The other day, I was meeting with some rising leaders from throughout the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Reservoir’s one of dozens of communities that work together in GBIO to promote healthy interfaith relationships and secure social justice together. GBIO is also one of the organizations our church funds through our shared financial giving as a community. Every $10 you give to Reservoir, a dollar goes straight back into the community through GBIO and other means. Anyway, right now one of the things we’re working on in GBIO is better treatment and services for returning citizens, residents of Massachusetts who have done jail time and are returning to civilian life.
I had a chance to speak with one of these returning citizens last week and there were two things going on in his life that he was excited about.
One was that he was moving. Which, I don’t know, when I talk with folks moving into a new rental around here, they’re not always thrilled. Because, one moving is a pain, and two, these days when we move, our rent is often more than we can afford. But he was happy because he had found a landlord willing to let him sign a lease on an apartment. Landlords, you may or may not know, can run criminal background checks on potential tenants. Private landlords, government housing, apartment complexes, they can all legally deny rentals to someone with a criminal history, regardless of the nature of the crime or the punishment. So my new acquaintance was happy he had found a place to live, any place.
The second thing he was telling me about was the committee he was co-leading at his church. It was an important planning committee, it involved a ton of volunteer time and responsibility, and he was just thrilled to be doing this work for his church.
And I’m thinking to myself: who’s thrilled about spending more time in a church committee meeting. One of you has literally told me: Steve, I’ll do anything for the church as long as it doesn’t involve going to any meetings. But then it struck me, oh, what these two stories have in common is that in both situations, the lease and the church committee, what’s going on is this man is being treated like a person.
He’s not the sum of his worst mistakes anymore. He’s not a failed CORI check. He’s able to move freely and choose where he wants to live, to whom he wants to pay rent. He’s able to lend his voice and talents and body to his church community and have that be valued and respected.
He’s being treated like a person.
This is what he hoped getting free again would be like for him, even if it’s not the case in many areas of his life.
Let me put this in Christian theological terms for just a second. What is salvation for fellow GBIO leaders? Is it being forgiven for his past sins? Well, yes, sometimes, in part. But he’s paid dearly for his past already. At this point, a lot of salvation for him isn’t just about forgiveness, it’s about healing and it’s about liberation.
It’s after being diminished and dehumanized again and again, finding the treasure of being recognized as a person.
This week and next, partly inspired by Juneteenth, I’m going to speak about the struggle to become persons, the struggle to treat others as persons, and the important struggle to just be a person ourselves. Today, we look at how this word that is so important in the Christian story, salvation, has taken on too narrow of a meaning. Salvation is not merely the forgiveness of sins. Salvation is also liberation and healing. It’s getting free and getting well. And salvation is God’s work, and our work in partnership with God, of treating one another as free persons who deserve the chance to be well.
We see this range of salvation in the framing of the four gospels.
Take Matthew, for instance. In the first chapter, Mother Mary has the dream about Jesus, who is to be a savior, and it says
he will save people from their sins.
But then in Matthew 2, Baby Jesus is cast as the new Moses, Moses being the great leader of the past who led people out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land.
And the gospel of Matthew sticks with this theme of Jesus as the new Moses persistently, for many chapters. So we see that the salvation God is working through Jesus, the being saved from sins is more than just forgiveness, it’s a work of freedom and a work of healing, both personally and for a community or a collective as well.
The gospel of Luke is even more specific.
Luke doesn’t frame Jesus as a new Moses, if anything he paints him as a kind of new Caesar, a better, more just leader than the head of the Roman empire.
And in Luke, when Jesus announces his mission to his hometown, he quotes – and edits as he does so – lines from the prophet Isaiah about freedom, healing, and justice. From the fourth chapter, Jesus says:
Luke 4:18-21 (Common English Bible)
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.
21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
This freedom and healing, this experiencing of God’s favor, is what I’m here for, what God has given me power to do.
And for a hot second, the hometown crowd is kind of pleased – healing, freedom, this year of liberation, sounds good, bring it on. Until Jesus says he’s going to start with their enemies, until he tells them it’s not just for them, but for the whole Roman Empire, their enemies and oppressors included, and then they drive him out of town, because they don’t like that so much.
That’s alright with Jesus, though, as in the next several chapters of Luke, we see him steadily going about this work, first to his fellow Jews, and then to the Gentile outsiders, Romans included.
He starts the work of freeing, healing, liberating those the world has diminished and held captive.
He offers working class folks struggling with their jobs, laboring under immense tax burdens a more fulfilling vocation.
He meets with someone who is estranged from community because of a disease that carries stigma, and he heals the disease and restores him back to community as well.
Jesus meets a person whose disability isn’t accomodated in his time and place and treats the person not just as disabled but as a whole person, with a complex set of spiritual and emotional and physical needs, and he tends to them all, empowering a fuller life in community for this person.
And then he attends a dinner party of social and spiritual outcasts, helping reshape their lives, showing them they matter to him and they matter to God.
That’s Chapter 5 of Luke.
In Chapter 6, Jesus reteaches the customs and law of his culture so they’ll be transformative for freedom, life, and justice, rather than a burden to bear or tools for self-righteousness.
And then in Chapter 7, he meets with the messengers of his enemy, a Roman military leader – the kind of person who had the power to harm and harass Jesus, the kind of person who would eventually arrest and execute Jesus, and he too Jesus treats like a person in need of freedom and healing. He sees him not only as an enemy but as a helpless, grieving father, and he restores hope and life to this man’s family.
And on it goes, for several chapters, Jesus working a mission of healing and freedom throughout his hometown region, until in Chapter 9, he decides to travel to the big city of Jerusalem, to do this work on a larger scale.
Let me some up what I’m saying theologically and then close with a few implications.
What I’m saying about God is that God loves to forgive sins, and God also loves to set people and communities free. God loves to help people and communities heal and become well.
Here’s how a theologian whose work I study, Andrew Sung Park, puts it. The gospel of Jesus, the good news of Jesus is repentance and forgiveness for the sinner. People and communities that harm, hurt, and oppress are told by God they can be forgiven. And free from the burden of guilt, with the help of God and friends, they can choose better, more righteous and just ways forward for their lives, their communities, their culture, their country.
So the message of Jesus for a tax collector who is ripping off his own people is to tell him,
You too are a child of God. You are seen and valued.
And that tax collector rejoices in his forgiveness and acceptance and also makes amends – he either quits his job or learns to do it more justly and he restores the wealth that has been taken, not just by him but by others too. He does reparations. I preached on this earlier this spring. Forgiveness and amends is part of the gospel for people and communities.
But then Andrew Sung Park says, the gospel of Jesus, the good news of Jesus, is not just repentance and forgiveness for the sinner. It is also healing and freedom for the sinned against. People and communities that have been harmed, hurt, and oppressed are told by God that they deserve better. They are empowered with the help of God and friends to seek healing and freedom.
Let’s play this out for the returning citizen I told you about at the top.
The gospel of Jesus is for him forgiveness of sins. I’m not getting into the details today, but he did something wrong, like most of us, he probably has done a lot of wrong in life, a lot of harm. But for one set of these wrongs, he also broke the law. He was caught, arrested, tried, and convicted and did jail time. Some attempts at amends and restoration were made as well by the system.
He also is forgiven by God in Christ. God doesn’t hold his sins against him anymore, he is released from his guilt and encouraged to do right in the world in the ways he did wrong before.
But as a person who was diminished and demeaned by the criminal justice system, and who again and again as a returning citizen, is treated like a blemish on society, not a person, he is also invited with the help of God and friends to seeking healing and wellness, belonging and meaning, to have a good and whole life restored to him, and to have the cooperation of his community in doing so.
Forgiveness and repentance for sinners and oppressors, healing and freedom foro the sinned against and oppressed, all part of the good news of Jesus.
Let me dial into three implications of this holistic gospel for a moment, how this teaches us how to read, how it gives us a compass, and how it answers our prayers.
One, this holistic gospel teaches us how to read history.
This gospel tells us that the least Christian parts of history have nothing to do with the rise and fall of the church. They have to do with where people and communities don’t cooperate with, but actively resist, God’s longing for people’s healing and freedom.
This seriously reframes the founding of the United States, for instance. Many of its Chrisitan founders told the story of America as pilgrims of God seeking prosperity and freedom in the promised land that God had destined for them to control.
But when we know that they went about settling here and achieving that prosperity by spreading disease and death to the first peoples of the land, through trading and enslaving descendants of Africa and working them to the death without pay or rights, and through trying to block non-Christians (Asians in particular) from living in this land, the story starts to sound more anti-Christ than Christian.
So the gospel tells us that the most Christian parts of history also don’t necessarily have to do with the rise and fall of the church. They have to do with where people and communities cooperate with God’s longing for healing and freedom, enacting God’s vision for liberation into the Beloved Community of God.
On these terms, the most Christian holiday in our calendar certainly isn’t Independence Day, the 4th of July. It just might be Juneteenth! Celebrating the beginning of freedom in this country for the descendants of Africa becomes a holy thing.
It’s the stuff of Jesus in Luke 4 – proclaiming release to the prisoners, setting captives free, and proclaiming the year of God’s favor for those who only knew heartbreak, injustice, and suffering. It’s celebrating, and moving forward,. God’s favor to again honor the personhood of people – the personhood that was always there but that others failed to recognize.
So celebrate Juneteenth, my friends, today or tomorrow on the actual day. And celebrate remembering that the good will of God is more Juneteenth in our country. It’s restoring personhood and justice, healing and freedom, to those who have it honored least.
Two, reading history, but also a compass for the work of God.
God’s work God wants to be doing in the world is forgiveness and repentance and freedom and healing, making people and communities well.
I think this inites us on Juneteenth to a quick inventory of the journey of healing and freedom in our lives.
Is there anywhere that you are complicit in others’ lack of flourishing? Any ways that as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a manager, a citizen that your actions lead to less healing, less wellness, and less freedom for others? If so, God longs to lead you into change for the healing and freedom of the people and communities in your life.
This kind of reflection for me, for instance, means that when I recognize that as a dad, my words or actions mean less wellness for one of my kids, I’ve got to apologize and try to change my ways as quickly as possible.
It means for me as a pastor and resident of Greater Boston too that it’s critical for me to engage parts of my time in speaking and action for a healthier, more just Chrisitian faith in this country, and for healthier and more just communities.
And the flip side of this is our compass for the work of God in our lives too. Is there anywhere that others are complicit in your lack of flourishing? Any ways that as a child, a spouse, a friend, an employee, a resident of this country that other people’s actions lead to less healing, less wellness, and less freedom for you? If so, God longs to empower you, with the help of God and friends, to find more healing and freedom in your life.
That stubborn work of therapy to get free from childhood wounds – that is the holy work of God.
That setting up clarity and protection for yourself when you work under an abusive manager, as some of my friends do, and that time you spend looking for another job – that is the holy work of God.
I talked about Jesus in Matthew as a new Moses, inaugurating a new journey of healing and freedom. Well, it’s said about the Exodus, Moses’ deliverance of Israel, that it took 40 days to lead the people out of slavery, but 40 years to get the slavery out of the people. Think about our country, a war of four years to free African Americans from slavery, but 157 years ago, and we’re still trying to get the oppressive ways of American toward the descendants of Africa out of the this country.
40 days to secure the birth of healing and freedom, but 40 years to have that healing and freedom really become a way of being in the world.
That’s true for every good work of God for healing and freedom. It takes time and process, but it’s worth it. Because the promised land is on the other side!
Lastly, this gospel of healing and freedom is an answer to our prayers regarding the will of God.
God’s will for our lives is forgiveness and repentance toward goodness and life, and it is freedom and wellness for us and our communities. It’s the work of justice, the honoring of personhood.
Let me close reading how the letter of James puts this.
James 2:14-18 (Common English Bible)
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?
15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.
16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?
17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
18 Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action.
Faith means justice. Faith means action. Good news faith means joining God in seeing all God’s children as bearing the image of God. Doing this, day after day, year after year, getting more whole and more free together, is always the will of God for each of us and all our communities, every day.
We’ll pick this up next week, as we talk about this on a more personal level, getting free, getting just, living into our humble, beautiful lives in the struggle to live like persons.