Christocentric Nonviolence

Matthew 26:47-56 New International Version (NIV)

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Hi friends. It is good to be back with you after traveling last weekend to attend a wedding in Nebraska. This was the wedding of Sonya’s youngest cousin, and there are only two more single cousins in the family. All of that is to say that I don’t plan to be traveling anywhere the rest of the year, so you’re stuck with me!

We are in week five of what I had originally said would be a five-week series on my essentials to Anabaptism. And as I predicted five weeks ago, this series is going to expand a little bit. I simply could not fit today’s message into 25 minutes. So today is part 5a of my series on Anabaptist essentials!

Please note that these sermons were meant to build on one another. Individually, they may have made sense, but I believe that it is most helpful to think of them as a package deal. To put it differently, today’s sermon will only make sense in the context of some of the things we have already addressed. So far we have looked at Christianity as Discipleship, Separation of Church/State/World, Christian Service, and Money. And it was great to have the Director of Stewardship Education for Everence here last Sunday to share some thoughts on Jesus and money.

But it is especially those first two topics that make our topic for today intelligible. Christianity as Discipleship says that we are to follow the teaching and example of Jesus. Like the apprentice in the blacksmith shop, we are learning from the master, both his verbal lessons and his physical actions. The separation between the church/world/state says simply that we are called to look different from the world when the world doesn’t look like Jesus, and we are called to resist the governing authorities when they don’t act like Jesus.

So Jesus is the foundation of our faith. Christianity as Discipleship and Church/State distinctions are the first flight of bricks. Nonviolence only makes sense when the foundation and the first flight of bricks are established and you can build upon them.

In my years of ministry, I have found very few topics more divisive than this one. So that’s why we’re spending two weeks on it J. Today we are going to look at the biblical teachings on nonviolence and next week we will look at some of the challenging passages in the Bible.

Before we actually get into these texts, I just want to remind you that you are welcome to disagree with me on this issue, and we can still be friends. I’ll still call you a brother or a sister in Christ, and I’m not going to question your salvation. A good friend of mine is the supply sergeant at the local armory, and we manage to get along just fine.

My struggles are with the “kill them all and let God sort them out” crowd. I take issue with anyone whose first response to a threat, whether personal or national, is to resort to violence. But I also know that there are the “what about” questions. “What about Hitler?” “What about your family?” We will save that conversation for next week when I address some of the concerns and troubling passages of scripture.

A word about terms before I move on. I will sometimes use the words nonviolence and pacifism interchangeably. I’m trying to move away from the language of pacifism because that often brings some additional baggage that I’d like to avoid. Especially when people mistakenly make a connection between pacifism and passivity. We aren’t called to be passive in the Kingdom of God, but rather active! Bible scholar Preston Sprinkle has given a really helpful name to what we often preach in the Mennonite Church, even if it is a bit wordy. Sprinkle calls it “Christocentric Nonviolence.” I teach nonviolence of a specific kind, the nonviolence of Jesus Christ. This is not avoidance of one’s duty, and it isn’t being a yellow-bellied scaredy cat. It is about having the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and I believe in the way of Jesus.

Sprinkle writes:

Christocentric nonviolence says that we should fight against evil, we should wage war against injustice, and we should defend the orphan, the widow, the marginalized, and oppressed. And we should do so aggressively. But we should do so nonviolently.

In other words, Christocentric nonviolence does not dispute whether Christians should fight against evil. It only disputes the means by which we do fight.

Today I want to look at three different arguments in favor Christocentric nonviolence. Each is a different approach to understanding this teaching, and rather than looking at the many different passages that can be used to make the point, I’ll just summarize a few. We will be looking at the argument from Natural Theology, the Discipleship argument, and the Agapic argument. These are my categories for these arguments, they are not perfect, and they can be refined. But it makes it easier for me to group things together under headings, so we will do just that.

Natural Theology is theology that you do from experience or things that you can observe. You do not need a special revelation from God to do this kind of theology, though for this argument I am going to use one Bible verse to get us rolling.

In Genesis 9 we find the covenant that God made with Noah after the great flood. God lays out some rules for all of humanity in this covenant, including verses 5-6: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’”

In this passage God demands an accounting for every animal killed, which is simply a weird way of saying that we shouldn’t kill animals just to kill them. Likewise, with human beings, don’t kill humans just to kill them. But it is a greater offense to God to take the life of a human because humans are created in the image of God. All humans.

Male humans, female humans, black humans, white humans, rich humans, and poor humans. All created in the image of God. Each one reflecting in some way God’s essence.

From a Natural Theology perspective, all we need to do is look at one another to know that we should not take their lives. Everyone is someone’s child, their daughter or their son. They may have a spouse, they may have loved ones. The same image of God that is within you is also within them.

In the church we like to say that every life is precious. This is why we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and love the unlovable. Young or old, rich or poor, the lives of all people are important because we have all been created in the image of God. Many churches talk about being “Pro-Life.” For them, it means being against abortion. To Christians around the world who like to call yourself Pro-Life, you can’t stop caring about life once a baby is born. Providing adequate healthcare, nutrition, and education should all be Christian concerns because all people are created in the image of God. We cannot take the life of someone else just because they were born in a different country, wear a different uniform, or our presidents can’t get along.

I’ll be honest, the argument from Natural Theology is probably the weakest argument we can make for nonviolence, and I can’t even call it Christocentric, because there is no mention of Christ. Let’s move to the Discipleship argument. The Discipleship argument flips an old question around and asks it in a different way.

It seems like every generation likes to throw around some Christian slang, insider language that not everyone knows, but we sure do. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was “PTL.” I got a good report from the doctor, PTL! For my generation, it was WWJD. All the cool, hip Christians in my school wore WWJD bracelets. (I did not.) For those who were not raised in this culture, PTL stands for “Praise the Lord,” and WWJD is “What Would Jesus Do?”

One way we answer “WWJD” is by asking “WDJD?” What did Jesus do?

Do you remember that time when Jesus was confronted by a loud and obnoxious Pharisee and Jesus punched him right in the mouth? Or what about the time when a Roman Centurion came to Jesus to ask Jesus to heal one of his servants and Jesus said, “Ah, now we have you! Seize him, and make those Romans rue the day they ever heard the name of Jesus of Nazareth!”

No, when Jesus was confronted by people like the Pharisees who wanted to do him harm, Jesus responded by pointing out their flawed logic and often exposing the evil in their practices. He never let them walk all over him, but he didn’t resort to violence.

So far I’ve avoided quoting the Sermon on the Mount, but at one point, Jesus says that his followers will love their enemies. Recall that this is during a time when the Roman Empire was occupying the Holy Land, forcing heavy taxation and other burdens upon the people. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” every Jewish person would have thought of the Roman soldiers living among them. So when a centurion, a leader in the Roman army, came to Jesus to ask for his help, Jesus showed love, mercy, and compassion.

And in our passage for today, Jesus is being arrested after having been betrayed by one of his disciples. And Jesus says to Judas in verse 50, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Even as he is being betrayed, he still calls Judas his friend. When they try to arrest Jesus, other gospels tell us that Peter pulls out a sword and strikes one of the Roman guards. Just like Van Gogh, his ear is van gone. But Jesus replies in verses 52-53, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

            Yeah, Peter, this isn’t a fight we can win. But that isn’t the point. I could call down legions of angels who would fight on my side, but that’s not how we do things.

The Discipleship argument says that we are called to live as Jesus lived and do as Jesus did, therefore we will not use violence. What did Jesus do? Oh, he used creative ways to redirect people and to expose the evil at hand, but he did not return evil for evil. And neither should we.

1 John 2:4 says, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” The word translated there as “live” is translated elsewhere as “abide.” If you find your life in Christ, you will live as he lived. And that word in Greek is “meno,” from which we get the name “Mennonites.” No, not really. But I like to think that Mennonites are those who abide in Jesus and live as he lived. And we have no examples of Jesus using violence against another human being. And no, he did not whip anyone when he cleared the temple, but we’ll address that next week, too.

We addressed the Natural Theology argument, the Discipleship argument, and that simply leaves what I’m calling the “Agapic argument.” Agape is one of the Greek words that is commonly translated as love. This isn’t the love I have for ice cream, and it isn’t the love of attraction between two people. This is the love we find in John 3:16, the love that God has for the world that led God to send his only son. Agape love is the very essence of God, as we find in 1 John 4:9, which says “God is love.” This is the way we are called to love our Lord with all our hearts, minds, strengths, and souls (Matt. 22, and others). This is the love that we find 1 John 3:16, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” And this is the love that we are to show not only our neighbors, but even our enemies (Matt. 5:44).

Agape is a self-giving, sacrificial love. If you want to know what agape love looks like, it looks like Jesus. And on this side of wedding season, I’d like to point out that what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape. Rather than hearing this as romantic love, think of it as the self-giving, enemy love that Jesus calls us to and lives out himself: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (verses 4-8).

As Christians we are called to live at peace with one another. There’s the Natural Theology argument: all people are created in the image of God. There’s the Discipleship argument: Jesus never used violence, so neither will we. And there is the Agapic argument: love is to be life-giving, not life-taking.

I know that these arguments are not without their shortcomings, and that is why these debates will continue to go back and forth until Jesus comes back. My hope today is not to convince everyone that they need to believe exactly as I believe, but to make you see that as followers of Jesus Christ, as people who put Jesus in the center, we are called to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, and to turn the other cheek. If every Christian started from that point, I believe we could reduce the incidence of war, violence, and hatred in the world today.

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Called to Serve

Philippians 2:1-11 New International Version (NIV)

1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We have a carry-in meal today, and it is almost inevitable that someone will paraphrase a line from Matthew 20 as we stand in line. It gets a little annoying as we hear someone from the back of the line says, “Please go ahead of me. As the good Lord says, ‘The first will be last and the last will be first.’”

I know what you’re thinking, if I find it so annoying then why do I say it every time?

We are in week three of a five-week series on what I believe to be the essentials of Anabaptism. So far we have looked at how we are called to be disciples of Jesus, seeking to be like Jesus in every way. Last week we considered how the church, and we as disciples, are called to be separate from the world and the state. Remember that we are called to look different from the world when the world doesn’t look like Jesus.

Today we are looking at something that the people of this church already do and do well. We are looking at Christian service. You know about service, and that is something that I was impressed with right away when I first came to this church. For instance, the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale is next weekend. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people donate their time, services, and goods to help raise funds to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and ease the suffering around the world. And even though I can’t back this up, I think that our church has as many volunteers, per capita, as any church in the conference. But it isn’t just the Relief Sale. We have people who volunteer with the Valley Mission at multiple levels. We’ve had folks who volunteer with the Daily Living Center, at the Staunton/Augusta Church Relief Association, and with Mennonite Disaster Service. After pushing you all a bit last week, I think it is safe to say that today I am preaching to the choir. As you well know, we are called to serve one another, and not just serve our friends We serve people we don’t even know. We are even called to serve people we don’t like.

Today we will look at some biblical reasons for serving one another, I’ll offer a few warnings, and then look at why it matters.

There is a humility involved in following Jesus. We like to be first, we like to feel like the most important, the most powerful person in the room. But as followers of Jesus Christ we need to put others first. It’s an issue of hospitality, an issue of humility.

In Matthew chapter 20 we find the story of James and John’s mother coming to Jesus with a request. Matthew doesn’t offer her name, perhaps he didn’t know it. She is simply referred to as “the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” Mrs. Zebedee was probably like most mothers, most parents, in fact. Her children were special. They were a little smarter, a little better behaved, and a little better looking than all the other children. Even now that they were adults, Mrs. Zebedee expected special attention to be given to her boys. So she approaches Jesus and asks, Hey Jesus. I know that you’re working on this whole kingdom thing. Do me a favor, will you? When you get your kingdom in order, give my two special boys positions of honor. Let one sit one either side of your throne.

I think there were times when Jesus just wanted to put his face in the palm of his hand and shake his head. These people don’t seem to be getting it. He responds to the request of Mrs. Zebedee and her sons in verses 26-28: “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus says, You want to be great in my kingdom? Grab a towel, grab a shovel. Get ready to flip some burgers and take out the trash. Because it is the people who voluntarily serve others, and do work that is below their station in life, who are truly great in my book.

Ah, Jesus is all talk. Giving up power and authority, serving others. Wait, no. That’s exactly what he did, and that’s exactly what our scripture from Philippians 2 is about. In verses 3-4 Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Why are we to humbly serve others? He goes on in verse 5, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

Paul then quotes what was likely an existing song or hymn that states that Jesus was equal in every way to God, but humbled himself to be one of us. And not a rich and powerful human among us, but a servant, a member of a lower class. So as disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, we too are called to serve one another.

Serving one another was so central to Jesus’s teaching that we see it taking center stage in John’s account of the Last Supper. Many churches observe communion, the sharing of the bread and the cup. As Jesus says in the synoptic Gospels, we are to “Do this in remembrance of [him].” But in John’s gospel, footwashing is the central act of remembrance. Jesus took off his outer garment, grabbed an old towel, a basin, and a pitcher. He then began to wash his disciples’ feet, a job reserved for a servant. And when he was done, he said to them in verses 14-15, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

Jesus wasn’t worried about their hygiene, he was worried about their humility. This wasn’t about washing feet, but serving one another. He refers to himself using titles. I’m your Lord, I’m your Teacher, and I’m washing your feet. So what should we do? We should serve one another.

This may surprise you coming from someone who is in a position to receive the service of others in the church, but I also want to warn you of over doing it. Serving others is important, but our entire life can’t be consumed with service. Soon after I began as the pastor at Staunton Mennonite, I was asked to perform a number of additional roles. Many of these roles have been good fits and I have been happy to do them. I am finishing up my responsibilities as the Chair of our District Council, a position that I have held for nine years, and I concluded my responsibilities as the Assistant Moderator of Virginia Mennonite Conference just over a month ago. These have been good fits for me as they have used some of my strengths in administration and allowed me to engage in ministry in a broader context.

But I think that, especially early on, I said yes to too many things. I served on committees that took up a lot of time and in areas that I never felt like I was really gifted. I think people often just asked me because I was usually willing to say yes. But I recently learned a new word, and it has been very helpful to my sanity, family time, and schedule. I learned to say “no.” When I don’t feel like I am well suited for a position, or I just don’t have the time, I’ve learned to say no.

There are also those who have noted that certain categories of people are forced into service and that the church has at times made life more difficult for these people by emphasizing our call to serving others. This has been the criticism of many women and people of color, and rightly so.

I absolutely believe that followers of Jesus are called to serve others. But I would also say that white men like me should be leading the way. So rather than me standing up here and telling every woman in the congregation that she needs to do a better job of serving her husband or serving the church or working with the PTA, I want to challenge all of us men to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who humbled himself to the point of serving others. Remember that it was a bunch of men who Jesus commanded to wash one another’s feet. Again, I think that everyone should be serving others. But women and minority groups already do a much better job of this than most men, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes against their will. We men need to step it up a bit.

So why does it matter? Perhaps it is simple enough to say that Jesus did it and so should we. Jesus served others and as disciples, we are called to do the same. But I want to go deeper, and I want to start with a story.

Last week Sonya and I rented a movie called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary about Fred Rogers and his work with the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The film received many positive reviews and is one of only a handful to receive a 99% rating on the movie review website, rotten tomatoes.

It was interesting for me to see how the television show and its characters developed over time, as well as to hear some myths debunked. It turns out that Rogers was not a sniper with the Navy Seals, nor did he wear the cardigan sweaters to cover up his arm-length tattoos. But he really was an ordained Presbyterian minister and he often said that he understood public television as his ministry. He often reached out to underprivileged and disabled children, inviting them onto the television program. In one touching scene, Rogers sings a duet with a young boy named Jeffery Erlanger called “It’s You I Like.” Erlanger had been in a wheelchair his entire life because of a tumor medical professionals found on his spine when he was seven months old. Later in the documentary, there is a scene where Rogers is being inducted into the television hall of fame, and Jeffery Erlanger comes out on stage. 18 years have passed, and the boy, now a man, repeats the phrase, “It’s You I Like” as an elderly Rogers jumps out of his seat and climbs up on the stage. It was beautiful.

But in a surprising scene we hear some of the criticisms. It turns out that there are still to this day many people who blame Fred Rogers for the “lazy,” “entitled” nature of Generation X. In 2007 a popular news outlet described Mister Rogers by saying, “This evil, evil man has now ruined a generation of kids.”

I get that argument, and we can debate things like participation trophies and kindergarten graduations. But I thought what the director of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? did was perfect. They said Fred got all that stuff from the Bible and Jesus Christ himself. And that was it, the end of the argument.

Consistently, the Bible and Jesus Christ himself tell us that every person matters. Male, female, black, brown, white, Asian, rich, or poor. Everyone is created in the image of God and should be treated as an equal.

This is why we serve. We serve because everyone is equal and should be treated with dignity.

Speaking personally, I’ll admit that it is sometimes easier for me to give money than it is to actually serve someone else. Giving and service are closely related, and it is important to give money. It is a biblical command to give to those who are less fortunate than we are, a command repeated in both the Old and New Testaments. Nonprofits like The Valley Mission and Staunton Mennonite Church wouldn’t be able to operate without your donations. So please give financially. But please don’t stop there.

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to pay someone to wash the feet of others. He commanded them to wash each other’s feet.

Giving financially, as important as it is, neglects a few areas that I think are important. One, you can write a check and never meet the person you are helping. I believe it is a gift to both the giver and receiver to be able to actually work with and for people. I know it isn’t easy. I know you may have to spend time with people who vote different than you do, who have different interests than you do. You might even have to spend time with a Virginia Tech fan. As I get a little more comfortable financially, it is often easier to write a check and forget about people. But we are called to give financially and to serve.

Second, giving money without service maintains a power-over dynamic, where serving one another overturns that dynamic. If I am donating funds to a nonprofit, I sometimes feel like I should be making important decisions on behalf of the people who will be most affected. But when I serve, I empower other people to make their own decisions and help them make their vision become a reality.

My friends, we are called to serve one another. Just as Jesus Christ humbled himself and became a servant, we too are called to serve one another. And when we serve people, especially when those of us who are rich and comfortable by the world’s standards serve people, we see them differently. We see them as Jesus saw them, as brothers and sisters, created in the image of God.

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A Church for the World

Romans 12:1-2, 17-21

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. 2 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.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 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. 20 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.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 13:1-2

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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

The opening chapter of the book of Exodus tells an interesting story about two women: Shiphrah and Puah. Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew women and they were responsible for helping other Hebrew women deliver their babies safely. They are what we might call Hebrew midwives.

As the Hebrew slaves became numerous and perhaps a little threatening to the slave owners, the king of Egypt ordered Shiphrah and Puah to do something against their religious beliefs. The king said, If a Hebrew woman is giving birth, and she has a girl, let it live. If she gives birth to a boy, kill it.

Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed the orders of the king, allowing both male and female Hebrew babies to live. They even went so far as to lie about it. They told the king that the Hebrew women are so strong, they often have the baby before the midwives even show up.

Later in the Hebrew Bible we read about a king named Darius. Darius was the king of Babylon, and he had conquered a lot of other nations, taking the people captive, and spreading them throughout his empire. At one point, Darius makes a new law that would pertain to all the people in his kingdom, regardless of their religion. Darius’s new law was that the people of Babylon had to worship him and him alone. The punishment for breaking this law was death, they were to be thrown into a lions’ den.

There was a Hebrew man who held a midlevel management position in Darius’s kingdom. And when the law was made that people had to worship the king alone, this man, Daniel, refused to obey, and was thrown in a den of lions overnight.

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue and commanded all people to bow down to it when certain music was played. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three Hebrew men, refused. They were thrown into a fiery furnace.

In the New Testament, the apostles are arrested for teaching about Jesus. They got out of jail, were arrested again, and were told to stop teaching about Jesus. Peter answers the authorities of the Jewish court, “We must obey God rather than men.”

The court had them beaten and released with the commandment not to speak about Jesus. What did the apostles do? They kept teaching about Jesus, and many were put to death.

Jump all the way to Revelation 20 and there we find the story of the martyrs who refused to receive the mark of the beast or bow down and worship him.

And Romans 13, Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” And, “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

In case you weren’t counting, that was five stories of rebelling against the governing authorities and one in favor of submitting to the governing authorities. (I’m sure more can be found on both sides.)

We are in week two of a five-week series on what I believe to be essential to the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith in the 21st century. Last week we looked at how Mennonites have historically looked at Christianity as discipleship. Each and every day we seek to be formed in the image of Christ in each and every way. Today we are looking at church/state/world distinctions.

I think it will be helpful to remind us all of a few things before we get deep into this topic. First, I love my country, and there is no place else I would rather live. Furthermore, I believe that capitalism is the best of all known economic systems. But just because I believe we live in the best country with the best economic system doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. Let’s keep going: I am not a Republican, nor am I a Democrat. There are times when I think one party more closely aligns with my values on some issues, while the other party more closely aligns with my values on other issues. So if I sound like I’m being critical of the current administration, please don’t think it is because “my party” isn’t in office. I am just as disappointed in President Obama’s rapid development of drone warfare as I am in President Trump’s rapid decrease in refugee programs.

It has been the practice in the Mennonite church to be a witness to the governing authorities because we belong to a different kingdom which follows different rules. We are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God, a kingdom without borders, a kingdom whose leader will reign forever and ever, amen.

Let’s start with some distinctions and definitions by first looking at Romans 12:2. This is a passage that Mennonites have lifted up for generations. “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.”

The Mennonite church likes to differentiate between the church and the world. The church, in this sense, is the body of believers and their work throughout the world. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and preach the good news in the name of Jesus, this is the church being the church. The world is everything outside of the church’s purview.

In our history, we liked to make this distinction very clear. Hymnsings, that was church. Going to the movies or (gasp!) the bowling alley? That was world. There was a church/world distinction when it came to dress. In some communities, there was a church/world distinction when it came to electricity, cars, or at least the color of the bumper of your car. Time and time again, the Mennonite church called its members to not conform to the ways of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

But in the 21st century, it is clear that the church/world distinctions of decades past are not as obvious as they had once been. I, for one, am glad for that. The line between church and world are semipermeable, and at times not as clear as it had been. Without a doubt, this makes things more challenging for us today, but I’m thankful for that challenge.

It is a challenge because we are still called to not be conformed to the ways of the world, but if that isn’t about bonnets and buggies, in what ways are we to stand out from the rest of the world?

If you get nothing else from today’s sermon, learn this: The Church is called to look different from the world when the world doesn’t look like Jesus.

The world is really good at telling us who we should hate. We are to hate the North Koreans, or was that the Middle Easterners? Wait, now I remember, it is Russia. We are definitely supposed to hate Russia. Wait, Russia was the enemy when I was a kid. Have we come full circle? When the world tells us to hate someone, that is when we look different from the rest of the world. That is when we love, because Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. The world tells us to look out for ourselves, to keep our resources because there is only so much to go around. And while Jesus invites us to be good stewards of what we have been given, he also calls us to share with those in need.

But let’s take that one layer deeper. We know we are to love everyone, even the Russians or whoever the current enemy is supposed to be. The next level, which I believe is even more difficult, is to love the people who hate the people you love. How do you respond to you neighbor who is racist, sexist, or xenophobic? We need to love them, too.

No, the distinction between the church and the world may not be as clear as we want it to be, and it isn’t always clear which side we should come out on. But I want to encourage all 21st-century Mennonites to slow down and think. Just because the world is saying something, doesn’t mean that we have to say it too.

Now to the divisive part of our message.

On June 14, 2018, US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions paraphrased our passage from Romans 13 in defense of the then-current practice of separating children from their parents when they enter the USA illegally across the US/Mexico border.

This use of scripture rightly called attention to a passage that many have read over quickly or ignored altogether. Regardless of the issue that Sessions was speaking, are we always to submit to the governing authorities? If so, then the stories that I led with are stories of sinners, not saints. Shiphrah, Puah, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Peter, and the martyrs from Revelation 20 were defying the teachings of God when they defied their governing authorities.

No, historically and today Mennonites have not seen Romans 13 as a blank check for the government to do whatever they want and for the church to simply go along with them. Let’s start with the “low hanging fruit.”

If Romans 13 means that we are to always do as the government says, then every Christian living in Germany should have submitted to the Third Reich and the Hitler regime in the 1930’s and 40’s. To resist would be to defy God’s will.

No! What thinking person would say that?!

If you believe that God always wants us to submit to everything the government says or does, then we should repent of the events of July 4, 1776. We hear some Christians talk about this being a nation founded on Christian principles. And in some ways, that is true. But the fact that we broke away from England at all means that we defied the teachings of Romans 13 to submit to the governing authorities! Therefore, all good Christians in the US should still consider themselves to be British.

Remember that our tradition, the Anabaptist tradition, actually began with an act of defiance against the government. We started by breaking a law when our theological forebearers were baptized as adults.

We continued to resist the governing authorities when we refused to take up arms. Mennonites realized that the enemy in the other uniform who was born on the other side of some manmade border is someone we are called to love.

Today, we resist the governing authorities using the same requirements that we use when we look different from the world. The Church is called to resist the governing authorities when the governing authorities don’t act like Jesus.

(As I type this, Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me” is playing)

The way we resist the governing authorities can take on several different forms, but they almost always require a sacrifice on our part. But as I said last week, nobody ever said that Christianity was supposed to be easy.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the protest. Now I’m not a big, stand along the road, hold a sign, and chant kind of guy. But many will cite that Jesus’s demonstration in Gospels where he overturned tables and chased out the animals is a form of protest.

Another method is to use the system against itself when you believe those in power are not acting Christlike. We do have the right to vote, meaning we can vote certain people out of office, or we can vote on certain issues.

But I think the most powerful thing we can do and greatest witness we can have for the kingdom of God is to just be Christlike when the world or the government tells us not to. All of the examples I led with, from Shiphrah and Puah to Daniel, to the disciples, involve doing what they believed to be right in the eyes of the Lord, even when it was against the law. And yes, God protected some of these people, others weren’t so lucky. For many, it was costly. That’s why those in Revelation 20 are called “martyrs.”

Many of us are familiar with Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “America First.” I’ll be honest, that is probably the right attitude for a president to have, because the president should put his own company or nation first. I wouldn’t expect the CEO of Apple Computers to want to put Microsoft first.

But we Christians are different. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Matthew 6:33. And like so many scriptures, I learned this one in the King James: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

The goal for America probably should be to put American first. But the goal for the Christian is to seek first the kingdom of God. And when the governing authorities ask us to do otherwise, to put America, or Great Britain, or Russia first, we remind them that our primary allegiance is given to king Jesus and his kingdom. That doesn’t mean we are enemies of the state. It doesn’t mean we are Anarchists. It simply means that we know there is a difference between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. And we will respect the kingdoms of this world and be subject to them, as long as they don’t call us to do something contrary to our calling as Christians.

Always remember that the chapter divide between Romans 12 and 13 was something added many years later; we must hold and read these two passages together. The church is not to be conformed to the ways of the world, but to the image of Christ. The church is to offer food and drink to our enemies (12:20). And just before that famous line from Romans 13:1 where Paul instructs us to submit to the authorities, Paul writes in Roman 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Overcome evil with good. Whether that evil is within yourself, within you community, or within your government, overcome evil with good. We are called to be a church, not “in” the world, but a church that is “for” the world.

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Christianity as Discipleship

Ephesians 2:8-10

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

James 2:14-19; 24

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

24You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

It is good to be back with you all after spending last weekend in North Carolina celebrating my sister-in-law’s wedding. Everything went well, we improved our tans, and by the end of the weekend, our family had been united in a special way with a family who had previously been strangers to us.

Strangers have become family. That’s a good metaphor for the church. This is similar to what the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2, those who have been far off now have been brought near. One of the interesting things about this congregation is that many people still consider their selves to be a part of a different tradition. We have people who say that they are Methodists who worship in a Mennonite congregation, Catholics who attend a Mennonite church. We have Nazarenes, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Muslims and members of the Church of Christ, just to name a few. And do you do know how I feel about that?

I think it is pretty cool. Finally, we got you out of those churches so you could get some good Christian teaching.

Just kidding, I think there is something beautiful about all of the traditions represented here. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything from those traditions, but I do believe that we as a church are stronger because of your active role in our community. I know I have been challenged by your thoughts, and I hope that I have challenged you in good ways as well.

Every so often I like to do a sermon series on Anabaptism, the tradition from which Mennonites come. In years past I have looked at historical Anabaptism, as we looked at the first Anabaptist confession of faith, known as the Schleitheim Confession. I’ve also looked at foundational works, like HS Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, and more recent works like Stewart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist, and Parker Palmer’s Anabaptist Essentials. I strongly recommend these books, especially for those who are interested in Anabaptism and don’t have much experience with the tradition.

But with some of these more recent books on Anabaptism, the question has arisen, “Who gets to decide what is essential to Anabaptism?” This is a significant question for us in the 21st century for at least two reasons: the world doesn’t look like it used to, and neither does the church. Particularly as the center of the church, including the Mennonite church, begins to move to south of the equator, and our local churches are experiencing more Latino/a and African-American influence, the question becomes even more important. Who gets to decide what is essential for modern Anabaptism and the Mennonite church?

My response is that the modern Mennonite church gets to decide what is essential for the modern Mennonite church. But, I also think that it is important for us to decide what is essential while in conversation with those who have come before us. Our current reality must be informed by our shared, collective, lived experiences. There are things from our past that I want to embrace, things like nonviolence, a focus on service, and stewardship. But there are also things that I’m glad to see go, particularly things like how we separate ourselves from the rest of the world. I believe the timeless nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ has less to do with bonnets and buggies and more with grace, love, and caring for one another.

What I want to do over the next few weeks is look at what I believe to be the essentials of 21st-century Anabaptism. This will not be an exhaustive list, as I’m sure we could come up with many more things to add to the list. I also don’t plan to look at things that all Christian traditions share. For instance, I’m not going to talk about prayer or baptism because these are a part of most Christian traditions. I will be talking about these things:

  1. Christianity as Discipleship, 2. Church/World/State Distinctions, 3. Service, 4. Stewardship/Thrift/Mutual Aid, 5. Nonviolence.

That should take us up though the middle of October, and by that point I will probably have thought of a few more things that I want to cover. But I promise, I’ll get through this by Advent!

I want to spend the remainder of our time this morning talking about Christianity as Discipleship. In the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives a final word to his followers. We call this the “Great Commission.” Verses 19-20 read as follows: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to simply go out and make sure that people believed in him. He sent them out to make disciples. As I have said before, my favorite way to talk about the church’s mission is to say that we are disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples.

A disciple is someone who learns from a teacher. The best example I have of this is a little dated, the example of an apprentice learning from a master tradesperson. How does a blacksmith learn their trade? Well, in days past a young person would have spent their formative years working alongside the master blacksmith. They would watch the master, ask questions of the master, and at the right time, they would be given the opportunity to try their hand at forging their own items out of steel under the watchful eye of the master. And after years of learning, they would probably start their own business, crafting their own hammers, nails, and horseshoes. And after they had shown their selves to be a pretty good blacksmith, that person would likely take on their own apprentice.

Our modern-day world is slightly different. I would bet that many in this congregation interned somewhere, or did student teaching, before becoming fully accredited at your job. Yes, we can learn a lot in the classroom, but some of the most important learning takes place in the actual workplace. We learn from those who are more experienced than we are, and then we pass it on to others. My wife was once an intern, and she frequently has interns who work with her. I bet many of our teachers have student teachers from time to time.

This is discipleship, and historically Anabaptists have seen Christianity as discipleship, to be a Christian means learning to live like Jesus. We are all disciples of Jesus, learning from the master. We learn how to live as he lived, to love as he loved. We try to form our lives around not only what Jesus said, but what Jesus did. Like the apprentice blacksmith, we watch the master to see his technique and to observe how he responds in certain situations. And since we don’t have access to Jesus here among us in the flesh and blood, we look to those with more experience than we have. Knowing that these people are just human, we seek to learn from their victories and their failures. We may not always like it, but to be a disciple of Jesus is simply something that we cannot do alone. We need each other.

Now this is where things get a little tricky. When we focus on Christianity as discipleship, we can easily get accused of focusing too much on works. We talk a lot around here about the Relief Sale, and post-hurricane Florence we will be talking about rebuilding houses. We Mennonites like to work! We work like our salvation depends upon it! Yet almost 501 years ago, Martin Luther wrote that salvation is by faith alone, sola fide, in the Latin. That is clear in passages like Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.”

Oh, I guess that relief work and disaster work isn’t really important for a Christian. Don’t feel like you need to go help at the Mission this week.

But then you come to our passage from James 2, which tells us things like, Faith without works is dead, and “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

And of course, there is that phrase we learned from Luther, Sola Fide, faith alone. I’m told that there are only two places in the Bible where those two words are found side-by-side, and both occurrences are found in the book of James. And both times, the “faith alone” is preceded by two other words, ouk ek, “not by.” Verse 24, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

So what is a 21st-century Mennonite supposed to do with that? Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works? Well, when we look at Christianity as discipleship, that question doesn’t even make sense. If you ask a disciple of Christ if they are saved by grace through faith or does it also include works, they will simply say, “Yes.”

The disciple will say yes because they know that there are different ways of understanding salvation. Even our Bibles are not clear on how this word is used.

It is impossible to determine just what the writers of the Bible mean when they speak of salvation. If you read the writings of Paul, he seems to use the word salvation to describe the forgiveness of sins and bringing people into the community of those who will be raised with Christ at the end of times. But if you read the book of Exodus, salvation is often used as a reference to God delivering the people from captivity. So I find it helpful to differentiate between different aspects of salvation.

The first aspect I will simply call “grace.” Grace, in this manner, is simply forgiveness. This is God pardoning us for our mistakes, removing them from us as far as the east is from the west. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, and I am thankful that God does not hold those against me.

It is grace that Paul is speaking of in Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.”

Sola Fide.

I read a quote two weeks ago from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who called what he saw in most churches “cheap grace.” I have a love/hate relationship with that quote. I love what Bonhoeffer calls us to: a life of discipleship, serving one another, and loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength. But I also push back because grace isn’t cheap, it is free. God freely offers his grace to anyone who will receive it.

So if salvation is just about forgiveness, then I feel confident is saying that works don’t matter. But I believe that salvation is more than being forgiven, more than just grace. Salvation is about turning to a new life, a life of discipleship, a life of learning from Jesus and seeking to live as he lived.

I’m going to tell a personal story, and because of the sensitive nature of this story I will not publish it online. For those reading this, it involves someone who made a confession of faith early in life and would call himself a Christian, but continued to live an abusive lifestyle that hurt himself and others. It wasn’t until later in life that he experienced a more thorough salvation, changing his life.

************************************************************************************

So here’s what I want to ask you, was my friend saved when he made his first profession of faith or when he turned his life around? Was he saved by his faith, or was he saved by his works? My answer is yes.

When we think of Christianity as discipleship, we concentrate not only on right belief, but right action and right living. And no, we won’t all need to make the changes that my friend made in the example I used above. But I know I’ve had to make changes and I continue to make changes. I’m trying to align my life with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Jesus taught to love not only our friends, but also those who have hurt us, our enemies. I’m still trying! Some of Jesus’s last words on the cross were words of forgiveness for those who where killing him. I’m trying to forgive conforming my life to the life of Jesus. It isn’t easy, it is journey. It is the journey of discipleship. It is the journey of a student learning from the master.

When I think of salvation as it is laid out in the Bible, I like to think of as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen. I have been saved, past tense. I’ve been forgiven. I am being saved, giving up the things that are harmful to me, harmful to others, and harmful to the world around us. And I will be saved, raised to eternal life with Jesus.

21st-century Anabaptism calls us to look at Christianity as discipleship. It isn’t just about making a one-time decision to accept the gift of grace available to us in Jesus Christ, though it does include that. Christianity as discipleship is a call to conform to the image of the one who perfectly embodied God’s will for our lives.

I hope you will join me on this journey.

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What Defiles?

Mark 7:1-23 New International Version (NIV)

7 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.

5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’

8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16]*

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

*If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” Verse 16

 

One of the challenges that we face in our family is getting our children to practice good hygiene. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, change your socks, and of course, wash your hands. Especially during cold and flu season, we encourage our children to wash their hands frequently. Like most restaurants, we require our children to wash their hands when they go to the bathroom. And of course, we want them to wash their hands before they eat.

Then along comes Jesus, and he says washing your hands isn’t required before a meal. Thanks a lot, Jesus. Now when we try to tell our children to wash their hands before they eat, they like to quote Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”

When we look at the New Testament, it is often helpful to consider who the text is being written to or for. Knowing who is the intended audience is helps us to understand the point of a passage. I’ve often heard that Mark was written to a Gentile audience, though I’ve never heard why we are to believe that. But I read this week that today’s passage is one of the keys to that hypothesis. Mark does not assume that his readers understand the rituals of the Jewish community. Throughout this text we find numerous parenthetical statements. In verses 1-2 Mark states that the Pharisees notice that not all of Jesus’s disciples washed their hands before eating. But that is more than just bad hygiene. Mark goes into a little detail about how all Jews perform a ceremonial washing of their hands before eating, as well as washing other items before using them. This isn’t about making sure that they are clean, though that isn’t a bad thing. The point is ritual cleanliness and purity. This is symbolic.

This practice obviously comes from Exodus 30:17-21: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.”

Wait, who is supposed to wash? Aaron and his sons, the priests. And they are supposed to wash when they enter the tabernacle to perform religious rituals. Furthermore, they were supposed to wash not only their hands but also their feet.

So where in the Hebrew Bible does it say that the lay person, or every Jew, is to perform a ceremonial washing of their hands before eating? It doesn’t. It isn’t biblical at all. Sure, there are a number of times when a Hebrew man or woman is to perform ceremonial washings, but before every meal isn’t one of them. Mark calls this “a tradition of the elders.”

When we read this text, don’t read this as Jesus encouraging people to break the Law of Moses or the Torah. He is pointing out that this is a tradition. And at some point, either verbally or through his actions, h must have let his disciples know that they were not required to perform this tradition any longer. And ultimately, Jesus is questioning the authority of this tradition and perhaps the authority of the Pharisees.

Jesus then gives an example of how the Pharisees and teachers of the law break a teaching from the Torah. And this is one we have probably all come across in something called the Ten Commandments: Honor thy father and thy mother. Rather than caring for their aging parents, these leaders are somehow investing funds or precious items in something else. In verses 11-12 Jesus says, “You say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother.”

I don’t think that it is wrong to make donations to the church or other ministries. What I assume is happening is that these Pharisees are funding their own ministry rather than helping out their own parents. This is the 1st-century equivalent of a pastor buying their self a private jet while their own parents go hungry.

What I hear Jesus saying here is the same thing he often tells the religious leaders of the time: You are missing the point.

Jesus then addresses a different audience, turning his attention to the crowds of people. This is a teaching opportunity that he isn’t going to miss. He says in verse 15, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

I know that you have all heard this verse before and you have wondered if Jesus really just said what it sounds like he said. Please allow me to confirm for you that yes, our Lord and Savior just…made a potty joke.

I never said that the Bible was appropriate for all ages, but this actually seems about at my children’s level.

Immediately after Jesus makes this poop joke, he gives what is perhaps my favorite verse in the Bible, my life verse, and a good memory verse for us all. Verse 16 says, “”

But we will address that at another time.

Jesus then turns to the third group that he addresses in this passage, speaking privately to his twelve disciples. They just don’t seem to get what Jesus is saying, so they ask what he means. This is by design, Jesus wants people to dig deeper, ask questions, and think about why they do what they do and why they don’t do what they don’t do. He seems to lose some patience with his disciples because he thought that they would get this one. But they don’t so he explains it to them.

In verses 18b-19, Jesus says, “‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)”

First of all, recall that Mark is writing to the Gentiles, and he seems to add his own interpretation of this passage when he says that in doing this Jesus declared all foods to be clean. He may be inspired by the Holy Spirit to say this, but it is clear that disciples like Peter didn’t understand this to be what Jesus was saying at this time. It wasn’t until Peter had a vision that he got that message.

The most important thing that I want to lift out of these verses is that we need to be careful to not apply this logic to anything that Jesus wasn’t referring to here. He is talking about food and specifically eating without first doing a ceremonial washing of your hands before eating. What you eat goes into your stomach, not into your heart.

I heard someone jokingly say that obviously Jesus had never experienced food poisoning, because what goes into your stomach can affect your entire body. But again, that’s not what Jesus is referring to.

The danger I find is when people try to apply this teaching beyond food and say that nothing outside a person can defile them. I believe things can defile us from the outside because they can get to our hearts.

There are people I know who are very negative in nature. Everything is terrible and the world is out to get them. The weather is bad, leadership is weak, there’s nothing good on television, and they just don’t make blue jeans like they used to. When I spend time with negative people, I tend to have a less-cheery view of the world.

If is spend time with gossipers, I gossip. If I spend time with angry people, I find myself getting angry easily.

We know that Jesus wasn’t saying that nothing on the outside can affect our actions because elsewhere he says things like “If you right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” and “If right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

Jesus is worried about the human heart, and he knows that outside forces can affect our hearts. Verses 20b-22, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Jesus isn’t against traditions or practices. I’m also pretty sure he isn’t against washing your hands. But he most definitely is for clean hearts, because he is most definitely concerned about how we live.

But here is that challenge. Not everyone responds to these outside stimuli in the same way. It is always easier to make blanket statements and eliminate all sorts of things than to actually figure out what affects us. For instance, I’ve said that I can’t be around negative people all the time, because I turn into a negative person. But I have friends who are professional counselors, and it is their job to listen to people talk about the bad things in their lives. So they do this for 40+ hours a week. What affects me may not have the same effect on other.

I know people who struggle with lust and they can’t go to the beach because seeing people scantily clothed affects them in ways that they would rather not be affected. I don’t like the beach, but that’s because it is hot.

I can watch a violent movie without going out and killing someone. But I’m not going to let my children watch certain movies and play certain video games because I don’t want to find out the hard way that they can’t watch a violent movie and not act violently toward another. I think that it is important to remember when Jesus talks about plucking your eye out or cutting off your hand, he starts by saying, “If it causes you to sin.”

My friends, Jesus isn’t saying that external things don’t matter. What he is saying is that our actions do matter. And inasmuch as the external things affect our actions, the external things do matter. And notice that Jesus mentions some very serious offenses here: murder, adultery, and theft. But he also mentions things we might not think much of, like slander (talking back about someone), envy, and greed. He also names arrogance and folly, which hits home for me.

Out of our hearts come all sorts of words and actions. It is up to us, with the help of God and each other, to make sure what makes it into our hearts does not defile.

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What Are You Looking For?

John 6:56-69 New International Version (NIV)

56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

A man walked into a restaurant and noticed cuts of meat hanging high from the ceiling. Chicken legs, ribeyes, pork chops, and so on. When the waiter came to his table, the man asked about their strange decor. The waiter replied, “It’s a bit of a game we play with our customers here. If you can jump up, grab the meat, and pull it down, you can have it for free. But if you can’t get the meat, your meal will cost twice the price printed in the menu. Are you interested in trying?”

“No thanks,” the man said. “The steaks are too high.”

The steaks, or stakes, are pretty high, and we have a lot to lose. But we also have a lot to gain, more than a free meal. We can gain freedom of mind, body, and soul. We can gain freedom from the things that bind us here on earth. We can gain eternal life. And who doesn’t want that?

Today I want to ask two questions of this text and of us. What are we looking for? Where do we look?

What are you looking for? Bono still hasn’t found what he is looking for, but the disciples from our text this morning believed that they had. Recall that we have been working through John 6 for the last five weeks or so. This is one continuous narrative that begins with Jesus feeding the 5,000, moves to him walking on water, then takes this strange turn toward eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. John speaks of many disciples seeking Jesus, following him around. Don’t be confused by the word “disciple,” it simply means a student.

If you recall way back to the Sunday in July when we began looking at this chapter, I said that John was trying to show that Jesus exceeds even the greatest of the prophets; he is even greater than Moses. This is significant because the people have been waiting on a great leader like Moses ever since…well, ever since Moses himself was walking around. In Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19, Moses tells the Israelites, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him…I [the Lord] will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.”

For around 1,450 years the Israelites have been waiting on this prophet like Moses. Moses, of course, led the people out of captivity, led them out from under the oppressive thumb of Pharaoh. Now a different regime was oppressing the Israelites. Now it was Rome; not Pharaoh, but Caesar. And along comes this man who can do some of the things Moses did, but do them even better. Moses turned water into blood, Jesus turned water into wine. Moses fed the people mana, which spoiled quickly and could not be saved for a later snack. Jesus fed the people bread and fish, and there was an abundance left, which they collected and I assume ate the next day. Moses separated the water. Jesus walked on it. And just as the people grumbled about Moses in the wilderness, verse 61 from our scripture this morning tells us that the people were once again grumbling.

It is easy for us to miss these connections today, but John includes them for a reason, and it would have been obvious to a first century Jew. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that God would send a prophet like Moses to the people. But I also think that the people made some assumptions about what that prophet would do and how he would do it.

We often assume that the people expected Jesus to overthrow the Romans. As the men walking on the road to Emmaus say after Jesus’s death, “We had hoped he would be the one to restore Israel.” But the man these Israelites were meeting in John’s gospel was more interested in feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and in other places, he even talks about loving your enemy. Turning the other cheek. Voluntarily carrying the luggage of a Roman soldier.

Then Jesus crosses the line. The straw that broke the camel’s back. The stakes are too high. Regardless of which metaphor you choose, Jesus clearly goes too far for many of the disciples when he invites people to eat his flesh and drink his blood. In verse 60 we read, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”

And then in verse 66, John narrates this for us: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

It is debatable whether or not the disciples who turned back because they though Jesus was literally talking about cannibalism or not. But what is very clear is that they were expecting something else, and when they found out what Jesus was offering, they were not interested.

What are you looking for? We frequently note how the church and her influence in the broader society has been decreasing over the last half century. The fastest-rising religious affiliation in the US right now has become known as the “nones.” No, not the nuns, as in the religious order of women within the Catholic Church, but those who do not consider themselves to be a part of any religion. They aren’t necessarily antagonistic toward religion and many wouldn’t deny that there is a God who created the world. But when you ask them what religion they are a part of, they will say, “none.” They are none and done.

There are many reasons for the rise of the nones. In the last few weeks our news cycle has been filled with stories of child sex abuse by clergy members. Additionally, the news that these cases of abuse have been covered up by the church for decades is absolutely disgusting and heartbreaking. Our own small denomination has not been without its own scandals over the last few years. Two of my friends, fellow seminary students, and former colleagues as pastors in Virginia Mennonite Conference were a part of separate scandals and now want nothing to do with the church. Surely these things contribute to many people, both young and old, identifying as nones.

Yet I wonder how many people find themselves in the position of the disciples who turned back at the end of John chapter 6. I wonder how many people came to Jesus with the wrong expectations and then found something altogether different to be true. Even worse, I wonder how often the church has mislead people into wrong expectations in order to get people into the church, to get them to say a simple prayer, or to send them a check in the mail?

We call that “The old bait and switch.” This phrase is often used in retail sales where a product is offered at a really good price. This is advertised to get you in the door and get you interested, only to have that product switched out for something more expensive or of a lower quality.

The church pulls the old bait and switch when we tell people that if they become a Christian all of their physical pain will go away, their finances will improve exponentially, and their relationships will be perfect. The church pulls the old bait and switch when we offer what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” He writes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Jesus didn’t try to pull a bait and switch. At one point he compares following him to bearing your own cross. He invited disciples to consider the cost, like a man building a tower. You don’t want to build it halfway and have to stop.

Scripture reminds us that Christ wants all people to come to him. But that doesn’t mean that he is going to sugar coat anything to fool you into following him. When the masses turn back and leave him, Jesus turns to his twelve disciples and asks them in verse 67, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

I see him saying this with tears in his eyes, hurt that so many people would desert him. But he isn’t looking to change his message to make it more palatable. He was upfront with who he was and what he expected of his followers.

Jesus taught grace for all who would accept it. He taught love for all, regardless of if you wanted to receive it. And that is a message that many in his day and our own are not interested in hearing.

So what are you looking for? I can’t speak for you and what you are searching for. But I know what Jesus has to offer, and from what I has seen, he doesn’t plan to change that offer any time soon.

But where do we look? You know this one. Like the Sunday School teacher who was trying to get her class to guess a creature she was trying to describe. She described an animal that was gray with a furry tail and collects nuts to store away for the winter. A boy raised his hand and said, “What you are describing sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know that here in Sunday School the answer is always Jesus, so I’m going with that.”

Where do we look? We look to Jesus. When Jesus asked his twelve disciples if they were going to leave too, Peter responds by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (verses 68-69).

We are looking for God, we are looking for wholeness, for meaning, and purpose. We are looking for peace. We are looking for love. Where else are you going to look than to Jesus?

But here’s the problem: I don’t seem him here today. It isn’t like he is keeping office hours and we can just stop in and have a conversation. So where do we look for God? Where do we look for Jesus?

I believe that we can find God in nature. I look at the mountains and the oceans and I marvel at their beauty, wondering how anyone can not believe in a creator who loves us. And I believe that God can be found not only in the beauty of nature, but all around us. We use the fancy term “omnipresent” to describe how God, through the Holy Spirit, is always with us. And I believe that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are most clearly revealed to us through the Holy Scriptures. Jesus may not be with us physically today, but he was with people who recorded their encounters with him and passed those encounters along from one generation to the next.

God can be found in nature, God can be found in the Scriptures, and God can be found in simple items like bread and wine because God is always with us. But we need help finding him, even when he is right below our noses. Even in the Scriptures we find the need for help understanding the Scriptures. As the Ethiopian Eunuch says to Philip when asked if he understood what he was reading, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31.)

I’m pretty bad when it comes to find something. I lose my phone frequently, and I know to put my car keys in the same place every time because otherwise I will lose them. With my corrective lenses, I have good vision. But I just don’t see things. We can be cooking and Sonya will ask me to get the garlic out of the fridge. I’ll go and look for a while and come back to tell her that we must be out, only for her to walk over to the fridge, open the door, and grab the garlic in less than a second.

This is usually when I say, “I guess I’m just not a very good looker.”

She never disagrees with me.

We need help finding things, even when they are right under our noses. Some of us need help more than others.

Even the most simple of directions need to be explained or modeled for us somehow. I heard an example this week attributed to the philosopher Charles Taylor, who also invented some sweet shoes (jk, different Chuck Taylor). Taylor notes that rules and signs are not something that we just naturally obey or follow. Even something as simple as an arrow pointing toward refreshments needs to be interpreted. Do you follow the arrow’s point or the feathered end? Why do we assume that an arrow pointing up means forward and not that the refreshments are literally up in the air? We know it because someone taught us how to read the sign.

We in the Mennonite Church emphasize a life of following Jesus, a life of discipleship. To be a part of the church means that we try to live as Jesus lived, love and Jesus loved, and obey the teachings that Jesus taught. And there are things that we can do on our own, like study the scriptures and pray while sitting on the top of a mountain. But scripture is not Jesus, and a mountain is not God. These things are signs, signs that point to Jesus. Signs that we need to learn how to read. And we learn best from others.

If we truly wish to follow Jesus, we must do it in community because Jesus lived in community. And as Jesus reminded his disciples, “Anywhere two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20). This isn’t to say that otherwise Jesus isn’t with you, as if your prayers alone aren’t heard. But when Jesus says this, he is speaking of communal discernment. When we come together to discuss, learn, and discern, Jesus is with us in a special way, joining the conversation.

What are you looking for? I can’t answer that for you, but what I can tell you is what Jesus has to offer. And I can tell you where he can be found. Together, as a community of believers, we are called to seek the God who is already among us.

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Flesh and Blood

John 6:51-58 New International Version (NIV)

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Happy palindrome Sunday! If you do not know what a palindrome is…that makes you cooler than me. A palindrome is a sequence of symbols, letters, or numbers that are the same forward and backward. The word “racecar” is a palindrome, and so is today’s date: 81918. In fact, the last 10 days have been palindromes, beginning with 81018 through today.

It seems appropriate that today is palindrome Sunday, because we know the subject of today’s scripture forward and backward (How do you like that transition?). This is about communion, the Lord’s Supper. Here at Staunton Mennonite, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper about four times a year. And every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I give a bit of background on why we eat a little bread and drink a little grape juice. You get this, you understand what’s going on. When you hear Jesus talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, you know that this is about communion. Like I said, you know this forward and backward. It is almost like a palindrome.

Here’s my challenge for you this week: I want you to hear this as if you didn’t already know this stuff forward and back. I want you to hear this as if you are hearing it for the first time, and for those that want an extra challenge, imagine hearing as if you are hearing this for the first time as a 1st-century Jew.

Our text begins with Jesus stating that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven. His flesh is bread, and if you eat his flesh, you will have eternal life. Then in verse 53 he says, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Do you ever get the feeling that Jesus intentionally tries to be confusing? In John 2, Jesus talks about destroying the temple and raising it up again in three days. In chapter 3 he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and Nicodemus—who is surely a smart guy—is like, “You mean I have to go back into my mother’s womb?” In chapter four he is talking about living water; in chapter five he is calling God his father. Now he is saying that he is made of bread and if people want eternal life, they should eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Maybe Jesus isn’t trying to be confusing, but I am pretty sure that he is trying to be a bit of a provocateur. Think of it this way. We have a name for eating another person’s flesh and drinking another person’s blood. We call that gross. We call that cannibalism. With very few exceptions across time and around the world, cannibalism has been frowned upon, to say the least. Cannibalism was not an accepted practice in Jesus’s day, and even more specifically, it was against the teaching of the Torah.

As early as Genesis 9:4, in the covenant with Noah, God forbids the drinking of blood. In Leviticus 3, God lays out the process for making an animal sacrifice. The blood and the fat of an animal is to be burned on the altar and offered to God. Verse 17 says, “This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live: You must not eat any fat or any blood.”

This isn’t some temporary rule, but a lasting ordinance. Don’t drink blood. Don’t eat the fat. It doesn’t specifically say not to eat any human flesh, but that seems to at least be assumed.

And it didn’t even dawn on me until Friday that the New Testament again affirms this teaching against drinking blood. In Acts 15 we find what we often call “The Jerusalem Council,” where the disciples meet together to decide what is necessary for a person to become a Christian. The main concern here is circumcision, but they decide that circumcision will not be a marker of Christianity. Here’s their official ruling, found in verses 28-29: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.”

So why the emphasis on the prohibition of drinking blood? Leviticus 17:14 gives us some insight. “The life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, ‘You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.’”

The word translated here as “life” is nephesh. Nephesh means more than just being alive, and is most commonly translated as “soul.” We translate it here as life because we don’t often think of animals as having an eternal soul that needs saved. Nephesh is more of an animating force, the essence of who one is. It is almost like the way we use the words “genetics” or “DNA.”

We still have this concept of nephesh and blood in our idioms today. If you love camping, fishing, the great outdoors, and your father loved these things as well, we might say that it is in your blood. It is a part of who you are. It is in your DNA. It is your nephesh.

So the Hebrew teaching against drinking blood comes down to the belief that the very essence of who a person or animal is can be found in the blood. That essence should either be returned to the earth or offered up to God.

So here you are, a 1st-century Jew, well versed in the teachings of the Torah, and you’ve come to hear Jesus speak. He has been healing people, feeding thousands of people from a couple of loaves and fish. You think this guy might be the Messiah. He may lead the people to freedom! But then he starts with all this bread and flesh and blood talk and most people turn away. No thanks. You can keep your nephesh to yourself.

What’s going on here? We know the answer to that, because we know this palindrome forward and back. This is about communion.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus offers the bread and the cup and he says: This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me. We focus on the death of Jesus when we read those accounts.    This is an account of the Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist, whatever you want to call it.

Let’s take just a brief detour and I’ll come back to what I think is going on here. I want to explore a little bit of what some traditions teach about the Lord’s Supper, its meaning and practice, and why I think we can do better. I’ll start with a story.

My friend Martin is an ordained Mennonite mission worker. He is intelligent and articulate and did his seminary training at Duke Divinity. I was having a conversation with Martin one day, and like things often do, the nature of our conversation turned to theology. I have no idea how we came to the topic of the Lord’s Supper, but Martin proudly proclaimed, “I’m a transubstantiationist.”

Transubstantiation is the teaching that when the bread and the cup are blessed by the clergy, they literally become the body and blood of Christ. The word “transubstantiation” itself means to change substances.

I’ll admit, I can be a little cocky sometimes, and it is good for me to be brought down a few pegs. In my cockiness, I asked Martin, “Really? Where do you get that from?”

Martin replied, “From every reference to communion in the Bible.”

Martin is correct…kind of. Jesus says, “This is my body, broken for you… This is my blood, shed for you.” He never said that it is symbolic of his body and blood. And in today’s text, it seems as if many people interpreted Jesus literally because immediately following this teaching, many people stopped following Jesus, figuring the guy was a little off.

Okay, but Jesus often used metaphors to describe himself. He didn’t say, “I am like a shepherd,” or “I am like a door.” He said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” I thought he was a carpenter? But honestly, if you believe that the bread and wine/grape juice literally become the body and blood of Jesus, that’s fine. I’m just not there myself.

Transubstantiation is official teaching of the Catholic Church, and this is why if you attend a mass, you may notice that only the priest can handle the elements. The lay person never touches the cup, in part out of fear of spilling the blood of Christ. The priest often places a wafer directly in the mouth of the person receiving the offering.

Martin Luther argued against transubstantiation, and offered something that is often called “consubstantiation,” though many Lutherans today reject that term. Pretty much every denomination that believes in consubstantiation will nuance it slightly different. But essentially, consubstantiation is the belief that the bread and wine don’t actually change substances but that Christ is present in the bread and wine of communion. The substance of Christ is present, even though the substance of the bread and wine do not change.

In the Mennonite tradition, we emphasize the symbolism of the bread and the cup and the memorial aspect of communion. Again, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

I believe that the Lord’s Supper is absolutely a way to remember and proclaim the death of Jesus. And I also believe that Jesus is present in the bread and cup, at least symbolically. But when I read today’s text I feel as if the idea of communion simply as a memorial is lacking. I think that there is something more to be gained.

If you read all of John’s gospel, you will find that John does not include communion as a part of his account of the Last Supper. In chapter 13 they open with foot washing, they have a shared meal, Jesus offers some teaching, and then Jesus is betrayed. Our passage this morning is really John’s only explanation of communion. And by emphasizing this teaching earlier in Jesus’s ministry, the idea of feeding on Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood becomes more about life than about death.

Again, I absolutely believe that one aspect of communion is that it is to help us remember all that Jesus has done. But John offers another perspective. Verse 57 says, “Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”

In John’s gospel, there is also a very this-worldly aspect to communion. We are not simply called to remember what Jesus did. No, we consume and live on the very nephesh of Jesus, the animating force of his being.

We eat the bread and drink the cup as a reminder that Christ died, but also as a reminder that Christ. Christ lives in us. The prohibition against drinking blood in the New Testament remains because we are to get our lives from Christ, he is to be our animating force. Today as we take communion, we echo the words of Paul: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

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