1 Peter 2:19-25
I sometimes think the idea of justice is an evolutionary tool we humans developed as we grew up on this Earth. Imagine the Earth tens of thousands of years ago, untouched by industrialization, barely touched by anything we would recognize as civilization. Humans were a huddled few, and despite the almost limitless natural resources around them, they must have struggled to exploit them. Justice must have begun then, as they shared meat and fire and the cold. And then, bit by bit, they gained a foothold: they settled down to become farmers, they developed writing, their technology kept lurching forward. Pretty soon there were tribes and wars—justice may have developed as a way to regulate the tribe’s internal affairs and the clashes between them. And so on through the development of kingdoms, as the king tried to figure out how to rule, and nation states, as humans began to leave kings behind. Along the way you had philosophers from Aristotle to John Rawls, all of whom thought long and hard about justice, and even the writings of the more ancient peoples—the code of Hammurabi and the Old Testament law, which spoke of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We humans have been thinking about justice for a long time, and one thing is clear: it’s a hard thing to get right. It’s a mixture of righteousness and reward, malfeasance and punishment. It seems like we’ve been getting better at it over time—but I often wonder if we humans have concocted our ideals of justice from the brute facts of our struggle against one another for resources, and less from our ideals, wherever we get them.
God’s history is not like ours, of scrapping and fighting nature and ourselves to eke out survival in a cold and uncaring universe. So maybe that’s why, in the history of justice, we don’t see anything like Jesus, at least as far as I can tell. And there’s something interesting in what Jesus says today: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out, and will find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It sounds like the human hope of plenty, without struggle. That’s what we want, in some ways: a pasture, where we can feed in safety and sleep and rest from our worries. When I hear Jesus use this figure of speech, I can almost think that Jesus is telling us about a life in which we don’t need justice at all because there is nothing to struggle over. The thief comes in only to steal and kill and destroy—but if there is abundant life, no one would want to be a thief. It would make no sense at all.
I really believe that the reign of God is the end of justice. It’s amazing to think of Jesus’s career—he restored sight to the blind, he cast demons from the possessed, he gave the hungry food. He was good news for the poor and the oppressed and the oppressors saw him as a threat. But it still seems to me that Jesus means more than justice. When he was taken to the courts and palaces, he made no defense of himself. He went to a very unjust death. And anyway, for the Son of God to suffer death is incongruous at best and certainly unjust. Isaiah says of the suffering servant, “It was the will of God to crush him with pain.” Justice ended. And in the Resurrection, Jesus didn’t come to Herod to kill him, and he didn’t come to the Pharisees and the High Priests to hand them over to the Romans. Instead he sent his disciples to preach to the very people responsible for his death to invite them into his abundant life.
Christ doesn’t just invite us to a more just world. Christ makes a world where justice is irrelevant. That’s the power of God—that’s the world God makes. It’s a world where love is all in all, where the sheep move to and fro in good pasture. It is abundant life for all.
Can we see that now? In our preaching, we are sometimes so obsessed with justice that we can’t see that God is making something more out of this world. But an existence without justice, for us human beings, can only exist where God’s grace fully takes ahold of us and transforms us completely. Our lives are still marked chiefly by struggle. The thieves continuously break in to steal and destroy. We still try to divvy up the deserving and undeserving poor, rather than, like Jesus, seeking to provide all the hungry with food, the afflicted with comfort. But I do believe God’s grace does take ahold of us. I do believe that the abundant life Jesus promises us does come to us.
It comes to us in the Holy Supper, in communion. This table is not a throne. Here we do not dispense judgment or justice. The invitation is not to a better system of laws or government. If you come to this table seeking better people, you’ll be disappointed. If you think you deserve some praise for coming to Christ’s banquet, you’re wrong. If you think you don’t deserve to come to Christ’s banquet, you’re not wrong, but nevertheless, you’re the person Christ especially invites. When you come to communion, justice ends. All that remains is grace and love and joy and abundance. At this table, there is enough for you and for everyone.
Notice how often Luke writes about the breaking of the bread. Last week, we heard of Jesus revealing himself in the breaking of the bread. And today, Luke tells us of two more moments of the breaking of the bread. Last week’s breaking of the bread was an icon of Holy Communion. And today’s first reference is also to the Lord’s Supper, the supper in which all the believers share. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute to all, as any had need. Not deserved—who needed. This was a community, if Luke can be believed, in which justice had ended.
That’s what the Lord’s presence can do among us. That’s what communion is all about. We all need God; we all need the abundant life Jesus promises. At this table, Christ gives us life, and we can all hold it in common. At this table, Christ gives us life and distributes to all, as any of us has need. Amen.
The Rev. John Z. Flack