care, charity, and economic justice when some cannot survive the financial strains of Capitalism and the free market society. We need small support groups in the church to help us resist peer pressure or cultural conformity that sucks us into materialism and consumerism. We need church ministries that challenge us to connect with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, people we don’t connect with on our own. We need the church’s social ministries to help us connect with cross-cultural and other multi-racial groups, and to practice peace and social justice, when we would just as soon go home to our nice families, comfortable homes, and just be good Christian neighbors. We need the church in order be disciples, to fully and radically follow in the way of Jesus.

Discipleship leads us to practice hospitality, serve others, and engage in peace, justice, and reconciliation. More broadly I could say that discipleship leads to living in the way of Jesus. I could have also have said “discipleship leads to a lifestyle of healing, caring for the marginalized and outcast, confronting the powers that oppress people. But, my focus in this teaching sermon is to highlight  the way discipleship is manifest within the Anabaptist tradition and our particular congregation. The practices of discipleship I have listed are particularly important to Anabaptism and to Zion Mennonite. These are contained in Zion’s new vision statement, which we will soon be sharing with the congregation: hospitality, service to others, and peace, justice, and reconciliation.

Hospitality has to do with welcoming the stranger among us. It is as old as Abraham welcoming three strangers by the oaks of Mamre and as new as an invitation for lunch to a first time visitor at Zion Mennonite. Jesus and his disciples depended upon the hospitality of strangers for their mission. Jesus practiced hospitality toward the stranger, marginalized, sick, unclean, women, and social outcasts. As an essential practice of the early church, hospitality was critical for the growth of the church as they welcomed new people into their house churches. It is one of four key elements our Worship Commission is emphasizing for Zion’s worship life. Practicing hospitality is a way of following Jesus.

Jesus’s life was about serving others as a way of serving God. Jesus made this clear when at the Last Supper he grabbed a towel, bent down, and washed the dusty feet of his own disciples. Discipleship, or following in the way of Jesus, necessarily entails serving others. This is a hallmark of Anabaptist and Mennonite faith and practice. Mennonite Central Committee’s work of community development, hunger relief, community and global service epitomizes this Anabaptist emphasis. These are not simply humanitarian efforts, but a corporate form of Christian discipleship. As MCC’s motto states, what they do they do it “In the name of Christ.” This emphasis upon discipleship as serving others is also seen in other organizations and practices of mutual aid, disaster service, and community service opportunities. Serving others in the name of Christ reflects this Anabaptist conviction of walking in the way of Christ today.

Peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation are crucial ways of practicing discipleship. At times I have classified peacemaking as a distinct Anabaptist core conviction in and of itself, since it has come to signify a key distinctive of the Anabaptist tradition.

I believe that this is one area of discipleship that marks Anabaptism as peculiarly distinctive among the various Christian traditions. My use of terms needs some explanation. First, I use peacemaking instead of the classic Mennonite term nonresistance. Peacemaking is more than a passive stance of not retaliating against violence received. Peacemaking goes beyond the old traditional Mennonite perspective of simply avoiding personal violence, military service or occupations that engage in violent force and separating ourselves from those that do. Neither is Anabaptist peacemaking  simply “passivism,” a passive opposition to war.

If passive non-resistance is all that traditional Mennonites understand by its “peace stance,” then we have a long way to go in understanding the full implications of this significant arena of discipleship. On the other hand, Christian peacemaking is not just about actively engaging in liberal political efforts to end war. Christian peacemaking is a practice of discipleship, a way of following Jesus Christ.

Second, I believe that peace is inextricably linked to justice. Justice is not about vengeance, retribution, or “giving people what they deserve.” Justice is about rectifying wrongs, making things right, correcting inequities. This may not have been the way most early Anabaptists or Mennonites thought of nonresistance, but in our modern world “there is no peace without justice.”  Remember, I am not simply talking about convictions of historic 16th century Anabaptism or an ethnic Mennonite tradition, but rather a living Anabaptist tradition of faith and practice that we must translate into our time and context. To do justice is to follow in the way of Christ.

I am convinced that the Anabaptist way of following Christ in our world today will necessarily expand to include judicial, economic, gender, racial, and global justice. Why? Because these are significant issues every good liberal should be concerned about? No. Because these are ways of following Christ in our broken, violent, and divided world today!

Third, justice calls for reconciliation.  When human relations have been broken by violence, war, injustice, oppression, conflict, denial of human rights, not only is there a need for justice, but a means by which conflicted parties can be brought together and relationships restored. The creative, groundbreaking, global work of Mennonites like John Paul Lederach in conciliation and Howard Zehr in restorative justice exemplify this modern Anabaptist impulse toward the work of reconciliation. Following Christ in our world today will mean engaging in the work of reconciliation.

Peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation grow out of the desire to follow in the way of Christ. I am convinced that these are not peripheral issues that Christians can take or leave, but are essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And these are issues we cannot simply engage in on our own. They require a corporate body, a new people, an alternative community to enact these practices, which are ways of following Christ in our world today.

Discipleship, following in the way of Christ, is an Anabaptist core conviction. It’s as simple as responding to the voice that says, “Come follow me.” And it’s as hard as denying yourself and taking up your cross daily and following Christ.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Jesus is the Center of Our Faith: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11

We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds. The principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.

----Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History

Menno Simmons was not the founder but a key unifier of the 16th century Anabaptist movement. He had as his motto 1 Corinthians 3:11: No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  This biblical text was repeated throughout his writings. Christ-centeredness was the fundamental element in his own personal faith and the faith of the Anabaptist movement. It’s interesting to note that the Meserete Cristos Church of Ethiopia, an Anabaptist fellowship, did not want to take up the name of Menno for their church, so they chose instead a name that means “Christ is the Foundation."

Menno would probably have been pleased with that, since he detested the name Mennists or Mennonites. Menno did not set out to build another foundation for the church on himself, his theology, or even the foundation of Anabaptism.  The church already had a firm foundation in Jesus Christ.

The centrality of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian Faith. This is the core conviction that Anabaptist-Mennonites share with all other Christians. It is a foundational truth grounded in the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth concerning his work as a master builder in establishing the church. He described his work as being “foundational” by the grace of God.  He must have meant that his preaching of Jesus Christ is what made his work foundational. Then, Paul clarified the true foundation of our faith: For no one can lay any foundation than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

Others share in the superstructure of the continuing work of the church that is built on that foundation. This could mean the church’s organizational development, scriptural and doctrinal understanding, and leadership in witness and service. The pillars and their ornate decorations include the church’s variety of historical traditions, the church’s many practices over the centuries, and the leaders of movements and local congregations and their work of mission and ministry. These all must stand the test of time and the purifying fires of God’s final judgment.  

These could be considered as pillars, but not the foundation. Anabaptism is not the foundation of our faith, any more than Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Catholicism are the foundation. There is only one foundation, Jesus Christ. The centrality of Jesus Christ for our faith is a core conviction that we share with wider church.

And let’s also make a clear but subtle distinction here; even the Bible, which the various church traditions hold dear and is an essential document of our faith as the primary witness to Jesus Christ, is also not the foundation of our faith. Jesus Christ alone is that foundation.  No other foundation can be laid, even the foundation of the Bible, as important as it is. This truth will shape our Anabaptist approach to the scriptures.

At the same time that we hold this conviction in Christ-centeredness in common with other church traditions, this belief was also uniquely shaped by our Anabaptist tradition. Paul and Apollos at Corinth, Francis of Assisi, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, the Anabaptists, and all those who have shaped the church and the world have built on the one foundation of Jesus Christ. But, unlike the uniform columns of a Roman building, these pillars have had different shapes. They have been formed by different historical and cultural contexts, as well as different lens through which they read the Bible. 

And we do not want to say that we alone are the true pillars of the church or that we are the gold that guilds the building, while other church traditions are rough stone at best. Fire will test our worth. Rather, we want to understand our own identity, what it is in our beliefs and practices that make our pillar particular, what makes our church tradition distinct, even as we recognize our commonalities with others as pillars built upon the one foundation. 

So, let’s begin with our Anabaptist tradition’s understanding of what it means for our faith to be Christ or Jesus-centered. For Anabaptists a Jesus-centered faith shapes the whole of our theology.

Jesus is the lens through which we view God.  16th century Anabaptists confessed the Trinitarian godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with the rest of the Reformers and Catholicism.  But, while the rest of Christendom emphasized God’s transcendence and human sinfulness, reinforcing the gulf between God and humanity,  Anabaptists were less inclined to emphasize the unbridgeable separation between God and humanity. And rather than engage in endless theological and philosophical speculation on the trinity and transcendence, the Anabaptists were more down to earth, more incarnational, and more practical. They tended to emphasize ethics or living the Christian life over theological or philosophical reflection. And even though the Anabaptists confessed the full divinity and humanity of Christ, along with other Christian traditions, they tended to focus on the concrete life and teachings of Jesus Christ as the lens through which they viewed God.

Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God’s very nature. God may be experienced in the wonder of nature, in the depth of human relationships, in the illumination of the Bible, within the recesses of the human heart. But, God is most fully revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Simply put, if you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus Christ. Or as the Jesus of the gospel of John put it, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” This incarnational approach to understanding God has a profound effect on how we understand the nature and revelation of God.

In a Christ-centered view of God, if human experience, church tradition, theology, or the Scriptures themselves seem to reveal a God contrary to the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, then something is amiss. Jesus Christ, as revealed in the New Testament, is the arbiter of all conceptions of what God is like. This Jesus-centered view of God has a profound impact on all our Anabaptist theology.

Jesus-centered faith shapes our understanding of biblical authority and interpretation.  Another significant way that our Jesus-centeredness impacts our faith is in our approach to biblical authority and interpretation. First, if Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God, then the Bible isn’t. You heard me right. If Jesus is the supreme revelation of God, then the Bible isn’t. Evangelical Fundamentalism has tended to place the Bible as the Christian’s supreme authority. This can very easily turn into “bibliolatry,” that is, the worship of the Bible. This Fundamentalist view of the Bible even attributes the divine characteristics of infallibility and inerrancy to the ancient biblical texts themselves. And since all we have are errant copies of the biblical texts, Fundamentalists have to modify the doctrine of inerrancy to apply only to the original biblical manuscripts, which do not exist. In other words, a doctrine had to be created in order to jibe with their belief about the Bible, which is not evident in examining the Bible itself. Thus, the Bible begins to take on a godlike authority and dethrones Jesus Christ as the supreme revelation and divine interpreter of scripture.

Anabaptist Hans Umlauft put it this way: We give Scripture the honour due and allow it to be a lantern and a sheath of the word, knowing that something more belongs to it, namely a sword in the sheath and a light in the lantern, if they are to shine and cut. When we say this some say it is a despising of scripture, and that one cannot know it too much. It is like the matter of honouring Mary. If Mary is given the honour due only to God, that is making an idol of scripture, as of Mary.

Second, Jesus Christ becomes the interpretive lens through which we read scripture. Many Christians hold a “flat view” of the Bible. Or at least they claim that they do.  That is, they tend to interpret every scripture text on the same level as having equal authority for Christian faith and practice. This view would, in its pure form, give equal authoritative weight to the Old Testament and the New Testament, to the story of Jephthah and his daughter and Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. But, in all practicality, most Christians do not give equal weight to every biblical text, even though they may confess that “every scripture text is inspired by God.” The prohibition in Leviticus against eating shrimp does not hold equal weight with Jesus words in John, “For God so loved the world…”

Anabaptists have a Christocentric or Jesus-centered practice of biblical interpretation. This view acknowledges up front that not every biblical text bears equal weight of authority for the Christian community. Jesus is the interpretive lens through which we read the Bible. The command to slaughter the Canaanites, attributed to God in the OT, does not have equal authority with Christ’s command to love your enemies. With a Jesus-centered view of biblical interpretation if there is a disagreement between any text in the Bible and Jesus Christ, Jesus wins out. Jesus is the trump card in any conflict of interpretations regarding biblical texts. This Jesus-centered interpretation is given expression by the author of Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, who he appointed heir.” (Hebrews 1:1-2) This Anabaptist or Jesus-centered view of biblical interpretation is distinctive, and has a profound impact on our approach to the Bible.  

Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection form our understanding of salvation. Going back to the 16th century, Anabaptists have had problems with purely judicial and confessional understandings of salvation in Christ Jesus. By that I mean, first, that they have reacted to salvation understood only as something that one believes in the heart and confesses with the mouth. Secondly, for Anabaptists salvation is more than something God mysteriously enacts like a legal pronouncement of “not guilty” upon the believer without our active participation. Anabaptists would reject a salvation devoid of ethics or following in the way of Christ. Jesus is not only Savior, but also Lord. So, salvation in Christ leads to the transformation of our personal, social, spiritual, and economic lives.

A Jesus-centered view of salvation is inextricably linked to the person of Jesus Christ. Article 8 in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective begins:  We believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers salvation from sin and a new way of life to all people.  Jesus is at the center of our salvation, and not some saving formula or theory of atonement. This statement may sound controversial, but we are not saved by the cross, but by Jesus Christ. Salvation is the forgiveness, healing, deliverance, wholeness, new life that is offered to us in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, in all that he was and continues to be, is the center of our salvation.

Jesus’ life is the key element in our discipleship and ethics. Anabaptist Hans Denck once said, “No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life.” What did he mean by that? Denck was convinced that knowledge of Christ means little if we do not follow in the way of Christ in our everyday life. Confession is tied to procession, how we make our way through life.

I grew up in a church tradition that emphasized believing and confessing Jesus Christ. This resulted in a strong urge to verbally share the gospel, to witness to others about the “plan of salvation.” Now, we Mennonites, might learn from those who focus on sharing the gospel with others. As I grew in my faith I felt the strong need to practice the faith, to follow in the way of Christ, and not to simply confess my faith or verbally witness to others about my faith. I found within the Anabaptist tradition this strong emphasis upon living the faith by following in the way of Christ.

A Jesus-centered faith takes discipleship or following in the way of Christ seriously. Embodying the way of Christ, as Jesus embodied the way of God, is essential to the Christian life. If Jesus is the center of our faith, then our primary allegiance is to Christ. When our government names a political enemy, goes to war, sends our young men and women into battle, and rallies the nation around the flag and country, is our allegiance to Caesar or to Christ, who said “love your enemies”? Is Jesus the center of our faith or other worldly allegiances?  In a world that says more is better, get all the toys you can before you die, success is how much power you grasp, forget the poor and weak, and status is measured by how busy you are, what does it mean to live a Jesus-centered life? Living a Jesus-centered life is the heart of our Christian faith.

Alan and Eleanor Kreider, friends of mine who I worked with in the former US Ministries department at Mennonite Mission Network, were missionary educators in England, beginning in 1974 and staying for 30 years. They were at the forefront of the Anabaptist Network that grew out of the mission work of the Kreiders, who were directors of the London Mennonite Center. The Kreiders taught the way of radical discipleship and the essentials of Anabaptism to thousands of people in the British Isles who were outside the Mennonite tradition. They were not there to plant Mennonite churches, but to spread the seeds of Anabaptist faith. The Anabaptist Network sought to network with those who became Anabaptists by choice.  

I find hope in the project of the Kreiders as a missionary witness to an Anabaptism free of its ethnic, cultural, and genealogical trappings and its ability to draw people into the way of Jesus and radical discipleship from many different backgrounds.

One of the persons the Krieders connected with in England was Stuart Murray Williams, an Anabaptist church planter and educator from London, who eventually became director of the Anabaptist Network. In his book The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith Murray lists 7 Anabaptist core convictions, which is the Anabaptist Network’s attempt to distill the essence of Anabaptism for their own context in the British Isles. Their first two convictions coincide with what I have listed as my first Anabaptist core conviction:

 1.     Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of the church, and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.

2.     Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centered approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.

This is  the heart of Anabaptism that we share together here at Zion. This is the heart of our Christian faith.

The key conviction of Anabaptism is this: Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. It is a conviction we share with other Christians, but which has been distinctively shaped by our Anabaptist tradition. It is a core conviction that shapes all of our theology and practice. So, as the author of Hebrews admonishes us: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Hebrews 12:2