Editor’s note: Following MennoCon19, several bloggers for The Mennonite are sharing reflections.
Through his letter to the Ephesians, Paul was front and center at all delegate meetings at MennoCon19. Not only did the assembly take the letter seriously, the biblical text did serious damage to walls, borders, views of unity and diversity and much more.
“The church is a mess,” Tom Yoder Neufeld, the guide to Bible study shouted, then gestured to the audience to respond liturgically, “Thanks be to God.” The church of Jesus Christ, if it is true to Him, is always untidy (it collects all kinds of people bringing all sorts of issues). “Thanks be to God.”
Three daily intensive Bible studies of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians took us deep into new understandings of the goodness of God, the centrality of Jesus, the vitality of the Spirit and the grittiness of grace when all these come together. Any ideas of the church as a virtuous minority, spotless, flawless, unmarked and unwrinkled, were deflated by Paul’s letter to us and the table discussions followed by open mic witnesses and questions. What makes the body of Christ perfect, we concluded, was the inclusion of strangers and foreigners who find their way in over smashed walls of old prejudices. These have been broken down by Christ himself (Ephesians 2). Perfection has a healthy complementarity that we do not need to fear, nor fight to achieve, nor claim or pretend. We will never reach it.
The last vestiges of an immature dream of unity without diversity were being flattened, as well as the illusion of a unity with diversity. Instead, Paul teaches a unity of diversity, and this difference is profound, Neufeld noted. “Unity is the base, the given, the starting point, not the result or fruit of our work,” he said. From the grounding in Christ we then spread our creative discoveries of diversity in a wide array that calls us to forgo, forgive, forbear and forge new bonds of love again and again.
Paul seemed visible as we went about the business of the church. (Would he be unperturbed by the messiness of discussion and decision making we call discernment?) We listened to each other thoughtfully and felt the presence of the Spirit of Holiness in the extended room of delegates.
It was obvious that we missed many former colleagues we used to see in this gathering who, due to withdrawal, were not there. It was clear we felt both abandoned by dear friends and liberated by the absence of tensions and threats of distancing. Acceptance was replacing lament, welcoming one another as the face of Jesus here and now was heartwarming, and hope that lifts its eyes to scan the horizon was fresh and alive. Resilience was invigorating our conversations on being the church with, to, for each other and our world. And we celebrated that “the church is a mess,” as we recognized our unity of diversity and said together, “Thanks be to God.”
David Augsburger is a retired seminary professor living in Claremont, California.