This weekend our Mennonite conference will meet together as a delegate assembly for our annual gathering. We will be considering a few resolutions about what it means to be church together when we sometimes hold very differing perspectives. In preparation I pulled out an old copy of Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and read from her essay on forbearance-an important word in Mennonite circles these days.
The brittle and divisive climate within the contemporary Christian church has forced me to take more seriously the value of forbearance as a Christian virtue. A conscious forbearance of the sort that Jesus demonstrates so amply in the gospels, and Paul exhorts us to in his epistles… Forbearance may be what has helped the two most ancient forms of Christian community-church congregations and monasteries-maintain their precious and precarious unity. It may be that with good care such unity grows supple enough to withstand the demands for strict uniformity that so quickly produce division.
The polarization that characterizes so much of American life is risky business in a church congregation, but especially so in a monastic community. The person you’re quick to label and dismiss…is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life. Anyone who knows a monastery well knows that it is no exaggeration to say that you find Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh living next door to each other. Mother Angelica and Mary Gordon. Barney Frank and Jesse Helms. Not only living together in close quarters, but working, eating, praying, and enjoying (and sometimes enduring) recreation together, every day, often for fifty years or more. It’s not easy. But Christian monks have existed for close to eighteen hundred years, almost as long as the church itself.
How do they do it? They know, as one Anglican nun has put it, that their primary ministry is prayer, and that prayer transcends theological differences. They also have the wisdom of St. Benedict, who at the end of his Rule points out that there are two types of zeal; one which is bitter and divisive, separating monks from God and from each other, and another which can lead them together into everlasting life. Employing scripture (Romans 12:10), he defines this “good zeal” as acts of love: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other.”
Monastic people also make deliberate and repeated use of the tools that they believe Jesus Christ has given them to overcome the temptation to condemn one another. They say the Lord’s Prayer together at least three times a day, which is the minimum that St. Benedict sets forth in his rule for monastic life. He says he found this necessary because of the “thorns of contention” that spring up daily when we try to live with other people. Continually asking God to forgive us as we forgive others, Benedict suggests, warns us away from the vice of self-righteousness and also lack of love. 
I go back and forth with Mennonites and forbearance. There are times when we demonstrate this posture fairly well and I feel energized. But there are times when we seem incapable of it and I grow weary. I’ve heard the word forbearance used as a synonym for “compromise,” but I think I like Norris’ term better-a “virtue.”
In her description this virtue includes a true commitment to live together, with the tensions but also with the daily activities that are perhaps more spiritual than we realize (eating, playing, working, enjoying). It’s possible that this virtue could be a path to profound spiritual formation if we are willing to walk it.
This virtue also acknowledges a posture that allows for this commitment to one another to become reality-a posture of prayer. I’m being drawn to think about how this kind of prayer posture shows up in Mennonite life. In both denominational and conference settings we prioritize our confession of faith. The problem I’ve observed is that we Mennonites don’t seem very clear on the purpose of a theological tool like a confession of faith. I’m glad to see that one of the statements our local delegates will discuss this weekend names this fact. We lack a shared understanding (is it prescriptive or descriptive?/is a confession the same as a creed?). Which means there’s preliminary work needed if such a tool is to be most helpful for life in our faith community. So what if instead of quoting “the confession” all the time (at least the parts we agree with), we intentionally worked at developing a communal prayer life that might help us transcend our differences? And let’s not just stop at prayer-we can also eat together, play together, serve together, and work together.
Maybe with a different posture we could learn to love each other more in the process. That would certainly be a good witness in our communities.
At a recent meeting with my congregation’s leadership we meditated on a part of Romans 12, seeking to prayerfully let the words sink in and affect our hearts, minds, and lives. So as we continue to think about forbearance, I’ll close with those words and invite us to do the same.
love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:10-12 NRSV)
 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 158-159.
[adapted from a sermon delivered at Spring Mount Mennonite Church on Sunday October 25, 2015]
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32 NRSV)
There’s something powerful and sacred about sharing food at a table.
More than any other gospel writer, Luke presents Jesus eating and drinking with people. 60 examples of this activity have been counted just in Luke’s gospel, so it’s not a stretch to say that Luke presents a theology of eating and drinking. But it’s not only in Luke’s gospel, so clearly this table activity was widely known as part of Jesus’ life and ministry. Therefore, an important way to know Jesus and to join in his mission is to spend time at tables with others. #WhoWouldJesusEatWith?
As a congregation that has been actively exploring how meals can be an important part of spiritual formation I hope that this element of Luke’s writings might be both a challenge to grow further, and also an encouragement in our life together as we seek to display the kingdom of God in our community.
Justo González writes,
Eating and drinking are not only a physical necessity, but also an important element in the fabric of any society. Even to this day, when we sit together with someone at a table, this implies some sort of relationship. It may be a matter of friendship, of business, or of simply trying to get to know each other better. But in any case, sitting with another at a table is both a sign and a way to create and develop relationships. 
People who we develop relationships with are sometimes called companions. If you study the origin of the word companion you find an interesting linking of food and relationship. It’s a combination of 2 Latin words: com (“with”) and panis (“bread”). So our English word “companion” means “with whom one eats bread.”
González puts it this way:
“a companion is someone with whom we break bread. In some societies in which violence is frequent and life is unstable, sharing bread is a sign of friendship or at least of respect.”
Sharing meals together creates opportunities, like breaks in busy schedules, maybe even breaks in conflict, and also creates space for deeper relationships to form. Companions can develop friendships, generosity, and comfort, while at the same time lessening fear, scarcity, and isolation.
With this idea in mind, let’s look at the story in Luke 5. To a 1st century Jewish audience, Levi was a despised outsider—someone socially and religiously out of bounds for a person of faith to relate to. But this despised person has turned and followed Jesus (i.e. he “repented”; v.27-28). And then, this despised person throws a great banquet for Jesus.
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house;
Notice something important here—Levi gave the banquet for Jesus. And Jesus accepted and received this gift of hospitality from Levi. In our zealousness to serve others (especially people who might be less fortunate), do we ever come to the relationship thinking that WE are the ones who have something to offer and THEY just need to receive our help? Can a real relationship ever develop if it’s so one-sided: one side always thinks they have the gift to give and is less willing to also receive the gift from their neighbor? Do we understand the difference between a relationship of paternalism and one of mutuality? In the text, Jesus provides an example for all who wish to engage in service and mission, showing us how to practice mutuality, how to build relationships, and how to receive hospitality.
The key phrase that I’d like to focus on is in v.29:
“Then Levi gave a great banquet for [Jesus] in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.”
Who is the “them” who Jesus was sitting at the table with? “Tax collectors and sinners,” the despised friends of the despised Levi. It’s clear that these were people that the supposedly “righteous” folks looked at with contempt. It’s often easy for people who are welcomed within a group to have contempt for people on the outside of the group. The narrative of “Us vs Them” is a common and sad reality throughout human history.
Perhaps another reason this upset Jesus’ faith community had to do with what “sitting at the table” meant. The original word used in the Greek text is “reclining”—it could therefore read as “there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others reclining at the table with them.” This reclining posture was common in ancient times. Some meals in those days were intended for deep conversation, and guests would recline around a table for long periods of time. This was no fast-food meal with a little small talk. This was an investment. Reclining at the table involved taking time to really be present with others, discussing important subjects, having conversations, while eating and drinking together.
Sitting at the table was a chance to develop companions. So I wonder if perhaps this was why the supposedly “righteous” folks were getting so uncomfortable? If Jesus was walking around our community today, where would he be reclining at the table? Who would he be eating with? Who’s hospitality would he receive? And who would be upset by his actions?
What can it look like to follow Jesus and live out this text? As we wonder about this, I’d like to share a creative expression that encourages the importance of eating together and developing companions in a diverse and fearful world.
Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that serves a menu from nations the United States is in conflict with. They provide information about these various global locations and host events and discussions. They seek to use
“the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines.”
I definitely plan to visit Conflict Kitchen the next time I’m in Pittsburgh. [After worship on Sunday, one of the youth in the congregation came up to me and said, “Let’s plan a church road trip!”] I wonder what lessons congregations and denominations could learn from the Conflict Kitchen model, and how it might be an opportunity to bless our communities?
I invite us to imagine what it could mean to embrace Jesus’ theology of eating and drinking and live it out, and imagine what it could mean to sit at the table with others, as Jesus did.
Prayer for today:
Lord Jesus, by your Spirit may you help us
to be people who give and receive hospitality,
to be people who join in your sacred mission of eating and drinking with all neighbors,
to be people who continue to sit at the table,
that we might truly become companions with you and with others
in the abundant life you offer.
 Justo L. González, The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 77.
 González, 78.
 Maria Khodorkovsky, “Etymology of ‘Companion'”. Beyond Words – Language Blog, 29 September 2008. http://www.altalang.com/beyond-words/2008/09/29/etymology-of-companion/
 González, 78.
 González, 80.
This summer in my congregation, the theme for our worship gatherings could be described as “church life.” We have reflected on a number of scriptures together as part of this theme (e.g. John 16, 17, 1 Cor 13, Col 1, 3), hosted witness workers who shared with us about the church in a West African village, and received reports from members of our congregation who attended the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City and the Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg. To put it simply: this summer church has been about church.
In worship today we celebrated the Lord’s Supper and reflected on the words of Ephesians 4:1-16.
Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. 2 Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, 3 and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. 4 You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
7 God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. 8 That’s why scripture says, When he climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people.[a]
9 What does the phrase “he climbed up” mean if it doesn’t mean that he had first gone down into the lower regions, the earth? 10 The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything.
11 He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12 His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ 13 until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. 15 Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, 16 who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.
Our congregational response to this scripture reading (and to the summer theme) was to create a 6 word story about the church. We shared the stories on social media with the hashtag #My6WordStoryAboutChurch. It was a great way to do some creative writing and reflection, and to help us notice what the Spirit has been bringing to our minds about the purpose and calling of the church. Below are the stories we shared with each other this morning:
“One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
“Light through darkness; living the peace.”
“Jesus’ hands and feet in community.”
“Sharing God’s love with the world.”
“Supporting each other on the journey.”
“Growing in every way through Christ.”
“Sharing God’s love with each other.”
“Church brings me a great blessing.”
“The church provides healing and redemption.”
“I, you, we; salt, light encouragement.”
“Place of worship, fellowship, and encouragement.”
“Jesus’ hands incarnated to the world.”
“Frail people partnering with God’s mission.”
“My anchor to God and life.”
“Offering hope to a broken world.”
“Being formed, being sent, by Christ.” (this is also our church mission statement)
“Playing, Surfing, God, Praying, Greeting, Meeting.” (the contribution from my 6 year old son)
I’m thankful for this congregation’s willingness to listen to the Spirit and teach each other today. My hope is that we will grow more and more into Christ, be observant to what God is doing and join in, and be a foretaste of the shalom that God desires for the whole world.
Despite all that has been said about the pattern of segregation in our society, it is my conviction that time is against it. In fact, much of the current effort to hold the line may be viewed as a back-against-the-wall endeavor. The more the world becomes a neighborhood in which time and space are approaching zero as a limit, the more urgent becomes the issue of neighborliness. Man can now circle the entire earth’s surface in a matter of minutes. Communication is now instant! This means that the external symbols of segregation-the wall, the ghetto, the separate locale as a mandatory restriction binding upon groups of people because of race, color, creed, or national origin-cannot survive modern life. The emphasis here is upon the two words “external symbols.” When I suggest that time is against the pattern of segregation, I am referring to the symbols. The walls are crumbling-this is one of the dramatic facts of our world. The fact itself is very frightening to many who have lived always behind the walls, within the walls, or beyond the walls. It is deeply disturbing also to those who have found the existence of the walls essential to their own peace, well-being, and security. Out of sight, out of mind-this can no longer be the case.” -Howard Thurman 
Even though Thurman was wrote this passage in the 1960’s it contains much wisdom for today. I’m reading it today in the midst of calls for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. I hope that flag is removed. But I also hope that the removal does not end the conversation about what that flag represents. We must still acknowledge the depths of racism and white supremacy in this country and work to uproot it. Otherwise we will still fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” mindset that Thurman called for an end of. Even if symbols and walls crumble, what remains are the underlying anxieties and root causes behind those structures. On those realities we must stay focused.
I really like Thurman’s phrase, “the world becomes a neighborhood.” As I read that line I was reminded of the neighborhood where I grew up, where my parents still live. Today, many of my parents’ neighbors hail from places such as Egypt, Bangladesh, India, and Laos. The neighborhood’s library of religious faith-once consisting largely of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism-now also includes Hinduism, Islam, and Coptic Orthodox Christianity (and perhaps more). When I visit, I notice the tremendous amount of hospitality and care shown from one neighbor to another. People are becoming friends and learning from one another there. The “neighborliness” that is developing there gives me hope.
 Schaper, Donna, and Howard Thurman. 40-day Journey with Howard Thurman (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009), 88.
For two days (May 13-14, 2015) a group of thirty-one individuals gathered at a Mennonite Church to learn about the experience of veterans and how to provide support for veterans and their families. The title of this seminar was “The Journey Home from War,” a branch of the STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience program from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. This learning community consisted of veterans, spouses of veterans, representatives from social service and community development agencies, veterans network leaders, and members of congregations from a variety of denominations. We were joined by Katie Mansfield (Director of the STAR program) and led by instructors Rev. Dr. Beverly Prestwood-Taylor (Brookfield Institute) and Katrina Gehman (Eastern Mennonite University).
Each person in attendance felt a call to this gathering, and opportunity was given to share about our personal connection with military veterans. We brought symbols with us that were used to create a visual in the middle of our talking circle—a beautiful reminder of the personal stories of a diverse group who committed to learn together.
The “We” I speak of here was a body made up of combat veterans and war protestors, those suffering post-traumatic stress and those providing care for friends and loved ones who do, pacifists and non-pacifists, clergy and laity. Our differences did not prevent us from discovering that we have so much in common. All of us have been touched by war in some way, and are feeling the need to respond in compassion, care, and support of veterans and their families.
We learned about military culture and language, and about the journey from military to civilian life. This reintegration can be a true challenge and requires the caring support of the community. A large focus of the seminar dealt with the physical and spiritual effects of trauma (combat stress, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, Military Sexual Trauma, Moral Injury). We also learned about paths toward healing and about practical responses for walking together with those wounded by the experience of war. The excellent teaching presented by Dr. Prestwood-Taylor and Ms. Gehman was engaging, relevant to life experiences, and invited us to discern active responses.
We ate meals with one another around tables, offering opportunity to build relationships and deepen existing ones. We heard testimonies from Vietnam and Iraq veterans, and this was perhaps the most powerful part of the seminar for me. I’m thankful for these friends who exhibit the courage to verbalize their experience and trust us with their stories, and I recognize that their testimonies are a precious and costly gift. I’m convinced of the blessing of safe spaces, which can foster a healthy atmosphere of confession, listening, and vulnerability for all. It often felt as if the presence of the Spirit filled the room with grace and shalom.
As the seminar concluded we were sent out to embody what we had learned together. Some action steps I noted include:
- Raising awareness about the physical and spiritual needs of veterans (and their families).
- Developing mutuality in our relationships as we commit to learn from each other.
- Being committed to helping returning veterans find “meaningful work…that rewards the soul,” as my friend Glen articulates so well.
Looking back, it feels like a good description of this experience could be a liturgy of healing and hope. Sometimes liturgy is thought of as “the work of the people.” Liturgies consist of work that is intentional and repeated, and so I’m reminded of the important ongoing work that will emerge from this training and these relationships. Liturgy is also a way we are drawn into the restoring, reconciling, healing work of Jesus Christ, who announces hope and good news for all.
In the midst of the work of these two days, my mind kept recalling words from Psalm 34:
seek peace, and pursue it…
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
May we find ways to embody these words, and may God extend this space of healing and hope deeper into our communities and into our hearts.
A special thanks to our generous sponsors, hosts, and organizers who made this training possible: Peaceful Living, Veterans Community Network, Franconia Mennonite Conference, Salford Mennonite Church, Disabled American Veterans Chapter 25, Roush Associates LLC, Touchstone Veterans Outreach, Hatfield Quality Meats, Harleysville Savings Bank, Univest, Abington Health, Bob Greenwood, Robert Smyrl Insurance, Larry Holman, and Zion Mennonite Church.
Based on a sermon preached at Spring Mount Mennonite Church on Feb. 8 2015
Scripture text: Mark 7:1-30 NRSV
The jr. high school I attended was a large one located in the middle of a suburban town. Behind the building, near the center of the property was the football field. And bordering the football field was an approximately 8′ high fence—the top of which was equipped with barbed wire. “Why is there barbed wire around the football field?” my 14 year-old self would wonder, realizing that all gym class escape plans would be a painful waste of time. “Was it there to keep people in, or keep people out?” We sometimes go to great lengths to create boundaries.
Boundaries are borders, dividing lines, that all groups of people create to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” The authors of “Say to This Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship mention an important element about boundary-making that we should be aware of:
Boundaries can be a good thing, such as when they help protect weaker people from domination by stronger people. But while this “defensive” function is usually cited as justification for boundaries, more often the actual relations of power are the opposite: Boundaries function to separate the strong from the weak, protecting privilege and maintaining inequality.(1)
These are the kind of boundaries that we find Jesus challenging in the Bible. Often Jesus was challenging the powerful political and religious leaders about their boundaries. But in one instance with a daring woman, Jesus was the one in the position of power and he had to demonstrate the new reality he was preaching. But before we get into that episode we need to understand what happened prior to it.
The previous parts of Mark 7 involve Jesus challenging some established borders of his people’s faith. This act would not leave everyone comfortable.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!
The border Jesus is targeting here is the “tradition of the elders,” a group of teachings that emerged over time to help people interpret scripture and live it out. Which is a fine thing to create—as long as you don’t start giving it more authority than it deserves (or enforcing it inconsistently). Which is what happened in Jesus’ day—this “tradition” was given such a high authority that it largely became the focus—especially of the religious leaders. They felt that if the tradition was not followed as they desired that the whole group would become contaminated.
Jesus then used a short parable to clarify his objection to the kind of boundaries that were being used (v.14-15,20-22):
Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile … 20 “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
In challenging the traditional rules, Jesus pointed to the heart—to what is inside of us rather than what is outside. Doctrines and traditions don’t mean anything if one’s heart is far from God. Therefore, worry about what arises from within—examine what is in our hearts—rather than defending perceived threats from outside.
Jesus seemed to believe that the social boundaries of the purity tradition were unable to protect the community’s integrity.(2) And I tend to agree.
One of the ways I’ve learned this to be true has to do with our own Mennonite Church. The current Mennonite Confession of Faith endorses the view that both men and women may serve as pastors and leaders in the church, since Christ gives gifts through the Holy Spirit to all believers.(3) Gender does not disqualify a person for these leadership roles. Yet there are Mennonite churches today who choose to not embrace this position. The social boundary of our confessional tradition has not prevented some of our churches from barring women from pastoral roles. Confessions like this are a kind of parallel to the “tradition of the elders” or the “human tradition” that’s mentioned in Mark 7. It is a thorough document and I appreciate the theological work it represents. But it did not fall out of heaven straight from God to us. Instead, it is the latest theological conversation in a long line dating back to the 1500’s—ways that Anabaptists (eventually Mennonites) discerned what their faith and practice should look like, in their particular time. That’s why there’s evolving versions—as the church we are always needing to ask ourselves, “What does faith and practice look like in our day, with its own unique challenges and opportunities?”
While we can certainly value these documents, we must remember that none of these confessions is the gospel. I get concerned when I hear calls demanding complete devotion to a document. Because what happens to the voice of God’s Spirit when we pledge our allegiance to a document? If such a document is operating as a boundary, who is it protecting?
I don’t believe that Jesus was entirely against the religious leaders creating a “tradition.” But I think he was likely concerned with how they were unevenly applying it (hence, the “hypocrites” language, which I’m sure went over big). Therefore Jesus claimed that the religious leaders of his day were following human traditions rather than “the commandment of God” (Mk 7:8-9).
And remember that on another occasion when Jesus was asked about the commandment of God, he responded with, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39)
According to Jesus if you have constructed what you feel are proper boundaries, but your heart is not right, then you still have a big problem. The rules and boundaries won’t necessarily mean that you are participating in God’s work of renewal.
Love of God and love of neighbor are the HEART of what needs to be in our HEARTS. And when we try to live out that command (like Jesus and the apostles) we will probably find ourselves discerning how to respond to people who reside outside of some boundaries.
Which brings us to the story of Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30). Which is one of the most difficult and controversial stories in the whole Bible.
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.[Other ancient authorities add and Sidon] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus traveled to Tyre and Sidon, a region that was physically outside of the boundaries of his people. This area seems to be problematic: search through the Old Testament for “Tyre” and “Sidon” and it’s not exactly good news.
Another boundary that was broken had to do with the honor culture (4) of the day—it was inappropriate for such a woman to approach a man like this in a private home, and also inappropriate for a Gentile woman to ask this kind of favor. However, she seems to have been willing to risk breaking these rules in order to find healing for her daughter, and sensed that in Jesus healing could be found.
But then Jesus makes an insulting remark to this woman—did he just call her and her daughter “dogs”? What in the world do we do with that? Some say that the statement identified Jewish people as “children” and Gentile folks as “dogs,” indicating that his ministry priority at that moment was first to the Jewish people, and then to people of the whole world. But seriously–so many better ways to say that!
Yet most interesting to me is the daring and quick response of this woman—she said something that was both clever and theologically true: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It’s like she’s saying: “the Kingdom of God you represent is so full of abundance, that it can provide for ALL people; And even if I can only get a crumb, that will be enough to change my life.” Remember what stories in Mark come before and after this one: There’s the feeding of the 5000 in his homeland in chapter 6, and then the feeding of 4000 Gentiles in chapter 8. Both feedings included an overflowing amount of leftovers. While many seemed to find the kingdom of God difficult to grasp, perhaps this woman understood it better than most.
So what might we learn from this story:
I think this story makes us wrestle with Jesus’ humanity (and hopefully our own). Even Jesus had to confront that part of human nature that desires to separate from others who are different. This gives me hope, because it helps me to know that Jesus really does identify with us, and he understands the difficulties we face in human interactions—he’s not some robotic holy man that’s programmed to always respond automatically.
I think we also see that Jesus truly listened to this woman, and was willing to change his mind. He “allowed his privileged status as a Jewish male to be severely affronted by a Gentile woman for the sake of inclusivity.”(5) He listened to her, and granted her request, and her child was healed.
What might happen in our lives and in our churches if, instead of focusing on boundaries, we tried to understand our privileges, note the postures we take in our relationships, and intentionally practice listening to one another? My hope is that if we are willing to follow the example of Jesus, even into new territory, we will find the guiding presence of the Spirit and a deeper grasp of God’s mission and Good News. And we also may find the healing we seek.
(1) Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (NY: Orbis Books, 1996) Kindle Locations 1517-1520.
(2) Myers, et al. Locations 1522-23.
(3) Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995, Article 15, “Ministry and Leadership”: http://resources.mennoniteusa.org/about/confession-of-faith-in-a-mennonite-perspective-1995/article-15-ministry-and-leadership/
(4) Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (NY: Orbis Books, 1996) Kindle Locations 1538-1539.
(5) Myers, et al. Locations 1552-1553.
An element of my (ongoing) seminary education that I’m particularly thankful for has been a steady dose of the works of Cuban American theologian and historian Justo González. In Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology, González provides a brief history of Christian theology and outlines three types contained within orthodox Christianity and the perspectives that shape each.
As we continue the journey into a new millennium and into the reality of Post-Christendom, many western Christians are feeling perplexed and anxious about a changing world, faith, and church. The previously dominant theologies and forms of Christianity do not seem up to the task of providing a way forward. Into this reality González writes,
It is my contention that in the early church one finds, besides the distant ancestors of modern-day fundamentalisms and liberalisms, a third type of theology; that this third type leads to a different reading of the Bible and its message; and that this different reading is particularly relevant to our present day perplexities. Therefore this essay is addressed primarily to Christians who, amidst the perplexities of the transition into the third millennium are searching for an understanding of their faith that will lead them, with hope and obedience, into the future. (xiv)
González labels the three theologies “Type A,” “Type B,” and “Type C,” all of which had originated by the 3rd century (C.E.). Types A and B have historically been more dominant and are probably more familiar to the average western Christian today. He lays these two theologies alongside an older form (Type C) for comparison. I’ll give a brief overview of each.
Type A is associated with the Christianity that emerged from Carthage in Northern Africa, and it’s main advocate is Tertullian. The basic theological concern in this perspective is “Law” (6). This type primarily views God as a judge (20), salvation as the satisfaction of a legal debt (33), Jesus as a new lawgiver (34), and interprets scripture as a legal text (49). This kind of hermeneutic leads to more literal and fixed interpretations. It is concerned with law and order, and is interested in being “right” (69). This type of theology helped to prop up the merging of church and empire in Christendom, and became the dominant form of theology in western Christianity.
Type B emerged from Alexandria, an intellectual center containing diverse philosophical and religious thinking, especially Platonism. The main advocate of this form is Origen. The basic theological concern for Type B is immutable and transcendent “Truth” (11). This type emphasized distance between God and the material world, and spirit over matter (material creation was a result of sin). In this perspective, the problem is that human beings need illumination so that they might be able to contemplate the transcendent God and return to a (spiritual) heaven (37). Jesus, the Logos, was sent to provide this illumination. Scripture was often interpreted in allegorically in this type.
Type C emerged from the Northeastern Mediterranean (Asia Minor/Syria; Antioch). González names Irenaeus as the chief exponent of this theology. In contrast to the other two forms the theology from this type is pastoral, which makes sense since, of the three church fathers mentioned in this schematic, “only Irenaeus was actually the shepherd of a congregation” (14). The central theme of this kind of theology is “History” (15). God is the great Shepherd who is moving history toward God’s future. Therefore God (Father, Son, Spirit) relates directly to the world (28). The problem human beings have is that we are subject to Satan and tarnished by sin, and we are in need of liberation. The work of Christ is victory over the evil powers that enslave us. “Jesus recapitulates humanity” (41; see also Ephesians 1). The consummation of history is God’s communion with humanity and creation in an everlasting kingdom. Type C theology generally uses a typological approach to interpreting scripture (56).
Some highlights from the book include:
1. A discussion of the social setting and perspective of each type of theology. As González noted, “We can look at each of these theologies and ask what sort of social agenda they would serve” (61). The Christian faith of Type B sought to show that it was compatible with Hellenistic philosophy, an influential element present in its context. Tertullian “wished to prove that his [faith] was compatible with the best Roman moral achievements” (69), and therefore Type A theology, “a theology of law and order,” (70) created a bridge that made it easier to turn Christianity into a support system for Rome (which is what happened when Constantine came to power). Irenaeus’ Type C recalled connections to a persecuted church in Asia Minor, and had no desire to be compatible with the reigning powers. From this situation and perspective there was interest in promoting obedience to a God who was the “loving parent, shepherd, and teacher” (71). This was not theology for the powerful, and had no interest in compatibility with the empire or of gaining its respect.
2. The mention of liberation theologies (black, feminist, and others) as evidence of the recovery of Type C theology in contemporary times. This kind of theology comes from those who have been excluded by the powerful, deeply values historical truth, has a “keen awareness of the powers of evil,” and characteristically uses typology in its hermeneutic approach (138). “Christianity does not consist in a series of doctrines or rules, but in the action of God incarnate in history” (138). Personally, I want to commit to engaging with more forms of liberation theology in my faith and practice to further explore Type C theology.
3. Thoughts on liturgical renewal and its contemporary significance. “Historians of liturgy, as well as historians of theology, have long been aware that there is a connection between the way the church worships and what the church believes. Worship both expresses and shapes theology. In recent times, the rediscovery of worship as it was practiced in the ancient church has given the new forms of Type C theology a vehicle for expression and a nurturing atmosphere” (138). I have found this renewal to be of particular interest in my ministry contexts, and am thankful for serving in a congregation that embraces experimentation and discovery in this vein.
This book also helped me gain some greater understanding of my own theological journey over the past twenty years-a period which saw me move from Reformed/Evangelicalism to Anabaptism. I had become restless within a sort of generic, suburban, Evangelical expression of church and faith, and was feeling motivated to seek out other theological paths. I think I became most fully aware of this need for exploration upon completing a book study with the youth group I was pastoring at the time. We were studying some of Lee Strobel’s A Case for… books. But by the end of the study I found that I was not really convinced by the arguments presented. The book’s arguments were reasoned well and highly logical (very Type A), yet I was still looking for something more. I wrestled with what that meant for me, and wondered what these younger students were thinking about the material.
I think what I was searching for at that time was what González called “Type C” theology. Making a move to Anabaptism hasn’t totally realized this desire-my experience in the Mennonite context I inhabit seems to be quite Type A in some ways. But I have been encouraged by ongoing theological and liturgical conversations happening within Anabaptist contexts, which has felt theologically life-giving.
I recommend this book to all who wish to explore how we think theologically and who are willing examine and reimagine how we live and express our faith as followers of Jesus today.
As we now stand at the beginning of a new millennium and the end of modernity, this rediscovery of Type C theology may well provide the church at large with unexpected possibilities, and even open the way to new (and the rediscovery of ancient) understandings of catholicity and Christian unity. (123)
Justo González, Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1999). Print.