The first converts to what would eventually become Christianity described themselves as “The Way.” Seeing themselves as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic call to “prepare the way of the Lord,” these believers understood their newfound expression of faith as an actual practice, something to live and become, wherein the kingdom of God materializes through tangible actions. Even though early followers of Jesus did not see any disparity between their beliefs or practices and their Jewish identity—as Gentile inclusion remained a slow yet growing process—there was still enough of a marked difference in language to generate widening tension between the two communities. At some point, belief in Jesus as Israel’s messiah—as well as divergent interpretations of the Mosaic Law and communal identity—would come to a head, making a tangible split between Jewish and Christian communities inevitable. The Way became “Christianity” and the rest is history.
We are long past the culture and thought of these early converts. It is far too easy to paint these first believers in a mythical light, imagining them to have existed in a pure state, blessedly untouched by the theological or social disputes coming in future centuries. There has long been a movement in modern Christian ecclesiology seeking a return to the early Church as a model for Christian churches today. The implication seems to be that doing so would solve many of the ills we face today, both in and outside the Church at large. While the intentions are admirable, this is not the correct answer to the question. The question has always been, “What does it mean to be followers of Jesus?” The answer would therefore not be a particular way of “doing church” but instead a particular “way of life” which transcends the false divide of sacred and secular. Simply put, the early Christians would have no concept of “church” as we know it today. According to the record in the Book of Acts, these early believers maintained their adherence to Jewish tradition and Temple worship while also gradually incorporating new language and practices. Their commitment to “The Way” was borne out of historic Jewish practice yet it also realized newfound power through the life of Jesus; there was no desire to “reinvent the wheel” as such but instead taking Jewish prophetic tradition to its logical conclusion in light of Jesus and the witness of the Apostles. It therefore goes far beyond institutional processes (although these are not negative in themselves) and speaks to something far more elemental. If these early converts can teach us anything, it is the radical power of living a certain way, not a particular “model” of what we know as “church.”
What, then, would mark this way of life? What makes it unique in a crowded field of divergent perspectives? I humbly suggest these three phrases as markers of The Way, what it means to be Christian: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Taken from the Book of Micah, these phrases comprise part of God’s indictment of the Hebrew people in their waywardness from the Law. God sets these three markers as the summation of the Law; should God’s chosen people return to the way of God, they would exhibit these characteristics. And so, today, we now seek to follow Jesus in the same pathway.
Do Justice – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
As Christians, we affirm that on the Cross and through the Resurrection, Christ defeated the power of sin and death, bringing salvation to all. In a spiritual sense, this means that authority now belongs to God in Christ—sin and death no longer “rule” over humanity. Nevertheless, in a tangible sense, what does this mean for us today? A quick glance around us reveals an utterly chaotic world marred by violence. To be a faithful follower of Jesus requires a commitment to justice in every form. In the New Testament, we read that Jesus is “making all things new.” How do we participate in that process?
We must first recognize that justice is always for someone else. Biblical justice is an inversion of the (assumed) order of things. Think of the numerous Old Testament commands to prefer and protect the poor, the widow, the foreigner, or the orphan; think also of Jesus’ teaching that in the kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first; consider the biblical admonition to eschew wealth and relinquish material possessions so that those who lack may be blessed; remember the biblical command for Jubilee where all debts are forgiven and slaves are freed. Justice is always “other-centered.” It focuses on the marginalized, the captive, the oppressed, and the needy. It restores balance and equity by tangibly inverting our assumptions. We realize that we were once marked and limited in the same way. God came in Christ to liberate humankind from sin and death, and so too must we work to liberate others in our often limited capacity on earth. In the kingdom of God that is here in our midst, justice is no longer about law and order but grace and equity. If Jesus is making all things new, then the way things have been is no more.
We must also recognize that justice comes in different ways, some of which are obvious and some that are subversive to established ways of thought. It is tempting for Christians of any political or philosophical bent to attach the name of Jesus to their bandwagon of choice. Jesus often transforms from God-in-flesh to God-in-office. Certainly, political advocacy is important and justice for the marginalized could come through existing political systems. However, politics will not save us nor could we expect political activity to guarantee justice in every circumstance. Our primary responsibility is to seek justice and become peacemakers, always running toward reconciliation and inclusion rather than retribution and exclusion. Consider, for example, the non-violent resistance of Civil Rights activists during the 20th century. They recognized that existing political and legal systems were firmly opposed to the change they desired, and so they opted to resist those systems with grace and prophetic charge, exposing the codified racism in what constituted “law and order.” Justice always demands action and sometimes that means doing something new, but it always arrives in humility and peace. “Exiting the system” as such to be a prophetic resistance may do more good than blindly toeing the party line. Other times, a simple vote in an election may be the best option available. Regardless, Christians must do justice and exemplify the restorative reconciliation of God in Christ. We make peace through our struggle and fight for justice in this world. We begin by focusing on others—the marginalized and outcast—and do all that we can to ensure their inclusion and participation God’s new order.
Love Mercy – “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Our desire for justice flows into a life defined by mercy. In order to see justice realized for the marginalized our hearts must turn away from retribution and toward restoration. Mercy defines the heart of Christian practice; it works in tandem with justice. The Bible uses bodily imagery to describe our presence as followers of Jesus in the world. Think of justice as the right and left hands and mercy as the heart. Justice is the practice of God’s new kingdom and mercy is catalyst.
In the Old Testament, we read God’s words through the prophets, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Although the religious sacrifices and rituals of ancient Israel were not wrong in themselves, doing them without a communal heart of mercy toward the marginalized left said sacrifices hollow and meaningless. Over time, the heart of these practices ebbed away, making it easier for the Israelites to abandon their role as God’s witnesses on earth. Justice went by the wayside as mercy went out of focus. The same is true today. In all we do as followers of Jesus, whether in our services or in our communities, we should strive to be merciful, to be faithful witnesses to the example we see in Christ on the Cross. What does this look like today?
The disposition of interpersonal relationship today often carries a tense, sharpened spirit. We live on edge among others, wary of their encroachment upon our space or privacy, always “reacting” quickly to perceived slights or offense. Even Christians, who in theory should be known by their caution to react and their slowness to anger, often exhibit such vitriol toward “outsiders” that we become indistinguishable from the worst irreligious offender imaginable. Ours is an age of immediate response with little thought. Mercy comes in the form of patience and forgiveness. What would it look like if Christians today took seriously the example set by Jesus, who in the face of his accusers and malicious lies remained silent? The early martyrs all publicly forgave their tormentors during the act, refusing to renounce Jesus in word or acquiescence to the ways around them. Even on the cross, Jesus displayed the mercy of God, forgiving those nailing him to a tree and acknowledging their ignorance to it all. Consider the gravity of this moment: as humans murder God-incarnate, God mercifully forgives them.
We must love mercy because Christ is mercy. Instead of seeking payback, we forgive. Instead of defending our interests, we lay them down for the good of others. Instead of negatively commenting on others when it is culturally acceptable, we lovingly affirm the image of God within each of them and pray for them.
The subversive element of loving mercy is that eventually it will be all we seek. Repeating the simple daily actions to prefer mercy to retribution will train our minds and hearts in this new way exemplified by Christ. It will become easier to pause and listen to the voice of mercy. Of course, this is not for us but rather for others. We seek mercy not for our own preservation but so that others would see the beauty of God’s kingdom, where retribution no longer defines human interaction. Mercy softens the hard edges of our minds, hearts, and souls. It illuminates the joy of community that we have all lost. As the kingdom of God continues to subvert the established order of the world, mercy is the vessel through which justice reigns, and all humanity will be better for it.
Walk Humbly – “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Continuing the aforementioned bodily imagery, humility defines the legs and feet of Christian practice. In our pursuit of justice with a heart of mercy, we walk (literally and figuratively) in humility. The path we follow and the path we leave behind should direct others to abandon pride. All humans are prone to selfish delusions about their own grandeur—Christians are certainly no exception. It is tempting to elevate ourselves above those who do not follow Jesus, imagining them to be less than, unworthy, illogical, misguided, or “lost.” Yet we were and often still are all those things. Even with the Spirit of God within us, we consistently fall prey to the sin of pride. It is, in some sense, the original sin. Where do we go from here?
If justice is deference to the marginalized other and mercy is deference away from self-preservation, then humility is deference to God. It is not the refusal to take responsibility nor is it the refusal to act. Instead, it is the act of radically giving thanks to God in and for all things, the emptying of our will and following God first. Humility is the tension between being a sinner before God and yet being welcomed in God’s presence with Christ. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we straddle this proverbial divide between the “here-but-not-yet” of God’s kingdom, living as sinner-and-saint. Humility comes in the refusal to place ourselves in control of history, recognizing that all things are under Christ’s authority, not ours.
As we walk with God, realizing the expansiveness of this new kingdom, we defer to God in all things, never relying upon our own power, whatever little we may have. It is a radical affirmation of our own mortality. Although we now receive everlasting life through Christ, such words mean little to a world incessantly scrambling for notoriety and success here and now. Humility is the translating work of the kingdom. The only way our words and actions will make sense is if we walk humbly. Justice will not come if we come to the table proud of our “status” as Christians. Mercy will not come if we view ourselves as more than we are. In order to translate the kingdom of God into the fleshly vernacular of our time, we must become radically humble before God and others.
Humility might start today with leaving talk of “destiny,” “purpose,” “fulfillment,” “prosperity,” or “blessing” by the wayside. What use are destiny and purpose to those dying of starvation, disease, or civil war? What good is prosperity to those suffering from broken economies, laid to waste by our government and military decades ago? What value does humility carry when we cling to leaders who quite literally make their living off pride and propagating a name for themselves? It is easy but actually lazy to preach overcoming victory and success to citizens of the richest nation in human history. It is difficult and worthwhile to preach the Suffering Servant instead because that is the life we accept in God’s kingdom. To “walk humbly” means serving others as if we have nothing. Perhaps, we must become nobodies to become noticeable once again.
The early followers of Jesus thought of themselves as so unworthy of their Savior that some refused crucifixion in the same way, requesting placement upside down on the cross in deference to the holy sacrifice of Christ. Crucifixion no longer passes for appropriate punishment, but what might be radical in the same way today? What would it look like to lay down our lives with such radical self-emptying for something outside of ourselves? Regardless of the answer, humility is the bridge we walk, inviting others to find rest in serving others rather than our own ego.
These three markers illuminate the path we follow as Christians. They explain what it means to be followers of Jesus. At some point, discourse turns into practice. These markers are time-tested and worthy of our focus, and they continue to reveal different facets of their purpose for our lives. The heart remains the same in all three but the actual practice may look different in the next century and beyond.
What futures await those who follow Jesus? It is not something we can answer definitively. Yet, we remain confident that the kingdom of God will continue to display justice, mercy, and humility in all things.
Let us join the work of restoring all things in and through Christ.