pray and love, love and pray (the theme I keep returning to)

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

1 Peter 4:7-8; NRSVue

I keep coming back to the same theme again and again: Love and pray; pray and love. I have often thought I would enjoy or at least appreciate being a part of a monastic (married) order. The idea is not just here and there, now and then practice of this and that, but a regular communal practice of scripture readings, prayers, and partaking of Communion together. That is not likely, so I try to practice it faithfully when it’s offered with others, as well as in my own practice. I am thankful for the newish Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together, which has a helpful morning and evening office in the back which keeps me in scripture, and in regular prayer.

I see the world at a dangerous place, maybe a precarious tipping point. Climate change with catastrophic consequences ahead if it’s not addressed forthrightly, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, racial injustice in the United States and in many other places in the world, an attack on democracy by an authoritarian rule which is even cloaked with the name “Christian” and is often ardently supported by Christians in a deadly and idolatrous union of church and state, and I’m sure there are numerous other concerns that deserve attention. You may not agree with all I list here, or you might see things somewhat differently. What we will agree on is that these are difficult times.

First of all we have to make sure that we’re aspiring to be followers of Christ. Christian is not enough, and especially with ties to a Christendom which fails to see the radical nature and difference of Christ and Christ’s kingdom in this world. While we hope and pray for the best of each nation in which we live, our citizenship and allegiance is elsewhere. We are citizens of anything in this world in a loose, secondary sense. We pay taxes and give due honor and respect and want to contribute to what is good, but as aliens.

I think of those younger: children and grandchildren. What they will be left with. Yes, people like to remind us all the time that “God is in control,” but remember that God lets people have the consequences of their ways. What is important for us who name the name of Christ is to really be led by the Spirit as Christ followers. The fruit of the Spirit evident in our lives.

And what more can we do than love and pray? Good works must follow, or our prayer and love will be empty, hollow, or at least not as full as it needs to be.

As is pointed out in the passage above, this requires self-discipline on our part along with a maintaining of constant love in the community, an attitude with corresponding actions supporting both. What I want to be about, growing in that, whatever else I think. Not letting up and seeking to live that out with others. In and through Jesus.

resident aliens

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

John 18:36; NRSVue

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

For the Lord’s sake be subject to every human authority, whether to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:9-17; NRSVue

Stanley Hauerwas has made “resident aliens” well known among those interested in such things. This is an apt description of us as Christ followers, believers in Christ, Christ’s body in the world- the church. We are not tied to any government, yet we live respectably as residents among them, subjecting ourselves to their governance as long as it doesn’t contradict Christ’s calling to us.

At the same time we’re aliens wherever we are. As followers of Christ we don’t follow the ways of the world, and we don’t align ourselves with any earthly government or authority. We live under such authority, but we’re not united with them. We are an entity in and of ourselves, distinct from anything of this world.

This is what Scripture tells us, and the early church of the first three centuries seems to have lived this out. It was easier for them to do so since they were at best held at arm’s length by the ruling authority, the Roman empire at the forefront. But after Constantine the church no longer was persecuted but joined to the hip of the state. Church and state as it were, were wedded together. In fact the only ones who could serve in the Roman military were those who were Christians in name. Before that as far as we can tell in the preceding centuries, Christians not only could not serve in the Roman military, but rejected outright any such service, refusing to kill under any circumstances, citing the teaching and example of Christ.

We wish the best for all government political entities and pray for them and aspire and seek to do good for all. And we thank God for their service.

We reside with all, but as aliens. Not really belonging but present and seeking to live at peace with all. As we await the return of our Lord when we’ll no longer be aliens, but at home at last with everyone for ever.

the mistake of Christian nationalism

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 Peter 2:9

I ring an old bell, one who is hardly qualified to do that, but we draw from Scripture, from the wisdom given to those who have studied and continue to study Scripture together, from whatever wisdom God might have given us. And I speak as one who is and has been alarmed for some time now over what seems to me to be a clear and present danger, significantly so because of the mistaken thinking of many sincere Christians.

By Christian nationalism I mean the idea that God sets apart a certain nation of the world, whatever nation that may be as somehow more or less a Christian nation, or if not that, at least a nation which has special purposes for the benefit of Christianity and the gospel.

That God uses nations for good and then judges them for the wrongs they commit is a matter of fact, attested to in Scripture and seen over and over again in history. The idea of Christian nationalism carries with it a close tie between the church and state, whatever tie that might be.

That God’s people should pray for and care about the good of the nation in which they live even as exiles was exemplified in Israel of old (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Christians will vary in what specifically that means. Some will be willing to participate in more or less all the activities of the state, though we have examples of those who won’t even vote, much less do any of that. Some of us are somewhere in between.

But the main point I’d like to make here is that we in Christ are the holy nation on earth whom God calls as a light to the nations. No nation-state on earth even has such a calling. At the same time we can hope that each nation in humility will learn to do better through God’s light that is present in Christ, and in the human conscience as well through “common grace.”

This is nothing more than hopefully a gentle heads up over what I see as a clear and present danger in that the ramifications and results from it will be nothing short of devastating, as we’ve seen clearly already in the United States. But we in Christ are called to follow one Lord as one holy nation together, by our good works to point to the greatness and goodness of the One we serve. In and through Jesus.

thinking about Bonhoeffer in today’s situation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war because of his resistance against Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. He saw through Hitler and at least as early as 1933 criticized what was happening in Germany, specifically the rise of authoritarianism as seen in emphasis on submission to one leader. Bonhoeffer found himself at odds with the German (Lutheran) church early on. And even with the Confessing Church which had split from it, but later mostly caved in to Hitler’s demand for full allegiance. Even my tradition, the Mennonites in Germany at that time gave into that demand, offering full support to Hitler and that government, even couching it with Christian language.

For Bonhoeffer, faith and God being in the center were assumptions from which he operated, everything else subsidiary to that. Bonhoeffer was not in the least an evangelical, if you’re thinking about today’s American evangelical. I would say not even close. But you have to start reading his material including his letters to his good friend Eberhard Bethge. You’ll find thoughts about religionless Christianity, as well as his feeling more at home with non-Christians than Christians. Bonhoeffer was certainly more than disillusioned by the Christians of his day, and didn’t see in their faith any following of Christ whatsoever. Remember that in one of Bonhoeffer’s seminal works, Discipleship or The Cost of Discipleship he commented extensively on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and wrote that when Christ calls someone, he bids them to come and die.

If Bonhoeffer were alive today, I think he would look at what’s happening in the United States with a similar concern which he had early on in the 1930’s in Germany. You have the rise of neo-Nazism in the US and elsewhere, white supremacist, and nationalistic groups. And you have the majority of white evangelicals in the United States backing the regime, I call it, which these groups support. This is not a good time. Christians are sullying the name of Christ today to do what Bonhoeffer said the German church was all about doing in his day: preserving themselves. How often do we hear today Christians up in arms over their perceived loss of religious freedom to the point that if it ever would happen, people would think they were crying “Wolf” again. And their concern for the possible loss of their status and place in their world, as minorities increasingly are influential in America, actually being the reason the recent (2020) US presidential election turned out as it did. And speaking a lot about reversing Roe v Wade, which may or may not happen. Remember that Hitler made the performing of abortion a capital punishment offense. That certainly didn’t make Hitler “pro-life,” although it would seem in today’s world that he would be called “pro-life” for that reason.

Bonhoeffer deserves a careful reading, as well as reading what historians have gathered about him. Do avoid any versions which don’t depict him as he truly was. He was complex, not easily understood, or pinned down. Some would consider him to the left of Karl Barth. But no doubt a man in whom the Spirit of Christ was alive and active. And who lived out his convictions even through his own mistakes and the awful circumstances of his time to the end when by grace he embraced the way of Christ fully. I write this far from being any expert on Bonhoeffer, but as one who sees his writing and work as more than worth considering given the time and circumstances in which we live.

Christ’s victory in the world’s eyes

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 22-25

What if Jesus were present today? What if he showed up in today’s world in a rerun of his first appearing? What if he came for the first time into today’s setting? Would things be different? Would he be well received by the world elites- governing and even religious?

Back when Jesus did come, the cross was the means and method of execution. Only enemies of the state were executed. Jesus ended up being counted as an enemy of the state. Why?

Well, to begin with, what Jesus did flew right in the face of the Jewish ruling authorities who were religious and wanted nothing more than God to come and remove the Romans and fulfill the promises they had long awaited. Jesus comes and proclaims repentance from their way of thinking along with the kingdom of God. Not only contradictory to what they anticipated, but actually in opposition to it. If a Roman soldier asks you to carry his baggage one mile, do it for two miles. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.

And then Jesus’s modus operandi: He not only spent time with the lowlifes, but even seemed to enjoy their company. Completely scandalous. And Jesus broke all the rules. He paid no attention to cleansing laws. What on earth was he up to?!?

Even though Pilate wasn’t on board with the Jewish leaders in their determination to put an end to what Jesus was about, it wasn’t long before he and the Jewish ruler in a kind of monarch position, Herod, previously enemies, had actually become friends. Why? Well possibly because of their incredulity over this Jesus. Not because of the hate directed toward him by the leaders of Israel, but simply because Jesus was not only a puzzle to them, but someone not to be taken seriously at all, in fact maybe even a threat since what Jesus seemed to be proposing as king with a kingdom was indeed preposterous to the world, and maybe even a danger of some sort that they would do well to get rid of. After all, you can’t run a nation or empire that way. Maybe somehow someway this even got under their skin a bit, even if they didn’t take it all that seriously. An enigma for sure. Of course Jesus’s way did indeed press the buttons of the religious elite.

Would it be any different today? Though it’s a different setting, the core or heart remains the same. To some extent even the church has taken on the spirit and attitude of the state, of governing authorities. Power is valued in terms of force and might. The cross is not about a way of life, but for one’s salvation so they can get on with the normal pattern here on earth with their ticket for what follows afterward in the next life.

So no, I don’t think by and large Jesus would be treated any differently today. In fact I don’t think he would be recognized as Jesus at all by many, even by those who today name his name. The question would be, do they have his spirit? If indeed they do have the Spirit, then, even with much difficulty, they would come to recognize him. But do we have his Spirit when we follow the pattern of this age, and fall in line with that? That in itself is not of the Spirit, but of the world, the flesh and the devil.

What is different about your faith in Christ? Is it just a matter of living a better life, even of love, yet within the system of this world, as a participant in that? Even imagining that with effort and the right people in place, the system can be Christianized? Or is it in the way of Jesus? A way which makes no sense to the world. Refusing to participate in the world’s way of power, but embracing the power of God’s love in a world of hate. Following in the way of Jesus. Not just about preaching the cross, but also about living it out. In love, the God who is love. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’s teaching is personal, private, public, and political

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:17

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

Under the influence of Enlightenment Modernism, which definitely has impacted us all, Christianity, the dominant religion in such places took on a personal, private emphasis. Faith became something that was for you, and impacted anything else indirectly through the impact it made on you. An emphasis was on the personal and private. God’s kingdom through Jesus was inside of you, in your heart, hopefully transforming your life, but more or less only indirectly influencing anything else. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this, and variations, but I think it’s safe to say that this was the general rule.

The separation of church and state fitted comfortably into that, but with the reality that while the church helped the state through its religion, the religion itself became more or less a civil religion, no longer tethered to the teaching of Jesus, adrift from that, at least in Jesus’s intentions.

Yes, Jesus’s teaching is personal and private, but it’s also public and political. And what’s political will be in stark difference to the politics of this world, even if on occasion it might influence the politics of the world for good.

There’s no escape from politics. Some might do so for awhile, but when they return, it is again in their face, a factor and fact of life. It can be certainly overblown for sure. But those who might see Jesus’s teaching as essentially personal and private, except perhaps to spread that teaching to others, will nearly invariably be involved in politics.

The missing element is the simple teaching of Jesus, which is again- personal, private, but also public and political. Public through repentance and baptism. Political in that it is steeped in God’s kingdom present here and now in Jesus, and lived out in communities of faith, in the church. Supporting each other. Loving enemies, doing good to others, especially the poor, oppressed and disenfranchised.

All of this is part of Jesus’s teaching and what follows in the New Testament. Our way is different than anything of this world. Down to earth, meant for the world, but counter to it. God’s kingdom now present in and through Jesus.

 

Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ, marching to the beat of a different drum

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

John 18:33-38a

Jesus was in trouble not because he was advocating some new religion about an inward kingdom. Yes, he exposed the Pharisees for their focus and emphasis on externals and not the heart. One could find Jesus’s thought in the Prophets, which is why Jesus challenged Nicodemus, asking him why as teacher of Israel, he didn’t understand such things. This was a challenge to their authority over Israel. Jesus, if he was the Messiah, the true King of the Jews, would challenge, undermine and ultimately overthrow that.

And Jesus as Lord and Son of God was a direct challenge to Rome, which used the exact same terms for the Emperor. Here was this group coming along and using the same terms for one they considered the Messiah. Rome looked at what he did, and considered it relatively harmless. But ultimately when Christians would not give any of the allegiance that belonged to Jesus to the Emperor, to the Roman state, then Christians would not be meeting the requirements of the state, the occupying rule. And therefore would be persecuted. Pilate did want to let Jesus go, but the claims of Jesus and his followers, and how that might get Pilate in trouble with the Roman authorities over him probably did have plenty to do with Pilate handing Jesus over for crucifixion. Along with the pressure from Jewish leaders. Ultimately any nation state will be weary of Christians whose full allegiance is only to one kingdom and Lord.

Something I hope to be more and more in step with along with others. In and through Jesus.

 

 

Christians persecuted in the United States?

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 5:10-11

You often hear from some that Christians are being persecuted in the United States. What seems to be in mind is loss of freedoms, position and voice. The sea change of culture is certainly trying to many. And continued change seems to be in the cards.

But what if we really followed the way of Jesus, loving our enemies, and living as if we belong to one kingdom and Lord, refusing to bow the knee to any other? What if we were a loving, engaging people, helping each other, and opening our doors to all?

It’s not like none of that takes place, or that there’s no persecution at all in the US due to believers sincerely following Christ. But when you compare the US and much of the west with the rest of the world, you arguably begin to see that we know nothing in comparison with the rest. Open Doors is helpful here (click each country for more details).

A basic problem is that we see our identity somehow wrapped into the state. Many of us Christians here see ourselves as Americans nearly on a par with our identity as Christians, or so it seems to me. Instead, if we’re to follow the way of Jesus and what we read of him in the gospel accounts, as well as the church afterwards in Acts, known as the Way, then I think it should give pause to how we see ourselves here and now.

If we really started following Jesus in that way, I think we would then face more real persecution, yes, right here in the US. But we would also leave people wondering. We would be known not for what we think the US is, or our identity in that. But as followers of something different. Counter-cultural and counter-intuitive for sure. In and through Jesus.

 

a new political imagination

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:14-15

In Jesus’s time there was a profound, eager, if somewhat hushed among many expectation that the Messiah would at long last come and God’s kingdom with him, specifically to overthrow the Romans, whose grip on the people of God held them in a kind of exile in their very home. That’s where we have to begin if we’re to bring forward what Jesus’s words above mean in the present day.

We need to go on and read the rest of Mark’s gospel account, and along with that, the other synoptic gospel accounts, Matthew and Luke, with the final gospel account, John. Only then will we begin to understand the kingdom that God brings in Jesus, invading the world now, and ultimately destined to take over the world.

From this can come a new political imagination as we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to the world in Jesus, in King Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him. If we think it’s just about personal salvation and getting others saved to go to heaven someday, then we’ve missed the point. Yes, it’s in terms God reconciling the world to himself through the death of Christ, forgiveness of our sins and new life in Christ. But that includes the reconciliation of all things to himself and new creation. A kingdom no less is now present.

At the heart of that, or we could say inside of this reality in Jesus is a new way of life, a new way for humans to live not just individually, but with each other. Yes, a whole new way of life. One that we see in the New Testament fulfills God’s passion seen in the Old Testament for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, those in chains and suffering, somehow as we find in Jesus’s teaching and what follows including even God’s enemies.

We know that God is at work even in what we call the state, nations and governments, kingdoms of this world. But we also know that God’s own kingdom work in Jesus is elsewhere and different. And that the kingdoms of earth will be ultimately judged and destroyed, exposed as the beasts they really are.

What can help us see and understand this new political imagination better is to understand the idolatrous hold nationalism can have on us. We American Christians ordinarily see politics in terms of left and right, conservative and liberal (and moderate), and whatever else might be floating out there. But surely God wants us to see through those paradigms for whatever usefulness and good they have in this world through the lens of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. We as Christians are called to be about that, and nothing more nor less.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in one way or another in the world’s political system. It does mean that we do so essentially as outsiders, those of another political realm. Taking seriously the politics of this world, but only in terms of the politics of Jesus which has invaded the world, indeed the politics of the world to come. In and through Jesus.

Thanks to Stephen Backhouse whose work is renewing in a fresh way my own thought on this.

what difference are we Christians suppose to make?

I wonder how we Christians who don’t always agree on political issues, nevertheless might be a mediating, healing, even redemptive influence on a nation being torn apart. I am reminded of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29). They were to settle down and seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which they were exiled, to pray for it. It was going to be temporary for sure, seventy years.

That reminds me of us Christians here in the United States, or in any nation in the world, for that matter. We are temporary here, yes citizens of these nations, but our primary citizenship is in heaven. We don’t exist for the good of any nation or government. But we do wish the best for them, for God’s blessing so that people might be blessed. Government and the state does have a God-given place in this world (Romans 13).

I think the more we take all the words of Scripture seriously, especially those directed to the church, the more we might be helpful in the current impasse and worse. The gospel, God’s good news from God actually does the work, we don’t. We are witnesses to it in how we live in deed and word. First of all by our lives, even if we say nothing more at all.

…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Note the passage (click link) is in the context of an emphasis on love for each other, so that Christians strictly speaking are not independent, but dependent on God, and interdependent (not codependent) on each other. We Christians are in this together. Even when we don’t agree politically. We might be poles apart that way. And unlike me, you may not see climate change as something serious to consider, and we may disagree on a whole host of issues, even including the history of the United States.

In spite of all of that, just how can we be the mediating, healing, and even redemptive presence needed, if we think there’s value in that. If there was value in captive Israel being a blessing to Babylon, then surely there is for us now.

Getting back to Jeremiah’s letter to those exiles, we need to listen to what it might be telling us today:

…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

Jeremiah 29:7

Prayer. If there’s nothing else we do, we should pray. Even shut our mouths and instead, pray. Not that there’s never a time to speak, as well as be silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). But there’s nothing better we can do than pray. When we do, we’ll find ourselves somehow in God’s working, what God alone can do. What we do apart from prayer and dependence on God will do more harm than whatever good it might do. We can be sure of that, as well.

And so on the eve of Independence Day here in the United States, let’s consider carefully just how we might be a blessing in the midst of a mess which is certainly well beyond us. Above all holding on to the faith of the gospel, lights to the world (Philippians 2:14-16) in and through Jesus.