By Chuck Poole
This past weekend, in an effort to prepare for my part in our time together this evening, I read, again, every word of the four gospels which made it into our Bible.
Like many of you, I have read through the four gospels in a single weekend several times before. But, this time, because my work with Together for Hope focuses primarily on healthcare justice, I did something I had not done on any of my previous journeys through the gospels, which was to mark with a highlighter each time the subject of healing and health comes up in the gospel records of the words and works of Jesus.
The rest of you may know the number of times healing happens in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But, in case there are some who, like me, have never plowed your way through the gospels, marking every healing, it happens 68 times. Sixty-eight times in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, those who are sick and suffering are healed and helped.
Even after you take into account the synoptic redundancies, once you add that many healing moments to all the times Jesus fed people who were hungry, welcomed people who were strangers, and intentionally sat down with and stood up for persons who had been stigmatized, ostracized, marginalized and demonized, you can see why working for a more just world is so important to so many people of faith. We don’t work for social justice because we have made an ideological decision to be progressive; we work for social justice because we have made a spiritual decision to follow Jesus.
Several years ago, in a book called Barth and Dostoevsky, I read about a sermon Karl Barth preached on December 17,1911, in which Barth, then 24-years-old, is reported to have said, “Jesus is the movement for social justice, and the movement for social justice is Jesus.” One of Barth’s biographers dismissed that sentence as a moment of youthful “naivety,” but I’m not so sure. It may have been too much gospel reading that sowed such seed in young Barth’s spirit.
The 20th century liberation theologian, Dorothee Soolle, said something similar when she wrote, “God is justice,” which might be a more sweeping declaration than many of us would make. But scripture does say, in Genesis 18:19, “The ways of the Lord are justice and righteousness,” and in Psalm 33:5, ”God loves justice,” and in Proverbs 21:3, ”God cares more about justice and righteousness than sacrifices and offerings,” and in Amos 5:24,”Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” and in Micah 6:8,”What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.”
Thus, it is no surprise that the Jesus whom we believe to be the ultimate embodiment of God would spend his life healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, and intentionally sitting down with and standing up for whoever was most voiceless, vulnerable, stigmatized, ostracized, marginalized and demonized; and calling those who would follow him to do the same.
Indeed, while I cannot speak for anyone else, it is to me a wonder that the same Christianity which finds its beginnings in the Jesus of the four gospels eventually had to create a carve out for justice work, and name it the social gospel, as though working for a more just world for all persons is something other than the main gospel. If the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, to live in solidarity with whomever is most voiceless and vulnerable, stigmatized and ostracized, marginalized and demonized is central to, not extra to, the gospel.
Which is why I no longer use the phrase social gospel. Social gospel isn’t a bad phrase. Many dear and good souls continue to use it in beautiful and powerful ways. But, as for me, I cannot remember the last time I used the phrase social gospel because, to me, to say social gospel is as redundant as saying hot fire, cold snow, Holy Bible or radical Jesus. I cannot speak for you, but in my experience, to read the four gospels is to see that there is no extra, on-the-side, special category, footnote-to-the-real-gospel, social gospel. There is only the gospel, and it is social.
Or, as Peter Storey much more memorably put it, “Whenever we ask Jesus to come into our heart, Jesus always answers, ‘Only if I can bring my friends.’”
And we know who Jesus’ friends are. We don’t have to lie awake nights wondering who Jesus wants us to welcome, agonizing over whom Jesus would want us to sit down with and stand up for. We have read the four gospels all the way through so many times that we have now got what I call “the Jesus gene” in us. It’s sort of like being born again. We’ve got enough of the Jesus gene in us that, while there may be a few exceptions, for almost every issue that comes along, we know what Jesus would want us to say, and where Jesus would want us to stand.
We may not have the logistics or the politics or the economics all figured out, but we are not in a hand-wringing quandary about what Jesus would say, for example, about the major matters of Together for Hope—housing, education, opportunity, nutrition and equal access to healthcare for all persons.
We have enough of the Jesus gene in us to know that if Jesus were here, Jesus would say that all cannot be fully well for any of us until all is finally well for all of us. We have enough of the Jesus gene in us to know that if Jesus were here Jesus would call us to work for a more just world for all persons by letting the love of God which has come down to us go out through us in a life of intentional, public solidarity with whomever is most voiceless and vulnerable, stigmatized and ostracized, marginalized and demonized, sick and suffering, left out and outcast, hurting and alone.
We have enough of that old Jesus gene in us to know that all of that is absolutely central to the gospel—not the social gospel, just the gospel Gospel.
— Chuck Poole is the author of eight books, including The Path to Depth (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022), as well as numerous published articles and the lyr-
ics to three hymns. He retired from the pastorate of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., in 2022 after 45 years of pastoral life in Georgia, North Carolina, Washington DC, and Mississippi. This address was delivered in Atlanta, Georgia on June 27, 2023, at the celebration of Together For Hope’s 20th anniversary in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He currently works with Together For Hope in the area of healthcare justice and is a frequent contributor to Christian Ethics Today.