Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Great Ends of the Church: The Promotion of Social Righteousness

Preached on Sunday, August 3, 2014
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 58:1-9; James 1:26-2:7; Luke 19:1-10
Youth Group of Foster-Tukwila Presbyterian Church:
Preparations for the Mattawa/Desert Aire
Vacation Bible School, August 4-8, 2014
Earlier in the gospel of Luke (Luke 14:12-14) Jesus says an interesting thing, as he so often does. He says” When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Is Jesus crazy?
Or are we crazy, claiming that we follow Jesus when we don’t think anything at all like he does?
What is Jesus thinking about? For one thing, Jesus is thinking about righteousness; the righteousness of grace, the righteousness that helps people in need. In the Jewish faith, “acts of righteousness” means helping people. It even means giving to beggars (“Alms for the poor!”). Or it means standing up for people in need or giving them what they need.
It happens that Jesus connects this with “the resurrection of the righteous”. And “the resurrection of the righteous” is a huge thing. It’s everything. It’s where we want to be. It is part of God’s goal to basically recreate the universe, and to eliminate all evil, and to eliminate the true source of evil, which is sin (including your sin and mine).
God’s goal goes as far as the need goes: eventually to abolish even the most seemingly natural and inevitable of evils. God wants to abolish death itself, because sin is death. The cross and the resurrection are all about this.
We are not going to talk about all of that. But we are going to think about righteousness.
Righteousness is part of God’s goal, God’s intention, for us. But this righteousness has nothing to do with being better than other people, or trying to act like you are better, or trying to think like you are better.
In the Bible, righteousness is about mercy and grace. It is unconditional love and putting that love into constructive action. That is why Jesus is not talking about being better than others but helping those who need help, and not expecting to be repaid for your efforts.
God’s own righteousness is about loving us unconditionally, and putting that love into action. God’s righteousness is about mercy and forgiveness for us, even though it is beyond anything we can deserve, and even though it is beyond anything we can ever repay.
That is why Jesus tells us to give to those who can never repay us. How can we ever repay him for the cross and the resurrection?
The word gospel means “good news”, and it is good because it is about unconditional love, mercy, and grace. God showed that this was the kind of righteousness he thinks about when he came and died and rose from the dead to give us this unconditional love, mercy, and grace.
The Old Testament prophets thundered against God’s own people when they did not live by God’s standard of unconditional love, mercy, and grace. God expected the people who knew his grace to constructively show that grace to those who needed it. For all the violence of the Old Testament, God wanted the world to be able see a truly gracious people.
One of the great ends or purposes of the church is to promote what is called “social righteousness”. Just as God’s people in the Old Testament were called to create a righteous or gracious society in the world; so Christians are called to care about a righteous, gracious society.
James told his people to take care of widows and orphans, because those were the classic examples of the most vulnerable people in a society. They were some of the people who were least likely to be able to repay any help that they were given.
Along with “aliens” or outsiders, widows and orphans formed the short list of the people that God, in the Old Testament, wanted. They weren’t the only people God cared about. They were only examples. It is never enough to only care about the shortlist.
We can find one of the many occurrences of the short list in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18) God says: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.” (See also Deut. 10:18-19)
You see that the Lord was thinking about righteousness in terms of grace. The story of Israel was the story of God-given grace. God wanted the story of Israel to go on in the same vane by their making their own world into a gracious world. God, in Christ, gives his church the same calling.
The early Christians were noted for taking care of other people’s orphans and widows, as well as their own. They went to the garbage dumps where the unwanted babies were left. These garbage dumps were places that slave traders would visit for the purpose of collecting the strongest babies and raising them as cheaply as possible to sell as future slaves. The Christians took any baby they found, and brought it to their own homes to be raised as their own children.
When their towns were struck by plagues, and everyone ran for their lives, many Christians would stay and take care of the sick, even the pagan sick. When they found someone hungry they fed that person whether they were Christian or not.
The hard core pagans were indignant about the graciousness of Christians because it made the non-Christians look bad. It seemed grossly unfair. Any self-respecting person should have known that everyone was supposed to take care of their own. And why would they ever learn, if you did it for them? The Christians were shameless because they didn’t respect that essential principle. They were setting a bad example for everyone.
The gospel is about grace. The early Christians were very good at giving grace. Even though it was dangerous and illegal to be Christian, the Christian faith spread because grace was contagious, and the good news of the gospel was demonstrated by their grace.
The leaders of the empire blamed the Christians for being gracious. But, when the Roman Empire became Christian, and when the kings of the barbarians invaders later became Christian, you found emperors and kings founding hospitals, and orphanages, and shelters for the poor, and creating other institutions like that. Not that those emperors or kings were all true Christians, or people of grace, but societies and nations that were full of Christians tried to make themselves gracious.
Zacchaeus was not a government official, because tax collectors were independent contractors for the imperial government. The government assessed a province for a certain total amount of taxes and farmed out the collection of those taxes to the highest bidder. The contractor with the highest bid would collect enough to turn over the assessed sum to the government, but he could also collect as much above that sum as he could, and keep the excess for his own profit. That is how Zacchaeus became rich.
Zacchaeus was not a gracious man. He was a traitor because he served the Roman occupiers for his own profit. He didn’t care about anyone but himself. But, when Zacchaeus received grace from Jesus, he changed. By offering to repay his overcharges by four times the amount, he was offering to pay the penalty for stealing, as if he had been convicted of theft in a court of law.
He could have justified paying less if he were only confessing to having made a mistake. He could have claimed that he hadn’t known what he was doing, as a lot of rich and important people do today.
Instead of plea bargaining, Zacchaeus willingly accepted the label of a convicted criminal. He accepted the shame of being a thief. But he was a repentant thief. Jesus changed him into a man of grace.
Even though he was not a member of the government, his change of heart could change the influence of the government in his district, in his province. Christians can do this too and, when they do it, they are promoting social righteousness.
Christians and churches are not always gracious, but graciousness has come into the world through Christians and the church because it comes from Jesus.
The world movement to abolish slavery began with Christians. At first it started with just a handful of public-minded Christians in England during the late 1700’s; with William Wilberforce and John Newton (who was the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”), and a few others. At the turn of the 20th century, Christians worked to protect Chinese girls from sex slavery in the cities and towns of the west coast.
In early modern times the first real movement to clean up sewage and get it out of the streets came from Christians. Laws for safe food and drugs over a century ago came with the lobbying of Christians. Child labor laws came with the lobbying of Christians.
Beginning in the early 1600’s, the Puritans settled in New England. They brought a concern, as Christians, to create a righteous and gracious society, and one of the first things they did was to set up a system of universal, public education. They set the standard for public education in America. This was the work of the church.
Higher education for women was promoted by Christians. The great evangelist Charles Finney (who thrived during the early and middle 1800’s, and who was the inventor of the altar call) created Oberlin College, which was the first college in the United States that taught men, and women, and people of other races, without segregation.
In the late 1700’s, and through the centuries in America, Christians developed a concern for not just punishing but for rehabilitating law breakers. They have tried to make prisons more than places of punishment, but also of training and education.
Chuck Colson was a lawyer for the Nixon White House in the 1970’s. He was involved in the Watergate scandal and he was convicted and sent to prison for obstruction of justice.
He could have thought, in his heart, that prison was not the place for him. He could have thought that he didn’t belong there; that he wasn’t at all like the other people in prison.
But he had a change of heart. He identified himself with every prisoner and, when he served his time, he created the ministry of Prison Fellowship, which has a lot of success in changing the hearts of lawbreakers in prison, and assisting their families, and helping repentant law-breakers to live law-abiding lives after they have served their time.
In the area of addiction, Christians were the creators of the twelve-step programs, beginning with Alcoholics Anonymous. Christians looked at the damage done to families and communities by drug addiction and lobbied for laws against the free sale of opium, cocaine, heroin and other addictive drugs.
Christians also tried to change society through programs that did not last. They saw the damage done to lives from gambling, and they lobbied against gambling and made it illegal in every state except Nevada.
Christians got Prohibition passed, temporarily, which was very well meaning of them, but not very successful, and not even very wise. They forgot that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine.
They proved that it is a risky thing for Christians to try to be holier than Jesus. This is, also, something for us to think about.
Habitat for Humanity, which helps the poor to build and own their own homes, was the inspiration of Christians in the South.
Christians from the Pacific Northwest have organized groups that go to the Gulf Coast of the United States, or to Latin America, to help people build homes and new lives from the wreckage of storms and hurricanes, or from the wreckage of simple, basic poverty.
There are groups of Christians from the Pacific Northwest going to Central America to make life there better for families and children: going to places like Guatemala and building churches, and schools, and homes. Maybe if more American Christians traveled to Central America on a mission there would be fewer kids from Central America coming to the United States, because grace is contagious.
The church is the body of Christ; the hands and the feet of Jesus. When the people who call themselves Christians are transformed by the grace of God they want to bring grace to the world around them.
They work to find ways to make things happen in their communities that show the unconditional love of God. They work to show the forgiveness, the mercy, and the grace of God that they have found in Jesus Christ.
They do this without expecting any recognition or any repayment in return. This comes naturally to them because their own lives have been taken up into the story of God’s grace which they can never repay.
James says: “Listen my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5)
Now those who are poor are not always rich in faith, and those who are rich are not always enemies of the faith. This is easy to see as we read the Gospels and the Bible as a whole.
James says what he does because he is wrapped up in the story of God’s grace. The simple fact of the story is that we are all truly poor; and we are all made rich by the love of God.
Being born again, born from above, comes in seeing your own poverty, and then seeing Jesus, in all his glory, humbling himself, in order to give himself to you in his birth, and on the cross, and in his resurrection. Paul says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
When we know what it is to receive grace, then we know what it is to want to give grace, and make God’s gracious ways a reality in our country and our world. That is why it is our purpose, as the church, to promote the righteousness of grace, the righteousness that helps others in need, at every level of our world.
This is “the promotion of social righteousness. This is what the Bible tells us to do. Thus says the Lord!

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