Scripture: Luke 10:25-37
Who is my neighbor? It’s interesting to note that when the Pharisee asked Jesus this question, Luke tells us that it was as a means of “justifying himself.” In other words, the great commandment was something the Pharisees believed in, too, but only to the extent that it applied to people like them. The Pharisee who confronted Jesus was trying to legitimize this view—that people of faith should take care of their own. Jesus, however, responded with a scandalous parable.
We miss the power of this parable if we don’t understand the context. To the people of first century Israel, there was no such thing as a “good Samaritan.” Samaritans were hated as half breeds—Jews who had intermarried with foreigners and who practiced a form of Judaism centered on Mt. Gerizim instead of Jerusalem . They were a rogue religious sect according to pious Jews and worthy only of contempt. This is not like the differences between Methodists and Baptists, mind you. Think Sunnis and Shiites here—people who were ostensibly of the same religion but practiced it differently and thus hated each other.
So when Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story, the “good neighbor” instead of the priest or the Levite—both representing pure and pious Jews—the point was pretty clear. Who is my neighbor? Everyone is—including those who you now consider to be enemies.
Jesus saw all people as being worthy of God’s love and grace and was not afraid to call the powers that be to recognize the inherent value of people created by God. Differentiations due to economic status, physical limitations, and ethnic origins were artificial to him. God’s kingdom, God’s reign, was for all. Everyone is our neighbor and we are to love them as we love ourselves.
John Wesley took seriously this call of Christ. As we were saying last week, the Rule of Discipleship grew out of Wesley’s General Rules that balanced love and devotion for God with love and compassion for our neighbors. He called this balance “practical divinity” and “scriptural Christianity”—following Jesus meant more than just a personal spirituality. It was indeed an experience of grace in action and a recognition that God’s love always comes to us on its way to someone else.
The problem is that many of our churches have failed to recognize that balance. Ron Sider, who is a Christian social activist, says that “Most churches today are one-sided disasters.” There are churches in the suburbs where “hundreds of people come to Jesus and praise God in brand-new buildings, but they seldom learn that their own faith has anything to do with the wrenching, inner-city poverty just a few miles away.” There are, on the other hand, churches where members “write their senators and lobby the mayor’s office” but “would be stunned if someone asked them personally to invite their neighbors to accept Christ.”
The great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones put it another way: “An individual gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body and a social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost and the other a corpse.”
If we go back to our Jerusalem Cross diagram of the Rule of Discipleship, we might recognize that the “works of mercy” are every bit as important to living out our Christian faith as the “works of piety.” We’ll look at those works of piety next week, but this morning I want to focus on these top two quadrants. How do we love our neighbors?
A couple of weeks ago we talked about Wesley’s concept of God’s grace—that humans were created for relationship with God—a relationship characterized by love. God chose us in love and we respond by choosing to love God in return. Sin is the reversal of that love, or love turned inward. To love God means that our love is outwardly focused on God and on others created by God (which includes everyone). E. Stanley Jones again: “The most miserable people in the world are the people who are self-centered, who won’t do anything for anybody except themselves.” By contrast, said Jones, “the happiest people are the people who deliberately take on themselves the sorrows and troubles of others. Their hearts sing with a strange wild joy.”
Through his Wesleyan heritage, Jones realized that serving others and particularly serving those who were poor and marginalized was the real evidence of faith in action. He spent much of his life in India, serving and bringing hope to the poorest of the poor. If you read his works you can’t help but be struck by his vision—a Christ-like vision—for healing the brokenness of others.
As we have been saying, the early Methodist movement really took root among the poor—not only because the message of God’s grace being available to all was so compelling, but because that message was backed up by action. The early Methodists were prolific at developing ad hoc social service agencies in a time when governments were not at all concerned with the plight of the poor. They established schools to help educate poor families, dispensed natural medications and remedies for the sick, visited prisoners, and gave their finances to ministries that engaged those needs.
John Wesley himself sought not only to help the poor but to identify with them. In an age where educated clergy wore powdered wigs as a sign of wealth (and to keep the lice away), Wesley refused to do so. Most of his personal finances gleaned from teaching and publishing his sermons and works went toward ministry to the poor while he himself lived very simply. If you visit his home in London, for example, you see that most of his personal possessions were books and simple furniture. It was not the comfortable life that most Oxford dons would aspire to!
Our Methodist heritage is focused on works of compassion as an outgrowth of faith, but often this is difficult for church folk particularly those who are affluent. This was true in Wesley’s day as well. He once wrote: “One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that…one part of the world does not know that the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it—then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.”
Harsh words, but spoken from one who knew. For Wesley, compassion meant more than writing a check…it meant being there in person, reflecting the love of God to those in need.
The question for us as a Methodist congregation is how well we’re doing in engaging in works of compassion. We have a missions team that is very motivated in this direction and you’ll hear from them in a moment about how you can be involved in not only giving your money but your time. The bottom line is that we are, indeed, responsible for caring for our neighbors as a foundational act of faith.
But that care extends more broadly as well. Wesley was also one who saw the stewardship of creation as being a Christian responsibility. We all live on this planet together, therefore when we care for the environment we care for each other. Environmental issues are stewardship issues. When we recycle, drive our cars and SUVs only when necessary, conserve water, cut down on our power usage, and do a host of other “green” practices we are not just being economically efficient, we are carrying out God’s charge to humanity at creation.
But the Rule of Discipleship doesn’t stop there. Not only do we engage in those works of compassion for our neighbors and our environment, we also engage in works of justice at the broader level as a means of creating conditions for compassion to happen on a general scale. It’s often been said that you shouldn’t mix religion and politics, which in a sense is true. We shouldn’t allow government to define religion, nor religion government to the extent that religion becomes it’s own power broker. At the same time, however, we do recognize that there is a political dimension to faith.
Early Christianity found itself in conflict with the Roman Empire because it claimed that it was Jesus Christ who is Lord and not Caesar. This doesn’t mean they revolted against the government, just that they viewed their participation in society through the lens of being disciples of Christ. The early church was not part of the political power structure, yet it wielded the power of love by caring for the poor and calling attention to oppression through their quiet suffering.
Wesley recognized that part of Christian discipleship was not simply turning a blind eye to political and social conditions that perpetuated poverty and oppression. Case in point: Wesley called for the abolition of slavery in England, which would happen after his death in part because of his influence. He recognized that the Bible talks a lot more about systemic evil in economic injustice and social oppression than it does about things like, say, sexuality. Christians have become way more focused on personal sins, however, than the larger systemic sins that drive people into bad conditions. I’m sure that he would find it curious that his spiritual ancestors spend more time arguing about issues of sexuality than they spend working toward justice in things like health care for all. It’s not that issues like human sexuality aren’t important, it’s just that biblically speaking the weight of God’s instruction lies in caring about justice.
Working for acts of justice means that we don’t simply turn the pages of the newspaper or change the channel when issues of injustice arise. We are called to speak God’s truth to power. When we vote, when we pay attention to what our government is doing, when we seek peace, when we lobby on behalf of the powerless, we are engaging in the ministry of justice. Our faith does inform our politics.
Granted, we may not all agree on how certain issues should be handled, even within our own church. It’s possible that Christians of good conscience can disagree on how to approach certain topics. You may have noticed that I don’t preach much on social issues by themselves. That’s because I want us to focus on the kingdom of God first, to begin to discern God’s heart for people and for his creation, to search for ourselves where it is that God is calling us to live and work. If we can catch God’s vision of justice, then our positions on any issue will be driven by that vision.
So, as a Methodist preacher, I feel confident in saying to you that you should vote for the candidates and issues of your choice, but do so with God’s kingdom in mind. Is what I am supporting promoting or abolishing oppression? Is my political view self-serving or does it make conditions better for others? We all have a responsibility to promote God’s justice, God’s kingdom in this world.
(A helpful source for this sermon was Henry Knight III’s little book Eight Life-Enriching Practices of United Methodists. It’s a great, concise look at some of the details of the Rule of Discipleship.