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When I was in university a group of us would go down to High Street in downtown Columbus, Ohio and talk about Jesus with the people down there. To get a little context, High Street is a little like the Byward Market are here, close to the university, center of town, lots of bars, lots of people on the street. So we’d talk about Jesus and sometimes people would be interested about learning more, and sometimes they’d want to check out a Christian Church – the only problem was that we couldn’t find a good church in the area to send them to. We looked and looked, then found one, just over the bridge – walking distance to the place where we shared with people. I checked out there doctrinal statement online – looked good, so Jean and I and a couple of friends went to visit them. We sat through their service that Sunday morning. It was easy to notice that they were very traditional and everyone had very grey hair, but that’s fine – would they be welcoming of the students and street people we’d send them? We talked to the pastor after the service, and I am not sure if I have ever been as disappointed with a Christian in my life as I was when he told me that it would probably be better if we didn’t send those type of people to his church. Keep in mind that theirs was the only gospel preaching church for miles around the inner city core. This was his answer: “We don’t think we’d be a good fit for them. Even though we’re located right downtown, we think of ourselves as more of a country church that just happens to be located in the middle of the city.” I was a bit upset. Ok, very upset. How can a church be so disconnected of the community around it to the point that they would say, please don’t send people to us?
Today, we’ll be starting a sermon series called “Seeking the Welfare of the City”. I’ve been studying for this series for a while and it’s my hope that through this series we can avoid becoming “that church” and reflect on what it means to be a church in this city and for this city with doors open to the city and hand reaching out towards the city. The series is a bit ambitious - we’ll be working through issues of community, money, politics, activism, ethics, family, citizenship, church partnerships, ethnicity, social assistance and our role as the people of God living as strangers and aliens in this city. Like I said, pretty ambitious. Here’s the other thing I’d say as we start this series. I need your creativity. I am going to be presenting some ideas – maybe some new ideas that you haven’t been exposed to before in church, and it is hope to you to take them and pray them and ask the Holy Spirit what we are to do with them.
Set Blasters to “Stun”: The thesis of this entire series (and theme of this first message) is that early Christians had a civic consciousness and sought the welfare of the city. Instead of huddling off and isolating themselves from the city, or blasting the city as a sinful and terrible place that needed their reform, they engaged the city through their good works. To paraphrase Jesus, we will stun the watching world, when they see our good works so that they will come to glorify our father in heaven. In their book, To Transform a City, Eric Swanson and Sam Williams explain why cities matter:
1. Cities form a Creative Center: In his book, The City: A Global History, Joel Kotkin writes, “Cities compress and unleash the creative urges of humanity. From the earliest beginnings, when only a tiny fraction of humans lived in cities, they have been the places that generated most of mankind’s art, religion, culture, commerce and technology.” Cities often attract creative types and professionals who excel in the exchanging of ideas. Swanson and Williams write that a city is a place big enough and dense enough to meet and mingle with strangers. This ongoing, ever-accelerating exchange of ideas can be exhilarating or intimidating. As Socrates is said to have remarked 1000’s of years ago, “the country places and the trees don’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do.” Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of NYC notes that this exchange of ideas impacts our articulation of our own beliefs and values: “The city puts you in proximity to people who think differently than you do, so you must think differently.” It is this diversity that sometimes scares us off, as if we do not have confidence in Jesus and our faith’s ability to stand in the marketplace of ideas.
2. Cities have a transforming effect on people: Not just the personal transformation that comes from interacting with different types of people, but the city transforms us by setting the pace for our society. 1893 Scottish Evangelist Henry Drummond: “To make cities – that is what we are here for. To make good cities – that is for the present hour the main work of Christianity. For the city is strategic. It makes the towns; the towns make the villages; the villages make the country. He who makes the city makes the world. After all, though men make cities, it is the cities that make men.” Keller puts it another way: “If you want to win lawyers, go to the country. If you want to alter the legal system, go to cities.” For good or evil and often both, the city shapes and transforms the lives of people.
3. Cities are valued by God: Swanson and Williams write, “In many ways that we may not understand or grasp, cities are irrevocably tied to the eternal plans of God.” They note that the story of the Bible begins in a garden but ends in a city – the New Jerusalem that shines with the glory of God, and into which the kings of the earth will bring their splendor. Cities are places of power and splendor, which is why the Bible notes when mankind proudly builds without God. Cain builds such a city, as do the people of Babel, who sought to build a city, a tower and a name for themselves without God.
God loves cities, because God loves people and people live in cities. The book of Jonah tells of God’s great love for the city of Nineveh – a city that did not know God and was filled with wickedness and violence. So great was the wickedness of Nineveh that when God called Jonah to go to preach repentance to the Ninevites, Jonah got on a boat headed for the opposite direction. Yet God pursued Nineveh by sending Jonah back, explaining to him, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). God loved the city of Nineveh because it was filled with people He created in his own image.
Jesus valued cities, particularly Jerusalem. Reading through the Gospels we find only two times when it is recorded that Jesus wept: once over the death of his friend Lazarus, and a second time over the city of Jerusalem. The spiritual condition of the city moved the heart of Jesus.
4. Cities are Strategic to the Mission of God: The early Christian movement was primarily urban. Sociologist Rodney Stark notes that “All ambitious missionary movements are, or soon become, urban. If the goal is ‘to make disciples of all nations,’ missionaries need to go where there are many potential converts, which is precisely what Paul did. His missionary journeys took him to major cities, such as Antioch, Corinth and Athens, with only occasional visits to smaller communities such as Iconium and Laodicia … Any study of how Christians converted the empire is really a story of how they Christianized the cities.” In fact, Stark points out that originally the world “pagan” point out simply that that the person was from the country, but it came to have a religious meaning after Christianity triumphed in the cities whereas most of the rural people remained unconverted.
Why Bother Engaging the City? As we’ll see next week, there are many different responses that Christians have taken in relation to the city. Some would argue that to focus on the serving the city might diminish our focus on proclaiming or building up God’s kingdom. The city will never be converted, we’re not going to set up God’s kingdom, only Jesus will, so our only contact with the city should be to quickly walk through it like Jonah did yelling the gospel at them and shaking the dust off our feet when they don’t repent.
Jeremiah 29 would be considered to be the key text directed at the Jews living in exile, living between two kingdoms. In this chapter God reveals that the children of Israel will be exiles in captivity for seventy years before being restored.
Jer. 29:10 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
God reveals that even though it looks as though He’s given up on them, he has not. He will restore to them when they call on him, though it will be seventy years before they do so. So what are they to do in the meantime, while they live in exile and await for the return of the Lord’s favour?
Jer. 29:4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
God’s direction to them runs contrary to our human nature. Our human nature would say, these are our enemies, they took us captive, we’re only here for a short time, so let’s not put down roots, let’s not open our heart or our homes to them, but let’s live with one foot out of the door and our bags packed. In fact, this is what some of their own prophets were telling them to do. This is the argument to not engage the city. It’s too hard, they are against you, you should just focus on yourselves and on building your self up. God tells them to do the opposite. Even though they know that their stay in exile is temporary, even though they are strangers and foreigners in this land they are called to engage the cities of their exile and to seek their welfare.
The word “welfare” is the word shalom, often translated as “peace”. According to the TWOT, “‘Peace,’ in this case, means much more than mere absence of war … Completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfilment, are closer to the meaning. Implicit in [shalom] is the idea of unimpaired relationships with others and fulfilment in one’s undertakings. The idea of Shalom often had an eschatological tone – the Messiah is called after all “The Prince of Peace”. So it is a big deal for them to be told to seek the shalom of the city and pray for it, to engage it by taking up residence, setting up homes, laboring in productive jobs. God’s words to them echoes the Genesis command to be fruitful and multiply. In Eden they were to cultivate the garden, in exile they were to cultivate the city.
The greatest example in exile of a man living in this tension between seeking the welfare of the city while awaiting the kingdom of God is Daniel: the great statesman of Babylon. The highlights of Daniel’s career are spectacular: Daniel had a career of service for three world rulers, which required specialized training in government service. He was a master of administration skills, and the picture of him is of a man of faithful service, dedicated to a commitment to excellence, even while remaining faithful to His Lord. God used Daniel greatly in Babylon: his work impacted cities – even a whole culture. Yet He was also a prophet, and at various times throughout his career, God gave Him visions of the future in which he saw the kingdoms of Babylon and Persia fall before the eternal Kingdom of God. After one of these visions Daniel writes: And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick of some days. Then I rose and went about the kings business. Imagine if God gave you a vision that your company would soon go bankrupt – how likely would it be that you would show up faithfully to work, putting all your effort into a ship that you know to be sinking. That’s what Daniel in effect did. He served a king and poured himself into a kingdom that he knew would fall. How? Because he read and believed Jeremiah 29. We know this because he tells us in Daniel 9:2 that he was reading Jeremiah 29.
So during the exile the Jews lived within this tension of seeking the shalom of the city, even while awaiting a greater kingdom, the city of God. But that was then – what about us? Are we to find ourselves in this same tension?
1Pet. 2:9-17 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Peter makes two big points:
1. We are aliens and strangers, citizens of a far country: Just as Israel was a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, yet living in exile and waiting for his kingdom come, Peter now refers to us as the same. We are God’s people, his priesthood, his kingdom living in the exile of this world until his kingdom come. Our way of life should be markedly different than those around us, yet we are not to pull out of the world altogether.
2. Live among the Gentiles as citizens: Peter speaks of civic virtues, honoring all people and the authority of the government. Peter is not speaking of blind submission to governing authorities – we are primarily the people of God. Also, submission isn’t passive, it requires engagement in a way that will bring praise; specifically it involves good works. The idea is this – there is going to be a tension of allegiance as we cannot put our service of the kingdoms of this world over Christ. Therefore we are always going to be suspect in the eyes of the government and the surrounding community, but we can diffuse some of that tension through our commitment to good works. We’ll be looking more at this idea of citizenship and in the weeks to come, and you’ll see that the idea of good works comes up in nearly every single passage of the over 20 major passages that speak to these issues.
In what ways, right now, are you engaging your city, your neighborhood, your community?
In what ways, right now, are we as a church engaging our city, our neighborhood, our community?
In which of these avenues of engagement are you seeking the shalom of others, of yourself?
What are some crazy dreams you have to seek the shalom of the city?