We Start and Stop with Jesus… At Least We Should
Over the course of the month of May, the MennoNerds blogging collective that I am a part of has been reflecting upon how “Anabaptist distinctives” impact our thinking and living in the world. A while back, fellow MennoNerd, Tyler Tully wrote a piece called What are Anabaptists? where he outlined three core Anabaptist convictions:
- The centrality of Jesus above all things
- The essential community/free church of confessing, baptized disciples
- The prophetic and non-violent witness of God’s peace.
The challenge subsequently went out for all of us to write our own blog post on how these three convictions influence our own faith and practice.
Initially, I wasn’t sure about participating in this series, to be honest. I don’t often feel “Menno” (see here) or “nerdy” (I’m not obsessed with Mennonite history/theology) enough to be a part of this group. I am glad to affirm my Anabaptist identity and to articulate my convictions, but I have precisely zero interest in or inclination toward protecting and preserving the “Anabaptist” or “Mennonite” brand as one option for the twenty-first century religious consumer to choose from amidst all the other shiny religious products on the shelf (Choose us! We’re the peace/justice/simplicity/_____ option!). I’m not in any way suggesting that others in the group understand the words “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist” in these ways, just musing about my own ambivalence toward some of these matters. But as I read and re-read Tyler’s three convictions I was struck again by how profoundly Anabaptist my worldview really is, whatever misgivings I might have about how we sometimes articulate this.
What follows, then, is a reflection upon how these three convictions operate in my life.
The Centrality of Jesus Above All Things.
It is an enormous relief to be able to simply, persistently, stubbornly point people toward the character and work of Jesus of Nazareth as the fullest expression of who God is and how God is oriented toward his people. Earlier this week, a woman came into my office with all kinds of questions banging around in her head about this or that theology, this or that group that was confidently declaring that this or that was necessary for salvation, that you needed to do x, y, or z to be “worthy” of the gospel. It was so wonderful to simply point her back to Jesus, to ask questions like, “based on what you know about the way Jesus lived, what Jesus taught, and how Jesus loved, does this sound right? Is all of this oppressive theological noise in your head consistent with the Jesus’ simple invitation to love God and your neighbour? When you look at Jesus, does it seem to you that his offer of eternal life is a prize given to the one with the best theology at the end?
It was a wonderful conversation. But it wasn’t just me, the pastor, dispensing wisdom. It was me, the human being, reminding myself—because I, too, can get distracted and distressed by all the theological noise—that this life of faith starts, stops, and is sustained by Jesus. This is who God is. This is how God loves. Full stop. When we look at Jesus, we are looking at the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the exact representation of his being (Heb. 1:3). It is profoundly liberating and hopeful, amidst all the noise, to simply be able to point to the crucified one and say, “this is our God.”
The Essential Community/Free Church of Confessing, Baptized Disciples
The first Anabaptists died for their conviction that each and every human being was free to choose for himself or herself when it came to matters of faith. Faith is not a mere extension of politics or geography or race or family; it is, rather, a response born out of personal conviction. This is very important to me. Jesus compels no one to come to him. All are invited, but the choice is always ours.
Of course I am aware that “freedom” is a contested notion. Some argue that it is largely illusory, this freedom we claim to cherish. We are nothing more than the inevitable products of our socialization and biology, the argument goes. I am not entirely unsympathetic to these claims. All of us are dealt a hand not of our own choosing when it comes to where and how we are raised, what plausibility structures we inhabit, and the genetic material with which we are dispatched into the world. I get this. But even understanding that all of our choosing is constrained by myriad factors of which we are only dimly aware, I remain struck by how Jesus honours our humanity by assuming that we have the ability to choose. Yes, our choosing is always contextually located. No, it will not look the same in each and every context. But always, Jesus comes to us, extends his hand, and invites us to take the next step toward life, healing, forgiveness, and hope. It is enormously gratifying to be able to tell people that they are loved, honoured, and called by the risen Christ, and they have the ability to choose how they will respond.
The Prophetic and Non-Violent Witness of God’s Peace.
This one flows out of the previous two, in many ways. The God revealed in and through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth is a God who challenges structures of power and exploitation in radically counterintuitive and redemptive ways. This God does not flex his muscle, but lays down his life for his friends and his enemies. This God does not perpetuate broken systems of oppression and violence, but models a life of peace with and for all. This God introduces a rupture into the system, and reawakens our imaginations, steering them toward the shalom we were made for.
This is not a popular message for imaginations still attuned to (and stunted by) centuries of more “realistic” ways of being the church. We’re happy for the salvation and forgiveness and salvation Jesus offers, we’re eager for blessing and the hope of eternity, but we don’t always understand or acknowledge that the flavour of eternity was meant to feed back into the present. We’re glad for Jesus’ gifts, but we have little use for his uncomfortably difficult challenge to radically reorient our way of being in the present. The nonviolent pursuit of peace is a God-sized task, we assume, so we don’t bother trying.
But Jesus stubbornly insists upon unsettling and reshaping our imaginations. The church needs this. I need this. And the world needs this, even (or especially!) when it thinks that it doesn’t.
So, three Anabaptist convictions. Jesus shows us who God is, Jesus tells us who we are and what we are worth, and Jesus invites us to participate in the making of all things—including ourselves!—new.
As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith. This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism.
The image above is taken from the 2012-13 Christian Seasons Calendar. The piece was created by DeAnne Parks and is called “For Many for the Forgiveness.”
Thank you, Ryan… and your opening intro is something that I think is very important for people to hear… this isn’t about a denomination (Mennonite) or even a particular social class (nerdy academics) but about human beings and their interaction with Jesus… and that’s what I’ve always seen in your writing. Thank you, so much.
Thank you, Robert. I appreciate this.
You have exceptional writing skills, Ryan. You are truly gifted. You “build a strong house”, when you write. A solid foundation, then thought by thought, “brick by brick” you make compelling argument. I envy you. 🙂
Do you think it is necessary to experience Christ in order to make His ethic “central” in our lives? It has been my life experience that I can learn about, believe in and “choose” Christ and Christian values, but that I have been woefully inadequate in sustaining them. Saying you stand for something, that your life is based on certain convictions and then regularly (enough anyways) betraying those convictions, is a soul shattering experience and darkens your experiences of….just about everything….so I gravitate to Him in contemplative prayer. I receive Him in the Eucharist. My hope is that in time I will quieten myself enough that I will truly “hear” His voice. That I will move beyond externalized assents that I have never lived up to and let Him internalize within me, so that it is no longer I who does, but Him in me, who acts.
I’m not there yet and there are days where I still stubbornly resist even this conviction, still wanting to live life on my terms, not His. But I’m better now then I have ever been. I have let some of Him in, if only just a little.
Thank you, Paul. I appreciate these encouraging words.
Re: your question about whether it is necessary to experience Christ, in order to make his ethic central, I would say that the short answer would be a resounding “yes!” Of course, the next question would then be, “what does it mean to ‘experience’ Christ?” Can experiences of Christ look different for different people at different times and places? Does Christ come to us in different ways according to our need? In my view, even the desire to follow Jesus is, in some way, an experience of Christ. A starting point, if nothing else—a place from which to begin, a launching pad for living into greater awareness and experience of him.
I resonate very much with the experiences you share here. I, too, am woefully inadequate at sustaining my efforts to follow closely enough, understand enough, do enough, etc. I, too, am a betrayer of my deepest convictions. Some of my most profound experiences of Christ have been of forgiveness, mercy, grace. If I let him in.
“What does it mean to experience Christ?”..yeah, Now that’s a question!…”Can experiences of Christ look different for different people at different times”.. I suspect it might not be prudent of me to to limit God’s options. :).
You know by the fruit I suppose. There is a certain serenity, a gentleness, a humility about people. They seem to resonate being “In” Christ. I’ve shared the feeling, the experience and then squander it away, only to find Him waiting for me again.
…”Some of my most profound experiences of Christ have been of forgiveness, mercy and grace.”….Amen to that, brother. Amen to that.
Awesome line 🙂 .
(Couldn’t agree more about what you say about “fruit,” by the way… )
Brother Ryan, greetings from the exurbs of Washington DC. Upon reading your piece about “busy lives,” it once again occurred to me that God sees His reflection most clearly in still waters. If the Spirit moves, I’d love to correspond about the better half of my life’s work, “the hourly Sabbath.” John Lawrence Gillis, TheRightQuestions@gmail.com
Hi John, good to hear from you. I’m not sure which piece on “busy lives” you’re referring to? Could you clarify? I’d be happy to dialogue further once I have a better sense where you’re coming from.