New Hope Fellowship Church, Alexandria, Virginia, June 14, 2020, Martin Shupack
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. . . Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. . . These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: . . . As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” — Matt. 9:35-10:8
When we hear this passage, what do we think is going on? Jesus travels around the country proclaiming the Kingdom of God and healing people. Then he trains his disciples to do the same. Why is he doing this? Certainly, Jesus is expressing God’s love for people who are suffering. And he’s performing signs to show that he is the Messiah — God’s anointed King.
But there’s a bigger picture – a great purpose that encompasses these purposes but is even more. For generations the Jewish people had been looking toward the day when God would come and bring universal renewal to Israel and the world. When Jesus proclaimed the presence of God’s Kingdom, healed the sick, fed the hungry and raised the dead, he was announcing and demonstrating that this long-awaited time had come, starting first within Israel, but after Jesus’ resurrection, expanding to world.
The New Testament describes this new era in various ways. It talks about renewal, redemption, regeneration. But perhaps the best descriptor is “new creation.” Jesus’ work when he was on earth was to bring new creation — and that’s our work as his followers: to renew, redeem and repair the world. This is what Jesus is training us to do, even as we wait for new creation to come in fullness when heaven and earth are united as one.
Where does this new creation occur now? One day all things will be made new, but where can we see this now? One place it happens is where someone comes to faith in Jesus and experiences new life and transformation. As the Apostle Paul writes, “when anyone is in Christ, creation is made new.” The problem is that for some Christians this is the only place where they expect new creation to occur. For them, redemption and renewal are a merely individual thing. But if we stop there, we make out God to be a little God. We forget that God is the Lord of the whole universe.
Other Christians see a somewhat bigger picture. For them local churches – communities of believers — are also places where new creation occurs. This happens where church members genuinely care for and support one another. Where they share their spiritual and material resources, assisting each other in practical ways, and helping each other to grow in love, joy and faithfulness to God. Where these kinds of churches exist, there is new creation. But once again, some Christians stop there. Their God also is too small.
Some believers, however, take the next big step. They get it that our mission as Jesus’ followers goes beyond the individual and outside the church. They understand that we are God’s voice, God’s hands and God’s feet to bring new creation to the world. To be sure, there are right and wrong ways to try to do that. We have to be guided by Jesus’ words and actions or we’ll do a lot of damage. Jesus says, “The Spirit if the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, release to prisoners, and freedom to the oppressed.” And Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, a foreigner and you welcomed me, sick and you looked after me.” This is Jesus agenda for repairing the world and it identifies our mission.
This mission is especially important right now. Catalyzed by George Floyd’s brutal murder by white policemen, our country has entered a historic moment where good may come out of evil and historic change is possible. You see, racism, racial oppression, violence against people of color, and white supremacy have been part of America since before it was a country. The form that it takes today is somewhat different than it took during 250 years of slavery and another 100 years of legal segregation, but racism in America is still here, it’s everywhere and it’s systemic.
Racism doesn’t just refer to personal prejudice. Thinking that is a mistake too many white people make. But racism has to do with how our society is structured, how laws and institutions and culture operate at all levels. As a prominent African-American recently wrote “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s that’s everywhere.”
For example, African Americans are only 13% of US population, but unarmed black people are killed by police at four times the rate of unarmed white people. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. American society is set up to benefit mainly white people — especially rich ones, while keeping down African-Americans and other people of color. George Floyd’s murder, occurring in an ongoing series of police killings of unarmed Black men, women and children, was the last straw. Black Americans and their allies among white and Hispanic communities are saying enough, no more. The killings must stop, police departments and policing methods must be changed.
I believe most police officers are good and well meaning. That’s certainly my experience as a middle-class white person. But I know that many people of color have a different experience. And the point is that whether personally decent or not, police throughout the U.S. are entrenched in a culture and practice of policing that is warped and has to change. And beyond police reform, the America needs to transform itself in countless ways to stop crushing Black Americans and other people of color.
As followers of Jesus — whatever our race and ethnicity — we cannot stand apart from this great struggle. We must do the work of new creation — of repairing the world.
When I think about this challenge of this time, two Scripture verses by Paul come to mind. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “who is adequate for these things.” That’s how I feel. I want to get involved, to do my part. But regretfully, I’m a late-comer to trying to address systemic racism, and it’s hard for me to know what to do and to find an ability to do it. That’s where the second verse comes in, from Philippians, where Paul writes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul means that God will give him the wisdom, grace and strength so he will be able to do the work God has called him to do. And so can we.
Black Americans risk their lives every time they drive a car or go jogging, and they are taking to the streets now to demand change. There are lots of ways those of us who are not Black can be their allies in this struggle. We are not leaders in this struggle, but we can be supporters and allies. if we’re able, we can join the protests, give some money to anti-racism organizations, write Congress. Doing such things may be outside our comfort zone, but they are crucial actions right now.
But there are also more everyday things we can all do, everyday actions in our own slice of the world that can help clear the air of the toxic dust of racism. We can make sure we ourselves don’t speak in a derogatory way about people of a different race or ethnicity. And if someone expresses racial prejudice in our presence, instead of silently standing by, we can say something and ask them not to do that. We can speak up in conversation in support of the protests and the need to purge racism from U.S. society and institutions.
Here are a couple of examples from everyday life of what those of us who are not Black can do to be allies in the fight. My niece Andrea, her husband Griff and their kids live in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. A week or so ago they were having dinner at a restaurant when Andrea’s father-in-law asked his granddaughter (my grandniece), Avery, what she thought about George Floyd’s killing and the protests. Avery, a rising college junior, was at first hesitant, but she decided to go ahead and speak. She said she agreed with the protests and the need for police reform. She explained that police units were first organized in the U.S. to track down and return escaped slaves. That racism was part of the DNA of policing in the United States. Two servers, one white and one black, came over and thanked Avery for what she said.
This was simply a table conversation, but you see, white people almost never talk about policing as infected with racism and needing systemic reform. This is something new for many of us —and it’s not easy. But if multiplied across the country, speaking up in this way can help change how people think. Avery’s words help repair the world.
Another example comes from my African-American co-worker Reuben. He was standing in a line outside a restaurant to pick up lunch when a white guy said to him, “Are you going to use your mug shot as an ID?” “Mug shot”! – the guy was accusing my co-worker of being a criminal just because he’s black. This situation could have deteriorated badly. But five white guys overhead the exchange, came over, and said to Reuben, “please go ahead and enjoy your lunch. We’ve got this situation covered and we’ll take care of it.” They confronted the racist so that Reuben didn’t have to. My colleague was deeply moved by this support from white allies.
Both these incidents are everyday examples of the kinds of things we can do to participate in the struggle against racism. Black people are leading this movement. Others of us have a supportive role, and it’s important that we step up as allies. The immigrant community is also speaking up. Immigrants in the U.S. know what it’s like to be mistreated. And so a coalition of immigrant rights organizations just issued a strong statement of support and solidarity with African-Americans and calling for radical change to policing. We can all get involved and do our part.
Let me close with my personal feelings about this important time in our country. As you may know, my family and I have experienced a lot of pain because of the devastation of mental illness. Our family’s pain isn’t anyone’s fault — illness happens. In this fallen world some suffering is inevitable, and by God’s grace we can learn to accept and manage it.
But a lot of pain doesn’t have to be — because it’s inflicted by people. It’s suffering caused by people choosing to harm other people. By their words and actions, with laws and policies, through their beliefs and values, they choose to regard other people as less than fully human, simply because they are different from them in some way.
My family’s own pain has sharpened my anger at such completely man-made, totally unnecessary suffering — suffering caused by discrimination, hate, and exclusion. This kind of pain does not have to happen. It’s not acceptable and no one should have to manage such pain. So, I add my voice in saying enough, no more. I’m not going to accept racism and bigotry of any kind. And I hope you won’t either.
Brothers and sisters, we are God’s voice, hands and feet, called to bring new creation to the world. That’s why Jesus sent out his disciples to heal. And that’s what Paul means when he writes that we are the body of Christ. As one Baptist preacher so eloquently put it: “God ain’t no old man with a long beard sitting in the sky. God is Spirit. God ain’t got no body. The only body God’s got is us.”