Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Six Great Ends 5. The Promotion of Social Righteousness

THE SIX GREAT ENDS OF THE CHURCH.”
5. The promotion of social righteousness

We continue our series that takes a look at 6 historic statements of the purpose of the church that were first proposed at the beginning of the last century and have been a part of the Presbyterian Book of order ever since.

The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)
  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
Today we are taking a look at number five. As with our previous session I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements.

The promotion of social righteousness
  • Our first session, about the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of all humankind, focused on the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. 
  • Our second session focused on ways we nurture each other through fellowship and service. 
  • The third great end drew our attention to the maintenance of divine worship, worship being the place where our lives connect with God. 
  • The fourth session looked at the preservation of the truth, in particular the truth of the gospel.
The Fifth Great End represents "The promotion of social righteousness."

The banner represents Amos 5:24
 "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."

One of the defining tenets of Presbyterian faith is that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That our salvation is linked to what Jesus has already done for us. If folk ask when were we saved, our answer is “Just over 2000 years ago when Christ died upon the Cross for our sins.”

We tend to focus less on the world to come and far more on what it means for the gospel to be birthed in our current, everyday, now world, of today. That, briefly stated, is what the promotion of social righteousness is about. We are called to apply ourselves to fulfilling the prayer we make each Sunday; “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth... as it is in heaven.” We recognize not only is this our call, but a call that we cannot fulfill without God's strength power and guidance. Hence at the top of our banner is the Dove, indicating the initiative and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
A good starting place for our deliberations is the Sermon on the Mount: Luke 6:20-26

20 Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
23 "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
(Luk 6:20-26 NIV)

The teaching Jesus offers is hard to grasp. Being poor, hungry, sad and hated is not what any sane person would described as being blessed! This idea that the rich are going to be punished, the well fed go hungry, those who laugh be moved to tears and folk we regard as honored are equated with false prophets... well, this needs some unpacking.

One way of looking at this passage is that it is about the difference the coming of the Kingdom is meant to make to the world in which we live. That God has heard, and is on the side of those who are in need, and that God's plan is that those who have plenty, get with God's program and do something to help those less fortunate than themselves.

This is the approach Timothy Hart-Andersen takes in his essay “Plain Talk From Jesus on Poverty and Wealth” P118-9

“He (Jesus) knows that the poor suffer and die from lack of food;
Blessed are you who are hungry now.
He knows that the poor are often filled with despair;
Blessed are you who weep now.
He knows that the poor are forced to live on the margins;
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you.

For to you, Jesus says, belongs the reign of God, where you will no longer be hungry, where you will no longer weep, where you will no longer be excluded.

Not everybody standing there on the plain listening to Jesus is poor. Neither are all of his disciples. But the rich who want to follow Jesus will be expected to view their wealth in new ways. Levi, for example, is a tax collector and man of means. He throws a banquet After Jesus calls him as a disciple, to celebrate his change of life.

Jesus is not against the rich; He is is simply saying God has a a particular interest in the poor.

If those at the bottom of the pile are going to see there lot improved it is only through those at the top of the pile, permitting some of their blessings to overflow. Again we are with Amos 5:24 "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Our banner pictures the Holy Spirit's work as overseeing the overflow.

Again to quote Hart Andersen: “If we hoped our religion could remain fundamentally a private matter we were mistaken. If it makes us squirm to be bought face to face with our material abundance, then so be it. The gospel is not meant to justify our standard of living. It was and is meant to be heard by the poor as good news... Jesus makes the elimination of poverty – the promotion of social righteousness – a fundamental aim of those who choose to follow Him” (P119)

As a fund raiser many moons ago I wrote a song for a Christian Aid appeal. While the song had a particular focus on the plight of street children in Brazil, one of the lines applied to all those occasions we are inspired to help others; “Let us listen for the voice of Jesus calling, speaking to us through their need, Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, You do it for Me.

We love because Christ first loved us, we serve because Christ first served us, we reach out to the poor, because He reached out to the poor. It can be a thankless task. Even Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us. And we may feel like our contribution is such an insignificant drop in the ocean. The fact that after over 2000 years of the Christian message being proclaimed, the world still seems as harsh and cruel and impoverished as it ever was, can be disappointing.

Our next passage reminds us, that even those who were closest to Jesus, like his cousin John the Baptist, sometimes asked if the Kingdom of God was really coming, or were to they to expect something else? John, as you know, fell foul of the authorities when he questioned the ruling elites morality, and he was imprisoned.

Matthew 11:1 After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples
3 to ask him, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?"
4 Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see:
5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me." (Mat 11:1-6 NIV)

John had every reason to question. He had given his life to declare the coming of the Kingdom. He was about to lose his life and was in a jail cell. Had it all been worthwhile? Or had he given his life for an illusion. He knew the promises of the Messiah and it didn't look like, from his perspective, that change was coming any time soon. The reply Jesus sends him directly focuses on promises of the coming kingdom that were given through Old Testament prophecy.

Isaiah 35:3-6
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you."
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. (Isa 35:3-6 NIV)

These were words John was incredibly familiar with. They would have resonated with John in a deeper way than we can ever understand. This was a way for Jesus to reassure John that his work had not been in vain, but that God's plan, for “justice to roll down like waters” was going forward, albeit in a way that was not as spectacular as some envisioned. It is as though Jesus is inviting John to modify his vision, while at the same time affirming it was the right vision to hold.

In her essay “Deepening Disappointment” Elizabeth McGregor Simmons talks of how she observed “sight being restored to the blind” in the life of one of her congregation called Murray. Murray was losing his sight and there was no cure on the horizon. He had partnered up with a visually handicapped trainer, Ernie. They were sharing their journey with the congregation at a special event that a introduced them to Ernie's seeing-eye guide dog Mikey.

She muses sometime after the event how she was struck by Jesus reply to John... “Go and tell John what you hear and see... the blind receive their sight.”

As I read those words I thought, “You know, Murray is still blind. Ernie is still blind. And what that means is that in a certain sense, the fulfillment of Isaiah's vision of restoration and wholeness for the whole creation still lies out there in the offing. And in this realization, there is disappointment. But at the same time, there is Mikey. And there is the Guide Dogs of Texas organization. And there are Ernie and Mikey showing us how they work together to “See”. … And all of us who were there last Sunday afternoon went away less blind than we had been before. And in all of this, in the deepening of our disappointment, if you will, there is, by the grace of God, great joy as well.”

The disappointment seems to come when we start trying to measure the results. When we start trying to quantify what we have achieved. But the thing about a rolling stream is that it never stops. For sure, it can dry up, but as long as it is rolling, you don't try and drain it and count the droplets. If you do, that's when the perspective changes and the disappointment takes over!

Our upcoming service this Sunday gives us the account of a man who is born blind. There are many disappointing things in the passage. His healing results in trouble from the authorities and ends up with him being thrown out of his church! The disciples are revealed to have taken on board some pretty bad theology that related sickness to people sinning. The religious authorities are revealed to be clueless.

This peace and justice stuff! Messy. Not always clear. Often tricky. One step forward one step back kind of affair. But the stream keeps rolling. And we are called to keep it flowing! And if that sounds crazy, then the essay by Joseph Small, titled “He's Crazy” (meaning Jesus) may offer us some insight. He begins it by referencing Mark 3:20-35.

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, "He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons."
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: "How can Satan drive out Satan?
24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.
27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man's house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man's house.
28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter,
29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin."
30 He said this because they were saying, "He has an impure spirit."
31 Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.
32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you."
33 "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!
35 Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mar 3:20-35 NIV)

As the mission of Jesus gained momentum, His family looked on with great concern. They could see it was heading for trouble. He kept saying the kinds of things that everybody thought, but nobody dared to say. He kept calling people to account for themselves. And when He was challenged He responded in a ridiculous way, by healing, by offering hope, by love! Who did He think He was? Forgiving people?Healing people? Welcoming sinners and tax collectors? Talking to Samaritan women by wells in the heart of the noonday sun? God or something? His family tried to put a stop to it.

So did the authorities. But they were not as kindly disposed as His family. They just declared Him to be outright evil. In league with the devil. Doing the right things but for the most evil of reasons... the most significant evil being that it showed them up for the shallow, despicable tricksters and hustlers they actually were.

Yet some of them knew better. But they wouldn't admit it. This was their 'unforgivable sin'. That they knew Jesus was right, but called Him wrong. They knowingly participated in ascribing the works of God's Spirit as being evil. The unforgivable sin isn't suicide, or sexuality or a bunch of other stuff the religious right may tell us... it is deliberately ascribing to evil... what you know is the genuine work of God. The passage explains this... gives us the reason why Jesus talks about an unforgivable sin. Verse 30 “He said this because they were saying, "He has an impure spirit."

Jesus is even crazy enough to suggest that the hallowed institution of the family was not the all important relationship to have in life. That there was actually one relationship... our relationship with God... that mattered more. This is tough teaching! This is hard. “Honor thy father and mother!” But not if they are preventing you from being the child of God that you are intended to be. Ouch!

He rambled through a world that prized order, a world that gave authority only to people with the right qualifications and expected little or nothing from common people. Jesus expected great things of ordinary people, even gathering poor, uneducated folks as disciples and then giving them authority to heal diseases, forgive sins, and break down societal barriers of race, class and gender. Entrusting His mission to ordinary people was not rational.

It was all crazy. None of it made sense. Who Jesus was, what He said and what He did, were incongruous in a world that looked on departures from 'the way things were' as loony at best and dangerous at worst. The reaction of Jesus' family and of the religious and political authorities was understandable. It was all crazy.” (P130)

One of the phrases you often hear in peace and justice circles is that the church is called to “Speak the truth to power. ”As we saw in the last session, not just any random truth, but the particular truth that we find in scripture and which was exemplified and lived out by Jesus through the words and actions of His ministry. It is a truth at variance with the ways of the world. It can be an uncomfortable truth. But unless we act upon it, through the promotion of social righteousness, then the Kingdom on earth can never come “As it is in heaven.”

Joseph Small concludes: “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God – God's new way in the world – in which social righteousness – reordered relationships among all people – would be the order of things. No more of the tired old “Way things are”, but new, God-given, Christ inaugurated, Spirit-powered possibilities for human living. In short,Christ calls us now to embrace the crazy possibility that life in this world can be free and full for all of God's people, Christ calls those of us who want to be followers to go where He goes, even when efforts for a more just social order seem foolish, or quixotic, or even a bit mad

At the start of Luke's gospel, Jesus makes a bold statement, not only about His mission, but about who He was. Luke 4:16-21.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 He began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luk 4:16-21 NIV)

Here is the Jesus manifesto:
  • Proclaim good news to the poor.
  • Proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
  • Set the oppressed free,
  • Proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
There He stands... in His hometown in His home church...of all places,... declaring...“The Spirit of the Lord is on me” and “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.By the time the sermon was over they tried to throw Him off a cliff. Yes, it went THAT well! Crazy or not, faithful churches take the words of Jesus seriously. They recognize that the promotion of social righteousness is not an optional extra, but an essential part of the gospel message.

In his essay “A Vision for the city” Scott Weimer writes about moving to lead a church in Atlanta and seeking how that Kingdom manifesto of Jesus can be put into practice.

He speaks of how the word “Poor” had many different meanings. The poor … “spiritually”, and the poor, “economically.” One of the things his church has now established is a Men's Bible Study that brings together business professionals and homeless people in the neighborhood. The program has offered to both groups unique perspectives and been transformative in impact. Some of the homeless are no longer homeless. Some of the professionals now have a completely different perspective about causes of homelessness and how they can help.,

As the congregation became made aware of human trafficking... in particular the sexual exploitation of children... they have involved themselves with a program called GRACE (Galvanizing Resources Against Child Exploitation)... a city wide program. Some older widows have offered rooms in their homes as safe havens. Others in the congregation have shared their gifts in counseling and law.

To fulfill the injunction to “Proclaim the Year of the Lord's Favor” the church has begun to offer services of wholeness and witnessed God's healing in unexpected ways. They are embracing spiritual gifts that they had previously ignored.

He writes (P137) “Daily, Jesus is opening the spiritual eyes of our congregation… we are praying that God will continue to enable us to support the ministries that proclaim good news to the poor and oppressed in our city and around the world. We now see the world with eyes that focus on needs far beyond our own immediate personal concerns.”

For our own church there remains the challenge as to how invest in ministries of compassion to fulfill the gospel mandate first delivered by Jesus in His hometown. These are challenging times for us as a church. Last Sunday saw just about the lowest attendance I've seen since I arrived here as your minister. People have left us. We have cut back, not expanded our mission giving. Some of our most faithful mission workers have grown old and can no longer do what they once did. Others have not jumped up and taken their place. These are not the New Beginnings that I had expected when I came here.

So I am very glad to have this opportunity to think about the Great Ends of the Church. Am I sometimes discouraged? Of course. But so far nobody has attempted to throw me off a cliff because of something I said in a sermon. And we are still pursuing the goal of “Promoting Social Righteousness.”

This session reminds us to keep reminding ourselves that we are the privileged ones of this world and God's expectation is that we share what we have and lift up those less fortunate than ourselves. We read in Matthew 25:42-45 about judgment. 

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 

 Judgment is framed in terms that ask, “Did you care?”

We may at times become overwhelmed by the size of the task. It is a slow, frustrating, process. Kingdom work always is. That's what John experienced in the darkness of his prison cell. We may sometimes question if what we are doing really counts.

There is a story about a man walking along a beach. Every now and again, he comes across a starfish and throws it back in the sea. Somebody challenges him, “You fool. You can't pick up every starfish on the beach. Do you think you can really make a difference?” The man picked up another starfish, threw it in the sea and said “Makes a difference to this one!”

Yes. People will think we are crazy. They thought Jesus was crazy. Or bad. Or just plain wrong. But He just kept on saying “The Kingdom is near! Join me in the work. Be my sisters and brothers and Mothers as we work together to make it real”

The prophet Amos declared... "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." There is no shortage of ways we can be involved in the work of peace and justice. Be it racial issues, gender issues, homelessness, human trafficking, immigration rights, the rights of prisoners, be it through the legal process, the political process, be it through community meeting or prayer meeting, be it fighting cancer or raising awareness of world poverty, be it the environment or the dismantling of nuclear arsenals... one of the six Great ends of the Church remains... "The promotion of social righteousness."

Next Time... The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world .

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