The beautiful passage from Isaiah 42 that was our Hebrew Bible text this morning is the first of four “Servant Songs,” as the scholars call them. These are songs or poems in which the nation of Israel is personified as a servant, “upheld,” “chosen,” and “delighted in” by God. The work of Israel as servant is to go for God to all the nations of the world and bring them to justice. This will not be done by force but quietly and subtly: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The servant role of Israel is to “bring forth justice” among all the nations of the world. God says to servant Israel, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from prison those who sit in darkness.” Israel should not live only for itself before God, as was the theme of the Sinai covenant with Moses. Now God says that Israel itself is given to the other nations as a covenant to bring all the world’s people to justice. Israel is to be God’s righteous servant sent to the world.
The early Christians seized upon this and the other Servant Songs to refer, not to the whole people of Israel as personified, but to the messiah, namely Jesus. Perhaps other Jewish groups identified the servant with an individual messiah, not with the nation. But the portrait in the Servant Songs seemed to fit what happened to Jesus rather than any successful kingly messiah of the sort that the others hoped for. The fourth Servant Song, at Isaiah 53, says things such as “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. . . . Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” That description might well apply to poor battered Israel, as Isaiah saw the scene. But it also could be applied to Jesus, the crucified teacher of justice and peace whom the early Christians believed had redeemed them in his very humility and suffering. Jesus did not fit the description of a mighty military messiah like David at all. The early Christians looked to the Servant Songs to redefine what it means to be the messiah. It means to suffer as Jesus did to bring the rest of the world to justice, bearing “the sins of many.”
Think now of the Gospel lesson, Jesus’ baptism. John the Baptist had been preaching repentance of injustice and the immanence of God’s kingdom that would establish justice. Jesus came to John for baptism, recognizing John’s prophetic authority and committing himself in faith to the justice John preached. When Jesus came up out of the water, he had that astonishing vision: “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.” That was a life-transforming religious experience, if I might use that almost trivial phrase for what Jesus went through. Doubtless he remembered the Isaiah passage, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” and he then understood his mission: to bring forth justice among the nations. Perhaps it took Jesus a while to recognize the full extent of that mission. Originally he had thought it was to Israel only. But Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go to all nations, not Israel alone.
Paul understood the significance of Jesus to be for the salvation of the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Peter said, according to our Epistle lesson, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. . . . All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Peter said this in a sermon addressed to Gentiles.
Now we Christians take on the name of Jesus in our own baptism. Becoming Christians, we are “of Christ.” What does this mean? Two answers are very important to this question.
The first, and least important, is that by taking on the name of Jesus Christ we enter into the cult of Jesus, the Church. By cult I don’t mean a small extremist religious group, but rather a religious community that cultivates a special way of life. We ourselves are cultivated to be better Christians through participating in our community, the Church. Included in that cultivation is believing certain things about Jesus, and celebrating the significance of his life through the festivals of the liturgical year—today is the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. Most important is the cultivation of the way of life he taught, emphasizing justice, peace, forgiveness, and love.
The second, and more important answer to the question what it means for us to bear the name of Jesus Christ is that we are God’s servants to the world to bring forth justice, as Isaiah said. Justice for us is a large notion, enriched by Jesus’ entire teaching to contain peace, mercy, forgiveness, humility, care for the poor, relief of suffering, love in all ways appropriate to people in different situations. To “believe in” Jesus does not mean only to join in the cult of Jesus. It means also and more importantly to believe in and join his servant mission. Isaiah’s servant did not live for himself but served God by extending himself to suffer for the world. Jesus did the same thing. To believe in Jesus is to live for God’s work of justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, humility, care for the poor, relief of suffering, and love in and for all nations.
One of the main problems we Christians have is that it is so easy to live for the Church, aiming to make it flourish, rather than for the world. The purpose of the Church is to cultivate us just enough that we take on the life and work of Jesus whose name we bear. We need to hear and understand the word of God regarding justice; we need to cultivate the virtues of redeemed and sanctified people; we need to practice love of one another and develop supportive communities. Those of us in the religion business such as myself spend a lot of time trying to get the Church in such shape as to be able to cultivate these powers for the mission of justice. Yet we should know, as often we do not, that the Church does not live for itself, but for its mission, which is to the world. We should never forget the world when we devote our energies to building up the Church. The Church needs always to empty itself for the sake of the world.
, from the very earliest times, have thought that believing in Jesus Christ means mainly joining up as Christians. They have emphasized conversion and belonging, more than the mission to those who suffer injustice and might not belong to Christ. They are more concerned about getting people to become Christians than doing the Christian work of bringing justice to the world. I believe this is a mistaken and dangerous emphasis within Christianity.
Other Christians, including myself, have construed membership in the Church as mainly instrumental to fostering the real mission of Jesus, the suffering servant. Because so many people in other religions also pursue justice, a Christian’s true solidarity sometimes is more with them, because that is Christ’s mission however they understand it, than it is with those whose mission is mainly to get people to become Christians. Truly to believe in Jesus Christ is to be committed to his mission, and all those who are committed to justice are true believers, even if they do not use Christian language or know about Jesus Christ. They do not have to become Christians to take on Jesus’ identity as the servant of God for justice across the world.
So I am sadly suspicious of Christians who talk of conversion before emptying themselves in the pursuit of justice. It is absurd for Christians to want to convert Jews, because Jews already have Isaiah and his mission that Jesus seized for his own identity. Christian can encourage Jews to become better Jews. And is it not scandalous that some Christians now look upon the devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq first as opportunities to convert Muslims to Christianity and
only secondarily, if at all, as crying needs to bring forth justice, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness”?
America has brought forth vast and cruel injustice in the Middle East, attacking two nations that did not attack us, for no reasons that stand examination, destroying not only their governments, but also the infrastructures of their societies, leading to the ready threat of civil war. We treat the people who object to this unjust imperialism, and fight back, as our enemies rather than as colleagues seeking justice. We give new meaning to prisoners in dungeons and their torture, and seek to promote the people who justify such torture to higher office. And much of this evil, that Jesus would have called Satanic, is supported by Christians who seem to care more about converting others to Christianity than Christ’s mission of justice! How can the name of Jesus Christ be so perverted?!
Of course these political and ethical matters are very complex. Tribal and religious conflicts within both Afghanistan and Iraq complicate the insurgency against American occupation. Moreover, many American people support American imperial aggression inadvertently when they only want to attack gay marriage, stem cell research, or women’s rights to determine whether they will carry a child. Despite these complications and ambiguities, the Christian influence on American policy and public life should always be first and foremost to bring forth justice among all the nations, where justice means the rich panoply of conditions about which Jesus preached.
Just as the early Christians adopted and adapted Isaiah’s personification of the people of Israel as a suffering servant to understand the significance of Jesus Christ, so we need to look back
to Isaiah’s priorities for that servant to correct our understanding of the work of those who bear the name of Jesus Christ. Of course we need to foster the Church, the cult of Jesus Christ, in order to take on his mind, to cultivate the virtues necessary for the pursuit of justice, peace, humility, mercy, forgiveness, care for the poor, relief for the suffering, and love in all its forms. We need the Church for the support necessary to witness against the injustice of our own government and to provide a countervailing force for justice in other parts of the world. But we do not need the Church when it fails Christ’s mission of justice. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John, the branches of the true vine that do not bear fruit should be pruned away. Christianity that exists for its own sake is a sucker on the vine that saps the energy of the messiah and those who bear his name. We need scrupulous vigilance to root out those seductive images of salvation that make it seem a matter primarily of being on the right side, merely of joining up, only of belonging to the cult, mainly of converting from a different religious identity. Our Christian life does not truly begin until we find ourselves part of the body that carries on Christ’s mission of justice for the nations. What is the concrete meaning of salvation? It is to do justice, have mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
When Jesus rose from baptism, he saw the heavens open, God’s spirit descend like a dove, and heard God claim him as a beloved son. May we who bear the name of Jesus Christ understand that our identity as servants of justice has its roots in God, not politics, and share Jesus’ confirming vision. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville