We Mennonites have long been known for our service, our convictions about peace and our history of being persecuted. We have not been known for our celebration. Perhaps we need to refocus our attention.
I’ve been called, with reason, a pessimist. I’m as suspicious as most cynics of false hope, bravado or a smile painted over sadness.
Yet my dispassionate journalist’s heart was moved, and tears came to my eyes as Mennonites from around the world marched into the opening worship at the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) Assembly July 21 in Harrisburg, Pa., to the song “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
And in the ensuing days, as we worshiped in the morning and evening, singing songs from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America and hearing sermons from speakers around the globe, I also felt a lingering joy, a burgeoning hope in God’s presence on earth.
I won’t pretend there aren’t serious differences within MWC.
But as God’s creation teaches us, there is beauty in diversity. And being together requires work.
In a workshop I attended at the assembly, called “Koinonia: the Gift We Hold Together,” Tom Yoder Neufeld, a New Testament scholar from Canada, explored the various meanings and uses of “koinonia” in the New Testament.
The core of the gospel, he said, is that Jesus Christ brings what is “common” or unclean (“koine”) into communion (“koinonia”) with God.
Yoder Neufeld pointed out the extraordinary statement of Jesus in John 17 that our unity is to reflect the unity of the Divine Trinity. Our unity, he said, is much more than how we get along with each other.
“If the church is settled down and calm,” he said, “koinonia is not being made.” A faithful church is messy, he added.
How do we access that unity that Jesus spoke of?
Many things help, including sitting down together at tables and listening to one another and facing our differences.
But best, perhaps, is worshiping together.
In a blog on our website, Meghan Good, pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church, writes: “Worship strips us of our affectations and false identifying markers.” It takes us beyond ourselves, beyond the barriers of language and perception.
Mennonites tend to think of themselves as the special few, Yoder Neufeld said in his workshop, and often as victims. But when we do that we fail to welcome others.
We need worship as a corrective.
“Where we cannot see our unity, in worship we begin to touch it,” Good writes.
In his farewell address as outgoing president of MWC, Danisa Ndlovu of Zimbabwe said, “It’s good for messages to be experienced in the heart; then the mind can reflect on them.”
Being with Mennonites from around the world confronted me with the reality that my local world is not all there is. At the same time, we live out our faith in local contexts, walking with God and one another, seeking to share with others the love and life we have received from God.
There is power in celebrating together what God has done, focusing on praising God, not ourselves. Celebrating our unity in Jesus Christ has the power to enliven our witness and remind us of who we are.
Gordon Houser is editor of The Mennonite.