We Protestants are an interesting bunch. We have been shaped by one Martin Luther who had a deep crisis of faith and one day discovered that he didn’t need to prove himself good enough to be accepted by God but he accepted just as he was. It was a profound moment of liberation for Luther and he set about liberating his church from the idea that you had to earn a place in heaven, by being good enough or by paying large sums of money to the church to purchase your ticket. Justification by grace through faith became the catch cry of the new church that emerged. God accepts and treasures you as a free gift, grace….accept this by faith and you are born anew. And I trust you know this good news to be true. I have to confess I need to go on hearing this because my faith is not always strong. I thank God that there is an insistent whisper in the universe that keeps underlining this. Amazing Grace.
There is an issue however with this message as the good news of Jesus. Justification by grace through faith as I hear it is a very individualistic message. If this is the good news of Jesus it seems to be about saving certain individuals. Now clearly each and every one of us is precious to God – that is well seen in Jesus’ ministry. He even goes out of his way to notice the untouchables, and the nobodies of the world. It is good news to know we are loved, we are accepted, we are valued. Jesus does set us free from the need to prove ourselves, to be good enough, and he sets us free from the crippling fear of a hell. But it’s just not enough. There is something much more to Jesus’ message of salvation and healing than saving individual souls. It’s not just for me and my salvation, but Jesus wanted to save and heal the whole of creation.
Jesus doesn’t talk of an individual’s justification by grace through faith. He says I have come that the whole earth might find life in all its fullness. He has come to bring heaven into earth. He says the kingdom of God is at hand, not just for a select few but for the whole earth. His ministry was about transforming life, and transforming communities. He talked of a new commonwealth. Individuals mattered but individuals don’t stand alone. We are all part of communities and we are all part of a larger web of life.
After spending time in the desert preparing for his ministry Luke gives us the bones of an encounter that serves as a key introduction to his mission. He arrives back in his hometown and on the Sabbath went with everyone else to the local synagogue. He is handed the scroll of Isaiah to read and opens the scriptures at Isaiah 61, a passage originally from the time of Exile when the Babylonian captives were given good news that God was going to deliver them. A new beginning was at hand. God was going to act to set captives free, to deliver the poor, give new vision to the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Great news.
It sounds like music to our ears. We all want captives set free, deliverance for the poor, the blind given vision. Nice words. Nice sentiment. The reference to the year of the Lord’s Favour is a little less obvious. It is a reference to what was known as the Year of Jubilee which was supposed to happen every fifty years in Israelite society. (you can read about this in Lev 25:8-12) In that year all debts were cancelled and all property that had been sold was returned to the original owner. This sounds odd to our ears but in Israelite society God owned the land and it was allotted to each family. You didn’t own land but were simply trustees. If you got into strife financially as plenty of people did in a hand to mouth economy you could sell your land but because it didn’t actually belong to you all you could do was sell it till the next year of Jubilee when it would return to your family again. In effect you were selling years of use. Investing ownership in God was a radical way of ensuring the rich didn’t go on getting richer and the poor go down the plughole. There was a constant rebalancing of wealth. Likewise In the Jubilee Year all monetary debts were cancelled, and if you had sold family members into slavery they were released. Everyone got a fresh start. But it wasn’t just about people. It was also a year of freedom for all creation, for the plants which were to be un-pruned and left free and wild for the year. There was to be no intensive cultivation – creation was given a year to rest. There were other laws about letting the land lie fallow every seven years, leaving some of the harvest around the edges for wild creatures and so on. The underlying message was the same, all of creation needed to be cared for, life was a gift, and should celebrate and emulate the grace of God. All life should be given a fresh chance. All creatures and plants included.
It was a great passage to read. But Jesus then sits down to teach on the passage that’s just been read as was custom. Sermon time, and he says just a few words. It’s happening now, this is what God wants and God want’s it now, here. This is my ministry.
If he just said I have come to tell you God loves you, all would be well. If he had just said believe and you are saved, there would have been lots of handshakes and pats on the back. If he had just said have some concern for the poor and give them some left over change there would have been no issue.
But there was an immediate reaction….rage! He says it’s time to take radical action to start living in a new way…the Kingdom of God way. Forgive our debts and grudges, redistribute the wealth we have earned, sort out the conflicts, open the doors of the boxes we have put others in, set everyone free of the labels we have put on them. Take better care of the environment. You’ve got to be kidding. It suits me to hold a grudge against old ‘so and so’. It suits me to keep ‘x’ who I find a pain at arm’s length in a well-constructed figurative box. The wealth and property I have is mine – I’ve earned it and I’m not about to put it at God’s disposal. Don’t tell me to buy an electric donkey that doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses.
To make matters worse Jesus starts naming outsiders as deserving God’s favour, and saying his hearers have domesticated their religion. Outsiders don’t even put in the hard yards of going to church every Sunday. This new earth is for them too? What sort of God are we talking about here.
Seems like the answer to that question is pretty clear. God is a God of grace. God has a concern for everyone. God wants to transform the world as we know it because it’s not providing life in all its fullness for everyone, and God wants us to take risks for this new earth NOW.
Clearly it was all too much for the local synagogue. Rage…. Isn’t this Joe’s son, and maybe the heat has got to him. Who is he telling us good people what to do. We are God’s people and we work damned hard to get what we have. Jesus is just upsetting the apple cart. He’s got a lot to learn about how the world really operates.
But Jesus is adamant. The good news wasn’t about some distant heaven somewhere in the future, but about finding heaven in our midst now. It was about Gods faithful solidarity with all humanity and all creation NOW. It was about Gods compassion and call to be reconciled with one another NOW. It was a summons to dare to be different NOW.
Everyone agrees that the poor and down trodden should be helped sometime, that oppression and exploitation of the earth should cease one day, the planet should be respected one day, that wars should cease someday. But for Jesus the message is clear…that someday is NOW.
The day has come today to cancel debts, to sort out issues with your enemies, to share bread with the hungry, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to care for creation….to start walking a new road.
The church as I know it still struggles to cotton on. We are still often in the someday mode. I look around us and see all sorts of petty conflicts. We are real human beings after all and we still have much to learn about how to sort out our life together. I look around and we are all somewhat lukewarm about the idea that we are trustees of the wealth we ‘own’. We ask how will I benefit from ‘my’ wealth instead of using it to transform life for all. We hear about issues about our environment and say someone else can take the steps to sort it. I find it mind blowing to think that if Jesus used a plastic bottle of shampoo we could dig it up intact today some 2000 years later. How many plastic bottles and bags have I consigned to the trash to lie around in the earth and other places or break down and fill the oceans with plastic pieces? Am I really with Jesus and the kingdom of heaven on this? As his disciples we should be leading the charge to care for our environment, to be the radical ones who try to practice sustainability, but sadly too often you and I are in with the crowd.
I know it’s not easy stepping out of the patterns of life we are all embedded in, but the call of Jesus is a call to take radical risks to give witness to a new way of living…… NOW. We are to be the Good News….NOW. it was all too much for the hometown crowd that day, and if I’m honest I have some sympathy for them. If we are going to be different we will need to encourage one another, bounce ideas off one another, question and learn together, pray together, act together. NOW!
Dugald Wilson 3 Feb 2019 t