A Big Enough Gospel

Rev. Donnell T. Wyche — January 24, 2021

Big Enough Gospel – The Gospel of Restorative Justice

Hey Church!

We are continuing our sermon series, A Big Enough Gospel. We have discussed that the Gospel is about more than just our sins because the Gospel is about the whole person, that the Gospel is about our restoration as image-bearers, that we are being invited by Jesus to join God as co-regents empowered by the Holy Spirit that will compel us to act. We are invited to announce the good news of the God’s liberation freeing the oppressed, healing the wounded, feeding, clothing, and loving the poor, and announcing God’s restorative justice. This is the gospel.

As a community we have noted that Justice in scripture is not a courtroom scene, it’s a flourishing garden. Most of us have inherited a picture of justice as a courtroom, where people come to be judged as right or wrong and are then rewarded or punished. When we project this picture of justice onto God, we realize that we all fall short, exactly what Pauls says in Romans 3:23.

There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:24)

Since we all fall short, we need someone who is perfect to take our place before the judge — enter Jesus, perfect and beloved. In this courtroom scene Jesus takes our punishment because he is the only one perfect before God, the judge.

Imagine, instead, that we read justice the way Old Testament writers and readers did? In this view, justice was about the flourishing of everything in the world under God’s rule. This picture of justice expands outside of a limited courtroom scene into something bigger, something, better, something more beautiful–a flourishing garden. God’s justice isn’t a response to bad stuff, it’s a picture of all of creation thriving and growing into all that it was meant to be and become. In addition, this picture of justice helps us transition into the presence of God because we get to keep on partnering with the Holy Spirit doing justice and keep on seeing God’s good intentions burst into flourishing all around us.

In this view of justice, God sees creation (people, plants, and animals) withering and dying, which is the antithesis of what God intended them to be — this is when God says “Where’s the justice!? I need to get to work!” When the psalmist hungers and thirsts for God, the psalmist longs to see God’s justice flourishing in his or her own life (Ps 69) and community. When the author of Isaiah 55 invites everyone to come drink from God’s well, it’s because everybody’s thirsty. This is what justice looks like, it’s not God torching and salting the garden because someone broke the rules.

And the Justice in the Gospel invites us to get proximate. Let’s turn to Jesus and hear what he has to say to us about restorative justice. There’s this story tucked away in Luke that gives a clue, an insight into the restorative justice of the Gospel.

Would you join in Luke 19,

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:1-7)

Did you notice that at the end of the text, it seems that the crowd condemns Jesus. Luke describes the crowd as wondering about Jesus. Why would the righteous want to fellowship with the guilty.

Often I would have simple responses to people who judge the righteous fellowshipping with the guilty, I would actually quote Jesus when he says, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

But the more I get proximate, the more I’m learning that it is often among the guilty that I found God at work.

The crowd here is judging Jesus because of guilt by association. Zacchaeus is guilty. More than that he is an oppressor. Since Zacchaeus is guilty, then anyone associated with Zacchaeus adopts the same status, guilty. But why would Jesus want to associate with someone who is a sinner, someone who is unclean, someone who oppresses others?

Because of the Gospel.

At Dinner

Luke skips the details of the transition from the road to Zacchaeus’ house. He picks up midway through the dinner after they have eaten and reclined at the table. Luke jumps right to the part where the host would stand to make a speech to honor his guest.

8But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

We don’t get the details of the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus on the way to his house, or the idle chit-chat that may have taken place as the meal was being prepared, and eventually served. I’d like you to imagine with me that Jesus and Zacchaeus had a significant heart to heart. Maybe the conversation allowed Zacchaeus to plum the depths of Jesus’ love and acceptance, which allowed Zacchaeus to lower his defenses, opening the door to his repentance. Remember it’s God’s compassion that leads us to repentance.

When we’ve sinned, we may be unable to take away what we’ve done, how we have hurt or wounded others. But our repentance must speak to our willingness to admit our wrongs (put plainly: our guilt), seek forgiveness, and wherever possible make restitution to those we have harmed. That’s the biblical call to repentance. To do anything less means that we haven’t owned our sin and therefore we haven’t actually accepted our forgiveness. This is a dangerous place to reside, yet this is where most of us probably are.

Miroslav Volf has something for us here. In his book, Free of Charge, he notes that we aren’t always aware of all our sins (guilt), so that’s why we pray the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive me as I have sinned…” This is a way of us acknowledging both our known and unknown sins. But when we are aware of our sin, like I think Zacchaeus was, we should confess it. Without a frank and honest confession, we remain unforgiven.

“Now, hold on…” you might be thinking.

We remain unforgiven not because God doesn’t forgive us, no, it happens because “a refusal to confess is a rejection of forgiveness.” When we refuse to own up to what we have done, we simultaneously refuse to make forgiveness our own. Simply put, we cannot accept what we refuse to receive.

Jesus Accepts Zacchaeus, and He Accepts Us Too!

Why does Jesus accept Zacchaeus, the oppressor in the first place? Because just like Bartimaeus, the blind man that Jesus heals earlier in this story, Zacchaeus is made in the image of the divine and he is worthy of love, so that’s what Jesus offers him, love. It is love that is costly because Jesus loses the crowd the moment he accepts Zacchaeus and invites himself over for dinner. In one sense, Jesus takes on the derision of the crowd on Zacchaeus’ behalf therefore creating breathing room for Zacchaeus. Are there people in your life who you are willing to create breathing room or space for? Are there people who are need healing and restoration? Are you willing for the sake of the Gospel to lose something like power, position, or influence by loving them? It’s striking to me what creating breathing room will do; for some, it will lead to transformation.

Jesus says this interesting thing in John 13:34,

34“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Often we are like the crowd that has turned on Jesus; we lack a prophetic imagination that allows us to imagine a place or reality where those who have wronged us can be redeemed, can be reconciled, can be transformed. Maybe what we owe those who have wronged us is the prophetic imagination that they can be transformed in the loving presence of God.

What if that’s a role of the church? That we are supposed to be the place where those who are seeking restoration and healing can find refuge or shelter. Not to ignore the wrongs that they have committed, but so that they can find breathing room for God’s restorative justice.

Did you notice that Jesus acknowledges that Zacchaeus, too, is a son of Abraham. What happens when we are in the presence of God, when God is front of us? We are invited to respond. Zacchaeus does what Abraham did and activates faith. Faith to do what is difficult, what seemed impossible.

Imagine with me a “loving, holy, holistic” faith community that tries to enact that new command. A community that is at the same time serious about joining with God in repairing the world, while gathering together both saint and sinner. A community that trusts God. A community that creates space for both to ask, “What does it mean for me to love you?”

Isn’t this the scandal of the Gospel?

There are some stories of this in our church and I want to highlight a couple. I remember when my wife Maria told me about a program that would cause her to go regularly to a federal prison to help those incarcerated read to their children or grandchildren. The program called staying in closer touch is a literacy program that connects loved ones with their kids and grandchildren by recording them reading a book. The volunteers capture the recordings, burn audio CDs, purchase new copies of the books, and ship them out. Maria, Cathy, and Susan shared about this program at church service a couple of lents ago.

The other story is something that I and few other congregants are just getting started. A clergy friend of mine at a meeting said, we are not the worst thing we have done. While I knew that was true, I wrestled with that statement. As I continued to engage you, our church community, and the Holy Spirit, I feel a nudge to see what we could do as a faith community for those caught up in the criminal legal system in our county and our initial conversations centered around maybe helping out with or ending cash bail. You may remember that we invited Eli Savit to our September 2019 Cultivate Vineyard to tell us more about cash bail. Well, the voters in our county elected Eli, and he recently announced that his office would no longer seek cash bail. Definitely a win, but there was more work to do. Over the summer, I gathered a group of congregants and clergy friends to talk cognitive liberation, the idea that things in the world aren’t the way we want them to be, that these things aren’t inevitable and that we could something about it. This led us to start working on seeing what we could do to help people with warrants in Washtenaw County. When I recently shared this work with a congregant, they remarked, this sounds a lot like restorative justice. To which, I replied, I know. It’s the Gospel.

To me, one of the most powerful indications that Zaccheaus has taken the implications of Jesus’ forgiveness deeply to heart is that he decides not only to pay back with interest to those who he has harmed directly, but that he also decides to give away half of what he owns to the poor.

He doesn’t say why he’s doing this, but I can imagine a few reasons. Maybe he knows that the kind of oppression and injustice he perpetuated has ripples throughout a community that go far beyond the person that is directly harmed, and that this too must be addressed in order to begin repairing the social fabric that had been torn. Or perhaps he was so deeply grateful for the gratuitous, unearned love and mercy of Jesus that he wanted to mirror that abundance of grace to those who most needed it, just like he himself was so desperately in need of the forgiveness and care of Jesus. 

Jesus doesn’t say that salvation has come until Zacchaeus acknowledges that he needs saving.

9Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

Being accepted by God is important and should be a shield against fears that God doesn’t love us and has given up on us. But salvation doesn’t come until restitution has been promised. This initiates a process of being saved, and Zacchaeus will spend the remainder of his life living out that process.

We may find ourselves loved and accepted by Jesus, but we will find ourselves saved when we live out the salvation that is offered to us.

Maybe this is what Paul meant when said,

12Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12–13)