Caring for vulnerable communities is like putting a billboard up for the gospel. It shouts “something’s wrong here” and “there’s a way to make it right.” If we don’t also speak the gospel message though, we’ve left a blinking sign on the highway without any directions for how to receive the hope our billboard claims is possible.
For a season, a popular refrain among Christians was “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” While we appreciate the impulse to evidence our faith by action and to join God’s activity in the world, the gospel requires verbal communication. We can’t explain God’s redemptive work to rescue a people for himself without sentences and paragraphs.
At the same time, the Bible insists that gospel proclamation necessitates action. To say that our only obligation to a broken world is to preach Christ crucified for sinners is to ignore the clear teaching of Scripture. 1 John 2:17 asks, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” The very presence of the gospel in our own lives propels us into action for the good of others. And if it doesn’t, we might need to heed John’s warning: can we really receive the love of God and neglect the people he loves?
A better way to articulate this marriage between word and deed is that our actions illustrate the gospel. They provide a platform for proclamation, but they are not alone enough to communicate the good news. Consider three ways that the work of 127 and our partners hints at the gospel so that our local leaders are able to proclaim it clearly with their words.
- Caring for those unlike us mirrors the incarnation.
Jesus taking on a baby’s body is the ultimate act of entering into another’s story– God from all eternity willingly limited by time and space in an instant. The toddler Jesus tumbled and scraped his knees on the very ground he had parted from the waters. He who was most unlike humanity in the entire universe became humanity in order to rescue us from the grip of sin and death.
When we humble ourselves to enter someone else’s story, we act like Jesus in small ways. Our gap to overcome will never be as great as his but we can still follow his example. When we strive to learn another culture and language for the sake of the gospel, we evidence the incarnation. When we limit ourselves to live below our means for the sake of the impoverished, we paint a vague sketch of what Jesus has done for us. When we look outside of ourselves towards the brokenness around us, we join the mission of a God who seeks and saves the lost. This is why Paul is able to say: “I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) because to give up some of what makes us “us” for another’s sake is one small step in becoming more like the King we serve.
- Caring for the orphan and the widow is a picture of God’s care for his people.
God’s care for the impoverished, the sojourner, and the disadvantaged is woven throughout all of Scripture. But there’s something uniquely beautiful about his instruction to care for the widow and the orphan because as the church “visits [them] in their distress” (James 1:27), she acts out God’s relationship to her.
Two primary ways God introduces himself to his people is as a husband and as a father. Isaiah 54:5 says, “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name.” Revelation also describes the return of Jesus for his people as a marriage supper between the Lamb and his bride. Then, the first member of the Trinity introduces himself as “Father.” James calls him the “Father of lights” from whom all good gifts come (James 1:17). Psalm 103:13 draws on familial language, saying, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”
When we care for the orphan and the widow, we set the stage for the hope of the gospel. To the fatherless and to us, God is father. To the widow and to us, God is husband. Hope is not lost through the loss of a family member because God himself is enough for our needs.
- Caring for the physically needy shows God’s care for the spiritually dead.
When we join God’s work in opposing injustice and alleviating brokenness today, we illustrate that he has solved our spiritual problem as well. He brings the dead to life, welcoming those damned to hell into eternal fellowship with himself. We were his enemies, those destined for condemnation, but he reconciled us and made us a new creation. We understand the plight of the oppressed because we were once shackled by sin and have been set free. When we show mercy towards suffering, we have the opportunity to testify to God’s mercy toward sinners.
Caring for things like malnutrition and disease that plague vulnerable people shows that the message of the gospel is good news for all of us. It’s good news for today that God cares for and has commissioned his church to meet physical needs, and for tomorrow, that whatever might happen our eternity is secure in the One who brings the dead to life.
Justice work alone is not the gospel. But it is part of God’s redemptive work, and it is good news to the vulnerable made possible through the gospel. Apart from Christ becoming like us to make us sons and daughters of God, there is no hope for poverty and brokenness anymore than there is hope for eternity. Jesus has restored hope by making it possible for us to be redeemed and to join him in redeeming that which is lost. As Christians, we do that with our hands and with our words. We work for justice and compassion to prevail while at the same time proclaiming that ultimate justice and compassion is found at the foot of the cross.