Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”
I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.
It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.
But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?
In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.
Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.
So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.
“in order that they all may be one just as you, Father, are in me, and I also in you, in order that they might be in us—so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus’ statement is a devastating critique of the Christian church today when you really take it seriously. In a nutshell, what he is saying here is that his desire is that we (the Church) be one with one another just as he is one with the Father and (and here is where it hits close to home) that our unity is at least one of the ways that the world will know that Jesus is the Son of God. In other words, if we wonder why the church today has such a weak witness in the world around us, the implication is that at least part of our weakness is that we are so fragmented and have a tendency to fight amongst ourselves rather than working together.
One of the rules of thumb for good business practice is to staff to your weakness. In other words, find the things that you are poor in and hire or promote someone to do those things. Some managers find this to be an intimidating practice simply because if applied well, this will cause you to hire a number of people who are more competent than you are in some specific areas. Yet, if you don’t follow this principle, then you will tend to perpetuate the problems or weaknesses that you have at least within the organization and be more concerned with your own reputation than with the health of the company.
Churches can be like that as well, not only in terms of internal leadership, but also in terms of how they interact with other churches in the community. Rather than churches focusing on the kinds of things they are good at, so often what happens is that every church tries to do what the other churches are doing—it as if they are worried about losing their “marketshare”…as if we were in competition with one another. If we, as churches, were really concerned with the great commission, we would not worry that more people were going to the Christian fellowship down the street, so long as disciples are being made for the kingdom of God. If one congregation is particularly good at mercy ministries, let them pursue that and let the other churches in the area facilitate that work as the congregation in question needs—both with finances and with people. If another congregation is good with youth ministry, let the other churches facilitate. If a church has a particularly good teacher at the helm, again, let the churches be united and facilitate that ministry. We are not able to be everything to everyone if we stand alone, but we can be if we stand united together.
But what of ecumenicity? Isn’t this what the ecumenical movement tried to accomplish and isn’t it fraught with compromise and error? Yes. In its best senses, this kind of thing is what the ecumenical movement sought to accomplish, yet within that fellowship, it was felt that everyone must believe the same thing and ignore differences. What I am suggesting is the model Paul presents as the church as the body which has many parts. The liver does not do the same thing as the kidney does, yet they work together to keep the whole of the body healthy without losing their distinctive nature—in other words, the kidney does not represent itself as being the same as the liver—they remain distinct, yet cooperate toward the end of keeping the body healthy. Ecumenicity tends to lead toward churches ignoring their differences and granting people to believe pretty much whatever they want to believe.
Cooperation between churches does not mean compromising the truth nor does it mean compromising the theological distinctives that shape the difference between Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists (etc…). There must be certain non-negotiable principles drawn from scripture (the Godhead of Christ, the dual nature of Christ, the authority of scripture, etc…). At the same time, there are going to be some things that we find we can disagree upon passionately, but since they are non-essentials of the faith, we also find that we can have passionate disagreements yet remain in fellowship with one another.
How do we accomplish that in our churches and communities? It starts with humility and a willingness to cast off the self-seeking attitude that many congregations have. One must learn to gauge success not on the basis of numbers in church on Sunday or of a bank account balance that a church might have in savings, but in terms of whether or not they are doing what God has called them to do—and whether or not they are being, what Christ wishes them to be—united as one.
Beloved, let us look seriously at our lives and at our churches and ask the question—based on this statement that Jesus makes, is our witness in the community one that reflects that Jesus is the Son of God or is our witness one that suggests that the church is an organization in competition with other churches for tithing dollars.