Sunday, May 19, 2019
REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
In the closing chapter of the Book of Revelation, we find a description of God’s community: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” And in this new Jerusalem, God ‘will dwell with the people as their God; they will be God’s people. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
The Gospel of John offers us another view of God’s community, where love will be what binds all people to each other and to God: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Everyone will know that you are my disciples because they will be able to discern how love works between us and amongst us, showing that this is God’s community.
Both views sound good, don’t they? No adversity, no pain, no crying, no hatred.
And yet, adversity, pain, crying and hatred persist all too easily and commonly in the communities that we live and work and raise our families in – locally, and globally. We live in a mess of a worldwide community that throws up walls, imprisons, or kicks out those not wanted, that makes the divide even greater between the rich and the poor, that places greed over climate concern. We are a far cry from a community where the only command is to love each other, or where God walks amongst us, postcard like, on the streets of the New Jerusalem.
I’ve been watching a lot of Stanley Cup play-off games, even after the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated in the first round. During commercial breaks, a Bell Vibe TV ad plays every game. And I can’t believe that it is still airing after what I see as clearly stereotypical racist profiling. A black man and his family are in their house. The black man, who is big and muscular, is very angry at the Vibe guy installing his Vibe connection – a small, weak looking white guy. The black man is yelling and losing it at the little white man. And then when the Vibe connection is now working, a kid in the kitchen closes a microwave door and it bangs – the black father thinks it’s a gun and shouts, everyone down.
As if all black men are angry. As if all black people are used to hearing guns go off in close proximity.
What is going on in this commercial. What has any of this to do with selling a television product? This is racial profiling at its worst, on public television, CBC, every night of the Stanley Cup playoffs. What does this tell me about the values of our community. Is this in any way God’s community?
As part of my doctorate homework this Spring, I watched a YouTube debate that took place on October 27, 2011 at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, just north of Chicago, Illinois. The debate was to address the question: “Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?” Al Mohler was speaking against it; Jim Wallis was speaking for it.
Al Mohler is President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a conservative Christian. Jim Wallis is founder of Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine that looks at social justice issues. In a nutshell, this is what I learned from the debate as it pertains to God’s community.
Al Mohler believes that the only essential mission of the church is the message of the Gospel as directed by the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The first priority of the church is to preach the gospel so others may know Jesus and repent of their sins and be called citizens of God. Yes, there is suffering in the world but the greater suffering is the unrepentant sinner for eternity. So to Mohler, the essential mission of the church isn’t social justice, but conversion.
Jim Wallis centered his response on Luke 4, in what he describes as Jesus’ Manifesto: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recover of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Wallis interprets this as ‘If it isn’t good news to the poor, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He determines the success of his ‘good works’ by the ‘street’ test – if it doesn’t mean anything in the streets, then it’s no good. To Wallis, the essential mission of the church is social justice, not conversion.
Which one creates God’s community? Social justice? Or conversion?
This past week some of my ministry colleagues were in Minneapolis for the Festival of Homiletics, a week long preaching event that highlights up and coming gifted preachers, as well as brings us the legends of the preaching world. Outside of Central Lutheran Church, embossed on a fence that runs alongside the side of the church is this sentence: “Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public”.
Jesus says to us in John 13, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” What does that love look like? To work towards justice where there will be no more mourning or pain or crying? So for example, that First Nations Reserves will have water that is drinkable and housing that is not filled with mould. Where homelessness on our city streets will be eradicated because there is housing for every person. Where mental health initiatives are part of our community so that people can live in a community where supports are in place to help them manage their reality, 24/7.
Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church? Obery Hendricks is a former Wall Street investment executive and is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary and a visiting Scholar at Columbia University. He writes, “Too many Christians in particular profess to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour – yet they reject – and in the case of conservative politicians often loudly deride – one of the most crucial dimensions of the salvation offered by his message: salvation from class oppression and exploitation, salvation from grotesque disparities of poverty and wealth, and salvation from the material, physical and psycho-emotional legacies of systemic and systematically enforced poverty.” 
Later, he adds, “It means following him humbly and sincerely discharging our responsibility to feed the poor, clothe the naked, protect the vulnerable, and dismantle all structures of oppression and exploitation.”
God’s community is a place where no one is poorer or richer than another, where every person is seen, known and accepted as equal to the other, and not segregated or assimilated or put out of sight.
In Acts 11, Peter is recounting to the apostles and the believers in Jerusalem what had happened during his visit to Cornelius in Joppa. Peter had this vision of the sheet that came down which had all kinds of food on it – food that he was forbidden to eat as a Jew. God commands him to eat from all of it. When Peter pushes back, God says to him three times – “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ Then Peter says to the apostles and the believers, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” He added, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God? When they heard this, they were silenced.”
There was silence in the room. What was going on in that silence. Understanding? Disbelief? Struggle? A door opening in their minds? Humility? Love?
Yes, Apostles and believers in that room in Jerusalem on that day, and yes to you and I in this sanctuary today, God’s love is going to every person, not just our inner circle or people that look like us, but to all people.
To paraphrase Peter’s words, “God tells us to go with them and not to make distinctions between them and us.” We are called to love the other, just as God loves us. And God loves every one. This is where we find God’s Community.
Thanks be to God.
 Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politic, (New York: Orbis Books, 2011), 180-181.
 Ibid., 216.