All are in God’s circle

Mar 28, 2016 by

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Recently a teacher was explaining how even preschool kids know who is in and who is out. They know who they want in their block-building circle and who they don’t. Ideas of inclusion and exclusion form early. As adults, we often know too clearly who is in and who is out. We know who is right and who is wrong, whose biblical interpretation is correct and whose is faulty. We know who we want in our block-building circle and who should sit on the sidelines.

Jane Yoder-Short


Jesus’ own hometown held assumptions about who was special. The people of Nazareth were descendants of Abraham. They were in God’s chosen community-building circle. Then Jesus shows up and tampers with their categories and their notions of exceptionalism (Luke 4:16-30).

Jesus uses their scriptures in an unsettling way. He picks out the story of Elijah, who during a famine goes to a widow in the Phoenician city of Zarephath instead of one of the many widows in Israel. Jesus reminds them that God works outside expected categories. Retelling this foreign-widow story was probably as welcome as telling Americans they are no more deserving than undocumented refugees.

Jesus then points to Naaman, the commander of the army in Aram (present-day Syria). Elisha heals Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5). Naaman is the enemy, comparable to an ISIS leader. The Aramaeans capture an Israeli girl who serves Naaman’s wife. Imagine someone kidnapping your daughter and then God healing the person who took her. What about vengeance? What about Israel’s chosen status? Ideas of who is special begin to crumble.

Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth they aren’t God’s exclusive focus. God’s mercy reaches beyond narrow circles. God’s compassion reaches every race, class, gender and nationality. God wants everyone welcome in the block-building, community-forming circle.

We live in a diverse society and a wide-ranging Mennonite church. We are still learning how to build community-forming circles without becoming self-centered and exclusive. We are still tempted to put people outside our circle in order to keep our in-group status. Exclusion can happen in preschools, in our privileged society and even in our churches.

Do our church budgets include the widow at Zarephath and the mother whose husband ICE deported? Does our compassion include Naaman, the Syrian and those foreigners we fear? When we think of God’s love and mercy, do we extend it into unexpected places, even to churches we see as misreading Scripture?

Elitism causes us to close borders and church doors. We think we know who belongs in and who gets left out. Elitism allows Flint, Mich., residents to drink bad water. Elitism deports those without certain papers. Elitism closes our ears to certain voices within the church.

We all like to be special, to be in the chosen circle. There is nothing wrong with belonging in a community where love, memory and habits connect us. The problem comes when belonging excludes others, when we forget God works among outsiders.

Can we build Jesus-centered communities without becoming exclusionary snobs? Can we have a strong sense of identity without rejecting others? Are we ready to have our block-building venture include odd shapes that come from including those on the margins?

Jesus reminds us that good things happen in unexpected places. God moves in Zarephath, in Syria, in Flint, in Ferguson, in Denver, in Lancaster and even among those we discredit.

How would it change us if we expected to see God working in unusual places?

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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  • Aaron Yoder

    You are right to point out that Christians must extend compassion to all people. It is for us an avenue to share the Gospel. It was for Jesus an avenue for Him to share the message of “repentance and the Kingdom (Mark 1:15). And it’s good to acknowledge that God is always working behind-the-scenes. Yet at the same time, we ought not to forget that there is an ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ when it comes to the Kingdom of God (example, John 10:25-28). There are those who do not have a living relationship with Jesus, by grace through faith, and those who reject a living relationship with Jesus. We show compassion in order to show the world that there really is life within the ‘inner circle’ of those who repent and believe.

    • Rebecca Martin

      The difference between the kingdom of God and all of the other systems that Jane referenced above is that God alone determines who is “in” and who is “out.” Elitism occurs when we think we know who God values more. And we should know better (Luke 15:1-7).

      • Aaron Yoder

        Rebecca, could you explain how you see Luke 15:1-7 supporting your comments?

        • Rebecca Martin

          Sorry for the delayed response. The story of the lost lamb, much like the story of the prodigal son, are examples Jesus gave to religious people to illustrate that God values the wandering just as much as he values the faithful.

          The article above talks about the circles we create around ourselves, and the ways we tend to overlook and dismiss people who are outside of our circle. Last week I was behind a car with the words “4 DOORS FOR MORE WHORES” stenciled onto the back window. The driver looked like he was about 16 or 17.

          Because I’m not a very good Mennonite, I spent a few minutes thinking about how hard I would like to smack that kid (very hard. Very, very hard), but the fact of the matter is, God loves that dumb kid just as much as he loves me. And who knows what plans God has for his life?

          The point of the article (which I agree with) is that God is not confined to our perspective on who is in/out, or saved/unsaved. He values everyone, and he can use anyone. And sometimes we miss it because we can’t look past our self-created circles.

          I hope this makes sense and isn’t too scattered. We have a bit of stomach bug at our house this week and getting up multiple times to empty the kids’ puke buckets really wrecks havoc on my thought process!

          • Aaron Yoder

            The love of God is a very interesting subject which has received a lot of attention in our day, but, I’m afraid, has not been carefully discerned through Scripture. I would encourage you to study the ‘love of God’ in the NT – specifically the statements which do not refer to God’s love for those who are “in Christ.” To speak in a human perspective, the NT seems to suggest that God’s love does have limits and degrees, although that is very difficult for us to understand or even accept. I encourage you to study it yourself! However, I agree that those who are “in Christ” ought to love, honor and respect everyone just like Jesus did. Our world needs Christians to actively teach and model Matthew 5-7.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            Aaron, you are aware, I assume, of the time that Jesus said that whores and IRS agents (representing the lowest and least popular segments of society) are at the HEAD OF THE LINE to enter the Kingdom, ahead of the pastors and bishops and mission leaders (the group that would include you, Aaron). If you need the citation on that saying let me know. The reason you’re towards the back of the line, Aaron, is because, as one of the self-styled spiritual elite, a religious leader of your day, you actually believe, as you say above, that “God’s love does have limits and degrees.” How much you have to learn about the Kingdom, and how surprised you’re going to be at who you meet there.

          • Phil Schroeder

            Charlie. You are right in saying that God’s love has no limits, after all he gave his only son as a sacrifice for every man who ever lived. The problem comes with man’s love for God. How many love their hobbies more than God. How many their sex lives more than God. How many their food and drink more than God. How many love themselves more than God. The problem is with the limits that men put on their love for God and His instruction. Many people want man’s approval more than God’s love. It is not the call of believers or the church to tell the world that God’s instruction to repentance and rebirth really don’t matter.

          • Charlie Kraybill

            “He gave his son as a sacrifice,” you say? I’m sorry, I don’t accept religions that use “child sacrifice” language to create meaning for what’s going on in the world. I reject the concept of human sacrifice, and I believe God rejects it as well. “For every man who ever lived,” you say? Where does that leave the women, then? Your assertions might be more palatable if you got into the habit of using inclusive language. “It is not the call of believers or the church to tell the world that God’s instruction to repentance and rebirth really don’t matter,” you say? There are too many double negatives in there for me to have any idea what you’re talking about. But in response I’ll assert that I don’t think God needs the church to do or say anything in order for God to extend open arms to every single person who has ever lived. Unconditionally. It’s only the humans running the churches who want to set the conditions.

          • Phil Schroeder

            Your problem Charlie is not with me, but with the word of God. ” For God so loved the world, that he gave His one and only son, that whoevery believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” This was not the kind of child sacrifice that you try to paint it as, but God giving his best as a sacrifice to pay for your transgressions should you chose to accept this gift. Yes, this is available to every man, women and child. When the church and it’s people say come as you are and stay as you were, that is setting the conditions in contridiction to the scriptures. Jesus showed the women caught in sin love, acceptance, and forgiveness, followed by the instruction to go and sin no more. You addressed everything about my comments except my main point that we tend to limit our love of God by our decisions and choices.

          • Steven Stubble

            Gentlemen, you’re discussing the nature of God and all the while talking about 2 different “Gods”! Mr Schroeder (and Mr. Yonder, from what I’ve been reading) is talking about the eternal, self-revealing, unchanging I AM of the Scriptures; Mr. Kraybill is talking about some nebulous, ever-changing divine entity incapable of communicating clearly with his (her? Its?) own creation. Until there’s agreement on which “God” you are discussing, there will be no real agreement on the nature of God!

          • Brian Arbuckle

            Yes, your observation is correct, Steven. The god, religion, whatever which Mr. Kraybill routinely presents in his numerous comments is nebulous and ever-changing. It is the nature of idols that they reflect their creator. It is my suspicion that Mr. Kraybill is on the staff of MWR. The comedic relief he brings to substantial issues is analogous to the comic pages in Sunday morning newspapers.

          • Aaron Yoder

            Just to clarify…when I speak of God’s love having degrees and limits, I am referring to two parts of God’s character. 1) God’s Delighting Love has one ‘object of affection’. “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 17:5). This delighting love is reserved for Jesus alone. No where else in Scripture, after the Fall, is that phrase used. But the gift of grace also extends this love for all who are ‘in Christ’ by faith. Does God have Delighting Love for the one who curses His name or denies His existence? I don’t think so. God clearly loves the world, but it is not the same degree to which he delights in The Son. To disagree with this would be to say that God loves me as a sinner as much as He loves Himself within the Holy Trinity. 2) The second part of God’s character is His holiness. Into Eternity, God will not (nor cannot) be in the presence of sin without compromising His character. This is why Jesus said, ‘Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of Heaven but only those who do the will of my Father…I will declare to [some], depart from me, you workers of lawlessness, I never knew you” (Mt 7:21,23). Does God love people who have rejected Him? Yes! But it’s not a love that will save them from being cast away from God’s holy presence, eternally. In this way, God’s love does have a ‘limit’ – although that word may cause some to stumble. I think these issues are good to clarify because Christians refer to the ‘unconditional love of God’ often. Can you find one passage in Scripture that uses that phrase? Somehow we’ve replaced the ‘steadfast (merciful)’ love of God with the phrase ‘unconditional.’ They simply are not the same.

          • Steven Stubble

            To be fair I don’t find such views amusing in the comedic sense, but rather deeply unsettling because they are surely shared by a significant segment of active Mennonites. The issue will always be one of authority.

          • Keith Wiebe

            Steven, I think Mr Kraybill’s responses are the reason I keep coming back to this site. Think of his responses as irony and perhaps sarcasm. There’s much for us to learn.

          • Steven Stubble

            Keith, I’ll let Mr Kraybill speak for himself on that count. My impression,though, is that to pass it all off as pure irony and sarcasm would, for one thing, surely be an insult to Mr. Kraybill, who is expressing his personal convictions. Second, it would underestimate the pervasiveness of notions in the Mennonite church about the nature of God which don’t correspond to what He says about Himself in the Scriptures, and therefore do not correspond to reality!

          • Brian Arbuckle

            If Charlie is not on the staff of MWR then comments like this will surely be of help in getting him on staff. Mr. Wiebe, what have you learned from Mr. Kraybill’s comments?

          • Keith Wiebe

            Brian, maybe if Mr. Kraybill would get to be on the staff, less of my comments would get neutered. You guys need to lighten up a bit and learn from other people’s opinions that differ from your own. Let me tell a little story. A family had a reunion in a building that had another family next door. This next door family commented how they loved the hymns being sung, etc. The person telling the story was probably thinking to himself how good of witness he was to the other family. I was thinking to myself: “so what did you learn from the other family”? You see, we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves that we can’t learn “spiritual reality” from others who think differently.

  • Myron Steinman

    Well said. I will share on my face book connections

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