Category Archives: Salvation

Sketching a Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

Ted Grimsrud—Presented at the London Mennonite Forum, September 2009[1]

Theology is important, and it’s human work. The best theology, I believe, motivates and guides peacemaking. In my essay, “Contemporary Theology in Light of Anabaptism,” I propose that theology in light of Anabaptism should be “practice-oriented” more than “doctrine-oriented.”  I suggest that such a focus will distinguish Anabaptist theology from mainstream ecumenical and evangelical theologies—especially when it is Jesus-centered, pacifist theology.  In this sequel, I will flesh out a bit the kind of theology I have in mind.

Theology and Our Hierarchy of Values

I believe that our “theology” is made up of the convictions that matter the most to us.  We each have a hierarchy of values.  At the very top of this hierarchy is our god, or gods.  The term “theology” literally means “the study of God (theos).”  To understand the actual theology we live by, we should ask first of all how we order our lives.  What in practice are the priorities in our lives that reflect what we truly accept as ultimate?  These priorities tell us a lot about what our actual god or gods are.

Think back to your earliest memories. What did you value? What would you have said about what was most important in your life?  How we answer these questions reveals a great deal about what we could call our “embedded” theology.[2]  This theology did not come to us through our own choices.  It was given to us; we inherited it.  Then, when we face the world as bigger, when we suffer, when we face questions that shake us up, when we are asked by someone else what we believe and why, we will be pushed to move from embedded to “deliberative” theology.  Then we think and apply and expand and understand and articulate.  Continue reading

What does Jesus’ resurrection mean?

When we think carefully about the New Testament story of Jesus’ resurrection and its role in Christian theology, we may well find ourselves considering a lot of questions. The one I focus on in my May 15, 2011, sermon (called “Resurrection Questions”) is quite simple: What does Jesus’ resurrection mean?

I suggest that questions of historicity are not the most important or useful. Rather, the bigger issues concern how Jesus’ resurrection relates to his life and teaching. And linked with that connection, we face the challenging question of what Jesus’ resurrection tells us about God’s power (and ours).

This sermon is the 14th in a series on Jesus’ life and teaching. The concluding sermon will return to the question that began the series—”Why do we pay attention to Jesus?”

What is the book of Revelation really about?

I am gearing up for a new “assault” on the book of Revelation in a few months. I plan to preach a lengthy series of sermons that I hope can evolve into a book. This time, more than when I have worked with Revelation in the past, I will focus in our present-day context as we read Revelation. I actually do believe Revelation speaks to our world in profoundly urgent and relevant ways—though not at all in the ways writers like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye think.

So I have gone back to look at some of the earlier writing I did on Revelation. I found this series of four sermons from 1996 particularly interesting. This series came near the end of my two-year stint as co-pastor with my wife Kathleen at Salem Mennonite Church in Freeman, SD. Several people had been encouraging me to do something on Revelation before we left. So I tried to boil down in four sermons what I thought was most important about Revelation.

When I return to Revelation this fall, my take on what the book is really about will probably be a bit different, at least in emphasis, than it was 15 years ago. But in rereading those old sermons, I feel pretty good. Which is why I am posting them here. I show how one might read Revelation as a source of ethical and spiritual encouragement.

I was interested to discover that in the midst of my series, I had to find a way to relate Revelation to baptism, as we baptized three teenagers the Sunday of my third sermon. I don’t know how many baptism sermons draw directly on Revelation, but I am pretty happy with how I linked baptism with the critique of Babylon in Revelation 18.

Finding hope in the story of Jesus’ execution

I reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion and how this death stands for life in my March 27, 2011 sermon—the thirteenth in my series on Luke’s Gospel.

One of the big and challenging questions for Christians is the simple question: why did Jesus die? One way to approach this question is to look at the big story the Bible tells. In the story, right away with Abel we learn that sometimes being faithful to God might actually be the reason a person dies. The Old Testament later on sets out two types of conflict as central in the struggle for faithfulness among God’s people—the external conflict between the faith community and the empires of the world and the internal conflict between oppressive leaders inside the community and the prophetic voices of dissent.

The gospels then place Jesus right in the middle of this big story—and recount how his life involves the same two types of conflict as he bumps up against both the religious institutions and the political institutions of his day. Jesus got into trouble because of his double commitment to challenge oppressors and to welcome the oppressed. And he does so nonviolently.

The sermon may be found here: it’s called “Life in Death.” The other sermons in the series may be found here.

The Last Supper and Discipleship

I reflect on Jesus’ last supper and its meaning for discipleship in my February 13, 2011 sermon—the twelfth in my series on Luke’s Gospel.

The story of Jesus is not simply a case of bad things happening to a good person. It’s bad things happening to a good person because he’s a good person. Jesus’ life raises the issue of how it is that the “good news” leads directly to bad news. The other big question in relation to Jesus is whether the bad news he faces is something that he deals with so his followers won’t have to (kind of the substitutionary atonement motif), or if his facing bad news is a kind of model for Jesus’ disciples.

The account of the Jesus’ last supper with his friends makes a clear and strong point of emphasizing the modeling aspect. Luke, alone of the gospels, inserts the debate among the disciples about who would be “greatest” into the last supper conversation. Jesus’ exclaims: “Not so among you! The greatest must be servants.” Here he makes it clear he expects his followers to follow the same good news leading to bad news path that he follows—with the promise of God’s ultimate vindication.

Also, by placing the last supper in the context of the Passover celebration, Luke reiterates that the good news –> bad news –> vindication dynamic that was central in the exodus story links it with the story of Jesus.

The sermon may be found here: it’s called “When the ‘Good News’ is Bad News.” The other sermons in the series may be found here.

Why we pay attention to Jesus

Article published in The Mennonite [13.12 (December 2010), 12-15].

Jesus is pretty amazing.  He’s an ancient character in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.  He barely made it to his 30s and then joined countless other expendable people who the Empire considered worth executing.

Yet, in his afterlife, he became surely the most famous human being in world history. Certainly, the story of Jesus has been twisted and turned, exploited for evil purposes, corrupted almost beyond recognition—but somehow sprouts keep shooting up through the rubble, bringing forth flowers, revealing something of the beauty of the original vision of this person who history can’t let go of.

We still must ask, though, why do we pay attention to Jesus?

Once upon a time, there was a brilliant young German scholar and musician who paid attention to Jesus.  The seriousness with which he paid attention to Jesus led Albert Schweitzer to abandon a career that combined being a professor of religion with being a world-renowned organist.  He returned to school, earned a medical doctorate and spent the rest of his long life as a medical missionary in Africa and gained enough renown to be named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work.

Schweitzer’s most important scholarly work was about Jesus.  In his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he surveyed attempts by European scholars in the 19th century to produce a purely objective, historically accurate portrayal of Jesus and get behind the obvious biases of the gospel writers to the supposed bedrock of fact.

Schweitzer scorned these efforts. He concluded his book with the famous image of various scholars peering deep into the wells of history looking for the face of the historical Jesus.  They don’t realize that the face they see looking up at them is actually their own.  They are not really looking at Jesus but only at a reflecting pool of water.

This image makes an undeniable, and very important, point. We all look at Jesus through our own perspective.  We all look for stuff that matters to us and that speaks to our world.  None of us can be objective about Jesus.  We all run the risk of turning Jesus simply into a caricature of our own values and our own culture.

One impact of Schweitzer’s cutting insight, though, has been to serve as a kind of cynical debunking tool.  It’s a way to mock attempts to take Jesus seriously: Ah, you’re just projecting your own interests onto Jesus and calling them his.

When we look at what people say about Jesus we see such incredible diversity and  contradictions and self-justifications.  I have two recent books that focus on how Americans have presented Jesus—one’s called American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004) by Stephen Prothero, the other Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (HarperOne, 2005) by Richard Wightman Fox.  These books make it clear how so many in our culture have confused a reflection of themselves for a picture of Jesus.

And yet….

There just may be something we could call revelatory in this cacophony of images of Jesus humans have generated these past 2,000 years.  Maybe we do see something truthful in the sum of what humans, Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old, westerner and easterner, say about Jesus.

Continue reading

Salvation in the “Good Samaritan” Story

I have posted another in my series of sermons on Jesus based on the Gospel of Luke. My November 14 sermon, the ninth in the series, focuses on Luke 10 and the famous story Jesus told about the Samaritan who offers help to a beaten traveler, showing what it means to be a neighbor, which—in the context of this story—is about what it means to inherit eternal life.

The sermon focuses on what this story tells us about Jesus’ presentation of salvation. One interesting angle for reflecting on salvation is to ask, what are we saved from? The Good Samaritan story tells us that one key aspect of life we need to be saved from is to limit our love only to certain types of people.

The sermon may be found here: it’s called “Salvation—From What.” The other sermons in the series may be found here.

The Bible’s Salvation Story

One of the areas with the intense debate in recent Christian theology has been understandings of salvation. Much of the debate has focused on theories of the atonement, theologies of the cross, interpretations of theologians such as Anselm and Luther, views of the doctrines of Christian tradition.

Not so much attention has been paid to the biblical portrayals of salvation, except as viewed through the lenses of the various atonement theories. I have been working on a book that does indeed focus directly on biblical theology. I have gotten quite a bit done on this project; I am calling it: Mercy Not Sacrifice: The Bible’s Salvation Story. I mostly need yet to flesh out the chapter on salvation in the book of Revelation and to complete a concluding chapter, “Is There an Atonement Theory in This Story?”

Since I am focusing my energies elsewhere for the time being (and since I have struck out so far in my tentative attempts to find a publisher), I will post here on the manuscript as far as it has been developed.

John Howard Yoder’s Christology

John Howard Yoder’s stature as a major American theologian continues to grow. I recently found in my files a paper, “John Howard Yoder’s Christology,” I wrote now nearly thirty years ago, summarizing my initial understanding of Yoder’s christology. I do not remember the occasion for the paper. It gives what I still think is an accurate portrayal of some of Yoder’s main thoughts.

Finding this paper makes me think that it would be worthwhile to revisit this theme. I wonder if I were to write a 2,000 word summary of Yoder’s christology now, if it would be much different from my old paper. In the meantime, I have completed two graduate degrees in theology, served nearly ten years as a pastor, and now head toward the end of my fourteenth year as a college professor. Yoder wrote a lot between 1982 and his death in 1997. But I’m not sure I would say it much differently now—maybe I’ll try and see someday soon.

Theology as if Jesus Matters

I am very happy to have a new book just out. It’s called Theology As If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions (Living Issues Discussion). It’s published by Cascadia Publishing House.The book asks (and tries to answer) the question: What would each of the core Christian beliefs look like if we focused on how it links with Jesus’ call to love God and neighbor? What results is a book that is kind of Bible-centered, postmodern, practical, theoretical, pacifist, and confrontational.If Tom Waits were to describe this theology he might say: “It’s new, it’s improved, it’s old fashioned.”

Here is a link to the book’s web page: Theology as if Jesus Matters.