A Gospel Identity in a Troubled World

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
February 4, 2024

Scripture: Mark 1:29–39

As the U.S. presidential campaign season heats up and now that we’ve started to have actual votes cast and counted, the church will again have to navigate a modern political campaign environment. This is the season when the church’s acts of service and mercy, petitions to the government to address desperate human needs, and our pursuit of justice for the marginalized are often judged to be too political. No matter how this campaign unfolds, the church’s role in the nation and politics will get some attention. But when we think about how, over the last few years, the church has fallen in esteem among an increasing number of people and questions about the health of our democracy become more urgent, perhaps we have to think broader than politics. Perhaps our imagination has been stifled by the horse race focus of politics. Perhaps our gospel identity is more important than our political identity, given the challenges this nation faces. I’m talking about a gospel identity that can be the source of healing, deliverance, and compassion regardless of the political system or who is in political power.

The Gospel of Mark does not keep us guessing about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry. After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus went out “proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). The good news was that God’s reign had been made manifest in the world in the person of Jesus. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has already begun, fulfilled in a context of deep need and desperation all around him—poverty, deprivation, disease, physical disability, unemployment, violence, and dispossession. And Jesus responded to this need with a ministry of healing, deliverance, and compassion.

As the Gospel of Mark tells it, the real-world impact and manifestation of that good news of the kingdom of God coming into being looks something like what Jesus does when he and his disciples leave the synagogue and go to Simon’s house to see Simon’s mother-in-law, who is in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up, and she is immediately made well enough to get up and serve. But it doesn’t end there. At sunset, when the Sabbath is over, Mark says the whole city of Capernaum, those sick with disease and bound by a spirit of bondage and affliction, gathered at the door so that Jesus could heal and deliver them just as he did with Simon’s mother-in-law. So, Jesus takes this healing ministry out into the street. But it doesn’t end there. When the disciples interrupted Jesus’ morning prayer to tell him to continue the healing ministry where they were, Jesus informed them that they had to move this ministry throughout the region. Where a corrupt, bankrupt, oppressive imperial system has abandoned the people, Jesus acts to heal, deliver, and serve them.

The biblical scholar Ched Myers calls this healing activity in our reading today Jesus’ “first direct action campaign”—that through Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of God and healing and delivering anybody who just showed up, we get a vivid demonstration that “Jesus’ kingdom project is incompatible with the local public authorities and the social order they represent.” If Jesus’ ministry of healing, deliverance, and compassion is incompatible with the prevailing political agenda and practice, he becomes political even if he does not intend to be.

I hope we notice some things about Jesus’ confrontation with the political environment here. First, Jesus’ ministry and devotion don’t occur in a sacred religious building or under the auspices of a religious gathering. Everything he does here occurs where human need screams out for healing and deliverance, even in the public square. Second, Jesus doesn’t wait on, look to, or wonder about the views or actions of the social, political, or economic elites or the imperial authorities before he acts to address the needs of the people in front of him. Jesus’ ministry will not be stopped, controlled, or influenced by the theology or prerogatives of the state. Finally, Jesus undertook this ministry in the context where people had no choice in deciding who would govern them in an authoritarian imperial system. It’s worth reflecting on what this means for us as followers of the way of Jesus as the world becomes more divided, distracted, and unresponsive to the needs of the most vulnerable. It’s worth thinking about how we respond to the press of human need as questions about the health and future of our democracy grow louder and more urgent.

There is something about how Jesus acts that commends to us how we should see our service and ministry in light of a recalcitrant social and political order. The image that Mark’s evangelist paints for us is what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls a “gospel identity.” The language and practice of love, creation, healing, deliverance, service, and neighborliness define this identity. It is an identity shaped and given purpose in a relational covenant with Jesus, whose life and ministry continue to serve as the blueprint for a life of discipleship. A critical characteristic of that gospel identity is acting and serving with the understanding that the reign of God has been fulfilled, and we embody its love, light, and liberation in our witness. It is about acting, not at the pleasure or permission of the state but by the call of God.

That’s the gospel identity Jesus exhibited in his direct action campaign in Capernaum. So, Jesus’ critique and challenge to the empire was not a policy agenda. His ministry of healing, deliverance, and compassion was not a means to a political end. Jesus was not negotiating with imperial and political leadership to shape his response to the need he witnessed. He was not bringing religion to a sinful or secular empire. He made God’s intention of love, light, and liberation real and present. Following Jesus’ example and call, we know the church must live out its gospel identity in a hostile, unresponsive world.

Today, we find ourselves in a situation where our gospel identity will have to be expressed in a nation that appears to be abandoning its democratic character, practices, and principles. This democracy has afforded us the freedom to practice and participate according to the precepts and convictions of our faith. We have had the rights of freedom of speech and assembly to take to the public square to agitate and advocate for the policies and practices we believe offer dignity, equity, and compassion for the vulnerable among us. We’ve taken for granted that those protections would stand, reliable guardrails that would facilitate our resistance to unjust actions by political or corporate actors. But our democracy is under duress. According to the Democracy Matrix Research Project, which assesses the quality of democracy in nations worldwide, the United States has been downgraded from a “working democracy” to a “deficient democracy,” ranking behind Chile, Lithuania, and South Korea. The Economist Democracy Index no longer designates the U.S. as a full democracy. Instead, we are now seen as a flawed democracy.

What will we do if our democracy ceases to protect our rights to do as we have always done? How will we show up if our democracy is no longer tolerant of our agitation and advocacy for justice? Will we hold on to our prophetic edge if the constitutional protections of our democracy are suppressed? What are we willing to do if this government deems us to be enemies of the people? Will we have the courage to offer our ministry of healing, liberation, and compassion to a government that expects to co-sign and justify its actions of violence and illiberalism? Have we become too comfortable, too compromised, and too invested in the status quo to lead with our gospel identity when it becomes dangerous to do so?

Embracing our gospel identity means that our ministry of healing, deliverance, and compassion will lead us to resist and challenge any action by the state that instantiates, institutionalizes, or instigates injustice, domination, or exploitation. Living a gospel identity means that the work of the church is in service to God’s reign, not a political program, even if and when our interests align and converge. A gospel identity means that our purpose, mission, and ministry are not determined by the success or failure of our efforts to influence the government or whether we get political victory. So, our gospel identity is not contingent on a policy agenda, and it is not a means to a political end. Our gospel identity is not given form, substance, or purpose by whether the government agrees with us, supports us, or follows our lead.

In active, engaged ministry of healing, deliverance, and compassion as part of the reign of God, we serve, heal, liberate; we do justice. If our democracy falters, if illiberalism and authoritarianism win the day, we respond to the need gathered at our door, regardless of the political system or those who are in power. [In modern history, our spiritual forbears have leaned into their gospel identities under difficult, deadly circumstances: the abolitionist faithful who confronted the slavocracy to declare that God’s intention was always freedom for the enslaved; the German Confessional churches who courageously opposed the Nazi regime by declaring that no political leader rules the church and no earthly power will be recognized as the source of God’s revelation; the Black church that confronted Jim Crow segregation and discrimination even as their churches were bombed and their leaders assassinated; Archbishop Oscar Romero who loudly denounced the Salvadoran military regime for its violent persecution and human rights abuses of the masses of poor Salvadorans.]

If anyone starts to wonder if in our ministry of healing, deliverance, and compassion we have become too political, leaning into our gospel identity means that our aim is not primarily to offer a political program or platform but to bring a message of love, peace, and wholeness to a world that needs to hear good news. Whether we are a working or deficient democracy, a full or flawed democracy, if illiberalism and authoritarianism win the day, we testify that the kingdom of God is here, and we intend to join God in a direct action campaign of service and compassion no matter what happens in politics. By the grace of God, we will be the church no matter what.

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