Monday, 13 June 2011

The Gospel and social justice

Luke 4:18-19

I long for us to be a community of people who preach the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and who are committed to social justice.

There does not need to be any separation

The logic of the gospel demands social justice

We were lost. We were cut off from God.

We were created by God to live in a relationship of love and trust with him. We were created by God to love others as we love ourselves.

But we do not. We chose and we choose to reject his love. We choose to rebel against him, and to live for ourselves by ourselves.

In the beginning it was not our human nature which made us turn against God and to live for ourselves. It was our own wilful decision. Genesis tells us of Eve, as she looked at the fruit which God had expressly commanded her not to eat: ‘When she saw that it was good for food, and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom .. she took and ate it’. And that event is repeated moment by moment in each of our own lives, by our own decision: we live for what satisfies the body and what delights the lust of the eyes. And we seek a wisdom which does not begin with fear of and obedience to God.

When the rubber hits the road, we live for ourselves and not for God. We live to ensure that our life – and, I suspect, the lives of those who most affect us – are as comfortable as possible. We live by the Self Interest Now (the SIN) principal.

We are sinners. We are in rebellion against God. We have messed up this world, we have messed up human society, we have messed up other people, we have messed up ourselves. And please do not point the finger. Do not blame others: God, your genes, Eve or Adam, your parents, politicians, the church, ‘wicked’ people out there. There is only one person who you can blame. If you truly loved God and if you truly loved your neighour as yourself, it would have made an astonishing difference to this world, and to the people around us. But you do not, and I do not. And because of that, because we have taken the love of God and trampled on it, and spat on it, we face the prospect of dreadful judgement and eternal shame.

And in our spiritual blindness and our spiritual deafness we have become either judgemental and proud, looking down on others, thinking why can’t they be as capable or as moral or as responsible as me - or we become paralysed by a dreadful sense of fear-full inadequacy and powerlessness. And we have become deaf to the cries of others, either through our fear or through our pride.

BUT GOD – and the gospel, the good news, begins with this: BUT GOD. But God showed his love for us in this: It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. God gave his Son, and Jesus gave up everything, including his life, in order that we might be reconciled to God.

It is because of God that we can be here today.
It is because of God that we can stand before him forgiven;
It is because of God that we can know him and grow in a relationship with him;
It is because of God that we can share in the Holy Spirit;
It is because of God that we have not a destiny of shame, but a destiny of glory.

We did nothing to deserve or merit this. God does it all. All we need to do is respond and receive. That is what faith is: it is trusting God that what he has said and what he has done is sufficient.

Here is £5

Take it. It is a gift. You did not deserve it; it is not yours by right; you have not earned it. All you can do is receive it or reject it.

You might want to blank me – pretend that I am not here and that this is no gift
You might say, ‘I don’t trust you. There is a twist here. Take it back’
You might say, ‘I’m wealthy enough. I don’t need it. Take it back’
You might say, ‘Why me? I’m not sufficiently worthy. Take it back’

Or you might simply say, ‘Thank you’ and receive it.

God offers us far far more in Jesus. And his gift is available to each of us. And there are no twists or ties with his gift. He offers us the Holy Spirit, his life to come and live in us. We did not earn the Holy Spirit; we did not deserve the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is a totally free gift.

So what has the gospel got to do with social justice?

In some ways are we not saying that the gospel has very little to do about justice? If it was all about justice, then we are lost.
I love telling the story of the woman who was having her portrait painted. She said to the artist: ‘Young man, I demand justice’. He replied, ‘Madam, it is not justice you need, but mercy’.

And for us, it is not justice that we need but God’s mercy.

And yet there is another kind of justice that we are called to show. It is a social justice - based on the second command, ‘To love our neighbour as ourself’. It is about seeing each person as made in the image of God, as having an eternal significance, as having a divine dignity, as mattering as much as we do.

You see I think that we do not, because of our sinful nature, think like that.

Aristotle once said that some people are born to be slaves.
And I suspect that even if we would never say it, we might agree with him.

I think that most of us make the assumption that if we are wealthy and privileged and in a position of power, we have worked for it, we have earned it, we deserve it, and it is our right.
Equally there is the assumption that most of the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.

We look at a person and we think: that person or that family are poor because they are undisciplined, sexually irresponsible, lazy and they spend what money they have on non-essential things. If they were sensible, like me, they would pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They would get on their bike and go out and work. They wouldn’t waste their money on drink or smoking or the lottery or unnecessary gifts. I do it, why can’t they?

I thank God with everything that I have that he did not look at me and say that.

Instead, when Jesus came he declares that the Spirit has anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and release for the oppressed.

He came for the people we might call the ‘worthy’ deserving poor –the handicapped or oppressed;
He also came for the ‘unworthy’ undeserving poor – the prisoner.

And God, we are told, identifies himself with the poor.

Proverbs 14:31 states, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God”
Proverbs 19:17, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord”

And in with Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick and the stranger. And he says that if we are blind or deaf to such people, then we are blind or deaf to him.

And although Matthew 25 is talking specifically about how we relate to other believers, the parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that this attention to the poor, this love is to be shown to all – even those who we would despise.

Tim Keller, in his book Generous Justice tells the story of a single mum with four children who began to attend their services. She had severe financial problems. The deacons in the church visited her and gave her some money to pay off her bills. She accepted. I quote, ‘Three months later it came out that, instead of paying her bills with the money we had been giving her, she had spent it on sweets and junk food, had gone out to restaurants with her family multiple times, and had bought each child a new bike, Not a single bill had been paid, and she needed more money. One of the deacons was furious, “No way do we give her any more,” he said to me, “This is the reason that she’s poor – she’s irresponsible, driven by her impulses” (p42)

Here is someone who clearly did not deserve to receive any more gifts. And yet...

The logic of the gospel is this:
We deserved judgement.
We deserved condemnation.
We had chosen death.
We deserved shame.

And yet Christ came for us – and as an act of astonishing grace, he gave us – at immense cost to himself – forgiveness, acceptance, the Holy Spirit, new life and the hope of glory.

Jonathan Edwards spoke of ‘the rules of the gospel’. By that he meant the logic of the gospel. He reasoned, “If you are a sinner saved by grace, how should that influence your civic life? Your attitude toward the poor?”

We are called to be like the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son reaching out in love to the undeserving son. But so often we are like the older brother in that story, outraged by the behaviour of our younger brother, comfortable in our moral superiority, and even more outraged at the astonishing grace of our Father.

Keller continues the story of the mum. The church was all for wiping their hands of her and her kids. “Look at what she does with our generosity”. But he insisted that one of the senior leaders went with him to meet her. They talked about the money, and she said, ‘I’m sorry. I feel so bad about the way that the children are being brought up. I never have any money to buy them anything nice. When I received your money, I wanted to do nice things with them, and buy them new things’. And as people began to listen to her, they began to understand, they realised that they were dealing with far more than a simply irresponsible mum being driven by her undisciplined impulses. They were dealing with someone who was messed up and at her wits end, who was a victim of a system which favoured the rich and that meant she had to borrow money at exorbitant rates of interest, and with someone who didn’t know how to handle money. So they sat down with her and they starting working with her on how to handle money and how to pay off her debts. They started to love her – even though she had done nothing to deserve it.

I long to see people living out of the logic of the gospel, in the power of that same Spirit which anointed Jesus.

Preaching good news: the good news of a God who loves us and who offers us forgiveness and the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God, even though we have done nothing to deserve this.

This is what comes first in Luke 4:18-19: the preaching, the proclaiming. That is why the priority of the church has to be to speak and to declare this good news.

Living as the community of good news:
Jesus in the Spirit, not only proclaimed it. He lived it.

And as people on whom the Spirit has been poured out, we are called to live it. To support each other as we work together to live the logic of the gospel. We together are the church. So the church is there when you join in an existing work or set up a new project: whether it is working for the advancement of the gospel in Tanzania, or to rescue women from sexual exploitation in the Philippines, or with carers for the severely disabled, or with the vulnerable elderly, or those in debt, working with the schools – not just the schools that our children go to, but the schools in the needier areas of our town and county, or with those who are trapped in cycles of debt, or those in prison or in hospital (appeal for wheelchair pushers), or in providing a home for a teenager who has lost the plot.

Let’s use the Hyndman Centre. It is a tremendous resource. I long to see it not simply as a resource for outside groups to hire, but as a resource that church members can use to develop ministries of social justice here for Bury.

Living in the power of the same Spirit that anointed Jesus:
Our society has lost its way in giving.
In days gone by, we could say to people that they should give to the poor because it was their duty to do so.
Today that argument carries little weight.

And so, in order to persuade self-centred people to give to people with whom they will never come into contact, our society tells “a sort of long, sad, sentimental story”. We see them in the videos for comic relief. There are several versions of this story: ‘Imagine what it would be like to be in her situation – to be far from home, among strangers’; or it might be ‘Because she might become your daughter in law” or “because her mother would grieve for her”. [Rorty quoted Keller p81].

But if we are depending on such stories in order to get us to give of our money and time, then what happens is that each story has to move us or shock us more than the previous story, if it is to have any impact.

But the Christian who has said ‘yes’ to the astonishing free gift of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit really does have a new motivation. That same Spirit which impelled Jesus in love to come from heaven for the poor, the prisoner, the disabled and oppressed, is working in us.

As the Scottish preacher, McCheyne, put it: ‘Oh my dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving’.

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