The Ministry of Reconciliation: A Sermon for MCC’s Century

Issue 2020, vol. 74

(adapted from a sermon preached at Bethel College Mennonite Church, 27 Oct. 2019)

Every year, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) chooses a passage from Scripture to focus its sharing about its relief, development and peacebuilding work carried out in the name of Christ. As we drew closer to MCC’s centennial year in 2020, I wondered what Scripture verses MCC’s communications team would highlight to commemorate the MCC century.

Two contenders came readily to mind. One possibility, I surmised, might be Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), with its story of neighbor love manifested as humanitarian action that does not discriminate, but rather extends care to all, regardless of religious conviction, a care that upends narrow conceptions of who is our neighbor, of who belongs to our household of concern.

A second possibility, I speculated, could be Jesus’ account to his disciples in the gospel of Matthew of the day of judgment, in which the nations of the world will come before the Son of Man in his glory to be separated out as sheep and goats, with the sheep, the ones who inherit God’s Kingdom, being those who gave food to the hungry, offered water to the thirsty and welcomed strangers (Matthew 25:31-46). After all, this story had inspired the title of a 1988 MCC history by Robert Kreider and Rachel Waltner Goossen.[1]

The imagery of extending a cup of water to the thirsty has become a potent symbol for the humanitarian relief efforts that have run as a consistent thread across MCC’s ten decades, from its beginnings in responding to famine among Mennonites and others in southern Russia in the early 1920s, to hundreds of relief aid shipments sent to devastated European communities after the Second World War, to canned meat sent to hospitals and orphanages in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and comforters and relief buckets distributed through Syrian churches in the present day. Both passages, I reasoned, captured something essential about MCC’s history and present identity and could serve to underscore the Scriptural grounding of MCC’s humanitarian relief efforts.

My predictions missed the mark, however, with our communications colleagues choosing neither of the passages I had thought they might, but rather one that talks first about our reconciliation to God in Christ, and then about the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to the church, a portion of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth.

In 2 Corinthians 5:14-21, Paul, in the NRSV translation, reminds his readers that “the love of Christ urges us on,” with Jesus’ followers living “no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In light of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul explains, “we regard no one from a human point of view,” but rather see a “new creation” whenever anyone is in Christ, with everything old having passed away and everything becoming new. “All this is from God,” Paul continues, “who has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,” entrusting “the message of reconciliation to us” and making us “ambassadors for Christ,” with God “making his appeal through us.” By choosing this Pauline passage as its focus Scripture for its centennial year, MCC has identified its work as a “ministry of reconciliation.”

I confess to some initial surprise upon the announcement of MCC’s centennial Scripture passage. While I do not pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of MCC’s substantial archives, I have spent a fair amount of time reading over MCC board minutes, staff reports, worker correspondence, and other files in preparation for the 2019 Menno Simons lectures at Bethel about MCC and its missiology, and this section of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians does not figure prominently within these archives.

A Scripture passage with more concrete examples of practical doing seemed warranted, I felt (at least initially). If not the Good Samaritan parable or Jesus’ urging his disciples to care for the “least of these,” then why not Jesus’ call in the Sermon on the Mount to embody nonresistant love by going a second mile in response to those who would compel them to go one mile (Matthew 5:38-42)? That section of Jesus’ sermon has a rich history within MCC, cited by workers in MCC-administered Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps during World War II, in which Mennonites and others performed tasks of “national importance” as a state-sanctioned alternative to military service, and by those in MCC’s PAX program through which young Mennonites carried out alternative service in post-war Europe as well as in places like Paraguay and the Palestinian refugee camps around Jericho. While some within these programs undertook this service grudgingly, many MCC workers wrote of their desire to go beyond serving as so-called “conscripted Christians,” to instead become “willing second milers,” seizing the opportunity to transform their compulsory service into an opportunity to demonstrate the practical power and effectiveness of nonresistant love through tangible acts of service.

But again, neither Jesus’ commandment to embody nonresistant love by going the second mile in service nor other texts about concrete acts of service was chosen as MCC’s centennial focus Scripture. Instead, we have Paul’s exhortation to Jesus’ followers that, in being reconciled to Christ, they have been given a ministry of reconciliation. So, drawing from this passage from Second Corinthians, how might we understand MCC’s history and its present work as a “ministry of reconciliation?” What do we gain by framing MCC’s work as participating in the ministry of reconciliation given to the church?

One way to tell MCC’s history is as a furious whirlwind of doing. MCC has sent out young people to serve – as orderlies in mental hospitals during World War II as part of the MCC-run CPS program in the United States; as construction workers with PAX, tasked with building a highway across Paraguay’s Chaco region in the 1950s; as educators in the ’60s and ’70s in post-colonial contexts in countries across Africa through the Teachers Abroad Program; as community development workers across Latin America, Africa and Asia in the 1980s; and more.

MCC has also channeled volunteer energies in Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Beachy Amish, Old Order Amish and other Anabaptist communities in the United States and Canada. Church communities have mobilized to can meat, pack school kits and relief buckets, and raise money by organizing relief sales and operating thrift shops.

Finally, MCC has served as an incubator and catalyst for the development of a wide variety of initiatives that later spun off. An incomplete list of such institutions includes: Mennonite Disaster Service, which marshals post-disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts after hurricanes, floods and other disasters in Canada and the United States; U.S. mental hospitals established in the aftermath of World War II by former CPS workers appalled at the state of care for people with mental illness; the SELFHELP Crafts fair trade venture that started out of the trunk of Edna Ruth Byler’s car and later became Ten Thousand Villages; and the ecumenical partnership of Canadian Foodgrains Bank, in which Canadian farmers dedicate profits from some of their fields to support food aid and food security projects.[2]

MCC has undeniably involved a non-stop flurry of doing, a myriad of ways in which Anabaptists and others from Canada, the United States and beyond have carried out acts of service. In its decades-old motto, MCC has underscored that this doing, this service, is “In the Name of Christ.” Yet this declaration that MCC service is done “In the Name of Christ” has not prevented some Mennonites from repeatedly worrying, from at least the 1950s onwards, that all this MCC flurry of doing had become uncoupled from witness, a concern often expressed as the anxiety that “word” had been separated from “deed.”

One of the earliest articulations of this anxiety was advanced by a 1957 “MCC Relief Study Committee” of Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in Salunga, Pa. Eastern Board members were especially anxious that an “over-emphasis” on what they termed “purely social service” might, in their words, “have a definite bearing on the motivations and convictions of young people who serve in MCC and leave them with the habit of social concern and possibly a lessened compulsion for evangelistic witness.”[3] The Eastern Board report prompted MCC to convene a broad consultation in 1958 with representation from Anabaptist denominations and mission agencies about how service and mission were related.[4]

Worries about MCC relief, development and peacebuilding work becoming unmoored from Christian mission have regularly resurfaced on an almost cyclical basis across the past six decades, with such anxieties in turn spurring MCC to articulate anew how it understood its work as Christian mission. Writing in 1961, MCC leader Peter Dyck acknowledged this worry, while not agreeing with it. Dyck observed that some Mennonite critics of MCC portrayed MCC as having bridges to countries around the world, but with nothing to carry across those bridges (in supposed contrast to Mennonite mission agencies, which had a message to carry but lacked the bridges of MCC’s global connection). Dyck strenuously objected to this characterization of MCC as lacking a proactive message, as bereft of an understanding of itself as engaged in witness. MCC service, done in the name of Christ, Dyck countered, flowed from and testified to God’s love made flesh in Jesus.[5]

A few years later, on the occasion of MCC’s 50th anniversary in 1970, Dyck advanced a more fully developed a “theology of service” for MCC, with service embodying a witness to and pointing beyond itself towards the deeper truth of humanity’s reconciliation to God through Christ. Authentic Christian service, in Dyck’s words, was “eschatological hope made visible.” MCC service is thus authentic Christian service when it both embodies and gestures towards this coming hope, standing as an enfleshed testimony within a fallen world to the ultimate victory of God’s redemptive love, a testimony to God’s reign of love and justice that even now breaks into normalized structures of injustice, shattering our complacency, upending oppressive hierarchies, and offering tentative foretastes of a humanity and creation reconciled to God.[6]

After overcoming my initial surprise at the choice of Paul’s reminder to the church in Corinth of their reconciliation to God in and through Christ as MCC’s focal Scripture for its centennial year, I have come to appreciate this decision as the latest in a decades-long effort by MCC to continuously renew and rearticulate the rootedness of its relief, development and peacebuilding work within God’s reconciling mission in the world. Over the course of my 2019 Menno Simons lectures at Bethel College, I [examined] MCC’s 100-year history of service as an ongoing and never-settled process of discerning what it means to serve as ambassadors of Christ entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. This narration of the MCC century through a missiological lens traces shifts, and probes tensions, in the meaning of Christian service within MCC over the past century.

MCC’s history is undoubtedly in part a glorious kaleidoscope of doing, a creative churning of new projects and initiatives. But Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church serves as a reminder that this hum of activity has as its foundation, and should continually point us back towards, our reconciliation to God through Christ. In 2003, long-time Central America MCC worker Susan Classen, who had accompanied communities in El Salvador and Nicaragua during years of revolutionary, even violent, change, insisted that “If MCC is to continue into the future, we will need to root ourselves in a spirituality of service.” Service, Classen continued, is not ultimately about following a rule or a command to feed the hungry or extend a cup of cold water, but is rather a response of praise and thanksgiving to God’s work in our lives.[7]

Our Gospel reading this morning from Luke [24:13-35], an account of two disciples who unknowingly encounter and walk with Jesus on the road to  Emmaus, two disciples who only recognize Jesus as they break bread together, illuminates the fact that the Christian life is not ultimately about doing, but about connection and fellowship, not about the time and gifts we condescend to give to others out of our strength and our wealth, but rather a mutual sharing of gifts with one another as we come before God in our common need. Christian service always bears with it the danger of spiritual harm and degradation, a unilateral movement from those who mistakenly view themselves as self-sufficient towards those whom the ones extending service falsely define in terms of their need. The Emmaus story prods us to think about service in a different way, reminding us that, like the bewildered disciples hesitant and unsure about whether or not to trust news of Jesus’ resurrection after the crushing despair of the crucifixion, we encounter Jesus not in our bounty nor in our self-sufficiency, but in our need. Christian service certainly involves doing, lots of doing – but fundamentally, Christian service is about connection to and fellowship with others, discovering ourselves before God in our common need.

In her study of a variety of Finnish humanitarians – from staff of the Finnish Red Cross to the people (mostly women, mostly older) who knit and crochet “aid bunnies,” stuffed animals distributed by the Finnish Red Cross along with its humanitarian aid packages – Stanford anthropologist Liisa Malkki analyzes humanitarian action in terms of the diverse needs of humanitarian actors. Malkki’s ethnographic fieldwork challenges limited understandings of need, shifting focus from those who hunger and thirst to those who seek to help.

The humanitarian actors she interviews reflect on where this “need to help” comes from. Some connect it to a need, or a pressing desire, for adventure, for breaking out of the routine, for self-transcendence. Others describe the need to help as a need for connection and for belonging. “Seeing the urge to help as proceeding simply from compassion assumes that compassion is yours to give,” Malkki reflects – it assumes “that you are working from a position of relative strength.” Yet, she continues, the Finns making aid bunnies “were giving less out of strength than out of a kind of fragility,” a need to forge and discover connection with others.[8]

What would it look like to tell MCC’s century-long story not in terms of the service that Mennonites have extended outwards to others in Canada and the Unites States and in scores of countries around the world, but instead by asking what has driven this Mennonite need to help for the past hundred years? I would suggest that this need to help stems in part from a longing for deeper connection, fellowship, even communion.

MCC’s founding involved the collaboration of Mennonite groups that harbored intense distrust of one another, with differences in doctrine and practice both a symptom and a driver of their division. The uniting of these churches in the common cause of service, first in Hillsboro, Kan., in January 1920 and then again, as a broader group of Mennonite churches, in Elkhart, Ind., in July of that year, was a tentative affair. In some ways, that tentativeness has persisted throughout MCC’s history, with questions raised time and again, up until the present, about whether these diverse churches were and are prepared to collaborate in Christian service through this MCC mechanism.

Yet through these often tentative collaborations – through thrift shops, relief sales, comforter blitzes, meat canning, and through service in CPS camps, PAX crews and MCC program units – members of churches have also come to recognize their connection, their common need before God and their need for one another. Yes, this fellowship may be tentative – a fleeting eschatological foretaste of our communion with God and one another that breaks into our world of divisions and fractures. But, by God’s grace, it is a fellowship that has been renewed time and again.

And not only that, but this fellowship has expanded as Mennonites have forged ecumenical and interfaith bonds through MCC service – with Quakers and Brethren in establishing Civilian Public Service; with Mennonites not only from France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, but also India, Congo, Indonesia and Colombia; with Baptists and Pentecostals in Ukraine, Coptic Orthodox in Egypt and Catholics in El Salvador; and with Muslims and Jews in Palestine-Israel, Hindus in India and Buddhists in Laos. In breaking bread with these ecumenical and interfaith partners around the world, Mennonites have learned to see themselves not just as doers and not just as givers, but as people in need for connection, fellowship, and reconciliation.

Over the decades, MCC has been privileged to accompany churches and communities around the world as they not only serve their neighbors, but discover an expanded circle of care and common need through that service.

In February 2018, I was in the Syrian Orthodox church in the old city of Hama in central Syria. MCC accompanies the church in Hama as it provides regular food assistance to hundreds of internally displaced families who have come to Hama from across Syria.[9] These families were among the more than 11 million people uprooted from their homes since the start of the civil war that has ravaged Syria, with at least 5 million ending up as refugees outside the country and another 6 million displaced within the Syria. The families had fled to Hama from Raqqa, where the so-called Islamic State had set up its caliphate, from Idlib, under siege by Syrian army forces, and from scores of other towns and villages, seeking safety and refuge.

On the day I visited Hama, these families had gathered for a shared meal at the church. Offering this meal, with MCC support, was one way that the church in Hama has been faithful to Christ’s call to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and welcome the stranger. As we sat down to eat, however, I was struck even more by how, in serving the meal, the church faithfully carried out the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to it by God. The church in Hama has not been unscathed by the war. Its members have lost loved ones – family and friends have been killed and others kidnapped, many most likely never to be seen again. The displaced who had fled to Hama, meanwhile, included Muslims and Christians. They included Syrians whose families had fought on different sides of a complex, multi-sided war, people who might have good reasons for not wanting to eat together.

Gathered in their common need, these Syrians served one another rice, meat, bread and yogurt, sharing with one another about their families, struggles and hopes. This sharing of food in Hama was a foretaste, for me at least, of the reconciliation of all in Christ: in serving the meal, in welcoming refugees, the church in Hama has served as a faithful ambassador to Christ, bearing the ministry of reconciliation given to it by God, and in so doing offering a fleeting vision of that great feast to which God is gathering all peoples.

To be sure, this vision was a fleeting vision, like all glimpses of God’s reign in our fallen world. This meal organized by the church in Hama for refugees from across Syria did not end the war: the powers of sin and death continue to tear the country apart. Yet in organizing the meal, the church gave an embodied witness to what Syria might yet one day be, and to the coming future in which all will stand in fellowship before God in our shared need.

Similarly, MCC service in the name of Christ, with its buzz of volunteer energies and almost unending succession of new initiatives, also does not decisively end hunger, eradicate poverty or bring warfare to an end. Yet, through MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding initiatives, MCC volunteers and workers have acted and continue to act as ambassadors of Christ, pointing beyond themselves to the reconciliation of all to God.

I conclude with a prayer for MCC’s second century: as we go out in service, our hands busy canning meat, piecing and knotting comforters, packing school kits and relief buckets, may God also empty our hands, revealing to us our need, and opening our eyes to the coming communion God’s reconciling work has already brought about, both close to home and around the world. Amen



[1] Robert Kreider and Rachel Waltner Goossen. Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger: The MCC Experience. (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1988)

[2] For a fuller discussion of MCC as an incubator of initiatives that have gone on to become independent organizations, see Paul Heidebrecht, “MCC as Incubator of New Approaches in Relief, Development, and Peacebuilding,” Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly 8/2, Spring 2020, pp. 24-25.

[3] “1957 MCC Relief Study Committee,” report of the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in Salunga, Pa. Docuware/Binational (BN) Minutes & Meeting Packets 1920 to 2012, Mennonite Central Committee Executive Committee Meeting Minutes, #248, 14 Sept. 1957, Exhibit 17, p. 84. Available at the MCC archives in Akron, Pa.

[4] Minutes of the Study Meeting on the Relationship of MCC Relief and Service Programs and Mennonite Missions, held at Mennonite Home Mission, Chicago, 24 Jan. 1958. Docuware/Binational (BN) Minutes & Meeting Packets 1920 to 2012. Available at the MCC archives in Akron, Pa.

[5] Peter J. Dyck. “Proposed New Patterns of Cooperation,” report, Jan. 1961. Quoted in Cornelius J. Dyck, ed., Responding to Worldwide Needs: In Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia . . . The Mennonite Central Committee Story. Volume 2: Documents (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1980), p. 51.

[6] Peter J. Dyck. “A Theology of Service.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 44/3, July 1970, pp. 262-80.

[7] Susan Classen. A Spirituality of Service: Freely Give, Freely Receive. MCC Occasional Paper No. 29, Akron, Pa., Jan. 2003), p 4, p. 7.

[8] Liisa Malkki. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015), p. 164.

[9] For a longer reflection on the witness of the Syrian church amidst the country’s civil war, see Alain Epp Weaver, “The Mother of the Belt and the Church’s Witness in Syria: An Ascension Sermon,” Anabaptist Witness 6/1, April 2019, pp. 15-24.