I had the great pleasure and privilege of leading a group of students to Atlanta for the Passion 2013 conference last week. For those who may be unaware, Passion is a yearly conference at which 60,000 college students gather to make Jesus famous and put an end to modern day slavery.
Participating in Passion reminds one of the greatness of God in the same way that watching a sunrise over an ocean horizon reminds one of the vastness of both sea and sky and the beauty of nature’s artistry. Put differently, an out-of-the-ordinary view prompts a sense of awe that routine can obscure. Something so overwhelming in its vastness (the sea, the Grand Canyon, Alpine Peaks) or in its intricate delicacy (a spider-web, a nervous system, a microscopic cell structure) can lead to a sense of the holy and inspire a fountain of awe-filled worship to flow out of us.
And yet, the same earth that gives us evidence of such divine beauty and splendor and order — and in doing so points us to the holy — also provides us with evidence of violent destruction and disarray — pointing us to chaos: massacres in the Middle East, shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, ignored systematic problems that perpetuate poverty and disease, the list could go on.
But perhaps there is something in our response to such blatant atrocities that is also transcendent. Just as there is near universal appreciation for something as beautiful as a sunrise at the beach, is there not also near universal revulsion toward things that are so clearly destructive to human flourishing as sex trafficking and forced labor. In the same way that we are moved to awe and wonder (worship) by the vastness of the world around us, aren’t we also inspired by the sense of a moral framework within each of us that enables us to discern good and bad, right and wrong, truth and untruth.
A connection between the vast mystery of the universe and the mysterious dimension of morality that makes human community possible seems to be woven into the biblical concept of creation and prophetic call for justice. An experience with the holy and a commitment to the wholeness of the human family are companion components of the response of faith. That is, the bible is clear that worship and justice cannot be separated.
This is why I keep returning and will continue to take students to Passion. The way in which they wed both worship and justice together so beautifully should be a call to other Christians to wake-up and be doers of the word and not only hearers for faith without works is dead. It’s a call to those who “talk the talk” of faith to “act the acts” in ways that address concretely the specific problems we face.
Yet somehow, contemporary Christendom has divorced faith’s affirmations from its applications. Somehow we have managed to abstract our vertical relationship with God from our horizontal relationship with our neighbors. As a result I’ve become very suspicious of people who make a big fuss over glorifying God in the abstract as an act of zealous piety without exhibiting the generosity and mercy towards others that shows their genuine deliverance from the self-justification that Adam brought into the world. How do we speak so easily of our relationship and experiences with God while neglecting the problems that imperil, maim, and imprison vast numbers of God’s family?
When we do this, we play the same game the ancient Israelites did.
Isaiah 1:10-20 is a sobering prophetic passage in which God reams out the Israelites for thinking that they can honor Him while mistreating the most vulnerable of His people. It’s important to point out that the injustice which offends God in this passage is not active abuse but neglect – the failure to “seek justice” by “relieving the oppressed, vindicating the orphan, [and] pleading for the widow.” When society is structured in a way that people are impoverished and disempowered, and we do nothing to change it, sin has occurred even if no single individual can be blamed.
God does not need our bulls or our incense. He does not need our testimony of how much He has blessed us or our thunderous shouts of “God is good!” He does not need us to raise our hands and close our eyes when we praise Him. We need to do these things insofar as they transform us into vessels and vassals of God’s grace and mercy which are the means by which He accomplishes justice. God is not in the business of saving a bunch of individuals but rather He is gathering for Himself a people — the people of God who will extend the grace of God to the least of these for the glory of God.
Yes, a beautiful sunrise may well call forth awe and wonder and a sense of the holy; but the moral law within us, mediated to us by the prophets and Gospel, points us to the agenda of the Holy One: the movement of the world toward wholeness by the specific work of liberation, reconciliation, and righting the wrongs of injustice.
In the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John have a worship experience where they encounter Jesus, Moses, and Elijah together. They are so moved by this experience that Peter responds that they should build 3 tabernacles to commemorate the occasion. A voice from above offers a different directive: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
I wonder what the impact on the world would be if we worshippers did a little less tabernacle building and a little more Jesus listening.