Justice, Restoration & Wholeness in the Kingdom of God
Michelle Ami Reyes
Have you ever heard someone say, “Let’s just focus on the gospel?” It’s a statement I hear a lot these days and usually in response to conversations about social and civic engagement. In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and then again after the Breonna Taylor verdict; in response to issues of rising anti-Asian violence, poverty, vulnerable young women, and immigrants at the border, I hear many Christians saying, “We just need to focus on the gospel right now and how the gospel changes hearts.” I’m sure some of you have heard people say this too. Perhaps you yourself share this sentiment.
Certainly, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t focus on the gospel. My critique of this statement has more to do with our anemic view of the gospel that needs to be corrected. Because some of us think and talk about the gospel purely in simple, spiritual terms to the detriment of all else. Many of us have come to see our faith as something that is hyper individual. So, when a community is ravaged by injustice, we reduce the priority of the body of Christ to getting individuals right with God. We put forth the rallying cry, “Let’s focus on salvation and getting people to believe in Jesus. If people would only just believe in Jesus, then things like racism wouldn’t exist.”
The problem with this stance, however, is that it takes no consideration for the physical and social well-being of a person. All we care about is whether they believe in Jesus. After that, they’re on their own. Are they suffering under the weight of racial trauma? Has their family been victimized by unjust zoning laws? Have they become povertized or are they experiencing homelessness because of a system skewed to favor white bodies over black and brown bodies? Not our problem. That’s not important to the gospel message, we say. Even worse, actions like standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed and raising our voices against unjust policies and systems become relegated to worldly versions of social justice.
But the Christian faith encompasses so much more than conversion. The gospel encompasses so much more than just evangelism and proselytizing. Jesus’ call to his believers to go out into the world and share the good news of the gospel was rich and deep with far reaching implications for how we are to love God and love our neighbors in this world. We need to go back to Scripture and look to the life and ministry of Jesus for the appropriate model of what exactly focusing on the gospel means, and Mark 1:14-20 helps unpack this for us.
Good News has Arrived
In Mark 1:14-20, Jesus enters into the story of human history as king and begins ushering in his new kingdom. He walks onto the scene and proclaims: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” It’s a simple, yet profound message. Jesus’ reference to the time that’s now come signals the dawn of a new age of salvation. Jesus’ kingdom is shorthand for God’s eschatolgical salvation, which is now breaking into human history through Jesus’ own words and actions.
So, in these first few verses, we have Jesus saying, “I have good news for you! I am your king and I’ve come to save you, to redeem you, so you can live in my new kingdom!” And then the rest of Mark’s gospel shows us how Jesus accomplishes this.
Which begs the question: How does Jesus save and redeem people? I’ll tell you what. He doesn’t make this declaration in Mark 1 and then go straight to the cross in Mark chapter 2 to die for our sins. Instead, what does he do, even in the rest of Mark chapter 1? He calls disciples, casts out demons, heals the sick and then also forgives sin.
Jesus saves people holistically. He sees the ways that people suffer physically, socially, and spiritually and he offers himself as a balm to all of our pains and our brokenness. Jesus, our king, and the kingdom of God over which he reigns redemptively addresses every human need. The good news of the gospel that Jesus proclaims here in Mark 1 is that God’s kingdom is after holistic restoration. Yes, Jesus is after spiritual restoration. This is why he calls for us to first repent and believe in his good news: repentance means turning away from sin, and faith means acknowledging dependence on God. These are two sides of the same coin: repudiating a life focused on self and reorienting toward God and his purpose for the world. But simultaneously Jesus is also healing people physically - those with physical disabilities, the blind, the lame, those with leprosy, the sick - so that they can be restored back into society. He cares about redeeming whole persons and reingratiating them into a restored community. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus seeks to make our world whole in every aspect of the term (as he says in Revelation 21:5 “I am making all things new”).
More than that, we need to understand that the biblical concept of justice is synonymous with the gospel. Both seek the restoration of all things. Jesus comes to give people what they’re due and giving people their due is exactly what restorative, not retributive, justice is. Jesus sees the hurting, the sick, and the marginalized and declares they have the right to be restored back into society; they have the right to good health, to equal treatment and the same resources that the rest of us have access to. As Pastor Tim Keller writes in his book, Generous Justice, restorative justice includes simple fair and honest dealings with one another, treating every person as an equal, and helping people be set free from the cycles of injustice and violence that oppress them. This is important because when Jesus declares the good news of the gospel, he is bringing justice. So, when we as Christians talk about justice, what we should be talking about is the pursuit of restoration, and this restoration is threefold: first, we seek to restore relationships between God and humanity, second, we seek to restore relationships between humans, and third, we seek to restore relationships between humans and our surroundings. This is what gospel-rooted justice is all about.
Restoration Starts With Us
Now, immediately after this in verses 16-20, Jesus’ kingdom message becomes individualized in his call of disciples. He walks along the Sea of Galilee and recruits two pairs of fishermen brothers: Simon and Andrew, and then James and John, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will teach you to fish for people.” This phrase, “come after me,” is a call to discipleship, a relationship of learning from a master teacher. Interestingly, in the first century normally a student would seek out a particular rabbi and ask to follow him. But Jesus approaches disciples and calls them. This is a beautiful picture of God coming to us and graciously inviting us to join him in his kingdom work of restoration. God’s work is not going to be done by Jesus alone. Simon, Andrew, James, John, and by extension all of us as followers of Jesus today have the incredible privilege to co-labor with Jesus to make all things new.
Jesus’ invitation is for all people. It’s not just for the smart, the talented, the good looking, or the rich. If it was, Jesus would have started his ministry in Jerusalem or even in his hometown of Nazareth. But instead he starts in Galilee, a rural region that was largely insignificant in the world’s eyes, with a population of about 300,000 scattered in some two hundred villages, and he first calls blue-collared fisherman to follow him. By beginning here, Jesus demonstrates that all peoples and all places are worthy of the gospel news and the restorative hand of God’s kingdom.
The four fishermen in verses 16-20 accept Jesus as their leader, recognize his authority, believe his vision and immediately choose to follow his words and ways. More than that, this scene emphasizes Jesus’ authority, when he says “come, follow me” - an authority which demands an immediate response. The work of restoration is an urgent call. To fish for people is to rescue them from sin, brokenness and death by calling them into God’s kingdom, and that kind of restorative work can’t be put off.
Practically this means two things: first, we cannot delay in telling people about Jesus. Our friends and family, our neighbors, our coworkers, they need to hear about the good news of salvation that can only be found in Jesus. If you’ve never shared your faith with the people in your life, don’t put it off. Don’t convince yourself that you’ll tell them next time or next month or next year. Jesus calls us to go people-fishing today. Now that doesn’t mean you need to become a street evangelist or become that annoying friend that beats people over the head with the Bible. To use the metaphor of fishing, we know that fishermen play the long game. They cast their nets or lines and then patiently wait and wait and wait for a bite. As Jesus’ fishermen, we are called to verbally share the good news of Jesus with people, but we can be eloquent in our approach and offer small truths of God’s kingdom slowly, yet methodically. Then we wait and we pray for God to work in that person’s heart.
Second, our words must be balanced by real restorative actions. In the same way that Jesus went out preaching salvation, while also healing the sick, we too must live a life that seeks to restore the relationship between God and humanity holistically. This means seeking to maintain the dignity of black and brown lives, honoring the voices and bodies of women, and caring for those experiencing homelessness. It means practicing the cross-shaped art of forgiveness in our relationships as well as using our money and our influence to change unjust policies and voting for leaders who will run our cities, states and country with justice and equity.
We need to reconsider what it means to be Christian. The way of the gospel is not about being part of the political right or the political left. Our way as followers of Jesus is the middle way, a path in which people of faith play a unique role in protecting the weak, safeguarding the sacred, and promoting a just peace. We are active within social and civic matters because we are focusing on the gospel and seeking to advance God’s kingdom on earth. And it’s time to bring the good news of the gospel to every aspect of our life and society. It’s time to bring the church to the streets.
When people look at us, they should both hear and see the gospel proclamation. We must point to the salvation and restoration of Jesus in what we say and what we do. It’s not an either/or but a both/and way of life.
Get Up and Do Something
So, what is the gospel? It is the good news that God is restoring all things in authentic, creative and transformative ways, and He invites us to be agents of restoration as well. Fannie Lou Hamer, the black civil rights leader from rural Mississippi, said, “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Now is the time to live out this holistic gospel and live it out boldly. The restoration of all things is in motion. It can’t be stopped. The question is whether we are taking part in this movement or not.
How can you join Christ in the restorative work of the gospel today? Think of your city, your community, and your neighbors? What struggles, pains and brokenness are in your midst? How can you share the good news of Jesus with people in your context, while also physically working toward their holistic good? How can you use your gifts, talents, time and money to do the restorative work of the gospel in your town?
This is our calling as followers of Jesus. But know this: real, holistic gospel work will be costly. Today’s passage in Mark 1:14 opens with John the Baptist being thrown in prison for his ministry, and it ends with Simon, Andrew, James and John responding to Jesus’ call by immediately getting up and leaving their boats, their jobs, and their families. Living out the gospel and advancing God’s kingdom will cost you. Are you willing to suffer the cost? Are you ready to give up things in your life, things that you hold dear, in order to follow Jesus in his restorative work of the gospel? Are there parts of your life that need to change in order to live this out?
Place your hope in the gospel’s vision of restoration and wholeness. Be willing to suffer the cost. Join Jesus in this movement and persevere.