Surprising News

[The following is a sermon preached on Sunday October 2, 2016; World Communion Sunday]

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Last summer I attended Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, PA. The event proved to be a very mixed experience for me. I reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I listened to encouraging stories of various women’s groups developing theological associations in South America. I was challenged by the questions of faith expressed by a young adult from Ethiopia. I was concerned and troubling by some missionary practices in Indonesia. I argued theology with a guy from Niverville (out of all the small groups I had to be placed in!).

However we might understand the history of getting to this point the reality is that the church is global and that Mennonites are a part of that global church. It is easy to point to the Great Commission in Mathew or the Pentecost stories in the Book of Acts as the driving force in the church’s global vision. However, if we look carefully we can see that this vision, this attentiveness to the whole world, is embedded in the very earliest strands of the biblical story.

There is of course the creation account. The stories in Genesis 1 and 2 helped orient and strengthen the Israelite people in times of threat and exile reminding them that the God they worshipped was not limited to the circumstances they faced. These stories are important for global awareness but what I find much more interesting, is the way this global awareness surfaces in more subtle places in Genesis and Exodus.

It is commonly noted that numbers play an important symbolic role in the Bible. Three could indicate holiness; the number 40 represent a generation. The number seven or seventy was a sort of totality or wholeness.

The number 70 plays a subtle but important role in Israel’s beginning. These symbols are often hard to pick up on because they are embedded in things like long lists of genealogies. In Genesis 10 we find what is often called the Table of Nations which records the family tree of Noah’s sons. And if you take the time to count them all up you should reach the number 70. And at the end of chapter it says that “from these, the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.”

Fast forward to the end of Genesis and you have the story of Joseph and his brothers reunited in Egypt and at the end of that story Joseph invites his father’s entire household to join them. This will be first instance of ‘Israel’ moving out of the land. And being more helpful then in Genesis 10 the text tells us that there “were seventy in all.”

Then later after the Exodus when Moses is establishing God’s covenant with Israel in Exodus 24 we read that it was not only Moses who ascended the mountain but the 70 elders that went with Moses to fellowship with God.

What is the point of this type of accounting? It is clear, particularly in counting the number Jacob’s descendants who enter Egypt that this is not meant for objective accuracy. It seems that the people of Israel, the people of God are to always carry with them, even in symbolic form, an awareness of the whole earth; of all nations. That even in a time of famine driving them from their home the people carry with them an awareness of all people. When the people are making a covenant to serve and worship Yahweh they are accountable to all people.

And then at the Great Commission we hear the words of Jesus reaffirming a relation to all the nations of the world that are to be included in the formation of this vision and message that Jesus offered.

Unfortunately and sometimes tragically the people of God have not always known what it means to carry this attentiveness to the world with them. As we have wrestled in the past few Sundays, it is not always clear just what is Good News.

I had not heard this difficulty put so succinctly as in the work of Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish scholar in his book on the Apostle Paul. Among other things the question of a global awareness is the question of how we relate, and more precisely how, if and under whose terms we can all belong.

Boyarin acknowledges that Paul offered a legitimately Jewish response to this question but it was a response that ultimately differed from how rabbinic Judaism continued after the church and synagogue split.

So what is the tension or temptation in having a global awareness? Boyarin says that for Paul in his desire for tolerance and openness there is a tendency to downplay or even disparage the value of particular cultural or religious practices. It is almost impossible for us as Christians 2000 years later to appreciate the shock of downplaying circumcision as a requirement for faithfulness.

Conversely, for rabbinic Judaism in its desire to value the particular practices and beliefs of our community or tradition there is a tendency to be exclusionary and sometimes prejudicial. A people not looking to convert but who view themselves as a people set apart to be God’s mediators to the world.

And so to put it in contemporary and perhaps unhelpful terms liberals end up feeling uncomfortable with conservatives and vice versa.

So while Judaism took the global vision of the Hebrew Bible to mean a call of faithfulness to the Torah in its particular requirements Christianity tended towards an expansive vision of including all people in one community.

So while both approaches have their harmful tendencies Boyarin acknowledges that both also have their potential to be ‘good news’.

So what then is our calling, how do we faithfully attend to the global awareness embedded in our faith? Boyarin offers some helpful suggestions in this regard. In many instances this means simply being attentive to the realities beyond ourselves. In the church too often we have felt that the biblical truths are timeless in a way that means we should never change but in fact faithfulness to the Gospel requires us to be open to certain types of change depending on our context.

Boyarin puts it this way. Practices in a state of vulnerability have one meaning . . . but the same practices have entirely different meanings in a situation of power. Boyarin is speaking specifically of his Jewish history and the practices that protected Jews in exile and diaspora but have become violent in the modern state of Israel. But this statement is equally or even more valid in the relation to the church and we as Mennonites.

Our Mennonite identity was born in the context of suffering and rejection as early leaders faced severe persecution for their beliefs and practices. As a result, it seems, the Anabaptist/Mennonite community developed strong resilience to opposition by supporting each other, remaining unwavering in their convictions and separate from many expressions around them. However, these strengths often blinded us to the influence and effect we had on those around us, particularly when we gained wealth and status.

And so the insulation and protection earlier Mennonites cultivated was understandable and needed but it turned toxic in many other settings when we were not attentive to the world around us.

And so we as a global church and as a global Mennonite church we face a particular historical moment. We face a world seemingly in desperate need of trustworthy and tangible good news. And at the same time as the church we are still in the process of understanding that all too often our message has caused harm to many around us.

What then are we called to in this historical moment? What does it mean to faithful to the Gospel with the global awareness embedded in our faith? There is no easy answer and we will always be chasing a moving target. I was profoundly moved by Daniel Boyarin’s response to this question. For many Jews there is a deep link between their faith and the land of Israel, for many it seems that one cannot really be conceived without the other. But in light of contemporary circumstances Boyarin writes,

“I have painfully renounced the possibility of realizing my very strong feeling of connection to the Land in favor of what I take to be the only possible end to violence and movement towards justice.”

Boyarin’s faithful attentiveness has led him re-evaluate a position held dearly both by himself and by his community. Later in that section he maintains that

“The biblical story is not of one [claiming true origins] but one of always already coming from somewhere else.”

What Boyarin seems to be saying is that if we only base our identity on our truth claims we run the danger of not being faithfully attentive to the world. Abraham, the father of our faith was not born ‘in the land’ but called from a foreign place.

Perhaps the reason the Bible continues to trace the symbol of the whole world in this group of people is because we never really knew where we came from. We are attentive to the world because we just don’t know where we might hear surprising news about our life and story.

We are attentive to the world because we cannot be sure that we won’t find there a brother, a sister, a parent or a child. Tomorrow is the Memorial Service for our church member Rudi Peters. To spend any time with Rudi is to have your notion of family stretched and extended.

At first I wondered if he had been married as he talked about children and grandchildren but as the names and circumstances trickled down it became apparent that he did not acquire this family by traditional means. Stories of past experiences with people of all background flowed easily from him. There was a sense, whether or not he would have put it this way, that in encountering someone he sensed that just maybe he found a long lost relative.

Such is the nature of our global awareness, not that we incorporate all people into our way of thinking and acting but that we are surprised and joyful at the intimacy and connection that is possible when we find we have discovered a part of our family.

As you take Communion this Sunday may this symbol Jesus gave us be a reminder that any moment of fellowship in the world can be encounter with the one brings Good News. May we learn to treat our local and our global neighbours such love and faithfulness attentiveness.


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