Here is the Bible passage that Mennonite World Conference suggested we look at in those churches which hosted MWC participants, the last day of the Assembly:
Acts 18: 1)After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.
18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow. 19 And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. 21 But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus.
22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. 23 After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
I think that this passage was so recommended because it’s about the first ever Mennonite World Conference assembly ever held. Minus, of course, the Mennonites. We weren’t invented yet. Nor was there really a conference in Acts 18. But you have the world part represented in the three different continents mentioned here. Priscilla and Aquila come from Rome and meet Paul in Corinth, which are on what continent? Then they go to Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, which is what continent? And there comes Apollos from Alexandria, Egypt, which is what continent? Asia, Africa and Europe: That was the world as they knew it. So in Acts 18 we have the first ever recorded Mennonite World Conference Assembly, minus the Mennonites and the Conference part.
Another reason this passage is apropos is because we see in it five things that were on the minds and in the testimonies of people at the Mennonite World Conference: Poverty, Persecution, Partnership, Prayer and Praise, in addition to Peacemaking and Mission.
The poverty part we see in Corinth, where Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, meet Paul and together they form a missionary team, but with no foreign sources of funding, with no one to pay their ticket home if someone falls sick or if rioting breaks out. They do not have the luxury of dividing economic development from evangelism and church development. So, to keep body and soul together, they sew canvases for tents, maybe for sails too, in that port city.
Most Mennonites of the world do not have the luxury of separating church development from economic development, either. Today, the biggest number of Mennonites live in the poorest country of the world, the Congo. The well-educated, professional class Mennonite couple from Zimbabwe staying at the home I stayed at told us about losing all the value of their pensions to 7 digit annual inflation a few years ago, so that they have to keep working well into their retirement years.
But at one session I heard Pastor Siaka Traoré, the president of the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso, (show his picture) speak of his experience connecting church development, leadership development and economic development in one inter-connected whole. In his first pastorate, he supported himself by selling books alongside the street at the town market, including Christian religious books. His best customers were actually Muslims, who wanted to read about Moses, Abraham, Joseph and Jacob, who are mentioned in their Quran. Because they found Siaka to be so honest, respectful and dignified, they told him they would buy paper goods and school supplies from him, too. The roadside business grew into an actual bookstore, which grew into a franchise selling in neighboring markets, often at the request of people who lived there.
Siaka’s country has a population bubble of youth and young adults, most of whom are under-employed. So Siaka hires proven and trustworthy high school graduates or college students from the church to staff his store, sell at other markets, or to buy and transport the merchandise. From their growth in business experience these young adults often get leadership, visioning and organizational skills that feed back into the church, as well as having a witness and making contacts that often lead to evangelism or even new churches. It all depends, of course, upon the strictest integrity, honesty and respect for the customer.
Siaka’s vision of economic development, leadership development, and church growth is getting some traction, unlike what’s happening in the drug war zones of Central America. Which brings up the other theme that MWC and Acts 18 share: Persecution.
In today’s text, our first hint of persecution comes when we read about the Emperor Claudius expelling all the Jews from Rome, including Priscilla and Aquila. We actually have independent proof of that: an historian from the time wrote that Claudius expelled the Jews because they were rioting over someone named “Chrestus.” Doesn’t that sound suspiciously like the Roman name for Christ, “Christus?” If so, Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, were targets of persecution twice: once from fellow Jews over their Christian faith, and secondly by Roman prejudice against all Jews. Were we to read all of chapter 18, we would also see Paul coming within an inch of being torn to pieces by a hostile mob.
I attended a Mennonite World Conference presentation on the new face of violence in Central America, in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. There the former violence of rebels versus American-backed paramilitaries has given way to drug and gang turf wars. They also have a big population of under-employed youth and young adults, but it’s hard for them to get the kind of economic traction that Siaka has when there’s a total breakdown of trust, law and order, and violent gangs are extorting people and businesses and leaving dead bodies in the streets. But the Central American Mennonite churches are rising to the occasion with evangelism, counseling, seeking community development and employment options to the drug trade, through peace-making and teaching non-violent ways of dealing with conflict, often at great cost and risk to themselves.
Partner churches also face persecution in parts of India, Eritrea and even South Korea, where conscientious objectors to military service can wind up in prison. Which brings me to the third word that stands out in both this text and the Mennonite World Conference: Partnership. We see it in the way that Paul, Priscilla and Aquilla worked together both in business and to plant the church in Corinth. We see it again in Ephesus, when Priscilla and Aquilla hear Apollos in the synagogue, and realize that, yes, he’s a gifted orator for the gospel, but he only got as far as John the Baptist’s class. Instead of saying, “Be silent!—you don’t know half the story!” they say, “Good start, friend; now here’s the rest of the good news!” They gave Apollos the knowledge about Jesus that he needed, and Apollos gave them the public speaking and biblical knowledge they needed.
In the same spirit, South Korean Mennonites are getting help from Colombian Mennonites, who have gone through similar problems about the draft and conscientious objection. The Mennonite World Conference has a Deacon’s Commission, whose task is to send resource people to walk in accompaniment with suffering fellow Mennonites, like the Mennonite Indians in Panama whose land is being illegally invaded by timber companies and settlers who carve out farms there. World Conference Deacons visit, witness, walk, work and pray with such people in a spirit of accompaniment. They can’t bring in money, but they can do things like going with people to government offices or to talk with offenders.
All of which can be downright scary. Where do the courage and the energy come from to do such ministry? From the fourth and fifth words I mentioned: Prayer and Praise. Worship is another thing the Mennonite World Conference assembly and today’s Bible passage have in common. In Acts 18, where do most of the witness, the meeting and making of partnership, and the breakthroughs for the gospel start but in the Jewish synagogues, at a place and time for prayer and praise of God?
At the Mennonite World Conference Assembly, I experienced the power of the worldwide church’s prayers and praise. Some of the most exuberant and heart-felt worship came from churches suffering the most poverty and persecution. As someone else has said, “Sometimes you just don’t know how much Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have.” If you were here last week to see Fabe Traoré’s video of life and worship in Burkina Faso, you would have seen how worship in their setting is a full-body experience; they do not assume the separation of body from soul that we Westerners usually do. So, when they read in the Psalm, “Let all that is within me praise the Lord,” they take it literally, from the soles of their feet on up. Being poor and despised in their own society, there is no dignity, decorum nor respectability to protect. Give God all that you have in worship, because God, finally, is all that you have.
Partnership, poverty, persecution, prayer and praise. Oh. And peacemaking, too. It was good to hear about the many ways that our friends and partners are facing poverty and persecution with prayer, praise, and partnership, out of faith, hope and love, love for God, love even for enemies, out of the love God gives. That’s the face of the Mennonite World Conference.