Beckett: Word & Sacrament Ministry is Social Ministry

I recently had the pleasure of both reading and listening to Rev. Aurelio Magariño speak about Hispanic ministry, who currently leads the ministry efforts of the Hispanic Lutheran Mission Society of Metropolitan Washington (Washington, D.C.). There’s a single phrase he said that stuck with me and led toward this article, “Social ministry complements Word and Sacrament ministry.” This simple statement encompasses the rest of his talk in the context of theology and marginalization.

The Roman Catholic Church is (in)famous for their social ministry focus. So, as Lutherans, when we hear about social ministry we typically snicker and make snide remarks about it (not very obedient to the 8th Commandment, if you ask me). Thus, to say that social ministry complements—rather than counters—Word and Sacrament ministry will challenge a lot of Lutherans, more likely upset them. Yet I think the upset needs to be there in order to comprehend the Gospel significance of what Magariño’s theological framework is getting at. What follows are my own thoughts on the subject.

Rev. Magariño spoke significantly to the social problems of Hispanics, specifically the feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness they suffer in marginality. If we believe, teach, and confess that Word and Sacrament are, strictly speaking, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then in order to remain consistent with this confession we also need to acknowledge that this involves a social aspect to Word & Sacrament ministry. I believe the Gospel of Luke can best be used to speak to this social aspect of Word & Sacrament ministry. One of the major motifs in Luke’s Gospel is marginality. In fact, it begins with Jesus’ birth narrative.

Jesus was born in the margins. He wasn’t born in Herod’s palace, or a suburb of Jerusalem. No, He was born in the small town of Bethlehem, in a stable, and in a manger (not a crib!)—a thing farm animals eat from. Magariño noted, “A margin is defined in relation to a centre. Without a centre, there is no margin. Our natural instinct is to occupy the centre ourselves. If we do this inflexibly, we will marginalise others.” Before Jesus was even born, He was marginalised to the edges of society. Shepherds, magi, and others had to leave the centre (and margins) of society in order to worship the incarnate Lord.

But the marginalisation doesn’t end there in Luke. We see this in all the Gospels, but especially in Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus identifying with the marginalised. John’s baptism, which Jesus fulfilled for all righteousness (Matthew 3:15), included marginalised people like tax collectors (Luke 3:12). As Jesus begins His ministry when He returns to His hometown, Nazareth, He is marginalised again—by His own townsfolk. Even worse, they tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff! “But passing through their midst, He went away” (4:30).

In Luke’s Gospel, the first marginalised man Jesus interacts with in His earthly ministry is the man with an unclean demon. I don’t think I need to get into the specifics as to why this man was marginalised. But what does Jesus do? This time He was in a city (Capernaum), and the demons possessing this man mock Jesus. Then Jesus drives them out of him. He could’ve ignored this man or kicked him out of the synagogue to continue His teaching. Instead, He exercises the demons out of the man, then He leaves the synagogue—the centre of Jewish culture—to enter the marginalised sick people of Capernaum to heal them, i.e., unclean people (4:38-41).

Then, in another city, He touches a leper to heal him. By Jewish Law, Jesus becomes unclean to make this marginalised man clean (5:12-16). Then He heals a paralysed man—another marginalised person (5:17-26). After this, it gets worse. On a Sabbath—the centre of Jewish piety, practice, and religion—Jesus does the unthinkable: He heals a man with a withered hand, filling the Pharisees in the centre with fury for what He did for this man (6:6-11). To top this off, in His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus essentially says, “Blessed are you who are marginalised!” Blessed are the poor, those who hunger, those who weep, and those who are hated and reviled and slandered—peoples on the margins (6:20-22). But woe to those in the centre—those who are rich, full, laugh, and have a high reputation (6:24-26)! Even more, love your enemies and bless them and pray for them—those people we deliberately marginalise (6:27-36)!

Then we finally see someone leave the centre and come to the margins on someone’s behalf. A centurion (a man in the centre in the Gentile world but marginal in the Jewish world) goes to Jesus and asks Him to heal his servant (a marginal person) and he believes Jesus can do this with merely speaking a word. And Jesus does so (7:1-10). Then as if touching lepers, sick people, and the demon possessed weren’t bad enough, Jesus touches a corpse, raising a widow’s dead son back to life (7:11-17)! Widows lived in the margins of society, and He comes to her to touch the corpse of her son—a big no-no in Jewish Law.

Then Jesus allows a sinful woman to touch Him, washing His feet with her hair, and forgives her sins (7:36-50). For once, at this Pharisee’s house, Jesus is not on the margins. He is at the place of honour at this Pharisee’s table. But as soon as a marginalised woman comes to Jesus and lowers herself even more before Him, He enters the margins with her.

There are more stories like this as Luke’s Gospel continues. Even when He rides into Jerusalem triumphantly—the literal centre of Palestinian society and Jewish cultic practice—He rides in marginally on a donkey rather than a stallion (19:28-40). Time and time again, Jesus puts Himself in the margins of people who exist in the margins so that He might be with them, heal them, and forgive them their sins.

As the rising action of the story continues, in the Upper Room at the head of the table, Jesus feeds His disciples with His body and blood in the very first administration of the Lord’s Supper; and we must turn to John’s Gospel to see Jesus leave the centre of the table to become a marginal servant as He washes their feet, telling them to do the same for others (John 13:1-17).

Finally, Jesus’ marginalisation is culminated on the cross. Although He entered Jerusalem, the centre, triumphantly, He is crucified outside Jerusalem on the margins for daring to be the Lord, Saviour, and King of the marginalised.

And the story doesn’t end here either. The marginalised cease to be the marginalised in Jesus’ resurrection. Death—the grave—is the farthest margin anyone can enter. Jesus enters the margins of death for all people, even the marginalised. But then He rises from this fatal margin, totally victorious, in which all peoples receive a share in their Baptism (Romans 6:3-5).

In Luke’s Gospel alone, we see that social ministry and Word & Sacrament ministry are not mutually exclusive. In His Word of healing and forgiveness, Jesus went to the social outcasts to forgive them their sins. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus instituted it from a simultaneous place of centrality (as Lord/Master) and marginalisation (as servant). In Baptism, Jesus was baptised with the marginalised who would be received into His own Baptism. And Jesus would then commission the disciples to continue this Word & Sacrament ministry amongst the socially marginalised peoples. Just as “all nations” in the Great Commission includes babies, so it also includes marginalised people. Jesus, the one who occupies the centre of all creation, comes to the margins of humanity to save all people.

Therefore, we see from Luke’s Gospel alone that social ministry and Word & Sacrament ministry are congruous. One could even argue that they are inseparable since, after all, all powerlessness and hopelessness—which marginalised peoples tremendously suffer—find their total end in the Word and Sacraments of Jesus Christ.

In His Word, marginalised sinners receive redemption and inclusion into the Body of Christ.

In His Supper, former enemies and separated peoples dine at a single table as a foretaste of the eschatological feast to come—all tribes, nations, and languages (Revelation 7:9).

In Baptism, marginalised peoples are received into the one family of God in Christ.

Thus, the Gospel of Luke provides a theological framework for Lutherans to minister to Hispanics—and all socially marginalised peoples—in Word & Sacrament ministry.


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