Our national body, Mennonite Church USA, has a statement called Vision: Healing and Hope that is a summary of what we are all about as Mennonite Christians. It goes like this, “God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy, and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”
This past Wednesday evening 5,500 Mennonites from around the country gathered together in the massive Exhibit Hall 3 of the San Jose Convention Center for a joint worship service of youth, young adults, and adults. The singing, as you may be able to imagine, was a treat to be a part of, and there was plenty of it. The speaker for the evening was a man in his mid thirties by the name of Paul Alexander – a Pentecostal speaking to Mennonites in our largest national worship service since the previous convention in Charlotte two years prior and Atlanta two years before that. For the joint worship service in Atlanta, in 2003, we had had none other than former President Jimmy Carter speaking to us. Now, this year, after the group singing was finished, we sat down to hear what this young Pentecostal might have to say to Mennonite Church USA. Like a good Pentecostal preacher, he spoke passionately for well over a half hour, maybe more like 45 minutes. He had a two point sermon. His first point was “Thank you.” He told about growing up in the Assemblies of God with a strong faith that blended the power of God, the power of the US flag, and the power of the gun. While in college, he supported the first Gulf War and said he cheered when the bombs fell on Iraq because he was convinced it was the right thing to do. After finishing college he was day trading stocks, listening to Rush Limbaugh three hours a day, and studying ethics and theology looking toward possibly becoming a minister. Something that began to change his perspective came when an investor buddy of his asked if he ever looked into the business practices of the companies he was investing in. Did any of them have human rights abuses? Did any of them profit heavily from warmaking? Paul had never considered the question and initially brushed it off as unimportant. He had never heard anything that may link being a follower of Jesus with economics or social justice. But the question stayed with him and, as he described it, brought about a widening crack in the certainty of his faith. If these things really mattered, and increasingly to him it seemed like they did, then he was going to have to start from scratch with what it meant to love God, what it meant to follow Jesus, what it meant to be a person of faith.
His “Thank you” came to all of us seated there as he began to tell about his search for people who were actually trying to live the way Jesus taught. Who believed and practiced teachings like “Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” People who took care of each other in community. His search brought him to discover the Anabaptists of the 16th century and the way that that tradition has been continued in the Mennonite church. He was amazed with groups like Mennonite Central Committee that had people on the ground in conflicted areas building relationships between differing parties. He was astonished that there was a denomination where it was normal for youth to go on service projects during their high school years and to be aware of how their faith connected with the careers they were considering. He was shocked to learn that one Mennonite congregation organized several weeks worth of meals for a family in the congregation who had an unexpected hardship and was even more shocked when he found out that these people and other Mennonites he was getting to know considered this a normal, Christian thing to do. Through reading Mennonite writers like John Howard Yoder, through getting to know groups like Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams, and through encountering real live Mennonites, he found himself being converted to a faith in God and in Christ that was concerned with the whole person and the whole of life, spiritual, communal, political, economic. One of the quotes from him I was able to get down on paper was “your existence helped me realize I could follow Jesus in the 21st century. Thank you.”
The epistle to the Ephesians served as the Scriptural reference point throughout the convention week. In chapter four the writer says, NRS Ephesians 4:1-4 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling.”
“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” There is a calling coming from beyond ourselves, presenting itself to us in the form of a compelling draw toward being people of humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love. The theme for the week was “Live the Call,” and throughout the time we heard ways that different parts of the Mennonite Church are seeking to live the call. The scope was broad. We heard of Mennonites in violence ridden Columbia, Zimbabwe, Israel/Palestine, Iraq building relationships between groups in conflict. We heard of ways of reaching out to immigrants in our communities and encouraging Congress to make immigration reform fair for families. We were presented with possible steps for making our congregations and own lifestyles more ecologically sustainable, We discussed and made movement toward upping our commitment to mutual aid in seeing that all pastors and church workers have health coverage – recognizing that currently 70-100 Mennonite pastors in the US are completely without health insurance, disproportionately those from racial/ethnic congregations.
Sitting with our Mennonite sisters and brothers this past week I resonated with Paul Alexander’s message and personally felt a strong sense of being thankful for all of these Mennonites around the country and world living faithfully to the call. We are a part of a faith family that is working to live within this story outlined in the Vision: Healing and Hope statement: God, calling us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy, and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.” I found myself wanting to also say ‘thank you’ to the Mennonite Church.
I also felt a sense of thankfulness for Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. Thank you for the ways that you are a community of grace, joy and peace. Thank you for loving each other. Thank you for loving our children here and investing in their formation. Thank you for your honesty in your faith and for being willing to question and seek and grow. Thank you for letting your faith shape your lives throughout the week. What you are doing is important work. Thank you for that last scene that I saw before leaving Cincinnati heading out to the airport to fly to San Jose last Saturday. A scene of youth and adults volunteering at the yard sale here to earn money for the “Free to Breathe” project with the health clinic in El Salvador. And people from the neighborhood stopping in to see what these people who meet in this big building on the corner are all about. Thanks for the creativity and energy that went into that. It was a good scene to have lingering in my mind as I left for the week. What you are doing is good, it is bearing fruit, it is important, it is not isolated but it is connected to the one body that is the body of Christ.
After saying “Thank you,” Paul Alexander moved to his second point, “Please.” His discovery of the Anabaptist tradition led him to look deeper into his own Pentecostal/charismatic tradition – a stream of Christianity that has only been around 100 years or so but claims 600 million followers world-wide and growing. And in looking at his own history, he found that for the first 40-50 years of its existence, the Pentecostal movement was explicitly pacifist, believing that a sharp distinction should be made between being citizens of the reign of God and citizens of any nation-state. He started a network called the Pentecostal/Charismatic Peace Fellowship as a way of starting to recover the spirit of those early Pentecostals. It has caused plenty of controversy within his circle of relationships. After 9/11 Paul offered a word of caution to the Christian university where he was teaching to not rush too fast into flag waving and uniting around a military campaign, but to use the time to reflect on ways that we as a nation have failed to truly love our neighbor as Jesus calls us to do. This was not well received. He was barred from teaching his ethics class for three semesters.
Paul was asking us Mennonites to please, please continue to live out of our convictions of seeking to follow Jesus in all of life. There is a great need for communities of grace, joy, and peace, living God’s call, and our message is not just for a niche market for people of faith, but one that all need to know and be invited to embrace.
The writer to the Ephesians is offering a similar kind of plea to the church to live out this vital calling. “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” I beg you. The writer to the church knew that the city of Ephesus and the Roman empire desperately needed this little band of Jesus followers in Ephesus to lead out in offering a new way of being human together. They were outnumbered, outresourced, and out-powered for sure by the dominant culture, but what they had was that magnetic bond of peace that has a way of undermining and overcoming the bond of violence that the empire rules by.
I found it a little ironic to be listening to a Pentecostal begging Mennonites to be strong, assertive, overt, in our witness for peace. But it does match up with other recent experiences I have had. In the last couple months I’ve had the chance to interact with some neighbors of ours called the Vineyard Central Community. This group is based in west Norwood and has chosen to intentionally live close to each other. There are now over 40 households within a few blocks of each other. They are straightforward in saying that they have been deeply influenced by the Anabaptist tradition. I’ve eaten a couple meals with their pastor, Kevin Rains and our last meal together consisted almost entirely of him asking me about how we in the Mennonite church understand peace and how he could introduce that as a more central part of their community. He was curious about how we relate with government, but also how they can be peacemakers in their own neighborhood. He was essentially saying “Please,” help us figure out how to live this.
As a way of backing up his begging, the writer to the Ephesians points out that this community is not just a collection of individuals, but a single body, sharing one Spirit. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism” When you see yourself as a part of one body, much larger than yourself or your immediate family, your single congregation or denomination, you begin to feel the sense of urgency with which the apostle is begging the church to live. If we are all one body, then, as the writer of 1 Corinthians states, if one part suffers, we all suffer. We can’t feel completely at peace until the entire body is well. “Please” continue living the calling to which you have been called.”
That message Wednesday night from Paul Alexander was representative of the overall spirit of the week. Just about every speaker I heard and every workshop I attended echoed the value, the absolute necessity of the Anabaptist understanding of faith and what that can mean today, especially in this nation where the God of Christianity and the God of US nationalism are so easily conflated together. So this is one of the messages I carry back from this convention and pass along to you. A Thank you, an affirmation for being a community of grac, joy, and peace. A Thank you coming not just from ourselves, telling each other we are doing a good job, but coming from those outside looking in and seeing something of great value that is attractive and hopeful. And also a “Please:” keep living the call. A begging to recognize the importance of what we have been called to. Please continue living as if we are all a part of one body, where we can’t separate the health and well-being of our brother or sister from our own health and well-being. The world needs us to remain faithful to our Anabaptist roots in claiming primary allegiance to the way of Christ and not being co-opted by the dominant culture. I believe God is calling us, Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, to Live the Call. We have been given many gifts, and we have many gifts to offer each other and the communities we serve. God’s blessing be with us as we seek to do this.
“God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy, and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”
(Vision: Healing and Hope printed in bulletins)