"A little bit of the Second Coming now"

Is it possible to model Christianity without engaging in social responsibility and the personal sacrifice that accompanies it?

Charles Sandefur is president of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

“We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1).1

What does the Second Coming look like to a three-year-old child living with AIDS, whose parents have died from the disease already? When I visited Patricia’s home in southern Africa, I found out.

Several years ago, Patricia quit her government job and began her Christian vocation to open her home and her heart to nearly 20 children who have contracted AIDS or have lost their parents to AIDS. As I was getting out of the car, she met me and said, “Don’t even think of coming inside unless you want to be a human jungle gym. These children love to climb all over visitors.”

I entered a house and yard full of laughing, giggling, and climbing kids. It was carbonated joy—and sadness. Some of these children die, Patricia said; two of them did last year. “I promised God,” she said, “that these children would die in my home in arms of love and not at the local hospice.”

In all my travels to the broken parts of our planet, few places have touched me more than this one: to see such innocence and injustice mixed together, to see again how broken our earth is, and finally to see how we as followers of Christ can’t just sit still and wait for some miracle to do the work that we, ourselves, have been called to do.

I was so impressed by Patricia’s poised and pure heart, her selfassured but selfless emotion, her calling to make a difference in the lives of these children, that I asked her why she did it.

“Because,” she said, “I want them to have a little bit of the Second Coming now.”

So that’s what the Second Coming looks like to a three-year-old. It looks like good food, lots of laughter, and play. Right now. It looks like receiving Anti-Retro-Viral treatment. Right now. And maybe that is what the Second Coming should look like to us. Right now.

A little bit of the Second Coming now?

Her words have never left me. In fact, perhaps better than any others, they have captured what I believe should be our church’s call to social responsibility, our mission to show unconditional love and care to the weak and needy among us—even if for no other reason than that they are weak and in need, just as Christ gave Himself for us because we were weak and in need.

After all, what other reason is needed?

“What good is it?”

Early in His ministry, Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus proclaimed that kingdom to the poor, to the oppressed, to the neediest elements in that society. He was, through His ministry, bringing “the kingdom of God” to the people here and now through a work, not just of preaching, not just of teaching, but of healing, of ministering to the physical needs of those around Him.

Christ lived in the present tense; He would not wait for the Second Coming to witness to the kingdom. And through His work, He was a transforming agent. He changed lives, then and there, for their immediate good, regardless of what final choices those people made about Him.

No wonder, then, that our Seventh- day Adventist mission statement reads, in part, that we are called to “a ministry to the poor and oppressed,” a ministry through which we “cooperate with the Creator in His compassionate work of restoration.”2

The call to minister to the needy, the poor, the oppressed—this isn’t all of the gospel, but I can’t imagine the gospel without it. Telling AIDS orphans in South Africa about Jesus and the hope of the Second Coming without filling their empty stomachs with food or their hearts with love isn’t such good news, is it? But as Patricia said so poignantly, by ministering to them in their immediate needs, we’re not just telling them about the Second Coming. We’re giving them a little bit of it now.

God doesn’t have different smiles—one for a girl who is baptized with living water in order to live forever, and another when she is able to drink clean water to live today. God’s joy is indivisible. He smiles for both. And so should we. A commitment to God’s vision and a call to live out that vision now is not all that the gospel entails, but it’s not gospel without it because—without it—where’s the “good news”?

Sure, we’ve got our marching orders from Revelation 14:6, in which we are called to proclaim the “everlasting gospel” to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.” Yet so many of those nations and tongues and people face desperate conditions, needing the kind of basic necessities that most of us all but take for granted. In the face of this, our mission, first and foremost, is to minister to those needs.

Perhaps that is why (no, that’s definitely why) we hear Jesus speaking to us through Isaiah:

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:5–7, NIV).

In other words, what are our traditions, doctrines, and teachings—apart from ministering to the needy among us—but just another form of what James warned about when he said: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15, 16, NIV).

“What good is it?”

There are a lot of people today who want spirituality without the kingdom or Jesus—without the inconvenience of social responsibility or personal sacrifice, without having to live uncomfortably and subversively in the present tense. They want all the promises without any of the conditions and, as I read my Bible, I can’t help but see, time and again, the call for us to give ourselves for those who have so little. Or as Paul said, “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1)

Without that, “What good is it?” Indeed, without that, “What good are we?”

Apocalypse now

Our very name itself, Adventist, witnesses to our hope and vision for the future, a radical vision of a radical future. What is that vision? Pretend that, right now, for the first time in your life, you are presented with this view of the future: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:1–4).

No more tears, no more death, no more sorrow in a world that for now is all but defined by these things? That’s how radical, that’s how apocalyptic, that’s how astonishing our vision of the future is. What secular utopianism even comes close to offering something like this, much less giving us a viable chance of ever achieving it?

We are an apocalyptic people: we believe in the apocalypse, our mission is tied in with the apocalypse; we work toward the goal of the apocalypse. We don’t just sit around and wait for God to do what He promises to do. We are involved in doing that work now. We’ve never been called to withdraw from the world; on the contrary, we’ve been called to engage the world, to improve the world, to proclaim the kingdom of God is here and, again, to give folks “a little bit of the Second Coming now.”

In a real sense, then, a church committed to biblical social responsibility reveals a resurrection commitment. It is a faith that says 2,000 years ago God defeated evil and will soon destroy it forever. But that is a victory we speak of and act out, now! Because of Christ’s resurrection, we are all rebels against evil. There is nothing right about children dying of starvation and water-borne diseases. We must do all that we can to fight that evil.

Many of us are pastors—called by God to help shape our congregations into communities of hope, of witness, and of healing. Pastors are well positioned to be agents of love and justice. They have performed too many funerals, seen too much abuse, heard too many stories of defeat and sadness to be sentimental triumphalists. Pastors hope with their eyes wide open. They know that there are wicked things going on in this world. We must speak out and act out against them, just as Jesus did.

That’s why so much of our work of proclaiming the gospel involves dealing with social ills: poverty, disease, homelessness, disaster relief, hunger, war—all the things that we know will one day be gone. While violence abounds and society crumbles and creation groans, we live imaginatively in God’s vision and witness to a new heaven and earth.

We dig wells and feed the hungry. We combat sex trafficking and violence against women. We help bring people out of brutal and mindnumbing poverty (literally, hunger and malnutrition stunt physical and mental development). We, the church, are called in our own ways to do all this, and more, whenever and however we can.

And by doing this, we are anticipating the future, the radical future that we’ve been promised in Christ. We seek to give them a type, a shadow, of what God has for all of us. After all, Revelation 20 and its vision of the New Jerusalem and Revelation 14, and its call to proclaim the gospel are part of John’s seamless vision; the work of one (Revelation 14) is what precedes what happens in Revelation 20. In a sense, we can say one leads toward the other.

Are we going to solve all the world’s problems through our social witness and engagement with the broken parts of our world? Of course not! I know of no text which says that we ever will. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead, died again. We must, instead, look to the risen Christ in order to grasp the glory for which we are intended. We must look to His vision of a new heaven and a new earth for the community of love and justice for which we begin working for, even now! We seek to “pre-enact” God’s future, no matter how faintly. In the words of N. T. Wright, we should “acquire a taste for it here and now.”3

Look at the world that Christ left. It’s better than it was before He came into it, for sure—but still sadly and painfully broken. And though no text tells us that we will fi x it all, many tell us that it’s our job, here and now, to at least try. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is part of this effort.

Body language

Some believe that it is possible to do the work of evangelism without a social or developmental dimension; in contrast, some believe that we can do a work of relief and development without an evangelistic component. Both views are shallow, each presenting a one-dimensional component that implies the other is merely optional. No such dichotomy exists in Scripture, however, no such radical break between the Word spoken through preaching and evangelism, and the Word made visible in actions of biblical social responsibility, justice, and development. Jesus preached, but He also ministered to people’s needs; Jesus ministered to people’s needs, but He also preached.

Scriptures is clear what building the kingdom of God entails: people’s hearts are turned to God; the blind can see and the lame can run; the poor can make a living and peace prevails in the land. There are no dichotomies here, no conflicts between evangelism and development. They are all part of the same mission of God. All activities Christ Himself was involved in are “sacred,” aimed at the goal and purpose of restoring humanity and of bringing about the kingdom of God. His preaching, His healing, His call for social justice, His liberation and elevation of the poor and the powerless, His criticism of the government of Herod, His work for peace—these are all part of the package, and to neglect them is to be unfaithful stewards of what we have been given and to be unfaithful with what we have been called to do with what we have been given.

Here, too, I want to clear up a common misconception: we must do what we do with no strings attached. And no strings means just that—no strings. To make service dependent on people’s interest in or potential for becoming a follower of Christ would be a tragic distortion of the principle of love, which gives, expecting nothing in return.

What, then, is the relationship between acts of service and witness? Christian service calls us to serve human need, even if there were no reason to hope that our ministry will now or later create opportunities for outright evangelism. Of course, we must never seek to hide the source of our motivating Christian values, and we should always be ready to give an account of our faith when asked. But we should not have a guilty conscience if we have to wait a long time to give that account, or even if the opportunity to share our belief never comes.

Who knows? In some cases what we do can be a better witness than what we say. At ADRA, for example, we want our work, what we do with our bodies, to proclaim what we, ourselves, can’t always verbalize. In other words, let our body language preach the gospel.

When we practice resurrection faith and the vision of Revelation, we witness to God’s overturning of the fallen world. We shatter the power of evil; we rebel against the idea that we are helpless and passive in the midst of pain and suffering. We witness that we are not going to take poverty, injustice, and hate passively. We will fight back.

Recently, I was in a destitute country, so full of needs. I have no idea, in the end, what choices those people will make regarding Jesus and salvation. What I do know, however, is that through the selfless and self-denying service of our workers, these people are seeing a living witness of the gospel. And, too, they are getting, as Patricia said, “a little bit of the Second Coming now.”

And what could be more Christcentered, more gospel-centered, than that?

 

1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations in this article
are from the King James Version of the Bible.

2 www.adventist.org/world_church/name_mission/index. html.en

3 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the
Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
(San Fransisco,
CA: HarperOne, 2008).

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Charles Sandefur is president of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

July 2009

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