What actually is the Good News? Today’s gospel goes to the nub of that question. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry, the first words we hear him speak in public are these:
“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 recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:18-19,21
On the face of it, that seems pretty clear. The Gospel is Good News to the Poor, and that’s that. The primary action of the church ought to be to help the poor, and everything we do should be viewed through the filter of whether we are moving closer to that goal or further away. Sell the churches and give the money to the poor! That is, after all, what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do, and so surely it applies exactly to us. Fire the ministers, or at least retrain them as social workers, psychologists, counsellors. Get rid of the paraphernalia of hymnbooks and rosters and all the rest. Let us have the pure, unadulterated gospel of Jesus – and do what James, the brother of Jesus, recommends: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
It’s a powerful suggestion, and I understand why people, both outside, but also inside, the church buy it.
However, I think it is mistaken – but mistaken in interesting ways.
Let me tell you a story. When I was young, a teenager, I used to think of myself as a communist. I didn’t know much about it then – in those distant, pre-internet days it was harder for a young person to find stuff out, and, frankly, I suspect was more interested in shocking my parents and their bourgeois friends than developing a well thought out political philosophy. I also had a lot of fun with various well-meaning adult Christians. I was playing with the idea really, trying to work out my own path in the world.
A key moment for me in this was when I was nineteen. I was involved in the Australian Council of Churches as a youth rep on the national executive. Over one summer, I was at a national ACC youth conference at one of the colleges of Melbourne Uni. While I was there I met a bunch of other ecumenically minded young people, including one young man, whose name I don’t remember, but was both a Uniting Church member, and a thorough going Trotskyite. He was, if memory serves me correctly, awaiting trial for overturning a police car at a demonstration. Here was the real thing, the genuine article, of which I was only a poor imitation.
I recall this as being an important encounter, which marked a transition point for me. It made me ask: Is there more to the Good News than material uplift of the poor? Is the Kingdom identical with Social Justice?
Let’s establish a baseline. Helping the poor is a vital Christian value. We see in Jesus’ life how he physically helped many people – through healings and miraculous provision of food. The church has generally followed his example. And of course that means not only acts of personal charity, but changing unjust systems of racism and oppression.
For example, Julian the Apostate, Fourth Century Roman Emperor, was, to say the least, no friend of the faith. He had this to say about Christian charity:
“I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence…. [They]support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
But is it the case that the fundamental message of Christianity is fundamentally about more even distribution of material goods?
Given that Jesus’ society was clear on the importance of worship, but not at all clear on the importance of helping the poor, a lot of what was striking about Jesus’ life and ministry to his contemporaries was his focus on the poor. The worship they took for granted. But in our secular age, we can’t easily see the backdrop of worship in Jesus’ own life because it is so different from our own.
One of the things that makes it hard for us to hear Jesus clearly is the extreme difference between the world in which he lived, and our own. Our culture is probably the most materialistic one that has ever existed. We have achieved amazing technical things – antibiotics, jet travel, the internet – and so we are tempted to think, like my Marxist friend, that only material realities count. But Jesus lived in a culture where worship and the importance of spiritual realities was almost absolutely unquestioned. The idea of a world not centred on worship was essentially inconceivable to almost everyone until the birth of our own culture, our disenchanted age.
For Jesus, being good news to the poor was more something one is than one does. That is, if your heart is in the right place, then helping the poor will come naturally out of who you are. Loving your neighbour as yourself is as much a symptom of being right with God as much as a component of it.
If, on the other hand, your heart is not in the right place, then, as the utopian projects of the previous century showed, things will not go well.
As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity
It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.
I’m sure we have all had to do with organisations where people who were ostensibly there to work for the common good were really there to build their own ego. Rather than work for the common good, they were there for what they could get out of it. It’s easy to pretend, even to ourselves that we have good intentions. It’s harder to actually do so. You meet with this in business, in NGOs, even in the church.
It’s possible that it is even worse in the NGO and church world than in business, because the extrinsic rewards are low, and so the job has to be more intrinsically rewarding. And when the job isn’t going well – say because the problem of homelessness is so intractable, then you are tempted to take shortcuts to feeling good about yourself – to put yourself in situations where everyone says what an angel you are for doing such a hard thing. To reward yourself with the dark pleasures of resentment. To take the stress out on your subordinates.
You went into the field with such high hopes for the world, and for yourself, and you find yourself burned out and fed up and not living up to what you expect of yourself. We are alienated – in exile from ourselves, and longing for home.
To frame this in theological terms: sin holds us captive. Even when we think we want to do the right thing, we often find ourselves getting in our own ways.
What is required is transformation. It’s not just people in gaol who are captives, not only people with white canes who are blind.
But what can lead to this transformation? Again, it’s easy to say that we want to be transformed, and even to persuade ourselves that we do. But, very often, we don’t really, and you can tell that because of our stubborn refusal to in fact be transformed.
It is a problem with our spiritual lives, and thus the solution will also be something to do with our spiritual lives.
There is something underlying which needs help. We need to align ourselves to our fundamental purpose. We need to keep in touch with what is permanent, what is of absolute value.
I’ve been thinking about worship quite a lot recently – what is it for? What actually is it? That sort of question.
I’ve come to the conclusion that worship is an end in itself – it does not need any further justification. We don’t worship in order to achieve other goals – we worship because worship itself is, like love, something that humans are somehow for. In fact, it is a sort of love – a love for what is lovable as such.
But just because it is an end in itself does not mean that it doesn’t have effects. And one of them is that worship gives us an experience of being at home in the world, at home in our own life. It helps us to desire what is most worthy of desire, and it is that which leads to transformation. Rather than try to suppress the disordered desires which are at work within us, which open up the gap between what we think we believe and how we actually live, worship can correctly order our desires, so that we desire what is most desirable.
But this works in a complex way, I think. I suspect you can’t “use” worship in order to get to transformation. It’s like happiness. You can’t pursue it directly: you can set up the conditions to make it likely that you will be happy, but happiness is not directly under our control.
Worship, I think, opens up to the Holy Spirit, who can work the transformation in us that we need. And that transformation is to become more like Jesus. When we are centred on the right things, we will have the emotional centring, the “being-at-home-ness”, to live out your vocation in an emotionally healthy way. We will know who we are – and whose we are.
Let me summarise what I have said, because it is a little dense. God calls us to be good news to the poor. But if our hearts are not in the right place, if we are in exile from God and from ourselves, then we will not in fact be good news to the poor, no matter how much we work at it. What is required is inner transformation. This can only come through the Holy Spirit working on our hearts, which will only happen if we allow it to. And the way in which we can allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts is through attention to worship and our spiritual life.
And just to finish my story from before: I decided that lots of people seemed to be concerned with social justice: not so many were talking about the fundamental realities of life and spiritual transformation. Which is how, in fact, I come to be here this morning.
Epilogue: I preached this sermon last Sunday (28/1/19) at Glen Iris Road UCA, and then this morning, I came across this podcast, an episode from Reconstruct where they interview Adam Clark, Professor of Theology and Africana Studies, Teacher in the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice. He talks about how contemplation in general, and Ignatian Spirituality in particular, are important in the kind of transformation that makes it possible to be an activist. He explains one of my main points a lot better than I do, so consider listening to it.
 Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (Kindle Locations 514-516). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition
 Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (p. 32). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.