Let the Bridegroom come!

Wedding--compressedCRPalestinian weddings can last for a week, as family and friends revel through rounds of anticipatory parties. When it’s finally time for vows, men convene at the groom’s home for one last celebration before leading him away to make promises.

I came upon a wedding in the West Bank north of Jerusalem at just such a moment. The village was a jubilant jam as clapping and laughing men crowded around the groom on a side street and spilled out onto the main thoroughfare. I approached on foot, and all warmly waved me in to join the ruckus. The groom and first man were on shoulders with arms aloft. Music! Drums! Dancing!

Elsewhere family and friends prepared and adorned the bride. If a couple is Christian, the groom’s family (without groom) bring the bride and bridesmaids to church, where all await arrival of the groom and the culminating ceremony. When vows have been made, somber ritual shifts again to celebration with hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, pita bread, rice, lamb, cake–and more dancing.

Weddings are huge events in Middle Eastern culture, and family reputation is at stake. No wonder Jesus turned water to wine at a Cana wedding feast. A family that needed to show generous hospitality faced the humiliation of empty goblets.

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who carried lamps and went to await the bridegroom, Jesus said (Matt. 25). Five were wise to fill their lamps with oil; five were foolish and did not prepare. The bridegroom was delayed until midnight, whereupon the foolish scurried away to buy oil. When they returned, the feast already was underway and doors shut.

What does it mean for us to be ready for the marriage supper of the Lamb, when Christ will bring justice and salvation to the world? Can we get beyond fixation on “rapture” and end-of-the-world Armageddon scenarios to see that God wants to bring a new heaven and a new earth where shalom/salaam will prevail? Do we understand that we are to start living into that transformed future now?

When John of Patmos pictures the end of this age as a wedding, the church is a bride clothed in fine linen, bright and pure. The linen is the “righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). We sinful mortals cannot earn salvation, but actions reveal our spiritual state. After telling the story of bridesmaids, Jesus also likened the inbreaking kingdom of heaven to a property owner who put servants in charge while he traveled. The owner returned to severely punish his servants for poor management. How are we managing in planet care today?

Perhaps the Bridegroom already is present in our world–as an immigrant, or single parent, or displaced person in the West Bank, or refugee from proxy wars of super powers. At final judgement, Jesus said, bewildered “goats” facing eternal separation from God will protest, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” (Matt. 25:45). Come, Lord Jesus, and teach us justice to be ready for your coming.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************JNK2018sm
Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where so much biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a “Journey of Hope” tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019 (https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/ ). In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation–including justice issues of Israel and Palestine—as we travel and worship together.
A second tour on June 10-20, 2020, similar to the above, can be paired with a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play. See //www.tourmagination.com/tour/2020-jordan-palestine-israel/

Let God do the sorting

casting net on Sea of Galilee

From a boat on the Sea of Galilee, a fisherman demonstrates the ancient art of casting a circular net. Weights along the outer edge sink rapidly, pulling the web around any living thing below. Waters next to Jesus’ ministry base at Capernaum teemed with tilapia, carp, and sardines when his first disciples plied their trade.

Fishing was a significant part of the regional economy in the first century, evidenced by names of nearby towns: Bethsaida (“house of fishing”) was hometown to Peter, Andrew, and Philip; Tariacheae (“pickled fish town,” called Magdala in Hebrew) probably was home to Mary Magdalene. Disciples of Jesus appear in the Gospels variously mending nets, fishing all night, counting fish, extracting a coin from the mouth of a fish, and eating seafood breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind,” Jesus told his followers. “When it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:47-50).

At a time when some Christian denominations excommunicate or divide over sexuality and other contested matters, Jesus’ fishing parable is instructive. Galilean fishermen typically used nets, not hooks, to harvest their catch. Evangelism and church discipline, according to this imagery, are broad and inclusive. Nobody gets hooked individually by ruse or violence. Rather, the wide embrace of a net draws in a motley and diverse catch. At the end of the age these get sorted–not by you and me, but by angels.

How tempted I am to start sorting  now! Chuck out fish whose politics irritate me. Discard those not to my taste. Get rid of any whose views on sexuality don’t seem biblical according to how I interpret the Bible.

But instead of putting you and me into the sorting business, Jesus implies that we are to cast a wide net. “Follow me, and I will make you [net] fish for people,” he said (Matt. 4:19). Other biblical images likewise suggest that Jesus advocated an inclusive people-gathering. The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer’s field with both wheat and weeds, he taught. These grow side by side until harvest, then reapers (angels?) sort them and destroy the worthless plants (Matt. 13:24-30). In John’s Apocalypse, it is Christ who can remove lampstands (congregations), not the churches themselves (Rev. 2:5).

Our Lord did not suggest that belief and behavior are irrelevant to salvation. There are consequences for those who do not measure up. When God brings harvest at the end of the age, weeds will go up in smoke and bad fish end up in the furnace, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We do well to learn, practice, and teach what God requires for holy living. But thank God, we can focus on net-casting and let God do the sorting.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************JNK mugshot 5.18 small (3)
Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where so much biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a “Journey of Hope” tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019 (https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/). In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and view Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site along the Jordan River where God parted the waters for his people to cross, and Machaerus fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect on themes of mission and reconciliation as we travel and worship together.

Resisting the powers of greed

Philippi 4blog

This dungeon at Philippi is the traditional place where Paul and Silas sang hymns at midnight.

In the name of Jesus, Paul and Silas healed a slave-girl at Philippi whose owners exploited her for money as a fortune-teller (Acts 16). When the owners “saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” Officials beat the two, then clamped them in stocks in jail. There Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns at midnight, when a violent earthquake shook the prison, setting all captives free.

Next to the landfill near my home in Indiana is a thousand-inmate county jail that nets a profit each year by renting cells to other counties and Federal Marshals. Now there is the possibility of a second prison facility, this one an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) complex for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. It would be owned and operated for profit by a private company. The proposed jail would hold more than a thousand, mostly Hispanics who made a perilous passage to this country seeking employment and safety. They have broken the law.

People at Philippi and elsewhere accused Paul of breaking the law, and he wrote his letter to the Philippians from a prison, perhaps at Rome. Speaking the gospel even in chains, Paul said his faith had “become known throughout the whole imperial guard.” His courage inspired other believers “to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear” (Philippians 1).

Christians are speaking boldly and without fear against the ICE detention center in Indiana. Mennonite pastor Neil Amstutz recently said at a public meeting, “We are here because [we] follow a Lord who, as a child, was himself a vulnerable refugee in a foreign country . . . We are here because the Bible commands us to show compassion to the foreigner and the stranger in our midst, to treat the least of these as if we were treating Jesus himself.”

An acquaintance incarcerated in our nearby jail for failure to pay vehicle fines told me, “When you are poor, it’s bad.” In addition to locking up immigrants, the United States imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country on earth–about 750 out of every 100,000. Prisoners are likely to be young, poorly educated, and black or Latino.

Christians should not be scofflaws, and prisons can have the legitimate function of protecting society from dangerous individuals. But locking up the poor or deporting the sojourner does not align with the Hebrew prophets or with Jesus. Like Paul, we should appeal to a higher law for justice and compassion, and seek more creative responses to social problems.

God pays attention when people are behind bars. A violent earthquake shook the jail at Philippi, liberating Paul and other prisoners. Paul cared enough about the jailer to save him from suicide and to show him the love of Jesus. I am awaiting an earthquake in my city as followers of Jesus sing hymns, pray, and resist powers of greed and xenophobia that make money from the suffering of others.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

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Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join.   See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

Like the first syllable of shiitake

What would it take to make Saint Paul cussing mad? Fellow Jews or Christians maintaining barriers that kept others from full acceptance in the faith community, that would do it. Harsh language about such exclusion in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi makes me consider how easy it is to raise the bar in the church today for people whose background, culture, or life experience are different from mine.

Philippi toilet with copyright mark--small file

A Roman era public toilet at ancient Philippi still has two stone seats mounted above skubalon pits, and a trough for fresh water at the feet of users.

Recently I asked a Mennonite genealogist to enter my name into his database and see what emerged. A few days later he delivered an eighty-page notebook with charts and names of hundreds of my Mennonite Swiss and German ancestors. My biological forebears were among early European Anabaptists. It was my ancestor, Hans Reist, who had the dispute with Jakob Ammann in 1693 that led to formation of the Amish church. I am a descendant of Hans Herr, Mennonite patriarch of Pennsylvania whose 1719 house still stands as the oldest in Lancaster County.

Add to this Anabaptist family heritage the fact that I went to a Mennonite college, studied at three seminaries, hail from a long line of church leaders, and am ordained.

The apostle Paul would not be impressed. In his letter to Philippi, Paul rehearses his own religious credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” All this status, of which Paul once was so proud, he now counts as “rubbish” (skubalon, Phil. 3:8).

Actually, Paul’s language is stronger than most modern translations allow. We should render skubalon in English like the first syllable of shiitake mushroom. Paul is frustrated enough to slip in a rude word that appears nowhere else in the Bible and only rarely in ancient literature. He is angry at himself and others whose legalistic or genealogical boundaries exclude Gentiles or make them feel like second-class members of the body of Christ.

Skubalon comes to mind when I find a Roman era public toilet among ruins at ancient Philippi. Relieving oneself apparently was a social occasion in the Roman world: eight or ten stone toilet seats, placed close to one another above skubalon pits, once lined walls of the small room. To clean themselves, users dipped a stick with sponge attached into a little trough flowing with fresh water at their feet.

Skubalon also comes to mind when I find monuments to spiritual pride or legalistic boundaries in my heart or in my church.  Let it be said that I do not look or act like the average Mennonite or average Christian on this planet. Today the median Mennonite in the world is a black African woman, and that is representative of the global Christian church. That reminds me to receive and welcome people into my local congregation who come from the global south or from cultural, educational, or linguistic background different from my own. What binds us together is sins forgiven through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and lives transformed by the power of the Spirit.

As a historian, I find family history fascinating and instructive. I am grateful for education I received. But if I ever start to confuse all of this with status in the church, it is time to review Paul’s words about all the entries in his religous résumé: “I regard them as skubala, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).


© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine on 8-19 September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope

Exaggerated stuff in Christianity

“Yes, we are Christians,” an elderly man said on the Greek island of Milos after giving directions to my wife Ellen and me. “But we don’t believe the exaggerated stuff.”


Next to this church on the volcanic island of Milos we asked directions from George and Helen. Within walking distance are some of the oldest Christian catacombs, and the site where the Venus de Milo statue was found.

That unexpected comment came after I noticed small silver crosses he and his wife each wore. “You are Christians!” I said. Friendly conversation followed, and we learned their names were George and Helen. I pressed for an example of “exaggerated stuff” in Christianity.

“We like Jesus,” George allowed, “but we don’t believe in the resurrection.” My biblical imagination went on full alert: this was the same response certain Greeks gave the Apostle Paul almost two millennia ago! When Paul mentioned the resurrection at Athens, “some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (Acts 17:32).

Helen and George wanted to hear more, and invited us for coffee in their humble home. There we explained that we were Christians visiting sites in Greece related to Paul and the early church. George told how he had traveled the world in the merchant marine. Learning that I am a minister, he posed a question: How could God punish his Son for sins of humanity? What kind of father would do that?

Don’t think of it so much as God punishing his Son, I said. Think of Jesus as God-with-us. God was fully present in Jesus, taking on the brokenness of the world. The cross shows how much God loves, not how angry God is. Resurrection shows that God has chosen to overcome evil with forgiveness and love.

George and Helen seemed drawn to this image of God, and went on to share concerns about their own health and family. Ellen and I offered to pray with them, and both were in tears when prayer ended. “Jesus is present here,” I said. “This is the power of the resurrection.”

George excused himself to the next room to regain composure. Helen went to the kitchen and retrieved two small magnetic refrigerator icons—not of monetary value, but beautiful. “Take these,” she said with a smile. We thanked them for their kindness, and I left my business card.


Three months later Christmas greetings arrived from Greece—addressed to “Father Nelson.” George and Helen wrote, “We wish and hope you have a mery-mery Christmas. . . Pray Lord for us as you once did in our little house in Milos!”

A letter we wrote after my heart surgery in January prompted a three-page epistle in return. “I can feel it was a serious long vicissitude,” George wrote of my operation, “and obviously very painful for your intimates! . . . For this we’ll pray Saint Judas the Thadeus! He was a step brother of Jesus.”

George was referring to Jude, one of the Twelve also known as Thaddeus. A website says Jude is “patron of desperate situations, forgotten causes, hospitals, impossible causes, and lost causes.”

Not sure I like being placed in such dire categories. But George promised to send me an icon of Saint Jude, and I will receive it with gratitude. “We promise to tell him always about you and pray,” George wrote. “He will hear our words and God will give you health and strength to continue.” Ellen and I will continue to write, and will pray that George and Helen get beyond Saint Jude to know the presence of the risen Christ in their daily lives.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine in September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope