Being Sent for the Work of Justice


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Herb Montgomery | April 9, 2021

“We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor? Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated? Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people? Is the ‘Lord’s favor’ we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled? What does concrete good news look like in our social context today?”

This week’s reading is from John’s version of the Jesus story:

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:19-31)

There is a lot in this passage that would be tempting to focus on this week. Thomas’ doubt. Jesus having a physical body that can be touched and that feels hunger, post-Easter, despite John’s gospel being associated with early gnosticism (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.1).

But what jumps out at me most this year is this phrase:

“‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’”

This theme of following Jesus’ example repeats with the Johannine community:

“Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2:6)

The Jesus of John’s story doesn’t do things instead of us, as our substitute so we don’t have to do them. This Jesus calls his followers to participate in his actions alongside him.

This idea isn’t only in John’s gospel. Consider this passage from Mark:

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38)

As Marcus Borg and John Crossan write in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem:

“For Mark, it [the story] is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time.” (Kindle location 1592)

Over the last few weeks, we have discussed the harmful teaching that suffering is redemptive. I don’t believe that Jesus invites us into his death but does invite us into following the example of his life, even if unjust oppressive systems threaten us with death for doing so. I understand this is a subtle difference in interpretation but it creates a huge difference in how we response to injustice. Suffering some type of pushback for speaking out against injustice may be part of our story, but not because it is intrinsic to following Jesus. I don’t believe we have to die to reach Jesus’ vision for human society. He showed us a path toward distributively just living, and death only enters the picture when those threatened by a distributively just world choose to threaten death or some other penalty if we keep stirring up trouble and disturbing the unjust status quo.

I believe this is a much healthier alternate interpretation to being willing to take up Jesus’ cross and following him. Rather than calling us to be passive in the face of injustice, Jesus calls us to action, even if that action should end up with us being put on a cross. It’s not about choosing to die, but about choosing life, even in the face of death. Jesus didn’t choose the cross. His social opponents choose to answer him with a cross. Jesus chose a life of calling his society to justice, like the Hebrew prophets within his own Jewish tradition, even if they threatened to kill him.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus’ life and, in the words of our passage this week, to be “sent” as Jesus was “sent”?

I resonate deeply with the characterization we find in Luke’s gospel:

“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 prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

So this declaration invites some questions of us:

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people?

Is the Lord’s favor we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled?

We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. People didn’t get put on Roman crosses for talking about spiritual transformation. Romans killed people who made claims about concrete changes to the status quo, a status quo that benefitted some in society at the expense of the many.

What is does concrete good news look like in our social context today, for those who are materially poor, physically incarcerated, socially and economically oppressed, exploited and marginalized, or so deeply indebted that they feel they will never be free?

Firstly, I think of our current criminal justice system and those in various areas of the U.S. having their charges expunged due to the legalization of cannabis. I think of the calls for universal health care, and how so many families have to file for bankruptcy when they become sick, even if they do have health insurance. I think of the calls to forgive student loans that are so inescapable that they even impact seniors in retirement. Our trans and non-binary siblings also come to mind, especially with Thursday, April 1, being International Transgender Visibility Day. I wonder how good news from Christians to this oppressed and marginalized community could be so very different if we would stop to listen to and believe their experiences including harmful experiences from our hands.

Secondly, there’s a phrase in this week’s passage that is deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. In one translation, the passage states, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…” I’m thankful that the translators of the NIV altered their translation to say “Jewish leaders,” a change that lends room for distinguishing between classes in the society where this story took place. The gospel writers are clear that Jewish common people loved Jesus (Mark 14:2). But with each successive version of the Jesus story told—first Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John—antisemitic hatred or fear of the Jewish people grows more and more. It’s barely present in Mark, but by the time we get to John, as in our passage this week, it is full-blown.

We can do better today. “Fear of the Jews” has a long and violent history in the Christian tradition. We can choose to tell the Jesus story in better, more life-giving, different ways, today.

And lastly, I want to draw attention in this passage to the scars of injustice remaining on Jesus’ body. This is not a story that promises all the scars of past injustice will one day disappear. They may not. This story points the way for people to make reparations for past mistakes and make better choices today that move us closer to a more distributively just future, God’s just future.

It’s to the work of creating that just future in our present world that we are sent today.

As he was sent back then, so are we now.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What are some parallels you notice in Luke 4:18-19 with much needed justice work in our society today? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week