God’s success is our problem. But it’s a good problem. From these thoughts of Tom Yoder Neufeld came a catch phrase of MennoCon19: “The church is a mess. Thanks be to God!”
A professor emeritus of religious studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., Yoder Neufeld led 495 Mennonite Church U.S.A. delegates in Bible studies on unity and diversity in Ephesians from July 3 to 5 at the Kansas City Convention Center.
The sessions featured verses like Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
“Let’s put the ceaseless struggle for unity at the core of our understanding of discipleship,” Yoder Neufeld said.
Of his theme, “Gathered into one,” he said, “This is a oneness that defies our imagination. It is nothing less than participating in the unity of God.”
Because God is a successful gatherer, God’s unity is full of diversity. “It takes every ounce of skill, patience and especially love to cope with the success of God’s gathering,” he said. “Unity is hard work. Blame it on God!”
Although “our world is torn by fear of what or who is strange or different,” he said, “let’s not point the finger too quickly at the world,” because Anabaptists also participate in a culture of suspicion, shaming or shunning those whose views or behaviours we disdain.
Children of the wind
Emphasizing the definitions of Spirit as “wind” and “breath,” he described God as bringing “unsettling, wind-driven” unity to the church. “What if we thought of the church as the children of the wind?” he asked. “One thing you can’t do with wind is control it. . . .
“The unity of the Spirit is this turbulent storm within God’s embrace. That’s what peace looks like until we all see God face to face together. If Jesus is God’s peace, then the peace we know today is the peace that is constantly being unsettled by its generosity toward enemies and strangers.”
Yoder Neufeld encouraged the delegates to “rejoice in our awkwardness” as the body of Christ. “The body of Christ will never walk elegantly, but it will walk gracefully,” he said. “That is its perfection.”
Referring to the biblical image of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, he asked, What building materials would we use to build a home for God? He said the walls of God’s temple are made up of things people have thrown away.
This can be a difficult idea for those in the Anabaptist tradition who want a disciplined community “without spot or wrinkle.”
“We have a hard time following Jesus out to the garbage heap to find building materials, because that would unsettle the niceness of our building,” he said, adding, “We should test whether we are a peace church by the hospitality we have toward each other.”
Chain gang of peace
Yoder Neufeld compared the church to a chain gang.
“The body of Christ is not made up of those who are fleet of foot,” he said. “It has some who want to run fast, but the problem is they are shackled to those of us who can’t run very well. They have to put others’ needs before their own.”
He suggested thinking of unity as the starting point rather than the goal. “That will help us reframe many of the struggles we have with each other,” he said.
Delegates asked if unity has limits. One cited Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness.”
“The unity of the Spirit is intended to be a transformative one,” Yoder Neufeld answered. “When we are brought into the body of Christ, we are not simply included, we are included for transformation.”
Reprinted with permission of Mennonite World Review.