‘Neo Anabaptist’ Jarrod McKenna Calls Youth to the Mystery of Agape Love

2010 National Youth Conference of the Church of the Brethren

Fort Collins, Colo. — July 21, 2010


Jarrod McKenna came all the way from Australia to preach at National Youth Conference. He is a self proclaimed “neo-Anabaptist” and a peace and justice activist from western Australia. Photo by Glenn Riegel

He began by depreciating his own peace award, and doing a vivid impression of Desmond Tutu–and then teased the typist doing the closed captioning by speaking in Japanese, Spanish, and German, just to see how she would display his words on the big screen.

Needless to say, “neo-Anabaptist” Australian peace and justice activist Jarrod McKenna charmed the NYC congregation from the moment he stepped on the stage.

But his message was serious to the core, and he took the Bible seriously–so seriously that he did some in depth exegesis of the Hebraic foundations of the gospel of John and the rabbinic tradition of Jesus’ day, with marker on a white board on stage.

Take agape love in its proper biblical context, he told the youth, warning them against preachers who hold up the Bible on Sunday morning to preach a prosperity gospel that is completely untrue to its context. Rather than looking for that kind of certainty at the center of the gospel message, McKenna said, the Jewish tradition out of which the first Christians came places mystery at the center of the gospel–a mystery McKenna connected with the agape love shown by Jesus Christ.

Allow the mystery to happen, he urged the youth. “We often whittle the gospel into one little point of love,” he said. But the gospel of John invites us into the story, not into one point of certainty. “Instead of us understanding it (love),” he said, “we are to stand under and undergo love.”

He set the person of Jesus in his Jewish context, likening the mystery of Jesus to the mystery that Moses encountered in the burning bush. The love shown by Jesus, like the fire that burned but did not consume, “redefines glory, redefines success.” Jesus is a culmination of “the Jewish hope that the glory of God would fill the world.”

The question, he told the youth, is how do we learn to see love defined in the life of Jesus? One way to do that, he suggested, is to study the response of the early church–the dream of the Christian community. When we become the church, he said, “we become this giant Jesus in the world, doing what Jesus did.”

As a counter to the prosperity gospel–and in theological terms, offering a counter to the hellenization of the gospel through the imposition of Greek thought on its Jewish roots–McKenna talked about and told stories of the Kingdom reality that heaven is coming to pass on earth. “Biblically we are not going to heaven,” he told the youth, “heaven is coming here.”

His message to a Church of the Brethren audience was to cherish our peace church tradition–one he said that many around the world want to be invited into. As he named several of the difficult situations in the world, and they were re-emphasized with imagery and video on the big screen behind him, he gave answers that come straight out of Brethren and Anabaptist tradition. The Brethren tradition and heritage is “a sign” of what the world will look like when love prevails.

For example, naming the current financial crisis and problems of globalization of our economic system, he said, “Your tradition offers in the love feast a different way of doing economics.”

This tradition is strange and even dangerous, however, he warned the youth. “As you leave this place they will think you are mad,” he said, defining “they” as the people who think the way the world works is normal and right.

He urged the youth to take their peace church tradition seriously and live it out in their own lives. His closing story of responding lovingly to a mugging when he was a student, and how it changed his own life, gave a riveting example of what a Christian can do when deciding to face the violence of the world with another way of peace.

“We don’t need another hero,” McKenna said. “We need you…. Our Lord fills us with the mystery of the love that is Jesus.”

After the sermon, McKenna and Josh Brockway of the Congregational Life Ministries staff co-led a time in which the youth were invited to respond via text messages, small group discussion, and through an open mike session on the floor of the arena.

The question posed for response was not necessarily easy to answer, but invited poetry and creativity from the youth: “What does it look like when the mystery of love fills your life?”

–Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren

The News Team for the 2010 National Youth Conference (NYC) includes photographers Glenn Riegel and Keith Hollenberg, writers Frank Ramirez and Frances Townsend, “NYC Tribune” guru Eddie Edmonds, Facebooker and Twitterer Wendy McFadden, website staff Amy Heckert, and news director and editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Contact cobnews@brethren.org .

Go to www.brethren.org/Newsline to subscribe to the Church of the Brethren Newsline free e-mail news service and receive church news every other week.

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