Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Jesus Calls Us to Embody His Righteousness & Justice Together

How Can We Pursue Justice and Righteousness? Jesus Answers, "My Sacrificial Love and Resurrection Life Will Sustain You."

The post below features excerpts and ideas from Bethany Hanke Hoang's and Kristen Deede Johnson's The Justice Calling and Jim Martin's The Just Church.


Jesus' Church is Given Both a Righteousness and Justice Calling in How We Love Others and His World

The two greatest commandments identified by Jesus  to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself  are the flip side of the two most prevalent sins throughout Scripture: idolatry and injustice. Failing to love God leads to idolatry, while failing to love others leads to injustice. Another way of putting this is to say that the call to love God and love our neighbors is a call to righteousness (i.e. right relationship with God and others) and justice (i.e. restored right relationship with God and others). God's righteousness and justice include manifestations of God's character of love, and God, in turn, calls His people to be set apart by their righteousness and justice. And as God shares His own righteousness and justice with us through Christ, He enables us to be righteous, love and justify. The entirety of Scripture shows that seeking the Lord and His peace, and pursuing righteousness and justice, belong together and were never meant to be separated. Righteousness and justice flow from the same source: God's steadfast love.

The God who is love calls the people of God to love. That same God who is just calls the same people to do justice. To extract or to separate love and justice from the character of God would be impossible, just as it should mean these qualities in action are inextricable from God's people. The body of Christ is meant to be the enactment of God's life in the world. Jesus says the evidence will be measured by whether we actually live our calling. It's not whether our lips say Amen, but whether our lives do. Our lives are to be recast, reordered, and filled by God's love and by the world's need. Lives centered in the love and justice of God will make room for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the slave. That changes everything, which is just what Jesus said we should anticipate. Individual and social cries for justice go out for transformation of people and of systems; justice in the real world means a response to individual and social injustices, not either/or. 

"Justice is what love looks like in public," is the way Cornel West captures it. Justice is about discipleship with Jesus in the world (see Matthew 5:3-16; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-3714:7-45). It's about the utterly unique way that God uses the struggle for justice to draw us closer to Himself – through desperate dependence upon Him and through extraordinary experiences of His powerOver and over again, we see churches find spiritual renewal and a depth of maturity in Christ through the transforming crucible of justice ministry. We are following Jesus into the deep waters of discipleship, where His power is made perfect in our weakness, where He brings His love to those in most desperate need, and where "your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday" (Isaiah 58:10).

Jesus' Church's Call to Mission in Word and Deed, Evangelism and Justice

In the book of Acts, the mission of the early church involved verbal proclamation of the Good News of Christ: Peter proclaims the gospel again and again (2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12); Stephen speaks (7:2-53); Philip preaches (8:4-13); and Paul and Barnabas are commissioned and sent out to share the Gospel with Jews and then Gentiles (8:13-14). The proclamation of the Gospel moves from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and out toward the ends of the earth.

The book of Acts also makes it clear that the mission of the early church involved attending to material needs. As the Gospel is proclaimed and received, it connects directly with the social and economic realities of people's lives, which are intertwined with their spiritual needs. This seamless connection between the proclamation of the Gospel and concern for material realities – between word and deed  permeates the book of Acts. In the earliest depiction of the church after Pentecost, meetings for prayer and worship flowed naturally into making sure the material needs in their community were met (2:43-47). Distributing food daily to widows became a regular practice of these early Christians and was considered so significant that seven disciples were commissioned to oversee this part of the church's mission and to ensure that no on was neglected (6:1-6). Paul returns to the church in Jerusalem from a missionary journey in part to bring money for the poor in support of the church's mission (24:17).  

The Great Commission was fulfilled not only as the disciples moved into new geographic locations but also as they intentionally addressed the social and economic realities at home and abroad. As they engaged those who were marginalized, impoverished, and neglected, they bore witness to the upside-down nature of God's kingdom in Christ (Acts 17:6-7 NRSV). The early church did not designate separate categories for evangelism and justice. They seamlessly lived James's conviction that "faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26). 

What we today call evangelism and justice together make up the kingdom mission of the church. Biblically the pursuit of justice, righteousness, and shalom includes mission in word and deed. The mission of the church is to be an extension of the mission of Jesus  that is, a manifestation of the kingdom of God, a new reality ushered in by Jesus Christ that "affects human life not only morally and spiritually but also physically and psychologically, materially and socially." Just as Jesus's mission manifested the many layers of the kingdom through His preaching and His acts of justice and mercy, so should the church's mission. Good works are not an optional add-on to the proclamation of the Gospel; only together can they point to the fullness of the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ inaugurated.

The deep biblical connection between evangelism and justice has been a key component of the witness and teachings of John Perkins as well. After experiencing a conversion to the Gospel in his late twenties in California, he became deeply committed to sharing the gospel through evangelism. He then sensed a call from God to return with his family to his home state of Mississippi to bring the good news to the racially segregated community he had left. As he entered further into ministry there, he became increasingly convinced of the significance of holistic mission that attends to spiritual and material needs. 

As Perkins writes, "I want to be clear that there is no competition between evangelism and social responsibility. If I were to spend all my time teaching my children the Bible, but not lift a finger to see that they are fed, that they are educated, that they are job-prepared, or that they learn to give to others, I could justly be called an irresponsible parent. In the same way, our love for others is questionable if either spiritual or social concern is lacking. Jesus never put evangelism and social action at odds with each other, so neither should we."(You can read more about Perkins' story in this post: Reconciling Good News: Moving with God in Welcoming Justice and Building Beloved Community.)

As we are sent by Jesus to love God and love others, our mission must involve both evangelism and justice. Another example of a current church in the U.S. who embodies this well is East End Fellowship. Read more about how Jesus brought this just church together.

Jesus' Church Learns How to Embody Both Justice and Righteousness in Upward, Inward, and Outward Relationships of Love Toward God, Others, and the World

The call to the work of justice is not God sending His church out to a place where God cannot be found. Rather, God is inviting us into the place where He is already at work. It is here, among the world's most vulnerable, that the Good News of God turns out to be very good indeed. In the work of justice, our good God is offering us what we so deeply desire in our churches. In the work of justice, God is beckoning us to experience His profound love for us and for the vulnerable of this world. The call to fight against injustice is therefore the call to intimacy with God and to deep discipleship. We are called to both righteousness and justiceThrough the pursuit of righteousness and justice we find our way to deep intimacy with a God who loves us and calls us into His work not only for the good of others, but for our own good as well. 

In the Old Testament, righteousness (tsedaquah) is the word that connects us to the bigger picture of human flourishing, and justice (mishpat) focuses more specifically on the action that needs to be taken in order to restore a situation to its intended righteousness. Or in another sense, tsedaquah refers to behavior that is called for based on the relationships between people or between people and God, while mishpat can be defined as the restoration of a situation or environment so that equity and harmony are promoted in the community (and is sometimes translated "judgment"). Both righteousness and justice in ancient Israel were based on relationshipsRighteousness is about living faithfully in each of our relationships. Justice is about setting things right when relationships haven't been lived out faithfully. 

In the New Testament, the words righteousness and justice are actually English translations of the same Greek word, dikaiosyne. These two words are part of a larger family of words that are prominent in Scripture and connect to the very heart of our life in Christ; the words righteousnessjustice, justification, and justify all come from this same Greek root. As Tim Keller describes this connection, "Justice and justification are joined at the hip." Within the Bible itself, the most common word-pair used to convey our understanding of justice in relationship is "righteousness and justice." In Psalm 33:5 we read, "The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of His unfailing love." The parallelism of this verse also tells us that God's love for righteousness and justice is the way in which God fills all things; therefore we cannot understand God's faithful love apart from righteousness and justice. The inextricable connection between justice, righteousness, and love is at the core of God's vision for the flourishing of all He has created.

The origins of the words righteousness and 
justice provide Jesus' church with a more integrated, holistic understanding of what it means to live rightly, love others and follow God's rules. They are both essential to living in a deeply connected way with one another in community as God intended. Scholar and ministry practitioner Amy Sherman notes that biblical justice and righteousness express themselves in three directions  up, in, and out: in an upward direction as we live our lives in ways that glorify God by the Spirit; inwardly as we live with internal holiness and purity through the grace and transforming work of God in Christ and applied by the Spirit; and outwardly in right living toward others, as we love our neighbors near and far through the Spirit. For example, the "righteous man" described by the prophet Ezekiel gives us a picture of what an upward, inward, and outward love can look like (Ezekiel 18:5-9). It begins with faithfulness to God, as the righteous and just person does not worship idols. It extends to loving treatment of others by addressing personal sexual ethics, the importance of just judgments, and the faithful use of finances. It marks the righteous and just person as one who follows God's laws and avoids wrongdoing not for personal gain but to become one who treats others well, shares with those in need, uses personal finances for the greater good of others, and judges fairly when called on to enter into situations of injustice. It assumes the righteous person is one who can and will do what is just and right. The work of justice and righteousness, therefore is as much about discipleship as it is about mission. The church of Jesus is hardwired for life-and-death struggle in our world and opting into that struggle is a great way to find the abundant life Jesus promises  a life full of belief, trust, joy, and deep discipleship.

Jesus' Church is Called to be Saints (not Heroes) of Justice

While we are called to be righteous and just, we are not called to be heroes. Only Jesus is the hero of righteousness and justice. As minister and theologian Samuel Wells notes, the word hero does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. But the word saint appears sixty-four times. Saints, according to the true meaning of the word, do not save the day or provide the decisive action that changes everything for the good  because Jesus Christ already has. Saints are declared saints because of the perfect holiness of Jesus Christ. Saints do not have to depend on their own timing, strength, courage, and wisdom to provide the heroic action that saves the day; their God is the center of the justice story.

God is ultimately responsible for the way the story ends. So the "hero calling" is not sustainable for us on our own. The hero calling is discarded when one encounters too much brokenness, too much darkness, and too many failures. What's more the hero calling is lonely. In contrast, Jesus' justice calling for His church is not undertaken alone. Every single one of the sixty-four references to saints in the New Testament is plural. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians he writes, "To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be His holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:2). "Saints" and "holy people" are different translations of the same word, linked to God's call for His people to be set apart for a special purpose. Each of us is one member of the larger body of Christ. We need to depend on this community and on God, not ourselves, as we persevere in the justice calling. 

Reconciled and transformed through the grace of God to be righteous and to do justice, we are not set apart to receive glory for our works but to bear witness to the kingdom. Just as important, we are not set apart by our flawless witness  that would only put us back in the center of the story. Saints are imperfect people who are nonetheless set apart by the grace of God. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to grow in holiness as we are drawn further into union with Christ. To live as God's holy people is to depend on God's ongoing grace and forgiveness. As saints, we ought to be brutally honest about our failures and shortcomings, pointing not to ourselves (as heroes would) but to Jesus Christ as the only who fully embodies justice and righteousness in this world. Failure is an opportunity to bear witness to the grace and faithfulness of God, who never abandons His people or His kingdom mission. Only by the ongoing grace of God can we do the good works that God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Eph. 2:8-10). As saints we are free to offer our lives and our callings – our loaves and fishes   to Jesus Christ, knowing that God is the only one who can turn our humble offerings into rich and plentiful food for others.  

We Will Need to Continually Ask God for His Courage and His Humility to Continue As His Just Church

Courage is an essential virtue for any missional church. And  as churches seek to step into the work of biblical justice, the need for courage becomes paramount. Mobilizing resources, people, and expertise to engage violent forces of injustice will require us to learn things we do not yet know, explore areas that are unfamiliar to us, and encounter a kind of darkness we would much rather ignore. Stepping through the unknown and into darkness requires a significant amount of courage. And a strange thing tends to happen to churches, leaders, and disciples as we get older. We become less and less comfortable with risk. In fact, early successes can ruin us for future risks. Early mold-breaking and courageous innovation all too often become memorialized. We end up preferring the known, the safe bet, the easy and clear ministry option. If we are to engage violent injustice, courage will be required of us. Courage to learn what needs to be learned, to explore new frontiers of ministry, and especially to engage where we hear the Spirit of God calling us to engage, even  and perhaps supremely  when we feel what we are being asked to do is not within our power. Churches that lack courage lack the necessary equipment to pursue justice.

Churches that lack humility, on the other hand, can become dangerous in the pursuit of justice. Experts in the field will be among the first to say that a learning posture is essential to success  that a research-based, bridge-building approach to the complexity of engaging injustice is an absolute necessity. But learning and supporting are not postures the proud can easily take. All too often the church has shown up courageously but without humility. The results are almost always disastrous: broken relationships, ineffectiveness, frustration, wasted resources, and in many cases, harm done to those the church intended to help. Humility is essential to the kind of partnership that the work of justice requires: humility to listen to the voices of experts in the field, humility to listen especially when those voices of expertise issue from the church in the Two-Thirds World  humility to follow rather than lead.

For the church to be the church, we must embody both courage and humility simultaneously. When we lack courage, we almost inevitably settle for a deflated, anemic version of church. When we lack humility, we become incapable of partnership, unable to hear the voices of those we seek to serve, and we run the risk of dangerous overreach. But the good news, in my experience, is that it is hard to overestimate the power unleashed when both virtues are found in the same body. Regardless of size, tradition, or geography, the most successful churches are marked by both courage and humility. And they are finding that God's call to engage violent injustice is a call to be the humble and courageous church  Jesus' just and sent church.

This post is from a series of posts on Why We Love Jesus' Church. Here are the first two posts:

God Wants Us to Be Transformed to Be Like Him 
Jesus Wonderfully Creates More Than Open Basements, Bad Marriages, and Decorpulation

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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