Conference challenges participants to embrace the whole Jesus

Jesus, played by Omar Reyes (right) tests his followers’ willingness to “Follow me,” in a sketch from the original play “This is Your Pig.” Performers from left are Cody Zabroski, Jeron Baker, Rachel Brown, Ryan Kopper, Leah Baker, Anna Yoder and Margaret Wiebe.
Jesus, played by Omar Reyes (right) tests his followers’ willingness to “Follow me,” in a sketch from the original play “This is Your Pig.” Performers from left are Cody Zabroski, Jeron Baker, Rachel Brown, Ryan Kopper, Leah Baker, Anna Yoder and Margaret Wiebe.

Pastors, students, church leaders and members and other interested people gathered for the 11th annual Anabaptist Vision and Discipleship Series (AVDS) at Hesston College October 29 to 31. The theme for 2010 was “3-D Jesus.”

Speaker presentations, large- and small-group discussions, videos and drama were used to address the issue of Jesus’ identity – how he is perceived by Christians and the reality of his life and actions in scripture.

Participants were presented with the fact that everyone has their own ideas about who Jesus was and is. Individual beliefs and perceptions about Jesus come from a person’s understanding of the way he lived his life, his reactions to situations and interactions with people.

“How we understand Jesus shapes how we understand our lives as Christians,” said Marion Bontrager, faculty member at Hesston College and one of the weekend speakers.

The purpose of the weekend was to move from a one dimensional view of Jesus and learn to understand Jesus as a whole – even the parts that often cause dissonance with Christian, and, more specifically, Anabaptist perceptions.

At Friday evening’s opening session, Meghan Good, lead pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church used Facebook as an example to illustrate the box that often confines Jesus.

“Facebook gives a selective profile of a person,” Good explained. “We aren’t going to post the stuff that we don’t want people to know about us. That’s what we do with Jesus, too. We create a mental profile of what we believe he looks like.”

Participants helped Good build a Facebook profile for Jesus by filling in his character description, likes and dislikes. To a room full of Anabaptists, Jesus the Facebook user was described as compassionate, a risk-taker and a rebel, gracious, caustic and witty; someone whose likes include all the children of the world, long walks on the water, stories and unity, and who dislikes hypocrites, religiosity and war.

“Jesus is more than the ideas we have about him,” said Good.

Good looked at the positive things we often identify as part of Jesus’ character, then presented scriptural situations that do not fit those character traits. The rest of the weekend was spent grappling with the conflicting parts of Jesus that scripture presents.

Dr. Steve Dintaman, professor of theology at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania said, “Theology is the set of blinders you wear when you read the Bible. The Christian life is a process of learning to read the Bible. In that process we need to unlearn some bad habits.”

He went on to explain that different Christian traditions view Jesus differently. Some look mainly at his birth and death because they believe it is in those two events that salvation is found. Others focus on Jesus’ life as the road map for how Christians are to live. Dintaman encouraged participants to not separate any aspect from another.

“We should look at everything Jesus does and says as amplifying his kingdom proclamation,” said Dintaman. “Yet we also need to remember that the kingdom is not a one size fits all message. The kingdom takes form relative to the bondage it encounters. Jesus’ life ministry, his proclamation of the kingdom of God with authority, is an integral dimension of the saving work of God in Christ.”

Dintaman also explained that working in conjunction with Christ’s life ministry, the saving work of atonement is integral to the Christian’s calling to do ministry. We must experience God’s grace before we can extend it.

Other speakers for the weekend included Rev. Dr. Kevass Harding, senior pastor at Dellrose United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kan.; John C. Murray, pastor of Hesston (Kan.) Mennonite Church and Hesston College Bible and Ministry faculty member Michele Hershberger.

The speakers encouraged not only individual understanding of the whole person of Jesus, but also within the wider Mennonite church and between denominations.

“The problem with denominations is not that we have denominations, but we need to talk to each other to discern what our faith is,” said Bontrager.

The speakers emphasized that Jesus’ birth, life and death were not about him, but about proclaiming God’s kingdom. As Bontrager explained, to understand Jesus fully, Christians need to understand the Jesus story from a historical context as well as understanding from a personal history and in a social context.

“Jesus is often called a prophet, a social revolutionary, a miracle worker, a righteous judge and the savior,” said Good. “He is all of these things and more. None of these aspects can be separated from any other in order to understand him fully.”

Group discussions provided an opportunity for attendees to voice questions and observations, and were well received.

“The lectures and group discussions have brought new insight into the stories of Jesus and how it affects our lives,” said Anna Yoder, a Hesston College sophomore from Garden City, Mo., and member of Sycamore Grove Mennonite Church. “I really enjoyed the small group discussions, and the opportunity to hear others’ ideas.”

Some special activities included a Saturday evening banquet and original play in sixteen sketches by Hershberger. The play, entitled “This is Your Pig,” dramatized Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. Cast members included Hesston College students Omar Reyes from Hugoton, Kan., and Rachel Brown from Inola, Okla.; recent Hesston College graduate Cody Zabroski from Harper, Kan.; faculty members Michele Hershberger and Margaret Wiebe; staff member Jeron Baker; Hesston Mennonite Church associate pastor Ryan Kopper and community members Leah Baker and Anna Yoder.

Conference participants also joined the Hesston Mennonite Church congregation for the closing Sunday morning worship service.

“Anytime I go to conferences like this, I know I am going to be challenged and oppose some things,” said Eric Haglund, an elder at Springs (Pa.) Mennonite Church. “This weekend I have been in agreement with, captivated by, and moved by every speaker. The 3-D perspective allowed me to see different views of Jesus from a personal, theological and dramatic perspective.”

Located 30 miles north of Wichita, Hesston College is the two-year liberal arts college of Mennonite Church USA.