Mennonite Non-resistance Revisted

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The term “Mennonite” describes a broad spectrum of people.  There’s everything from the liberal “progressive” types who ordain lesbians to those still using horses for transportation in the outermost conservative backwoods.  But there is one thing that unites all Mennonites under one banner and that an inheritance of pacifism called non-resistance.

It is a theological perspective I’ve argued in favor of many times.  In fact, it was a case that I made in an essay while enrolled at a secular university in front of a room full of incredulous classmates.

In retrospect, the Gnadenhutton massacre (when a native American tribe of pacifist converts were senselessly slaughtered by Pennsylvania militia men) was not as compelling an example of faith to those who did not already share my Mennonite indoctrination.  I can’t recall anyone in the room who accepted my reasoning that it was better these people not to defend themselves and their families.

But, for me, like most born into a Mennonite home, non-resistance was simply the most plain and obvious reading of the teachings of Jesus.  How could someone read “love your enemies” and not reject all use of force?

Well, with a few more years under my belt, it is time to revisit the topic of non-resistance and take a closer look at the proof-texts used keeping a couple questions in mind.  What does the text of the passage actually say and what does the greater context of Scripture provide to us as additional clues?

I’ll start with the linchpin…

1) What does Jesus mean by love your enemies?

The Sermon on the Mount, where the phrase “love your enemies” is used by Jesus, seems like the most reasonable starting point.  This is the text:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38‭-‬48 NIV)

First, Jesus brings up a part of Old Testament law that was being used in a literal and incorrect way to govern interpersonal relationships.  The “eye for an eye” concept was not intended so that everyone would go around as vigilantes and demanding punishment.  It was, in the context it was given, a guideline to keep civil punishments in proportion to the crime rather than too harsh or too lenient.

Jesus gives an alternative to the tit-for-tat misuse of the law of Moses.  He says to do the opposite.  Instead of returning return slap for slap he says to turn the other cheek.  Rather than fight a lawsuit over a shirt he says to give the person your coat.  He says to go the extra mile rather than resist going only one mile.  What he presents is an a means to break out of a downward spiral where everyone loses.  In other words, it is better to be twice insulted or doubly inconvenienced than it is to live out an endless feud like Hatfields and McCoys.

Jesus confronts this idea some had that it was okay to only love those who treat them well (their neighbors) and not their “enemies” or those hostile towards them.  However, he does not use life-or-death situation to illustrate his point nor does he argue against protecting the innocent.  There is no indication that his words are aimed at the work of government either.  He is speaking about personal rather than national enemies.

2) What does “vengeance is mine” mean?

Another important non-resistance prooftext is found in the book of Romans.  The apostle Paul, in context of how to love and serve others, says:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14‭-‬21 NIV )

This passage basically restates what Jesus taught.  Paul expounds on the idea of not answering evil with evil and backs this claim using passages from the Old Testament.  The words “vengeance is mine” come directly from the book of Deuteronomy and is not a repudiation of legitimate justice being served or it would contradict the context in which it was given.  Instead, this phrase appears to be directed against taking personal revenge outside of what God has established.  I say this because Paul does:

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. (Romans 13:1‭-‬7 NIV)

It is interesting that Paul instructs to “overcome evil with good” and goes on to explain that those in authority who punish the evildoer are “God’s servant for good” and not to be resisted when serving in that role.  If it were sinful for governing authorities to punish evil it is strange that they are described as servants of God.

Does this mean that we can punish those who personally offend us?

No, absolutely not.

It is not okay for us to take matters of justice into our own hands.  There was never a license for individuals to act unilaterally and outside the established justice system in the Old Testament.  The role (or rule) given for individuals was the same then as it was when Paul restates the argument.  Love for “enemies” is not a new teaching:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21‭-‬22 NIV)

That is Proverbs.

That is how they were to treat their personal enemies in Old Testament times.

That is how Paul taught that Christians must deal with their personal enemies in his time.

Many arguing for non-resistance cherry-pick the phrase “vengeance is mine” and “overcome evil with good” and “heap burning coals” while neglecting important context.  These phrases must be understood in the context they are given.  Jesus was not contradicting the Old Testament nor rebuking government officials, rather he was correcting those who were misusing the words as an excuse to be unloving, to fight evil with evil and take personal vengeance.

3) My kingdom is not of this world…

When Jesus was arrested he told Peter to put his sword away and, remaining consistent in his message, warned that people who live by the sword will die by the sword.  Even when faced with the corrupt use of government power we are not given a pass to resist with violence.  And Jesus goes further to explain this when being questioned after his arrest:

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. 

(John 18:33‭-‬36 NIV)

Pilate was trying to establish the guilt or innocence of Jesus.  The Jewish authorities presented Jesus as someone deserving death.  The Romans only used capital punishment in some cases and that is why it was very important how Jesus answered.  If he answered “yes” when asked about being “king of the Jews” that would amount to insurrection and a crime punishable by crucifixion.  So Jesus presents himself as being of a different kingdom and one that is not a threat to Roman rule.

It is important to understand “my kingdom is not of this world” in that context.  Jesus is never at odds with the established government.  That isn’t his realm, he did not rebuke Pilate or the soldiers for doing their jobs, the legitimate punishment of evildoers is not something a Christian should ever oppose.  Jesus, even when wrongfully accused, did not curse his captors or repay their evil for evil.  Instead, he said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:24)  That is an example to follow in our own experience with injustice.

That is not to say we should give up our rights and renounce our citizenship anymore than we should give up eating physical food.  Paul, in Acts 16, after being unlawfully detained and beaten, expected his privileges as a Roman citizen be respected and demanded that he should be released out the front gate.  But he did so in the right time, when the mistake was already acknowledged by the authorities, and without resisting arrest or imprisonment.  Paul, like Jesus, was willing to suffer personal loss as means to show God’s love.  He positioned himself as an ambassador of another kingdom and yet was not opposed justice in this world.

False dichotomies, non-resistance proof-texts and truth…

“A text without context is a pretext for a prooftext.” (Dr. D. A. Carson)

Proof-texting is a misuse of a Biblical text.  It is when a person takes small snips of a text to make their argument and neglects important contextual information in the process.  Mennonites, despite their very sincere intentions, are no exception—they are not free from this tendency to be led by confirmation bias.  They, like all other people, have an emotional attachment to their established beliefs, which causes blindness to evidence that runs contrary to their existing ideas, and this limits their ability to reach a fuller understanding of Scripture.

My youthful black and whiteness, while self-satisfying at the time, did not well-represent the texts used.  The either/or propositions of those arguing non-resistance are often false dichotomies based in misapplication of a Biblical text.  For example, the phrase “my kingdom is not of this world” is not an excuse to skip out on your taxes, the words “vengeance is mine” are not a repudiation of those employed by governments to punish evil, and “love your enemies” does not mean looking the other way and turning a blind eye towards injustice or abuse.  It is possible to both represent the kingdom of heaven and physically protect the innocent.

The truth is often represented by both/and.  Personal vengeance is forbidden, punishment of evildoers is ordained, and it takes wisdom to know what applies to the circumstances one finds themselves in.  Sometimes we need to be vocal about our rights, like Paul, other times we should maintain our silence and endure the abuse, but we should always place the welfare of others above our own.  Turning the other cheek does not imply giving a sexual predator your daughter after he raped your wife.  Overcoming evil with good does not mean being a pacifist doormat.

Mennonite non-resistance goes wrong when it is used as basis to judge those who God has ordained to punish evil.  If someone believes that resisting evil through physical means is always wrong and itself evil, then they are accusing God of hypocrisy for what he instituted. Jesus questioned the judgment of the Pharisees, but he never questioned the authority of the Romans nor did he call for them to lay down their weapons as he did with Peter.

It is not our role to judge those who use the sword to punish evil and protect the innocent.

Love does not require others to die on behalf of our own personal convictions.

Jesus never spoke against defending the weak nor did he make a case against subduing (or otherwise stopping) a deranged person intent on doing harm.  Being of a heavenly kingdom, at very least, does not mean one should be opposed to justice being served by those whom God has ordained and instituted for that purpose.  We can both support those who punish the evildoer and also “love our enemies” without the two ever coming into conflict.  In fact, if we oppose the protection of the innocent, we are ourselves in conflict with the command to love as Jesus did and giving preference to evil.

Does this mean I’m going to start to pack heat during a church service?  No, not at all!  Mass shootings, put in proper statistical context, are not something that concerns me.  I choose not to live my life as one paranoid.  I’ve put my trust in God.  I’ve decided that firearms used for protection are better in the hands of those better trained.

My own perspective, in further reflection upon Scripture, is a bit more nuanced than before.  However, I will say this in closing, it does reflect poorly on Christians when they appear to be more fearful of death than their supposedly faithless neighbors.

In context of eternity what will we lose in sacrificing ourselves for the good of others?

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Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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I grew up believing my Mennonite religious tradition originated as a part of the Anabaptist movement.  I would’ve been incredulous had someone told me then that our theological underpinnings and practice actually originated from a completely different source and a much later time.

It has taken me decades to come to the full realization that conservative Mennonites (and especially those in the Charity movement) are not truly Anabaptist anymore.  We have, as a result of years of absorbing teachings from other sources, morphed into something quite different from our forebearers.  

The evolution has been slow and over many generations.  However, these small changes, added together, have become something profound and with very deep implications.  We might self-describe as Mennonite or Anabaptist, but are, in reality, something else entirely and have a mindset completely different from our ancestors.

If you want to see the contrast, compare us (conservative Mennonites) to our Old Order cousins and then consider how differently we approach things.  We might share the same genetic origins (and surnames) yet do not have much in common as far as our theological ideas and practices.

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

Consider that everything from Sunday school to revival meetings, four-part singing to our eschatological perspective, and Zionism, is not originally Mennonite or Anabaptist.  They were things added (and often with great controversy) within the past century and some only the last few decades.

The reality is that our relatives from a generation or two ago swallowed fundamentalist theological innovations hook, line, and sinker.  They did so without realizing the divergent path this represented.  It might have begun with a subtle change of focus, a slight ideological shift, but the difference in final outcomes is huge.

We have gone from from a question of “is it Christlike” to one of “is it biblical” and many of us don’t even know why that’s a problem.

Our ancestors might have been radical followers of Jesus.  Yet, most of us, despite our additional Mennonite packaging and a little Anabaptist flair (added back in to make us feel special about ourselves) are simply plain old biblical fundamentalists.

What is biblical fundamentalism?

It is a new idea.  It is a conservative Protestant reaction to modernism.  It is a hermeneutical system that reimagines “word of God” to be a book rather than something far more dynamic and alive.  It turns belief in Jesus into a process of finding a code of ethics in Scripture and creating doctrine—but misses the essence of what it means to truly follow him.

Biblical fundamentalism is an extension of a Protestant idea.  In fundamentalism the religious experience is centered on Scripture-alone (sola Scriptura) and neglects a large swath of Christian tradition.  It is a heresy only possible since the invention of the printing press.

Before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, in 1440, and widespread literacy, it would have been a hard sell to convince people that God’s word (or logos) came to the masses primarily in book form.

Fundamentalists have literally deified a book, they made it an object of worship, and yet have irrationally thrown aside the institution of the church that delivered it to them.  They have essentially made Holy Scripture an coequal part of the Trinity, synonymous with Jesus Christ, usually at the expense of the Holy Spirit and almost always at the expense of church unity.  If we look at the long-term results, the fruit of the Protestant reformation has undeniably been the fracturing of the church into smaller and smaller bits. 

The Scripture-alone view has led to many bizarre interpretations of the text and a hyper-individualism that makes our unbelieving neighbors seem forbearing and cooperative by comparison.  It has led to a religion characterized by legalism and dogmatism.  Making the Bible into an infallible object has led to weird fixations on particular translations (like KJV-onlyism) that make no sense considering that the original text wasn’t written in old English.

In many cases biblical fundamentalists are simply conservatives stubbornly reading their own preconceived ideas back into the text (or proof-texting) rather than taking an honest and open Berean approach.  Fundamentalism started out of fear and as a defensive posture against higher criticism and modernism.  It is limited because it is based on assumptions that are wrongly taken as infallible truths.

It is a religious perspective that never leads to unity or true brotherhood because it is based on personal interpretation rather than a collective and historical understanding through the body of believers.  In Protestantism everyone has become their own pope and their own individual understanding of the Bible their only god.

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

Anabaptism quickly lost its way after a good start.  It soon devolved from radical faith, that challenged everything, into a religious tradition that couldn’t be questioned.  But despite that, it maintained a distinct community ethic and (after reigning in violent factions) developed a strong peace witness.  Ideas like non-conformity and non-resistance were passed down as a teleological “who we are” rather than a theological argument.

However, that “who we are” was too often missing the spiritual component that inspired it.  As a result, many Mennonites over the past few centuries started to look for energy from outside of the Anabaptist tradition.  Protestant movements that led to biblical fundamentalism have long had an appeal to conservative-minded Mennonites.  Pietism, revivalism and biblical fundamentalism have all breathed life into what had become dead orthodoxy.  But these movements did not share the same theological underpinnings of original Anabaptism.  And, instead of help, they have further eroded the Mennonite community, as many splits since then bear witness.

Biblical fundamentalism took root in the Mennonite culture when the longtime standard of the Schleitheim confession (established in 1527) was supplemented in 1921.  The adoption of “Christian Fundamentals” represented a dramatic change of thinking from anything truly Anabaptist.  It mirrored the polemic (or apologetic) style of the Protestant theologians and borrowed language from their work “The Fundamentals” which is the basis of ‘Christian’ fundamentalism.  The shift in priorities is clear, we went from a more practical lived-out ideal to an argumentative obsession with our “doctrines” and a new fixation on a particular brand of biblical literalism.

Our more scholarly and fighting approach has backfired.  The Mennonite church has split multiple times along “conservative” and “liberal” lines since then, both sides using their own interpretation of the Bible as their basis and coming out at different conclusions.  Our going from a perspective that prioritized loving submission to each other to one that elevates an individual’s own (personal, dogmatic and inerrant) interpretation of Scripture has not worked well for us.  It continues to bear the same fruit of division in our denomination as it did in Protestantism in general.

Sadly, we have increasingly farmed out the discipleship duties of the church brotherhood to “Bible institutes” and foolishly turned to fundamentalist icons like Bill Gothard, Michael Pearl or Ken Ham for our understanding of Scripture.  And worse, while a liberal arts education is viewed as a potential pitfall, biblical fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones (where racial segregation was enforced until the 1990’s) and Liberty University (who’s founder gave his full-throated endorsement to a divisive and immoral political candidate) are not seen as dangerous.

Why?

Because we have become something different from what we claim to be.

Fundamentalist indoctrination has now become woven into the fabric of our Mennonite experience and is indistinguishable from our authentic Anabaptist heritage to most born into our denomination.  We teach our children lyrics like: “The B-I-B-L-E, now that’s the book for me, I stand alone, on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” or “I love the Bible, I love the Bible, I love the Bible, it is the word of God.”  Which is cringe-worthy when you consider those songs are fundamentalist propaganda, with little basis in Scripture, that are priming a child’s confirmation bias for life.

In their embrace of fundamentalism, conservative Mennonites have lost the fight for the soul of Anabaptist tradition.  

Many have confused the fundamentalism of the past century with a “third way” Anabaptist heritage and are fooled into thinking they are winning the war when they are actually fighting for the other side.  In reality, while we think we are still Anabaptists, we have actually been invaded and conquered by our former persecutors.

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

True Anabaptism, while having very high regard for the Holy Scripture, understood the importance of community of faith and attempted an orthodoxy around simple obedience to the instructions of Jesus.  It was Christocentric rather than bibliocentric, meaning that the words of Scripture were to be illuminated through the life of Christ and via the Spirit.  The focus, as a result, was less on theological navel-gazing and more on living true evangelical faith.  Or, in other words, they made practical real world application of Christian love.

Gelassenheit, or the idea of self-surrender and resignation to God’s will, meant submission to the body of believers.  Early Anabaptists understood the importance of community of faith and the part that community (and discipleship) played in salvation of the individual.  They taught that faith produces a practical change in lifestyle.

Fundamentalism, by contrast, puts emphasis on personal experience, stresses the importance of dutiful Bible reading, takes a cerebral (modernist) approach to understanding Biblical text and often gets mired in the theoretical.
Authentic Anabaptism was more teleological than it was deontological in that it was more about just “being” something rather than it was about creating theology or a system of rules.  

While fundamentalism reduces Jesus to the level of Moses (makes him into just another man trying to establish a code of ethics and doctrinal framework as a means to salvation) the Anabaptist perspective took emphasis away from the individual, it put an individual in a community of faith (representative of God’s kingdom) and made love in the brotherhood something practical rather than theoretical.  It was less “the Bible says so” (supported by a position paper) and more “this is what we are” using spiritual fruit as evidence.

Our Old Order brethren still carry on the vestiges of an Anabaptist perspective with their focus on maintaining a community of faith.  That, at very least, provides them with some stability and a little protection from being blown hither and thither by the winds of doctrine.  I can see this in my Amish coworkers who exhibit a genuine and simple faith as if it is breathing for them.  Sure, they might not loudly proclaim themselves “born again” or be able to give a detailed explanation of every practice, but they do have a unity of spirit that we as modern “conservative” Mennonites have lost.

Modern Mennonites, like other fundamentalists, are taught to depend on themselves and take an extremely individualistic approach to matters of faith.  We do not see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers (other than to argue with them in men’s Sunday school class) and are quick to split over what we see as “more biblical” based on our own personal interpretation.  We have lost the concept of the body of Christ (and our being the incarnation together) that once made us unique.

Why Has Anabaptism Failed?

Anabaptism started on the right track, but subsequent generations have abandoned what was a teleological (and Spirit-led) faith for something manufactured, deontological and fundamentalist.  Sure, we have more theological knowledge than ever, but we lack spiritual wisdom to contextualize, comprehend or properly apply what we know.

It is bizzare that we cling to fundamentalist innovations of the past century as if all truth depended on it (things like revival meetings, Sunday school, modern eschatological interpretations and Creationism) yet neglect the richer traditions of the church.

Even our Amish brethren celebrate important days on the Christian calendar (Pentecost and Ascension Day) that are forgotten by most of us.  Anabaptism has failed, in part, because it separated itself from the greater cloud of witnesses and universal church that together represent the body of Christ.
We failed also because we, like many religious fundamentalists today, study the Bible thinking a book alone can lead us and this, unfortunately, is a complete rejection of the means that Jesus said would be provided for those who believe.

Jesus promised that we would have the Holy Spirit to “teach us all things” and stressed living in simple obedience through those means—with loving submission to each other as something central.  That is something quite different from a mental assent to a bunch of religious doctrines or dogmas.

We fail because we face backward towards our ancestors as if they hold the answers for today and forget that those before us looked forward full of the Spirit.  They did not dwell in the past.  Instead, they were dependent on each other and had Christ as their head.  We should not be trying to recreate their movement or looking for fundamentals.  We should instead be in full and sincere pursuit of faith as they were.

What to do?

I believe we would do well to be humble about our heritage, consider the fallibility of our own inherited base assumptions, and reach for an understanding broader, deeper and richer than our own.  Yes, being a Mennonite is as good a place to start as any other, but it cannot be where we remain or it leads to spiritual stagnation.

Faith fossilized into mere Biblical fundamentals is no better than the dead orthodoxy and the faithless modernism it was supposed to protect against.  Faith is something that is supposed to be lived out while moving boldly in a direction and is not something reducible to a set of theological propositions.

Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

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A biblical fundamentalist reads Scripture as a lawyer does a legal code.  Rather than read like the Bereans, who were open-minded and therefore receptive to the message the Apostle Paul preached (Acts 17:11), many people read with an agenda to prove their current beliefs.

Religious fundamentalist scholars are often able to find what they go looking for, and at the expense of what is true.  Their diligent search, rather than being a quest for Truth, is an effort to find proof-texts for their own theological presuppositions (often inherited positions), and is not guided by the Holy Spirit.

Some are very knowledgeable and respected people in their respective circles.  They parse words looking for specific permissions and prohibitions, or only to justify their existing doctrinal stances.

They are scholars of conservative or liberal persuasion and dogmatists for any denomination.

They all have their loyal followers.

They all believe they are right.

But they are also no different from those whom Jesus confronted when he said:

…the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40)

Those who were addressed by Jesus in the passage above had Scripture (graphé) and studied it “diligently” according to Jesus.  But they were missing something.  Jesus told them they lacked the word (logos) of God dwelling in them, thus they would not come to him for life.  They were impoverished when it came to true faith and the indwelling word of God.

There are many who have only Scripture and not the Spirit to teach them.

We are told there will be tares sown in the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).  This means that there will be those who appear righteous on the outside, but they reject the most foundational concepts of faith.  Despite their many good works, they are spiritually dead and lost.

I recall discussions with a man unable to conceptualize the idea of a triune God.  Time and time again he would come back to his own flawed understanding and insist that I was polytheistic for believing in one God… three persons.  He also could not accept that the sonship of Jesus made him divine like his Father in heaven.

Sadly there are many who reject Jesus in a much more subtle way and by this I mean they have not placed their faith in the Spirit he promised:

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.  All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:23‭-‬26)

They claim to have faith, but are agnostics when it comes to the idea of the Spirit teaching “all things” as promised.  And, despite their Biblical religion, they have the same “worldly” perspective that Jesus describes:

The world cannot accept [the Spirit of truth], because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:17)

They are as Paul describes:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”  But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14‭-‬16)

Many who profess to believe have recast the Spirit’s work as mere emotionalism and cling to circular reasoning and poor understanding of the text.  They have a form of godliness; but, despite their diligent study and careful religious devotion, they are spiritually impotent because they lack the “mind of Christ” or the indwelling word of God.

Jesus addresses those “blind guides” who love the letter of the law while rejecting the Spirit:

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. (Matthew 23:16-22)

Jesus started by ridiculing a legalistic controversy about what made an oath legitimate.  He dismissed the dispute as silly by taking a third position that supercedes the others and then continues:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:13‭-‬24)

These religious scholars missed the forest for the trees.

They were so focused in on legalistic details of application that they “neglected the more important matters—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”  Jesus insults these religious authorities, he calls them “blind guides” and knocks them off their proverbial pedestal.

Paul expounds on the blindness of those who only have Scripture and the need for the Spirit as guide:

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:12‭-‬18)

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse, they say we need the Scripture to understand the Spirit.  The truth is opposite, we need the Spirit in order to understand Scripture or we will be no better than the “blind guides” who diligently studied Scripture and yet never embraced Jesus (and the promise of the Spirit) who brings life.

Are you a minister of the new covenant powered by the Spirit?

The new covenant is different from the old.  In the new covenant, God’s dwelling moved from a temple of stone and gold to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), which is to say the individual bodies or collective mass of those who follow after Jesus and constitute the church.  The new covenant is a law written on hearts rather than on tablets of stone (Hebrews 8:7-13, 10:15,16) and that is the work of the Spirit:

Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4‭-‬6)

The silly controversies that divide the church are not caused by the word of God or the Spirit.  They are caused by those who have their own interpretation of Scripture, who believe their own opinion of the language is infallible, and yet do not have the indwelling word of God or life of the Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit to guide our study, we will “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” and be no different from those whom Jesus condemned: blind guides with veiled hearts and puffed up with biblical knowledge, yet unable to correctly understand…too focused in on the technical details to see the bigger concepts of faith.

Do People Get What They Deserve?

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In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner.  It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful.  In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.

zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.

The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation.  They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have.  This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.

However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple.  We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks?  I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?

Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough.  Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?

Do people get what they deserve?

We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned.  This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt.  This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.

Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.

That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him.  They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.

People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes.  When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man.  He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1‭-‬5)

His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor.  He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation.  He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43‭-‬48)

It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect.  Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message.  I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.

The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve.  He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.

Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference.  Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love.  We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.

That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us.  We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge.  If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well.  If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.

If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?

Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right.  No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever.  Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.

A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin.  Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.

True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others.  Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd.  No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.

It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God.  Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan.  Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.

True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love.  If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us.  It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee.  Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin.  In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.

Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them.  No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves.  True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.

Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?

Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?

So, anyhow…

Shut up about your good life—people already know!  Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.  

Actions speak louder than words.

What Mennonites Could Learn From Brandon Smith

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His name was unknown.

He is a walk on linebacker on a college football team who started this season as a backup to a backup.  But, undaunted, he practiced and committed to being ready for that moment.

That moment came last Saturday when this unknown finally had his number called.  Brandon Smith, a number 47 on his iconic ‘no name’ blue and white jersey, finally got his chance. 

After yet another injury in a season plagued with injuries he was called upon and took the field.  He used the opportunity to lead a bruised and battered defensive unit and preserve a win for the team.

Smith, despite only having a few snaps at a college level until last week, was no bench warmer.  

Smith, a humble soft-spoken leader, was on the most successful high school football team in Lewisburg Green Dragons history, a team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2010, and the backbone of an outstanding defense.

But more significantly than all of that, Smith was active in the local church and is by all accounts a young man fully committed to using his talents for the honor and glory of God.  He even turned down two scholarships to prestigious universities to walk on and suit up for Penn State because that is where he believed God wanted him.  

The reason why Mennonites do not show up to play ball.

The Mennonite tradition I was born into has a long list of activities that are not encouraged.  And, of those activities restricted or outright banned, one being participation in organized competitive sports and football was considered especially intolerable.

The reason for this is an idea called ‘non-conformity’ that is common to Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups.  It is based on a statement “be not conformed to this world” found in the book of Romans and in other Scriptural teaching about separation from the world.

This idea of non-conformity usually amounts (ironically enough) to conformity to a religious standard that is enforced primarily by church leaders.  The standards are different from group to group, but generally apply to technology usage, clothing style and entertainment.  Through their idea of non-conformity various Anabaptist groups have maintained their cultural distinctiveness in an ever changing world.

Unfortunately too often it seems the focus is on preserving a religious heritage and an ‘Anabaptist identity’ rather than a radical pursuit of God.  Wearing black socks or using a horse named Fred as transportation rather than a Ford does not change a person’s heart.

The problem is when non-conformity is nothing more than a human effort to please cultural expectations.

Conformity without transformation misses the point entirely and will keep us spiritually sidelined.

The bigger problem with Mennonite non-conformity and separation teaching is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

Read the context:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

The ‘be not conformed’ above is not a standalone statement.  Paul doesn’t leave us to guess his meaning and quickly follows with “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and is basically describing the need for something transformative to happen within us.

The word “transformed” is translated from a word “metamorphóō” (μεταμορφόω) that looks like metamorphosis and basically means the same thing.  It is a word used four times in the New Testament, twice it is translated “transfiguration” in reference to Jesus and twice (including Romans 12:2 above) to describe the change that takes place in a believer.

Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is a very significant event, the “greatest miracle” according to Thomas Aquinas, thought of as a bridge come between heaven and earth or perhaps what modern science would describe as a portal between dimensions.  It is where Jesus is seen by his disciples talking to Moses and Elijah and a voice proclaims Jesus as son.

The other time this significant word is used is in this passage:

“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)

It is quite clear in contextual usage that this word “transformed” is something spiritual, something God does, and not a matter of human effort.  In the passage from 2 Corinthians above it is about having a “veil” removed by the Spirit that allows us to be able to understand Scripture that leads to transformation.  In Romans 12:2 it is about a transformation that leads to renewal of mind.

What is renewal?

The word “renewal” as in “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is translated from a word “anakainósis” (ἀνακαίνωσις) and describes a process.  In Romans 12:2 it is about the mind being changed through this transformative thing.  It is also a word used one other time in Scripture:

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)

Again we see a process in which God intervened on our behalf while we were still lost, hopelessly blind to spiritual reality, and did something to change us.  It is not something we do for ourselves or a list of do’s and don’t’s passed down from generation to generation, it is something spiritual done in us by God’s grace.

Why Mennonites should stop playing for fun only and need to get serious about using their all for God’s glory.

Should I be brutally honest?

Our idea of non-conformity is more often a path to complacency rather than spiritual renewal.

We are doing it wrong…

We have become as the Pharisees who were obsessed with details, considered themselves to be the experts on all things Biblical, yet despite their diligent study of the book they rejected Jesus as savior (John 5:39-40) and totally missed the point.  They were “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24) and we are there with them.

Instead of seeking after true transformation, and using everything in our life to bring glory and honor to God, we attempt to carefully divide up our activities into categories of “worldly” and spiritual.  Instead of integrate all areas of our life into our witness, we compartmentalize and become ineffective.

When we do participate sports, rather than see it as a way to a witness, we play for fun only.  In similar fashion, when we work we do it for money only, when use social media we use it exclusively for recreation only.  We think missions is only something that happens when we join our earnest religious peers on an airplane ride to Africa and otherwise arrange our lives in such a way that we miss opportunities staring us right in the face.

Instead of seeing athletic pursuits as a means a greater end, a chance to display Christian character to others, we see only the frivolity of sports.  Instead of seeing business as a mission to our customers and employees, we take a worldly approach by make profits a higher priority than people—then excuse it because it will give us more spices to tithe on Sunday or an opportunity to “travel over land and sea” as Jesus said (Mathew 23:15) the Pharisees did while calling them hypocrites and blind.

It is a problem called functional fixedness. In problem solving functional fixedness is when a person can only see things one way and therefore miss better solutions.

Could it be possible that this is because we got our poles reversed and have put our effort to achieve righteousness before real faith in God?

Could it be because we are non-conformed in outward appearance through artificial religious means, but have the same ‘worldly’ attitudes in our hearts and are not truly transformed through a renewal of our mind?

If so, we should stand up against our own hypocrisy like Jesus…

Jesus defied the religious expectations that he was supposed to conform to and so should we.

Jesus infuriated the adherents to the Bible-based religious tradition of his time.  He broke their rules of do’s and don’t’s as a way to point out their hypocrisy and true lack of faith.  Jesus, while they were busy arguing the theological minutia and details of application, was out healing and showing love.

Mennonites, like many other Christian denominations, are often so distracted by their own doctrines and dogmas that they fail at being actually faithful.  We are so concerned with preserving our own fundamentals that we neglect the larger matters of following after God’s way and the largest being genuine love for the world.

The truth is that we are never told by Jesus to physically separate ourselves from the world.

We should be in the world and not of the world, set apart in our attitude and approach to life rather than in outward appearance only. To truly follow after Jesus we need to be in the world, in places where the real people are and in the places that religiously self-righteous people avoid.

We need to consider the example of Paul:

“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)

It is interesting to note that Paul, directly after telling us that for sake of the Gospel he has “become all things to all people” in the quote above, uses an analogy of an athlete preparing for competition.  It reminds me of the dedicated preparation of a faithful young man named Brandon Smith.

Smith was not only ready to take the field in terms of physical preparation either.  This week, after his debut on Saturday, his wife, Andrea, posted a status update on social media from her personal prayer journal.  It was an entry from exactly a year before and asking that her husband would have the opportunity to take the field:

That, my friends, is where it gets real.

We do not battle against flesh and blood, our battle is spiritual.  We do not win victory by artificial conformity and meaningless arbitrary rules either, we are fighting an unconventional war using asymmetrical tactics, we need the mind of Christ:

“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)

Do you have the mind of Christ?  Have you been transformed by supernatural means of the Spirit?  Or are you just outwardly and artificially non-conformed through human efforts?  Whatever the case, do not bury the talents God has given you for fear of what others may think.

Smith is expected to get his first college start on Saturday afternoon against Michigan.  And, win or lose, I know #47 is playing for the right reasons.  I pray God blesses him and his wife as they serve.  I hope we all are prepared to serve wherever and whenever our own number is called.

Truth: A Concept Bigger Than Words

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A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with a some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele.  He had a sign asking for a ride west.  We were going west.  We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.

The young man, a friendly nineteen year old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle.  He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.

Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion.  He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label.  He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.

We invited him to church.  He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music.  To my ears we sounded pretty good.  He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.

One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way… 

As we paused with this sort of nonsequitar concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant.  But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.

I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst.  And so the evening went, some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.

Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options.  We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.

What is truth?

The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth.  Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.

The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John.  It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events.  The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)

Philip was still confused.  He goes on to ask Jesus to reveal the Father to them. 

Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.

The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.

Instead Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience.  It might seem backwards, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer.  It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.

Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture.  In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.

The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study a text or a theological proposition.  The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page.  It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.

The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.

Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.

We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience.  Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described.  Words are not truth of themselves anymore than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.

Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them.  One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly.  Language, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and depends on the interpreter to understand the word usage correctly.  Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.

Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive.  Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)

So truth is more than words.  Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it.  Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality.  Truth is trancendent and still it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.

The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged.  The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events.  In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.

Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:

“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. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)

This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him.  It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:

“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,  but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)

For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy.  But to that charge he replies by quoting their Scripture to them.  He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.

Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus.  He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.

Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd.  However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.

The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.

The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards.  It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.

It is transformative, as Paul explains:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination.  Unfortunately my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance. 

The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements.  It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine.  The truth is a positive vision.  The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.

The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.

The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey.  It is a path to walk and live out.  The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples.  As Jesus said:

“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)

Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor.  A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame.  However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.

Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him.  In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth.  But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)

Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  Our truth must be more than words.

So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?

To understand this we need to understand the context.  The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment.  In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear. 

Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.

The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.

Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.

The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.

In some respects it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts.  He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide.  By contrast we too often rely on our own understanding, planning and abilities.

I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him.  May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.