an infusion of gospel love

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:1-3

I was reminded yesterday of my blessed heritage in being raised Mennonite.

“True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

“Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.”

Menno Simons

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is a staple for Mennonite/Anabaptist faith. Part of my own regular Bible reading is to read a passage from either the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49). Even though I left the Mennonite church decades ago, I think some of how I was raised remains in my bones. I tend to think that accepting and even almost glorying in violence, a part of the world, has seeped into the Christian mindset. I have to admit, I am at a loss since I’m not sure, but at this point see myself as almost a pacifist Christian. I have known pacifist Christians who don’t seem pacifist at heart, and Christians serving in the military who do seem to be pacifist at heart.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain should indeed occupy a place in our minds, hearts and lives which it just doesn’t seem to do today. That’s true I think for a number of reasons theologically. And I have to wonder if what can be involved in some quarters is simply a matter of being conformed to this world (Romans 12:1-2). But I wonder if it’s ever had a central place in most traditions of Christianity.

It is a matter of grace, needing an infusion of gospel love. That’s the only way we can love our enemies, bless those who curse us, turn the other cheek when struck, go the extra mile, etc. The sayings of the Sermon on the Mount are sprinkled, and I think even embedded in the rest of the New Testament. We can’t escape it. It is at the heart of our faith and outcome of such in loving God and neighbor. Something that needs to get into our hearts, bones, and be worked out in our lives in and through Jesus.

following the way of Christ in suffering?

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

1 Peter 2

I’m not sure this is in our Bibles. Well it is, but it seems to not make much headway into our teaching, and even less into our lives, I’m afraid. Yes, the Spirit is at work in our lives to help us become meek as the Lamb. And I’m not attempting to address the question of whether Christians can participate in the military or police force. I may have my own view on that, and I am empathetic with having to use restrained force as only a last resort against evil. But back to the question: Why has this teaching not only in the Sermon on the Mount, but all throughout the New Testament not made much headway into our hearts and lives, into the church? Or am I mistaken?

I’m not trying to share my limited observations and opinions on this. This blog post does come in part from that, but mainly from scripture, and is really based on scripture. We shouldn’t care what we think or anyone else thinks in comparison to what scripture says.

It is a growing concern for me. It seems like this teaching is either off the table, or not on it. I have hope for good Bible teaching churches like the one we’re a part of, that even though they are not in the pacifist tradition, they will take such passages from scripture seriously. But in doing so, we must beware of giving them “short shrift.”

I’m afraid culture, and an interpretation of history have penetrated our thoughts, into our hearts and lives far more than the words and life of Jesus and the apostles on this subject.

I write few posts anymore which might be considered rants. This is one expressing concern with questions. Any thoughts from a reader out there? Why is Jesus’s teaching along with the apostles on this not (more of) a staple in our understanding of the faith?

Sermon on the Mount Christians

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

It is puzzling to me, how Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (see link above: Matthew 5-7) is so easily relegated to another time, or as being under the law and not under grace. While Jesus’s context is different than today, which is after his death and resurrection, and his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, yet the new era of the gospel of God’s kingdom and grace in him was being revealed in significant part in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and is echoed elsewhere in New Testament letters which follow.

And I’ve found too that it seems to be a strict either/or. Either a tradition such as the Mennonites sees the Sermon on the Mount as basic to their lives, or many evangelical traditions really do not. An exception to the rule might be John R. W. Stott who wrote a book on it, as well as a Bible study, and in his last book emphasized taking up the cross and following Jesus. And I appreciate it when at least a church often cites scripture from the Sermon on the Mount.

What seems to mark a church or tradition as Sermon on the Mount Christianity as we might call it, is their view of the church and the state, and whether or not Christians should serve especially militarily in the state. A plain reading of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as taking in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a whole seems to me to suggest something different than what has occurred historically beginning with what is called the Constantinian turn, effective, even if different, right up to the present day as in the United States, where, while there’s separation of church and state, church is still allied with state in a way that seems to me to be foreign to the New Testament.

Of course there are arguments on the other side, such as the military centurions who had faith as in Jesus’s day. The gospel is open to all, and God’s grace meets us all where we’re at. I’ve lived most of my Christian life with Christians who take it for granted that Christians can serve in the military. And I’ve known a number of fine Christians who have.

I was raised in the tradition of Sermon on the Mount Christianity as a Mennonite, even though it may have been taken too much for granted, and not as indelibly impressed on us as it needed to be, though being so far removed now from that time, I can’t really say, but I’m wondering. My own inclination it to completely embrace the Sermon, which for me included a pacifist Christianity. And arguments supporting Christians going to war for the state, and possibly killing other Christians along with nonChristians seems to me to be rather far fetched. Yet with the Romans 13 seeming (to me) to authorize police force (not military might, as a study of that passage would bear out), although I see it in context with the end of Romans 12 and the rest of the New Testament in a way that still sees the state as other than the church, I think I’ve come to the place where I’m not sure if there can’t be some use of force to stop evildoers by Christians functioning as part of the state. In fact it seems for sure that at least God uses those in worldly governmental authority to do that when necessary. Although I hold to a position of no capital punishment under any circumstances in line with what Jesus himself taught contrary to the Old Testament law. But I still hold to the position, that Christians should not bear “the sword” in the function of the state.

Should Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) be central to our faith as Christians and the church? I think so, regardless of how we answer some of the thornier questions. Jesus’s teaching should characterize our walk and our life in this world as a witness to the one who is the gospel: to Jesus. That people might see the new life breaking in, in contrast to the old, and even in the face of the old, bearing the mark of the gospel, which is weakness to Greeks of old, and foolishness to Jews of old, and certainly remains counter to this day. The message of the cross. In and through Jesus.

given the violence in the world, what is a church/a Christian to do?

It is a short jump from accepting full participation of a Christian in a state/government function, specifically in bearing the short sword, or today, weaponry as in guns from Romans 13 (which does not ascribe that function to Christians, but in part, for Christians), to advocating protection with guns in both public and private places, such as at church, and at home. I can see that such logic is hardly a stretch at all.

The only problem is Romans 13 and its context (the end of Romans 12). And more than that, but better put, along with it, our Lord’s teaching and example carried to its climax in the gospel accounts at the cross, by his death on the cross. Particularly Matthew 5 puts in question, and at last gives the lie, I think, to the supposed right, or option for a Christian to bear arms for self-defense at all, a truly radical position, but one that is in step with our Lord.

And so there are churches which are training people for security,some with weapons in hand, ready to stop any would be assailant. And there are Christians who have a gun loaded and ready to retrieve and possibly fire at any unwelcomed intruder.

There is no question that the state is in place according to Romans 13 in significant part to protect its citizenry, and specifically in the passage, for the good of God’s people. But in the way of Jesus there is no place for guns and their use against other humans. If a Christian can serve in the role of the state, then in that sphere there surely is a time and place to use weaponry as a last resort. I don’t see scripture opening up that door, but if it does, it would be relegated to that. For us in Jesus, there is only one way, the way of the cross, the way of death and resurrection, which alone is a witness to Jesus and the gospel. Taking up guns for the possibility of self-defense and even protection of others in a worst case scenario, even if never used at all is a compromise, and a tacit denial of the gospel.

We are not only to proclaim the gospel as the church, but to live it out as witnesses, through and through. By what we do and refuse to do, we either witness to it, or we don’t, in fact, we may very well be denying it. If you question this, begin to read through the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Read beyond that, the rest of the New/Final Testament, and see whether or not this is true. A straightforward reading of it, I think will at least put into question our dependence on guns.

the broken human penchant for violence

First of all, it is not human to be violent. We would say not humane, at least as a rule we would believe that, but we live in both a violent world and society. Check out our movies, which are full of violence. And how about the video games, known for that? And the church used to make soldiers who came back from the war do penance, since such an undertaking was considered inherently sinful.

This was one of the key reasons for God’s judgment in the time of Noah, “the earth [was] filled with violence because of them” (Genesis 6). God was going to put an end to violence by bringing judgment. This reminds me of how the story ends in the book of the Revelation. God brings judgment to clean up the mess: the violence and the evil, and finally bring in a salvation of justice and peace, the shalom of the kingdom of God in and through King Jesus, one in which the good will of the Triune God will hold full sway.

Jesus took the full violence of sinful humanity upon himself at the cross to do away with human violence once and for all. That doesn’t mean that the state/government existent today can’t use violence when need be to restrain evil (Romans 13), although that should be a limited, last resort option, and the language in Romans suggests a police kind of presence, and not a military one. It certainly is risky in a society where too many people think shoot first and ask questions later.

For the follower of Jesus, we in him are to reflect the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek when struck, refusing to answer fire with fire. Instead we are to break the chain of violence in and through Jesus, by showing love to our enemies, even if we end up losing our lives in the process. It’s not like we don’t look for creative ways to deal with the violence, and those who are violent, nor that we don’t try to preserve our lives, and most certainly the lives of our loved ones and neighbors. We certainly do. But it’s even more important never to return evil with evil, which for us in Jesus means we don’t threaten violence over those who might be threatening violence on us.

Not an easy road, but the way of Jesus. People have taken that road publicly, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. We need to show the world the better way, in and through Jesus, and his cross. The way of death and resurrection. The way of peace in the good will of God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus.

a true undermining of the violence of our day

David E. Fitch originally tweeted this I think, and Facebooked it as well:

Anabaptists see violence in war/guns and urge resistance. I see it in the antagonisms of ideology and urge discernment in how we participate.

Along with this post: To Pastors Everywhere: Let’s Discern the Antagonisms.

This reminds me of the end of James 3:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

Given today’s violence and accompanying violent rhetoric, it’s important as followers of Jesus to be known not only for our stand against all physical violence, but that we are not a people given to violence in any form. That doesn’t mean for a moment that we don’t speak up on issues or fail to proclaim the gospel. It does mean that we do so at appropriate times, and that we choose what to speak on and what to let go. And when we do speak to do so with a listening ear and a gentle, yet firm voice.

This requires a wisdom beyond us. A wisdom that results in peacemaking. But a peace in terms of the gospel. So that at certain junctures there may even be the need for civil disobedience. But that by and large we would be known for the alternative society we’re to be in Jesus, which includes an entirely different ethic in regard to our speech. Refusing to engage in a war of words, even while at times speaking truth to power, and majoring on the truth of the gospel.

a balanced, biblical pacifism (guns in America)

In America where it seems mostly all politics, there is a contentious political mudslinging going on about guns. I wish I could call it a debate, but for the most part what I’ve witnessed is not that. It seems that largely the way here is to mischaracterize one’s opponnents, or put their character in the worst possible light, something both the left and the right regularly engage in. I see it mostly from the right, but I live in a mostly political conservative area. We need to do better.

I speak as a a pacifist Christian, who certainly respects differences among Christians in this area. Some of the best Chrisitians I know (and not online, although I could include that, but who I am personally acquainted with) differ with me here. But none of those I am referring to would make a big issue out of this. They simply might use a gun in the case of someone breaking into their house and putting their family at risk. While I think there are better ways to handle it, and one such friend in particular I think would try to avoid using a gun if possible, I can understand such a position. One has to consider the historical context of America and then of the Christian church at large. But on the latter, there are serious problems left for advocates of guns (other than used for hunting, of course).

One of the mistakes some of the more vocal of pacifist Christians make is to insist that the state/government should disarm, should not use violence. That is not at all what the New Testament or specifically, what Jesus advocates. In fact quite the opposite. See Romans 13. But for the follower of Christ, it is most difficult to rationalize the use of a sword or gun in stopping evildoers. That is left to the state as no less than servants of God (again, see the beginning of Romans 13). I think a responsible ethic for the state is to do everything possible to avoid war, and to work at that. Force should be used as a last resort and sparingly as possible. What is a nation state to do when evildoers pillage and rape and murder? It seems clear enough to me that they need to step in and stop such evil. As to the “just war tradition,” considering its list, we would be hard pressed to justify any war that has been fought in recent memory. Though not rooted in scripture, it may be a useful construct for nation states. Surely less wars would be fought if nations tried to follow it. But what about the follower of Christ?

For myself, I would do what I have to do to defend my family or someone else short of killing the perpetrator. But I would want to do my best to bring about a peace that is rooted and centered in the gospel of Jesus. When it comes to personal attacks, I would want to love my enemies, turn the other cheek and pray for them. I would want to win them to Christ, but not stop loving them in the way Jesus directs, even if they continue on their violent path.

There is no place for the use of violence for followers of Jesus. Neither the New Testament or Jesus’ words advocate anything less than living out one’s life for Jesus and the gospel. In not only proclaiming and witnessing to the gospel, but in no less than laying down one’s life for it and for our Lord.

Back to guns in America. Again, good people will disagree. I say, let’s have a real discussion and debate. And for followers of Christ, let’s turn again to the pages of the Bible, especially the New Testament, and the gospel accounts in it: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Let’s at least err on the side of less physical force, and preferably reject that option altogether. As we seek to follow our Lord in this life to the end.

handling differences

If some thought evangelicalism was in a theological flux a couple of decades or so ago, we could say that is all the more so now. Over periphery matters to be sure, but issues which can well undermine the gospel and our reading of scripture, if we don’t take care.

How do we handle our differences? From my perspective I face those who affirm ordination of those practicing same sex intercourse, of course as long as they’re faithful to one partner, and with that gay marriage. On the other hand I face those who see “Creation Science” as being true to the Genesis account, and my acceptance of evolution as contradictory to that. Just two examples that are hot right now.

Everyone needs to be heard out, that is everyone should have their say. Let everyone make their very best argument, and then hold on to that. In other words try to put the very best construction on both intentions and what is actually said. We help neither ourselves or anyone else by not letting people have their full say as we attempt to understand them as fully and accurately as possible.

Perhaps two words come to the fore now, as I think about our spirit in handling differences, especially among us who are in the family of faith, but beyond that, as well. Forebearance and gentleness. Firmness too, in that, but those two should always be characteristic of us in our disagreements. The NIV 2011 in the Galatians 5 fruit of the Spirit passage interestingly substitutes forebearance for patience. I think that is apt since the patience that is called for is relational in that context. Along with that, gentleness is on the list as well. In Paul’s charge to Timothy (1 Timothy 6) this is evident as well; in conflict or spiritual battle he is to be gentle.

We likely won’t win an argument. But we may well be able to plant the seeds which will reap a harvest of righteousness later. And we need that input from each other. In our disagreements and in all of life.

the justice of the state

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a day in which we remember and give thanks to those who have sacrificed for their country by serving in the military, all too often at the cost of their lives. My father was in harm’s way in WWII in Germany in a tank. And we all know people and of people who are serving in this way today.

I wonder about the calls I read on the Internet for the state (specifically the United States) to follow the teaching of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, teaching which is directed to his disciples and not to the nation states or kingdoms of this world. And I wonder about the call to end all war, how that all war is a waste. It is too bad that violent evildoers in the world who hardly if at all think twice about ending other people’s lives and all too often brutally, pay no attention to such a thought. And it is a viable question: How is their evil going to be dealt with or ended? We may want to follow a couple examples found in the Old Testament when God’s people did not have to fight, but simply waited for the Lord’s intervention which did occur. But by and large the people of God during that time were called by God to participate in physical warfare when threatened. Not so according to the New Testament, arguably, but clearly enough, I believe. At the same time we read these words from Paul:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

It is clear then that the state today (albeit with a small sword in the passage just quoted which was used in what we would call today a policing role) has its place in God’s will, provisional for the present time. And that we are to submit to such who remain in that role as well as honor them. Even while I remain a pacifist Christian, not believing that the way of Jesus includes the possibility of such service for his followers. While at the same time certainly acknowledging that many of Christ’s followers have so served.

I don’t agree with all the decisions that the United States has made in terms of war, not that my opinion means all that much. The taking of lives should be truly a last resort; nations ought to be known for their restraint and forbearance, even though there may indeed be the time for war (Ecclesiastes). But we need to give honor to those who have and do serve in that way today.

I am thankful to God for his provision for us through the state. For all who serve in that capacity either in the military or on the police force. Especially to our veterans and to all who with good conscience have so served: Happy Veterans Day.

The followup post: God holds the state accountable (the other side of the coin)

spiritual warfare (defensive and offensive)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

Those in Jesus are in a spiritual struggle. What scripture calls us in Jesus primarily to do is to resist the devil and stand our ground in the power of the Lord and by the armor he gives us, which mostly is defensive in nature with the exception of the sword of the Spirit, the word of God which may mean a word from God given for a specific moment or time in the warfare. At least for God’s workers in apostolic ministry there is an offensive warfare: by the gospel taking every thought captive to Christ. Leaving no one any room for any other consideration: either the hearers obey or disobey Christ, King Jesus.

We in Jesus do not engage in physical warfare, but in spiritual. I do not believe the follower of Jesus is ever under any circumstances to kill, to take the life of another. We are not called to physical warfare or violence even though God may well use the state to bring about a kind of justice through such means against evil and evildoers. We in Jesus are called to a deeper warfare against the spiritual powers arrayed and at work in the world. It is personal with us. We are under attack as those in Jesus. And through the gospel we penetrate into the darkness to bring the light of the gospel of the glory of God which is in Jesus.