II. THE PRACTICE OF JUSTICE
Evangelism and Social Justice: Living the Gospel in the World
There is a consistent theme throughout the ministry of Jesus, and we see this theme serving as the foundation for the ministry and growth of the early church. While Jesus spent much of his time teaching, his teaching was always connected to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, the marginalized, the outcast. The connective tissue between Jesus’ teaching and ministry are what resulted in the large crowds following Jesus and the growth of the early church. This word and deed model of ministry that challenged the divide between the haves and the have nots was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the early church.
When the disciples set out in Acts 2:14–42 to birth the church the theological foundation for a ministry to the most vulnerable was already established based on their being discipled by Jesus. They saw how Jesus reacted to the woman of Samaria (John 4:1–42). Jesus embraced her, listened to her, had fellowship with her and met her at her point of need. Jesus didn’t ostracize outsiders but rather Jesus embraced them. When people were hungry, Jesus was adamant that they should be fed. Jesus made it perfectly clear that the needs of those who were on the margins were more important than the traditions of the day. Traditions are to be broken when it comes to meeting the needs of those in need. Jesus broke those traditions and fed the hungry.
When you chart the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the foundation is set as Jesus heals many at Simon’s house (Mark 1:29–34), preaches (Mark 1:35–39), cleanses a leper (Mark 1:40-45), heals a paralytic (Mark 2:1–2) and challenges tradition. Whenever tradition got in the way of ministry that met the needs of the most vulnerable, Jesus challenged that tradition. When the people were hungry Jesus pronounced that feeding the hungry takes precedence over tradition (Mark 2:23–28).
There was something new and different about Jesus’ ministry and it was evident from the beginning. Jesus was teaching in ways that were transformative. Jesus taught as much by doing as he did by his words. The words of Jesus lived in the streets where he did ministry. In Jesus, the Word truly became flesh and it became real as he pronounced it. “Be healed.” “Take up your bed and walk.” “Sit them down and feed them.” And Jesus’ ministry was about meeting the needs of the people and as Je- sus did this, the crowds grew. The people knew something was different about the ministry of Jesus and they responded, they followed because as trite as it sounds, Jesus was a person of his word. He didn’t just preach the Gospel, he brought good news in word and deed. Now, let’s be clear, Jesus never did what Jesus did so that the crowds might grow, but rather the crowds grew because of the liberative message and ministry that made a real difference in the lives of real people. Jesus did real ministry, that made a real difference, in the lives of real people.
Jesus was showing the disciples and the world that justice is what love looks like publicly. Justice rights the wrongs, challenges systems of oppression, assaults systems of stratification and meets the needs of all. Jesus challenges the traditional order of things, the hierarchy and the staunchness of stale minis- try that is locked in a building and rarely hits the streets. As the disciples walked with Jesus, what did they see? They saw him go through the grain fields on a Sabbath and break tradition by feeding them when they were hungry (Matthew 12:1–8). This was a lesson that the needs of the people transcend tradition and Jesus wanted them to literally experience this. They were hungry, they were in need and this was a lesson to them—Jesus did it for them, they were to do it for others. They knew what it felt like to be hungry and they saw Jesus meet their needs. It is one thing to see others hungry and see Jesus feed them, but when you are to lead the development of the early church and you have seen it and experienced it yourself, this makes it real to you. The ministry model of Jesus was real to the disciples and it is obvious why they did what they did when they birthed the early church and managed its growth.
When Jesus met the needs of the people by challenging tradition, Jesus was clear that the needs of the people always have priority. They heard Jesus say in Matthew 15:32, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me three days and have nothing to eat; I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint.” As the disciples pushed back and questioned the wisdom of this act, Jesus simply asked, “How many loaves do you have?” (Matthew 15:32-39). Jesus took what they had, seven loaves and few fish, multiplied it, fed thousands and they had leftovers. Jesus taught that when you give, it grows. When you meet the needs of the people, you will never be in need. I wonder sometimes, if the reason so many churches don’t grow is because they hold on and protect property, store up resources and give only a small portion of what they have to those in need? Is it their refusal, to let go and give, the very thing that is resulting in their lack of growth as a faith community? The early church reflected the ministry of Jesus and they went and did likewise. The disciples, like Jesus, would go and challenge systems that produced social stratification, meeting the needs of the people.
III. SCRIPTURAL REFERENCE
Evangelism and Social Justice in the Life of the Early Church
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
There was a complaint lodged. For there to be a complaint, a norm had to have been established. The norm that was established was that the needs of all were to be met and there wasn’t going to be any discrimination between Hellenists and the Hebrews. A norm of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and not tolerating a social hierarchy was in place. A complaint was lodged, heard and a response was forthcoming.
And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not of God in order to wait on tables.”
They called the body together to deal with this serious issue. This was a serious grievance and it went directly against what they had been taught by Jesus. They had to respond, and respond they did. Now, don’t forget that the problem had occurred because they had been practicing the spiritual discipline of justice by making sure the needs of all were met and that any hint of social stratification was not to be tolerated. The practice of living a Gospel of justice and meeting needs had resulted in the growth of the church. They also realized that they couldn’t stop preaching because of the need in the community for the distribution of food. The disciples understood the spiritually symbiotic and literal connection between preaching and the living of the biblical teachings that were fueling the growth of the church. They had to protect both the preaching and the acts of justice. Therefore, they brought the entire body together to address the problem and develop a plan of action. It is interesting that they didn’t appoint a committee or a task force. They called the whole body together because the whole body was responsible. They were essentially saying this is not the work of the Evangelism Committee; we are the Evangelism Committee, the entire body; we must respond.
Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
A plan was developed. Leadership was established. The entire body was ultimately responsible, but a leadership team was developed to make sure the needs of the most vulnerable were met. A team was put in place to make sure when anything that resembled stratification raised its head, it would be dealt with immediately. At the same time that this leadership team was developed, an actual ordained office to see to matters of justice was established. The disciples gave themselves to prayer, preaching and teaching while setting aside this new office to lead in acts of justice. There was a reflexive and recursive relationship between the preaching of the word and the living of the word, which was attending to matters of justice. Justice is what love looks like publicly. Justice is being an inclusive community.
The disciples and the early church created an ordained office to ensure that they were inclusive. They were going to treat both groups in the text equally. The treatment of both groups was a sign of their commitment to being an inclusive church. The church today, like the early church, is called to be radically inclusive. As Bishop Yvette Flunder says, “Radical inclusivity is and must be radical. In its effort to be inclusive, the church often reaches out carefully to the margin. Radical inclusivity demands that we reach out to the farthest margin, intentionally, to give a clear message of welcome to everyone. Radical inclusivity recognizes, values, loves and celebrates people on the margin. Jesus was himself from the edge of society with a ministry to those who were considered least. Jesus’ public ministry and associations were primarily with the poor, weak, outcast, foreigners and prostitutes.” 2 Jesus and his ministry were one to those on the margins and the early church reflected what they saw in Jesus. I remember that song we used to sing when I was a kid, “I want to be a Christian in my heart.” For me, then and now, it meant that I was a Jesus follower and to claim to be a follower of Jesus meant I had to be like Jesus, love like Jesus and do what Jesus taught us to do by his example during his earthly ministry.
In the end, the body was pleased to embrace the solution that had been designed. It pleased them because, at their core, it was them. When churches resist what is pleasing to God, it puts into question their desire to serve God. The early church hadn’t forgotten Jesus’ first love, it was those at the margins. Those Hellenist widows were Jesus’ people; they, like all widows of that day, were on the margins. The entire body responded, and we don’t hear this complaint again in the book of Acts. The early church responded, and the results were evident.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The church continued to grow. The number of disciples increased greatly. People became loyal to the faith and lived lives informed by the word and ways of God. The plan was simple, and the results were miraculous. If we use this story as a litmus test to how we serve in this age, what would it look like?
2. Flunder, Yvette A. Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion. Pilgrim Press. Kindle Edition. Loc. 2237.
Hope-Hill Elementary School and Wheat Street Church: Hope at Hope Hill
While I was the pastor of the Historic Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, we birthed a partnership with Hope-Hill Elementary School. Hope-Hill was approximately three miles from our church. It was a Title I School; over 98% of the students were on free and or reduced lunch. What could we do? We didn’t know, so we went and asked. The answer was simple: Can you provide support for our teachers? Can you help with school supplies? Can you help with tutoring? Can you sponsor our annual awards ceremony? Can you volunteer to be present so that our kids can see older African Americans in the building? Yes, we can, yes, we will and yes, we did. The church decided to develop the Hope-Hill-Hope Partnership. We gave 5% of our annual budget to the school with our goal of reaching 10%.
We did everything they asked and we were the better for it. Children and families started to come to church events, we got to know the kids, their parents and the people in our community. We knew the children’s teachers and administrators. We were changed as a church. We had reconnected with a population that surrounded our church. The church had experienced decline because the church had become disconnected from the community that had changed around the church. When we choose to reach out and love our community, the love was returned. The church was recognized by the Atlanta Public School System as the volunteer organization of the year, and Georgia State University awarded the church the President’s Award for Community Service. The view of the church was being transformed in the community and young people began to come back to the church. Our outreach exploded as we found this was the key to what it meant for us to be the church in and of the community in this day and age.
V. HABITS FOR JUSTICE
Living Evangelism as an Act of Social Justice
If you see something, say something.
Someone saw that the Hellenist widows were being ignored and they said something. They lodged a complaint. When you see something that is unjust, say something.
If you say something, do something.
To say something isn’t enough; it is only the beginning. You have to say something and then do something. This is what we see in the text: They didn’t just share stories and talk about the issue, they did something. They ordained an office to lead the entire body in ways to being just in their actions. If you don’t act on the injustice you have seen, you have concealed the will and power of God.
If there aren’t enough seats at the table, go get a chair for someone who is not at the table.
For the church to grow and be just, it must be inclusive. Who is not at the table? It is important to have a big table. Make room at the table for diversity and inclusion because we serve a God who invited those who weren’t at the table to be at the table.
VI. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- Who is being missed in your community (who are the Hellenist widows)?
- What do you see that demands that you say something and do something?
- What can your church do to meet one major need in your community that you aren’t meeting at the present time?
- Who is not at the table?
- What does radical inclusion look like in your context?