From the time of the “fundamentalist” – “modernist” conflict beginning in the early 1900s, the place of “social action” — i.e. efforts to reform society at large — in Christian faith and mission has been argued over. For example, a recent statement by several prominent Evangelical Christians says, “We deny that . . . social activism should be viewed as [an] integral component of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.”
Here is an excerpted part of a sermon I recently gave on why “social action” — rightly understood — is both integral to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and constitutes the mission of the church.
New Hope Fellowship Church, Alexandria, Va., Isa. 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
All three of today’s lectionary passages describe encounters with God . . .
Yet there is one more thing that comes from such as encounter. God says to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send,” and Isaiah answers, “Here I am, send me.” The purpose of God’s appearing to Isaiah was to send him on a mission as a prophet. Paul writes that his own encounter with Jesus resulted in his call as an apostle. And in Luke, Jesus tells Peter, James and John that they will be “fishers of men.” In each case the main purpose of the encounter with God was activation for mission. Yes, meeting God involved the forgiveness of sins and the powerful experience of God’s love and acceptance. But both these things lead to mission.
Understanding this corrects a common mistake about the purpose of the Gospel message. Many Christians think that the major reason for telling others about Jesus is so their souls will be saved for heaven. But that badly misunderstands the actual goal of Christian faith, which is participation in God’s mission. God calls us to the mission of repairing creation — the healing of the world to be what God intends it to be. We carry out this mission “not by might, not by power,” but in the servant spirit of Jesus. God’s grand plan of redemption and salvation is that “God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray.
This is the reason Jesus died and rose from the dead, and it’s the purpose of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News of the Kingdom of God. In Jesus, God’s kingdom has entered into history now – the work of repair has begun! That repair will be fully accomplished by Jesus when he appears in glory, but it is carried on now by us in union with him. The goal of the Gospel message is to recruit co-workers with God in the mission that Jesus inaugurated of repairing the world. This is what Jesus says in Great Commission in Matthew 28. Our call isn’t simply to get people to believe in Jesus. It’s to “make disciples” — to develop followers of Jesus who are growing in the likeness of Jesus’ self-giving “agape” love and participating in his mission to set the world right.
Jesus’ activities when he walked the earth show us what the work of healing and repairing the world looks like. He heals the sick, casts out demons, feeds the hungry, tames the wind and waves, lifts up the poor, receives the outcast, empowers the weak, frees the oppressed, rebukes racism, confronts injustice and brings reconciliation. He gives abundantly – a boat overflowing with fish, food for thousands, gallons of wine for a wedding. He gives his own life for others. These are the things Jesus did when he was on earth to launch the work of repairing the world. And amazingly in John 14, he says that we will do the works he does and even more! Jesus got things started, and in union with him we carry it forward in a multitude of ways.
So how do we do that? How do we carry out Jesus’ mission in our slice of the world? One way we heal the world is by exercising forgiveness – we forgive those who sin against us. Jesus did that on the cross. “Father, forgive them,” he cried. And in Acts, as he is being stoned to death, Stephen prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Forgiveness repairs the world!
One of the most powerful examples of forgiveness in recent years occurred in the Amish community in Pennsylvania in 2007. A young man entered an Amish small school building and shot ten grade school age girls, killing five; afterwards taking his own life. Amazingly, the girls’ Amish parents forgave the killer, attended his funeral and consoled the killer’s mother, who was a widow. They donated money to her and her other three children, and embraced her as a friend. Instead of hating the killer and his family, they acted in unselfish love toward his family. Their act of forgiveness was the wonder of the world, recounted in newspapers across the globe. Similarly the families of church-goers killed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015expressed forgiveness for the killer. In neither case did forgiveness come easlily. But by God’s grace they were able to do it. For us too, forgiveness isn’t always easy, but it’s possible. And it heals and repairs the world.
Another way to repair the world is by being reconcilers, peacemakers. When we lived in Mexico, something happened to cause a neighbor to be angry with us – some offense our family had unknowingly committed. When we learned about this, Diana baked some cookies and we took them to the neighbor and apologized for offending her. That ended the dispute and made peace. This kind of action doesn’t always have such a happy result, of course. But it often does, though sometimes it takes time and more than one effort.
On a larger scale, we can think of U.S. president Ronald Reagan – a professing and, by accounts, prayerful Christian — who signed an agreement with Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev in 1987 to remove, destroy and prohibit production of intermediate range nuclear weapons. This agreement eased nuclear tensions in Europe, reduced the chances of a war and made the world a safer place. It was an act of peacemaking that helped repair the world. Unfortunately, President Trump has just announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from this treaty and plans to start producing these weapons again.
Another form of repairing the world is caring for those who are suffering. We can think of Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan, who came across a man who lay near death having been robbed and beaten on the dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Two religious leaders passed by the man without helping him. But a Samaritan, a member of an ethnic group despised by most Jews, stopped at a risk to himself, treated the man’s wounds and carried him to an inn, paying for his stay until he was well.
The early Christians provided this kind of care for the hurting by bringing the sick – both believers and non-believers — into their homes and treating their illnesses. This eventually shamed a Roman Enperor into building public hospitals. Christians also started the first public feeding program in Rome, providing food for hungry people whether Christian or not. In these ways the early followers of Jesus carried forward Jesus’ mission of repairing the world. They were expressing the life of the Kingdom of God now, and were making the world more like it will be when God’s Kingdom comes in fullness.
In our time, an example of such active compassion are the Missionaries of Charity, the order of women — both nuns and lay women — founded by Mother Theresa to care for the dying poorest of the poor in Calcutta and around the world. I had the privilege of visiting one of their communities in Nairobi in the 1990s where I met amazing women who themselves were HIV positive, yet radiated peace and joy as they cared for others near death. Their compassion repairs the world.
We can also think of the church-led civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s who repaired the world by their non-violent movement to end legal segregation and establish civil and voting rights for all. Most recently, we have the example of Christians who are saving lives of immigrants by leaving food and water for them in the desert. For this gracious act of healing, they have been arrested and put on trial.
Some Christians think these kind of activities are not integral to Christian faith, but that gravely misunderstands the Gospel. Activities such as these arenot merely “social” ministry as opposed to the more important “spiritual” ministry. They are themselves themission of the church – inaugurated by Jesus — to heal and repair creation: caring for the suffering, feeding the sick, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoners, welcoming the immigrant, protecting the environment, freeing the captives, bringing justice, making peace. These are the actions that repair the world as we “look forward to the Day of God and speed its coming.” Scripture makes it clear that God calls us to this work of repair for the world as a whole, at every level of life and society – from our interpersonal relationships to our engagement with governments and nations.
Let’s be clear. Leading people to faith in Jesus is a wonderful thing. “All the angels in heaven rejoice” each time someone is transformed by faith in Christ. But as wonderful as this is, it is the means to an end. It’s not the goal – it’s the way to get to the goal. The goal — to which mission we’re called — is the repair of creation, the healing of the world. Yes, this includes the repair of individuals in coming to faith in Jesus and being united with God. But that’s just the beginning, not the end.
We have many opportunities everyday – as individuals, churches and participants in the life of nations influencing government actions and policies — to carry out the mission Jesus calls us to: opportunities to express self-giving love, to forgive, to care for the sick, to comfort the suffering, to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to steward the environment, to resist racism and bigotry, to right wrongs, to make peace, to share our faith. In all these ways we repair the world. We serve as instruments of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, and we help make the world a place that manifests something of God’s kingdom.
Repairing creation is the mission of the church, it is the plan of God, it is the purpose of the Gospel, it is the work of Christ. What all this means is that the primary work of mission is not carried out by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” These are but servants for your sake. The main work of mission is done by you— by all of us — everyday as we serve God in our own sphere of life by healing and repairing the world.
Let me close with the prayer of St. Francis, which so wonderfully expresses our mission as followers of Jesus:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
Martin Shupack, 02.10.19