Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-11
There is a common statistic that is shared regularly in articles and blog posts about the United Methodist church. In 1968 when the United Methodist church was formed by the merging of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church, the combined membership in the United States was over 10 million. Today that number has dipped below 7 million. That is over a 30% decline in fifty years. This is not a uniquely United Methodist problem. Some individual churches or pockets of Christianity might be expressing numeric growth, but across the board there is a smaller percentage of the U.S. population who identify as Christian or attend church than there used to be. Now, it is easy to get pessimistic about this reality, and trust me people do. There is a lot of shaming, blaming, and accusations about who or what is responsible for this decline that fly back and forth. However, instead of dwelling on the negative, I would like you to use your imagination with me. Let’s imagine a different reality where instead of decline churches across the board are growing. Churches do not have to have high production values or fancy advertising campaigns to lure people in because people are intentionally seeking out the church. Every year, every church has new professions of faith and new baptisms- often by the dozens. Imagine that world.
Once upon a time, that used to be the reality. In the first couple of centuries of its existence, Christianity had explosive growth. Before the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost there were around 150 Christians, a number so small that it was a statistical zero in terms of percentage of the Roman Empire that was Christian. About three hundred years later there were over 33 million Christians and the Christians accounted for 56% of the empire’s population. One of the pagan emperors of this time period, Julian, wrote about Christians and gave a hint as to what might have driven this growth. Julian wrote “[Christians] support not only their poor but our as well.” One of Jesus’s best known teachings is “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.” The first few generations of Christians took this seriously. They shared their resources in order to care for the poor, they risked their own lives to minister to the sick, and when persecution struck they gambled their own freedom to provide for those who were imprisoned. Having compassion on others, seeing the needs, and meeting the needs around us have long been Christian values and a core part of who we are supposed to be. The world of the first generations of Christians was broken, fallen and unjust. The ways of the world have not changed much, and the ways of those who follow Jesus should also be the same. We should still spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.
Lent is meant to be a time when we commit as both individuals and as a community to take our faith more seriously. If we are going to be serious about our faith, then we have to know our faith. To those ends, throughout Lent on Sunday mornings we have been focusing on the core beliefs of faith. We are going to focus on the core beliefs shared by Christians, as well as those ways the Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes those beliefs. Today we are going to focus on a belief that is found throughout scripture, was essential to the ministry of Jesus, and has always been part of the practice of Christianity. Our focus is social holiness or as it is more commonly referred to today, social justice.
Personal holiness are the acts of personal piety, the way we live, to love God more. Acts of piety such as prayer and bible study help us fulfill the command to Love God with all of our being. Social holiness emphasizes the other great command Jesus gave to love our neighbors as ourselves. Social holiness is when we work together as a community of faith to meet the needs in the world around us. We do this through what John Wesley called acts of mercy. Acts of mercy are the same acts that made the early church explode in growth: Clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick. For Wesley acts of personal holiness and acts of social holiness were deeply connected. In his book Responsible Grace Wesley historian and theologian points out that for Wesley “works of piety like worship-which express responsive love for God- would deepen our love for others, while works of mercy would deepen our love for God.” In other words to fulfill the great commandments of love God and love others our faith practice must have both works of piety and works or mercy; both personal holiness and social holiness.
Social holiness has long been a Christian practice and it deeply embedded into the DNA of the United Methodist church. When communities of faith seek to practice works of mercy together it often leads them to seeking to address systemic wrongs or injustices in the world. Pursuing social holiness out of a love for God, often leads to pursuing social justice out of a love for others. This is true for the people called Methodists. Our Book of Discipline records, “The United Methodist church has a long history of concern for social justice.”
Since the very beginning social justice, as we just defined it, has long been a part of Christian tradition. So I find it very puzzling that in some sectors of today’s society the idea of social justice has a very negative connotation. Given the long Christian history with the subject, it is odd to me that this negative connotation is found even in some aspects of Christianity. Last year well known Baptist minister John MacArthur headed up authorship for a statement that took a negative stance on social holiness and social justice. This statement has a lot of problems. One of the key issues for me revolves around how little concern it has for social justice. I am not going to go over the whole thing. However, I did want to address one part of the statement that I found especially erroneous:
WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.
I fundamentally disagree with this. The statement’s denial follows their affirmation that the “primary role of the church is to worship God.” I suppose I fundamentally disagree with this as well. Instead I affirm the United Methodist Book of Discipline which states the purpose of the church as such: “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The church’s purpose, its reason for existence, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ through proclaiming the good news and simultaneously through being the fulfillment of the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Social holiness and social justice are simply the means through which this command is fulfilled. Seeking social justice, resisting oppression in whatever form it presents self, and speaking truth to power is at the heart of the church’s work in the world.
I struggle to come to grips with how someone who seeks to follow Jesus could have a stance that is against social justice. I think there is a key quote from the Lord of the Rings that helps define what social justice is and why it is important. Frodo and Sam are carrying the one ring to Mount Doom, and they are beginning to realize how hard their task is and how much opposition that is ahead of them. Things seem bleak and nearly impossible, but Sam offers a glimpse of hope when he says, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Activism for social justice is simply fighting for the good in this world. The world is fallen and broken by sin. Yet through Christ, the light of God has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. That light is redeeming the world, the whole world, one soul at a time. The reason why I struggle to understand why a disciple can be against social justice is because the bible has a consistent message of joining God’s work in Christ to redeem and transform the world. The message of God’s redemption in the world, and care for the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized is all over the bible.
This morning’s scripture from Isaiah is just one of these and it makes it clear that God loves justice. In this morning’s scripture God addressed the people of Israel about the kind of behavior he wants out of them. The people want to get God’s attention and God’s blessing through a ritual act. Their hope is that if they go through the motions of a fast, if they fulfill the letter of the law, and use proper procedure then they will earn God’s attention. However, this morning’s scripture makes it clear that what matters to God has less to do with pomp and circumstance and more to do with a changed heart.
As Wesley made the connection a love for God and a love for people are connected. In this passage from Isaiah God is making clear that the way God wanted the Israelites to express their love for God was not through religious ceremony but through the compassion they displayed. They were to love God by loving others. And how were they to do this: “Loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free and break every yolk. Share food with the hungry, provide the poor wander with shelter, clothe the naked, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.” This morning’s scripture from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah is call to social holiness and a demand for social justice.
We find a similar emphasis in the New Testament as well, and we especially find this emphasis in the life and teaching of Jesus. The gospel of Luke records that when Jesus started his ministry he visited Nazareth’s synagogue. He read from a different part of Isaiah and proclaimed, “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 to proclaim the year of the Lords favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins and to provide us with forgiveness and redemption. This redemption is not just spiritual, it has a real world component. While Jesus did deliver people from the spiritual bondage of sin and he proclaimed the good news of forgiveness of sin, Jesus also met real human needs. He healed the sick, cured the disabled, and provided food for the hungry. Jesus did not just tell others about the love of God he showed them it through his actions. The ministry of Jesus was based just as much in meeting the needs of the poor and oppressed as it was saving souls. The disciples of Jesus are supposed to follow in this pattern.
Perhaps the book of James makes this most clear when it states in James 2:18, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
The deeds and good works we take part in do not earn us salvation and forgiveness of sins, but rather they are the manifestation of a vibrant and active faith. Jesus met the real needs of the least advantaged and marginalized. Anyone who takes following him seriously must do the same.
Social holiness and social justice are essential to the gospel and it is part of the primary purpose of the church. Seeking greater justice in society for all peoples is how we have deeds of faith, meet the needs around us, and transform this world. There are hungry people, there are sick people, there are marginalized and forgotten people in this world who need Jesus and need to know God loves them. The simple reality is that a bumper sticker that says “Jesus loves you” is not going to do it. We need to show them that God loves through how we love them. As the body of Christ we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus that spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.
There is a quote often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that states, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is so true when it comes to the good news of salvation and forgiveness that the church holds. The unsaved souls in a broken and fallen world are not going to care for that message until they know we care for them. And we should care for them, because God cares for them. As we come to love God more our love for others should increase, and as our love for others increases we should come to love God more. So may you love God through how you love others. May we join together to see the needs and meet the needs in the community around us. God is at work redeeming the world, so may we join God in that work. There is good in this world, and it is worth fighting for. Therefore, what this word needs are Christ minded, social justice warriors who will fight for the good. May that be us.