What is the purpose of the church?

This month we enter the season of Lent that leads up to Easter.  The 40 fasting days of Lent represent the 40 days we are told in the Gospels that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness; days that were really a time for him to explore his experience at his baptism and the direction he would take in life.

 

At the end of that time he went home to Nazareth and on the Sabbath went to the synagogue were he was asked to read the scripture and speak. You can read the story in Luke chapter 4.  I preached on this story in January and was asked to summarize my sermon for Look-In, so here goes.

 

At the heart of the story are the verses Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah.

“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.”    (Luke 4:18-19)

Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

Most scholars agree that the way Luke tells the story suggests this is a pivotal moment in Jesus life; that the words he read in the synagogue are fundamental to his understanding of his mission, of God’s mission.  But to say this passage describes God’s mission still begs many questions.

 

Who are the poor and what is good news for them?  A report published by Oxfam in January this year highlights the global inequality of wealth.  According to the report, the richest 62 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 50% (3.6 billion people) put together, and the richest 1% have more wealth than the remaining 99% (incidentally, anyone whose total assets are worth more than £533,000 is part of that 1%).  But is being poor just about not having money?  What about those who have lost everything, lost hope, lost home, lost family, lost their future, the outsider and the refugee?

 

In purely financial terms it might be that some kind of redistribution of wealth from the absurdly rich to the abject poor is part of God’s day of favour (or salvation as some versions put it).  But good news for the poor is not just about having more money, it is about having hope and home and future restored.  So, should showing and sharing hospitality to those who have no place to call home be part of that good news?

 

Who are the captives and what is release for them?  People in Wormwood Scrubs or Broadmoor?  Do we want them to be released before their time?  But what about those held captive in Belmarsh and Harmondsworth detention centres?  Could God’s will be that these people find release?  Then there are those imprisoned by grief, regret, anger, bitterness, etc.  What might release from captivity mean for them?  Surely part of it must be to know they are loved and valued.  Is Jesus saying that to show love is the mission of God and, when love is shown God’s day of salvation is fulfilled?

 

Who are the blind and what does it mean for them to recover sight?  Does this just refer to those who have some form of visual impairment?  Or does it include those who choose not to see, those whose hearts and minds are closed, those of fixed opinions, and those who have lost the ability to see the humanity of other people?  In which case, what does recovery of sight mean?  Maybe the day of the Lord is a day of challenge and shock to our preconceptions and prejudices, a day that moves us from our mental comfort zones and forces us to see the limitlessness of God’s love.

 

Who are the oppressed and what does it mean to be set free?  Did Jesus have in mind just those living under a foreign occupying power, as the Jewish people were at that time under Roman rule?  Perhaps we should also include those who live under oppressive ideologies, like that of the so-called Islamic State.  But then there are some pretty oppressive Christian ideologies that scare me, and some oppressive attitudes in wider society that lead some people to think it is acceptable to throw stones and eggs at the homes of asylum seekers, or do worse.  Is the freedom Jesus had in mind a freedom to practice one’s own faith and culture without fear of attack?  I believe God’s day of favour is a day when people live together showing acceptance and tolerance.

 

The passage Jesus read in the Synagogue challenges us about our understanding of God’s mission and what ‘the day of favour (or salvation)’ means; it reminds us that God’s salvation is not about having a place in heaven, but about having a place for God’s attitude in our minds and in our actions here on earth?

 

The root of this vision of God’s kingdom lies in the Old Testament laws.  In the book of Leviticus, in a passage headed ‘Laws of Holiness and Justice’, we find the command:

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt”    (Leviticus 19:33-34)

A simple instruction to treat strangers in our land as if they are our own people.

 

The Old Testament book of Ruth tells the story of a family who twice experienced being refugees.  I highly recommend reading this beautiful short book in one go.  In it we are told how a man called Boaz put the instruction in Leviticus into practice.  Then at the end of the story, when the descendants of Ruth are listed we discover the great King David was her grandson.  From this foreigner, this asylum seeker, came the man most Jews look to as the greatest leader in their history, the man who really made them a great nation.  The point being that by keeping the law to welcome the stranger the nation became stronger.

 

What is the purpose of the church?  Surely it is to continue the mission of Jesus. To work for freedom for the oppressed and to bring good news to the poor is to continue the mission of Jesus. The problems of the world sometimes seem too large for us to do much about.  But global issues always have a local aspect to them.  We cannot solve the crisis in Syria or do much about the reasons people leave their homes to make a new life in a new country.  But perhaps we can help in some small way by showing and sharing love and acceptance and hospitality and support to the strangers in our midst.

Nick Skelding

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of Look-In, our monthly church magazine.  To download the full issue, please click here: Look-In Feb 2016