What about when we don’t “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”?

A particular verse from the prophet Micah—chapter 6, verse 8—has long been a favourite of many Christians. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It even got a shout-out from Episcopal priest Luis Leon in his benediction at President Obama’s inauguration. It seems to summarize what many people believe about the life of faith.

The trouble is, of course, that there are many parts of the world where justice, kindness, and humility—along with a lot of other wonderful virtues—are not in great abundance.

One of these places is Sri Lanka. Since the end of its civil war in 2009, a single family of brothers has managed to consolidate its grasp on the levers of state power. Recently, the chief justice was impeached and removed from office. So much for justice, when it’s clear that the courts are firmly under the thumb of the president. A friend of mine involved in the church in Sri Lanka e-mailed to say, “Our situation is quite tense just now as people live in fear and anger and the Regime grows more suspicious and unpredictable. We need the prayers of all.” The church has been actively involved in this situation, in part by opposing the impeachment.

But I was struck by the recent pastoral letter of the Bishop of Colombo. In it, he denounces the current situation and writes, “We no longer appear to be a constitutional democracy.” But the action he calls for is not what you might expect. He calls for the church to repent:

This is a time for us as a Church to take an honest look at ourselves, where we have shamelessly compromised our loyalty to God. We need to repent of ways in which we, as individuals as well as collectively, have;

  • been silent when we should have spoken
  • allowed ourselves (thoughtlessly or out of fear) to be used by those in authority to speak lies or commit wrong and unjust acts
  • consciously received benefits for ourselves through acts of injustice committed against others

I as your Bishop, call the Church to a period of lament together for the terrible state of our nation today, and repentance for our failing as a Church to “love mercy, to seek justice and to walk humbly with the Lord” (Micah 6:8).

While reading this letter, I was reminded how Jesus’ ministry began with the call to repentance. It is very easy to long for change in the world and to demand that other people change. But that is not what Jesus begins with. Jesus begins with our own transformation. The message of the Gospel seems to be, “Change is going to come. Let it begin with me.”

I’m all for doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. But I also know that simply stating that again and again won’t make it happen. What will make it happen, though, is turning again (the meaning of the word “repent”) in our weakness and imperfection to the overflowing love of God in Christ and allowing ourselves to be transformed in that encounter to be agents of the new reality God longs for us to live in.

The Bishop of Colombo has called for this Sunday, 3 February, to be a Day of Lament in the churches of the diocese. Perhaps we can join our sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka in prayer that day, as we pray for transformation in that country, but most of all within ourselves.

The Gospel of Inclusivity and The Gospel of Transformation

If you had to use one word to sum up the Gospel message, what would it be? For a fair number of people in the Episcopal Church these days, the answer seems to be “inclusive.” God’s love is an “inclusive love” we are told. God invites all people to the table. There are “no outcasts,” as a previous presiding bishop once said.

There’s a song from John Bell and the Iona Community that goes:

God welcomes all

Strangers and friends

God welcomes all

And it never ends

In my experience, this pretty much sums up a major strand of thought in the Episcopal Church today: “You’re included!”

The trouble is, this stand of thought—while highlighting something deeply true about the life and death of Christ—is not all there is to the teachings of Jesus. At some point we have to wrestle with the non-inclusive parts of Jesus’ ministry, like the story he tells about the king who sent out messengers to invite all kinds of people to a wedding. (The king is being inclusive!) When the guests arrive, the king tosses out those who are not dressed properly. “For many are called, but few are chosen,” says Jesus (Matt. 22:14). This is the same Jesus who tells us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt. 7:21)

If I had to use one word to sum up the Gospel, it might be “transformation.” This is what Jesus is getting at when he tells Nicodemus he needs to be “born again” (John 3). It is what Paul tells the Romans they need to do—“be transformed” (12:2). Arguably, it’s what the wedding guests in the Matthew 22 parable did not do. They were invited but they did not allow themselves to be transformed. Inclusion is only the first part of the Gospel message. Transformation into the new life in Christ is what’s important.

There’s something particularly ironic about the way in which this gospel of inclusivity has come to the fore in the Episcopal Church at a time when our attendance figures are only getting smaller. It’s like we’re standing there saying, “You’re included!” and people are saying, “No thanks. I’d rather not be.” After all, there are already plenty of clubs to be involved in. Why be part of the church as well?

But what if we stood out there and told people in the world, “God is going to change your life!” There are lots of people in this world who are looking for different/new/changed lives. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the way things are, both in people’s personal lives and with the world around us. One central strand of the Christian Gospel is to recognize that things aren’t right and then say “But we have a way to change that. Come share in the death and resurrection of Christ with us and be made a new person.”

I’m not convinced that the Gospel of Inclusivity is getting us anywhere. But I think a Gospel of Transformation might.