KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Themes of transformation and understanding in the Luke 24 Emmaus road story were the focus of adult worship services at the Mennonite Church USA convention.
Hal Shrader, lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., said July 1 that the text’s post-Easter setting of chaos, fear and anxiety has parallels to the mood within MC USA — but that also means there are possibilities for new life.
“Sometimes we need to wake up, to remember who God is and how he has worked in our lives in the past,” he said. “We need to remember who we are, who God is and how to move forward.”
Citing broad interest in Anabaptist values, Shrader described how a book on reconciliation by John Paul Lederach got on the radar of Willow Creek Community Church, and the megachurch’s influence exploded interest in a revised release by Herald Press titled Reconcile.
“The Mennonite church has a reputation that goes way beyond its size, and the influence of your heritage has a profound opportunity to change the world,” he said. “If we are willing to embrace the opportunities, God can do amazing things through this denomination.
“We are the living embodiment of this theology to bring into place the kingdom of God. . . . As the world watches, are we who we say we are?”
Shrader described his church’s partnership with a local mosque that gained notoriety May 29 when 200 people carrying firearms gathered there for a tense protest supporting freedom of speech and gun rights.
At the protest, Shrader kept pulling a friend from the mosque back from barricades. His efforts to limit the Muslim man fueling the protestors’ hatred failed, but dialogue ensued. At a later event in the mosque, Shrader found himself sitting near the protestor, who now insists he will never offend Muslims again because he talked to them.
The protest’s organizer, now living in fear after the terrorist organization ISIS posted his address online, is meeting with Shrader after the convention to have their own conversation.
“He may just need someone to listen, and I can make that happen too,” Shrader said. “These are the things we can discover if we look for where God is at work and be amazed at what he can do through each one of us.”
Center of Scripture
Patricia Shelly called Mennonites to read the Bible together and wrestle with God’s word until we are blessed by it.
Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., and moderator-elect at the Kansas City convention, said the Emmaus road story has many references to the Old Testament. It is no accident the interpretation of Scripture preceded the breaking of bread.
“Not only are the scriptures important for understanding Jesus, but Christ is the key to understanding Scripture,” she said. “Christ is the lens through which we read the Bible.”
Her July 2 message lamented that Bible study has waned among many Anabaptists, who were historically zealous study advocates.
If Christ is the center of Scripture, he is also the center of our lives and the model for how we relate to each other.
“In Philippians, Paul makes this clear: Do nothing with selfishness and conceit but look at others as better than yourself,” Shelly said. “ . . . Let the word of Christ dwell in us richly and seek that transformation of mind that Jesus modeled in his life as we interact with each other.”
An open palm
The transparent nature of Cleopas, the only traveler named in the story, is difficult for American Mennonites to accept. Dale Schrag said July 3 that Cleopas’ ready acceptance of a stranger and openness to make himself vulnerable are foreign concepts.
Instead, our culture puts great value on certainty, something the recently retired campus pastor and director of church relations at Bethel College said is both practically and theologically problematic.
“Doesn’t absolute certainty make a mockery of all those New Testament calls for humility?” he asked.
Besides impeding hospitality and a willingness to learn from others, he said, claiming certainty “comes dangerously close to presuming godlike omniscience.”
“It is crystal clear that we humans are not God, and if we are not God, we cannot know with absolute certainty. There is always at least the possibility that we might be wrong, even in our most deeply held, most cherished opinions,” Schrag said to applause. “That’s the human condition. Certitude then represents a kind of heresy.”
He said avoiding certainty is a gift, perhaps of grace, and we can only be certain of putting Christ at the center of our faith.
“Would the Mennonite Church USA be in its current state of crisis if everyone was a bit less certain about the issues that divide us?” he asked.
If we held our convictions “in an open palm rather than a closed fist,” he said, “that might change, ever so slightly, our ability to hold each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Cyneatha Millsaps said July 4 that it was only after welcoming a stranger, walking and talking together and breaking bread together that eyes were opened to Christ’s presence.
When you know someone’s story, you know Christ in them. As pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., Millsaps said she gets to hear many people’s stories.
“I get to know Christ in many different ways, more ways than in Scripture,” she said. “My eyes to Christ are open when I have shared life with you.”
Hearing where someone is coming from also helps to understand those with whom we disagree, allowing Christians to offer more grace and love in Jesus.
“I pray that our eyes will be open,” she said. “ . . . I pray that we will stop trying to tell each other who God is in your life and start telling each other who God is in each of our own lives.”