Mercy and Justice on the Path to Gladness and Generosity in a Healthy Church, Part 2/3

Remember that tired and discouraged pastor from early in this series about the focus of Metokos?  He shared a number of things about his church that had him down emotionally. We could hear his frustration at efforts his church made that seemed to show no results. Let’s take some time here to examine one area of congregational life in which people can sometimes forget the appropriate focus of their effort.  We are going to keep our conversation going with this next try of food for thought.  Remember, the common theme of this series of writings is the relationship between church revitalization, a healthy church, the ministry of mercy, and the role of justice in mercy ministry – and this theme is where congregations gain their God-given focus.  How do we keep that focus, in this case, in applying justice to our mercy ministry?

Flashback with me to Acts 2 and my comments at the end of the last entry. These verses show three ministries – worship, discipleship, and mercy – all working in collaboration, which means elements of all three ministries were going on at the same time and with the same people. Yes, this is a description, not a prescription, but this is what the Holy Spirit accomplished and had recorded in Scripture for the soon-to-come church to find awesome. We know that this picture of something beautiful would break down in a short amount of time, and there arose with that breakdown the need for deacons to minister to the economic needs of ethnically diverse believers.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

            As these early Christians went about the actions described in this passage, notice how Paul describes their attitude. “. . .they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” A healthy church has people with hearts that are “glad and generous.” Requirement Number #1.  This idea is certainly in stark contrast to our fearful and self-centered culture we share with our neighbors today. Let’s turn to some New Testament passages to continue to consider the relationship between a healthy church and the role of justice in the ministry of mercy in the church. Again, I would recommend Timothy Keller’s book Generous Justice for a broader selection of New Testament passages.

I have made reference before to Acts 20, highlighting “we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” We also saw the connection between passages in the Minor Prophets Malachi, Zechariah, and Micah and Matthew 24 where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,…”

Joy and generosity come together in 2 Corinthians 8 in an account of the church in Macedonia, “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” Paul associates that generosity with a vision of our Lord Jesus Christ, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Perhaps Paul was reflecting back to the church in Acts 2 when he tells us,

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”

Mercy flows from glad, joyful, and generous hearts that are seeking fairness, aka  justice. We follow the one who became poor so that we could become rich. Our prayers need to focus on our need to see our abundance, and deliverance from the virus of covetousness passed to us in an infection from our commercial culture which trains us to only want more for ourselves. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul’s assumption is that people separated by geography are connected or united by grace and our Lord Jesus Christ. This connection, a union of ethnically diverse peoples, demonstrates a common faith that shared economic provisions to supply for each other’s needs. The gathering reference in 2 Corinthians 8 refers back to the sharing by and among God’s people during Israel’s 40 years of wandering – a time when they were fed manna by God’s grace.

Perhaps Jesus had in mind Israel’s wanderings and shared daily grace when he taught his disciples to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” The prayer, my readers, is a community prayer, “give usour daily bread.” So often we, by default, overlook the plural and turn it to give me, my…! See how this prayer section of Matthew 6 comes after a warning,

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

     In today’s world, our Lord might say, “Keep your acts of mercy off of Facebook.” In any case, his message is that only our Father sees the secrets of our hearts. We wait for his rewards – in his time, in his way – and reflecting his values, mercy and justice. Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 5, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Luke 4 reminds us that the first recorded text Jesus publicly read in his hometown was from Isaiah 61,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

     Jesus reflects on Isaiah 61, his mission statement, as he answers – in Matthew 11 – the imprisoned John the Baptist who has asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

     An identifying mark of the ministry of Jesus, in his mind, was to preach the good news – the gospel – to the poor. A healthy church will seek to include the poor in their worship ministry, evangelism ministry, and discipleship ministries, as well as mercy ministries. Our prayer should be that we will see the poor and not let them become invisible to our eyes and ignored in our ministry efforts. A healthy church will be intentional, like Jesus, to include the poor, because the hearts of the congregants are both glad and generous.

At a dinner hosted by the ruler of the Pharisees, recorded in Luke 14, Jesus continued his teaching about being intentional in our generosity and hospitality towards the poor. Jesus knew he was being watched when he made the following comments to his host, the other diners and to us, Luke’s readers,

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

     There. We have now read of the Father’s secret reward – referred to back in Matthew – for including the poor. Notice the intentional verb, given, actually, in the form of a command: “Invite them!” Mercy, Jesus tells us, is to be generous, because “they cannot repay you.” Sharing a meal across economic classes was a practice in the Acts 2 church and in the church of 1 Corinthians 11. By the time of the Corinthians account, church meals had become divisive because, “each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry,…” The shared meals of Acts 2 had been lost, as was the concept of  “our daily bread.” Paul asks a harsh question, “Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Economic divisions caused – and do cause – divisions in the local church.

Luke 19 records the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, a sinner in the eyes of the crowd.

And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.  And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”  And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

     Zacchaeus, hearing his Lord’s forgiveness, made a spontaneous promise to Jesus – “the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Mercy and justice, we see here, are expressions of repentance and new faith in Jesus. Zacchaeus, in his first act of new faith, understood  it. He promised to be merciful and generous to the poor. Justice for those he had defrauded results in, “I restore it fourfold,” reflecting Exodus 22:1: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus was declared now “a son of Abraham.” Jesus stated, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” So it is that in Luke 19 we learn there are indeed economic consequences when God expresses his grace through Jesus, the one who seeks, saves, and restores – even a public sinner (who also may be a criminal) – and then brings that sinner into the covenantal family to be “a son of Abraham.” Justice, my readers, is treating everyone the same. Mercy flows from a generous heart that has been touch by grace – God’s grace. Jesus sought and saved all of us in his mercy and grace.

Allow me a final observation about Luke 19. Notice that the poor benefit from the evangelism and the conversion of the rich. As the poor hear the gospel and enter God’s covenantal family, they are to be cared for within their new, economically diverse family.

Paul played that justice card, illustrating legal rights for citizens,  when he was arrested in Acts 22 and began his pilgrimage to Rome.

But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.”

     Paul’s citizenship was a call for justice when the crowd/mob and the soldiers wanted to flog him without a trial. In the text we see the power of citizenship and the protection it should give against a crowd/mob or unruly soldiers, people with weapons and power. Again, I repeat Mr. Keller, “The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity, and moral failure. Having surveyed the Bible on the texts numerous times, I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on larger structural factors.” (P. 38)So often, as 21

So often, as 21st century Christians living in the USA, we only look at personal responsibility when it comes to a response to the poor among us. Yes, personal responsibility or moral failure is one of the reasons for poverty, but the Bible has an awful lot to say about oppression by way of systematic advantage or disadvantage and using the law to deny equal status or justice.

In the United States we have multiple examples of using the law to deny equal status or justice. Let me cite one of many Jim Crow laws at the Federal level that created legal discrimination or segregation. The GI Bill after WW2 provided loans for new or first-time homes, yet it was interpreted differently for whites than it was for African- Americans. Through the real estate and loan practices known as “red-lining,” the GI Bill did not give equal footing to African-American veterans in housing, education or employment. “Levittowns became the model for real estate developers across the country and helped establish a pattern of racial discrimination in housing that persists even today.” (Understandingrace.org) Paul claimed his Roman citizenship and the rights that came with it. Christians and the church in our country need to own injustices based on race and economic status. Whites used the law to separate themselves from African Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants and give themselves legal privileges. Not only is the church to be about unity and not division, but Paul reminds us that public justice, ours by citizenship, is Biblically the right of all. (See the last blog on the Old Testament’s teaching about justice and equality before the law.) It is a birthright, a human right, from the Biblical point of view, rooted in creation, and all people are created in the image-of-God. (For more on housing discrimination, do a computer search GI Bill and red lining for a wealth of information.  Remember, the Federal Fair Housing portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not amended until 1968, just 50 years ago.)

Often a church may not see beyond the physical distance between the family and the church building. They do not see the separation or distance caused by Professor Don MacNair’s 3Es:  economic, education and ethnic diversity. All of us who have been around the organized church for any years at all know of churches that have poured loving effort into segments of their communities to no avail, humanly speaking.  We also know happier stories, such as one I know, of an entire family coming to Jesus through the conversion of their small daughter at a church’s neighborhood backyard club.

I want to challenge tired and downtrodden church members to focus on what I have called Requirement #1.  Pray for that glad and generous heart.  Pray before you move to do any thinking about HOW you can accomplish a biblically-based mercy ministry in your church. It may take you some time to get there as you try to get around the boulders of memories, but God promises that our agreement will bring his fulfillment.

It is now time to recommend again my friend Randy Nabor’s book.  As we move toward the HOW of mercy, read, Merciful, “The Opportunity and Challenge of Discipling the Poor Out of Poverty.”  There we find both a foundation and direction for working out the ministry and the role of justice.

Our discussion of Mercy and Justice will continue over a couple of more entries, focusing specifically on the HOW within the local church.  Meanwhile, are you curious about Metokos and how we can assist your church in revitalization?  Do you know others who might be interested in our help?  Contact me, and share, please, this link with others.

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