Sermon given at Evensong on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2022
The Right Reverend Anthony Ball Canon in Residence
Sunday, 28th August 2022 at 3.00 PM
In the month of their “residence” Canons of Westminster have often preached a sermon series—sermons developing a particular theme. I’d had a different approach this month, taking the readings and some event in the week and sharing some reflections from the dialogue between the two. Those of you who have come each week this month will have heard me preach about the environment, about slavery and about humanitarianism and international development. As I reflected and prepared for this week thinking of them as climate justice, racial justice and economic justice prompted me to want to retro-fit a theme of “justice” onto this month. God’s justice. It seems to me that the relevance of these kind of issues, and the imperative to do something about them, is rooted in the Divine character and God’s purpose for creation. The Bible and, I would claim, our experience reveals that God is just, God does justice, God is the author of justice, and calls people to live justly—to “do” justice.
That’s quite a claim. We can only tell if it’s true by what we’re told and what we see or experience. The second reading declared: “The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard ... He whom God has sent speaks the words of God”. So, I want to offer a helicopter-view[i] of how God has acted in history.
In Genesis we see God creating a just world, where there is full harmony between the Creator and the created and everything works as it should. God describes the result as “very good”. It is a place of deeply harmonious “shalom”, where justice and peace embrace.
That shalom didn’t last long. Adam and Eve rebelled and what we describe as “sin” came into the picture. The relationship with God was damaged. The broken relationships with God, each other and creation, at an individual and a systemic level, left “injustice”. This is what we call “The Fall”. The rebellion of the fall and all that followed necessitated a determined show of God’s love for creation that has continued ever since, right up to today. This was exemplified in the life and death of Jesus, whose mission was to lead us back to God and restore the world order as his Father had intended it. As we heard Jesus say this evening: “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life”.
We call that redemption. That’s probably too big a jump, so taking a step back and we see that God’s plan for redemption begins with a covenant with Abraham that includes a promise that justice will come for all people. A few generations later Abraham’s descendants become enslaved in Egypt, without hope and oppressed by a power far greater than themselves. God corrects the injustice, liberates them and forms them into his people in a great Exodus - the defining story in the identity of ancient Israel. See how justice is both a concept and also the lived experience of God’s people.
God gives this liberated community a Law, to regulate life in a way that promotes “shalom”. In it, God’s character is revealed, showing God’s care for individuals and for the social, economic, political and environmental systems that shape human life. It matters both how individuals and the community relate to God and to each other and to creation—with a particular emphasis on the most vulnerable in society.
As time passes the people stray from these rules and God sends a series of spokespeople to remind Israel of the deal—the covenant goes both ways. These prophets spoke out against injustice, keeping their harshest words and sternest warnings for those who were oppressors, who acted unjustly and who would not amend their ways. Alongside warnings came a vision of what life under God’s rule could look like—a world, of love and compassion of righteousness and justice. The prophet’s point to a Messiah who would bring such justice not just to Israel itself but also to all the nations. That comes to fruition in Jesus.
Jesus’ ministry is hallmarked by justice, pointing to a future that will usher in the fullness of shalom, a new creation. The only thing Jesus talked about more than justice was God’s Kingdom. His self-identity as Israel’s King—the Messiah—had at its very core the jubilee vision offered by the prophet Isaiah of good news to the poor. Justice is at the heart of what Jesus said—centring around his teachings on love—love for God and neighbour, love that reaches across social boundaries, love even for enemies. Justice is at the heart of what Jesus did, from his birth to his death, living amongst and healing victims of injustice, and himself being a victim of injustice. Remarkably for the time and culture in which he lived, Jesus associated with people across the social spectrum with a particular focus on people at the bottom of society.
Jesus’ purpose—revealed in his death on the cross, his resurrection and ascension—was our redemption, reconciling broken relationships with God, ourselves, others and creation. Justice is central to the apostles’ teaching and the actions of the early church. As Christians we have a life-giving hope so much greater than the simple idea that we will go to heaven when we die.
With Jesus God’s Kingdom of justice and shalom has already broken into our world and we are, here and now, in that story between the cross and a new creation. Our Christian hope puts us on a path into the world not away from the world—towards active participation in God’s redemptive mission, the work to restore “shalom” to our world. As we see this great theme of justice as a stream flowing through the whole of Scripture, we come to understand that its source is bound up in the very character of God.
There are two types of justice in scripture—reactive justice and what some have called “primary” justice[ii]. Reactive justice punishes or condemns the wrongdoer—someone who has treated another unjustly. It is can be seen as linked to “the wrath of God”, as in “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath”. But in order for that kind of justice there has to be a prior sense of justice for the injustice to have been committed—an offence against the love of justice described by the prophet “God says: “Seek justice; do justice; let justice roll down like waters; imitate me in loving justice”.
It is that “primary” justice that is of God and which, in the Old Testament, is frequently linked with “righteousness”—as this evening Isaiah declared God’s blessing for “those who walk righteously and speak uprightly”. Righteousness, from the Hebrew word tsedaqah means right and just relationships between people despite their social status. Justice, from Hebrew word mishpat, means concrete actions you take to correct injustices. That pairing of tsedaqah and mishpat is what might be translated “primary justice”, or “social justice”. The kind of justice that is a necessary precursor for the shalom, the harmonious flourishing, that is God’s purpose for humankind and all creation. A purpose which derives from the character of our loving God, a God of justice, mercy and redemption, demonstrated most powerfully in Jesus Christ
A former Canon of Westminster, Bishop Tom Wright, put it like this
If we believe that in the end God will put all things right, will ‘do justice’ in that positive, creative, healing, restorative sense; and if we believe that when God raised Jesus from the dead he did exactly that, close up and personal, in the one human being who represented and stood in for everyone else—then we cannot hold back from the imperative to ‘do justice’, in this full sense, at every opportunity in our world. In the power of the Spirit, we must name and shame the injustices that are still rampant, and work for their abolition. And we must take care that in our personal lives, and particularly in the lives of our churches themselves, injustice is rooted out as far and wide as can be done.[iii]
That is why these themes of climate, racial, and economic justice matter. That is why social justice is something you will hear preached and, God-willing, see acted out in the life of the community here at Westminster Abbey. “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us”, as our Isaiah reading this evening concluded. That hope, our hope, is built on the sure foundation of God’s justice and loving kindness.
[i] The framework is that offered by Just Love at https://justloveuk.com/about-us/theology-of-justice
[ii] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God Loves Justice” in Live Justly – Global Jason Fileta (ed), Micah Challenge USA, 2017