Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Fixing Church 3: Compassion

1 John 3:16-24 and Luke 10:25-42

This is a quote from the Fixing Church book: “A religious person goes to church. A compassionate person is the Church.” Maybe nothing illustrates that better than Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus is confronted by a teacher of the Law who asks, “What must I do to receive eternal life.” Jesus doesn’t answer with anything about grace or faith here because that’s not the question that was asked. The question is, “What must I do?” Not “What should I believe?”

Jesus basically says, “Hey, you’re the expert. Shouldn’t you know?”

And the teacher replies with two verses of Scripture, Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself.” These two verses were recognized as the lynchpins of the Old Testament Law. And so Jesus says, “Yup. Do that.”

“But who is my neighbor?” And I have to think that Jesus had some insight into this guy. I think Jesus knew that he had no problem loving people who were like him, but not people who were different. So Jesus tells his story.

A man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. You had to go down to Jericho, because it was something like 3700 feet in elevation lower than Jerusalem. And the road went down through the Judean wilderness, Jeshimmon, which was known as a place where robbers would hide. And that’s just what happens: He is robbed, beaten, and left for dead.

A priest and a Levite go by. These guys are religious professionals. Of all people, they should stop. But neither does.

Now an interesting question is, “Which way were they going?” Were they going up to Jerusalem? Some people take that approach to the story to emphasize their sin of ignoring the man’s obvious need while they are on their way to the Temple, the “church” of the day. And that certainly sounds good. But it’s probably not the case. The Greek text describes them as also “going down.” And in a way, that makes their sin even worse, right? Here, they are on their way home from “church,” they see someone in need, and they just keep going. It’s pretty obvious something “didn’t take.” They might be religious, but they are not compassionate.

Instead, the hero of the story is the compassionate Samaritan. And he’s an unlikely hero because there was not a good history between the Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were the descendants of the people of Israel, the northern kingdom of Hebrews in the Old Testament. The Samaritans and Judeans didn’t get along very well. Most of the Samaritans were taken off into exile, and those that remained married with the people the Assyrians moved into the land. So they were seen as having lost their racial purity, as if such a thing ever existed! When the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, the Samaritans opposed them rebuilding Jersualem and the Temple. And then a couple centuries later, the Jews destroyed the Samaritan Temple. So there was a long and ugly history between them, even though they were basically relatives.

It has been pointed out that often the most difficult people to love are those who are similar to us but a little bit different. Perhaps because the similarities accentuate the differences.

“Who was a neighbor to the man?” Jesus asks. And even the teacher of the Law has to admit it’s the one who showed compassion, though it’s probably instructive to us that he can’t bear to say the word, “Samaritan.”

Our example of compassion is Jesus. Jesus spent large parts of his ministry healing the sick. He spent large parts of his teaching emphasizing the importance of loving compassion for all, even our enemies. He told us in John 15, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Our love must have two dimensions: Loving God and loving neighbor, vertical and horizontal. But they are interconnected. One of the ways we love God is by obeying his command to love our neighbors, and when we love our neighbors, we are loving people made in the image of God.

In the Church, the horizontal aspect of love is played out in the creation of a community of genuine love and concern for one another. And it is through that community that we grow as disciples. If I were to ask you, “Who were the most influential people in your spiritual formation as a Christian and why?” I’m pretty sure the people who have been the most influential in your formation are also people who have made their love for you known. Spiritual growth happens primarily, often exclusively, in the context of Christian community. In the second half of our Gospel text,

we read about Jesus praising Mary for sitting at his feet, with the other disciples, and learning from him.

If you want to grow as a disciple, there is just no substitute for face time with other believers. You have to spend time with other Christians to grow into the image of Christ. That can be a small group, a Bible study, a Sunday School class, a men’s group, a women’s group, a youth group, and so on. But you need to spend time with other believers having honest conversation, learning together, encouraging each other, praying for each other, and holding each other accountable. I’m sorry if you don’t like that, or it doesn’t fit your busy schedule, but you just can’t grow without it! There is no substitute for it. There is no such thing as healthy solo Christianity.

Many churches are lacking here. Often times the community is a proverbial “mile wide and a foot deep.” It’s a polite, casual gathering, rather than an intense and caring community.

But on the other hand, this can’t be all there is. If our community life doesn’t prepare us to love God by loving the world outside our little community, then it’s incomplete. Jesus’ final words to his little community in Matthew 28 and Acts 1 were all about the task of taking his message to the ends of the earth and making disciples of all people.

We love God by loving the stranger, and especially those who are unable to repay our kindness. We love God by welcoming people into our community, even if they are not just like us. There is just no place for any kind of racism, classism, sexism, and so on in the love of God.

I think it is important here to point out that we love people because God told us to, not because we have an ulterior motive. If people see that we are only showing kindness to them because we want something from them (“Hey! Come join our church, give us money, volunteer for the things we don’t want to do.”), then they will see right through that. Jesus healed people whether or not they would follow him. And we know that not all of them did. On one occasion, Jesus healed ten men with leprosy. Only one came back. But Jesus still loved and healed the other nine.

Both aspects of love, the horizontal and vertical, are necessary for the Church to grow. A congregation that only focuses on loving its own people is not likely to grow much. A congregation only focuses on loving people outside might grow, but it’s

unlikely to sustain that growth. People might come in, but after they do, they won’t find anything to keep them there.

Few churches excel at both dimensions. Most of us do better at the horizontal aspect of loving each other and close ourselves off to the outside world. The outside world scares us, and I would say probably with good reason. But we need to do both well if we are to grow.

For the last word, let’s turn to 1 John 3:

John reminds us that we must “give up our lives for each other,” and if “we see need and we choose not to help, then God’s love is not in us. And this is his command: Believe in the name of Jesus and love each other, just as he commanded us.” That’s not an either/or statement. It’s not do one or the other. Being a Christian is not defined just by believing in Jesus. It’s defined by believing in Jesus and loving each other.

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