I like your congregational mission statement : "Helping ordinary people be confident, joyful disciples of Jesus Christ." In the New Testament the only definition of the word Christian is given to us in the Book of Acts. "It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26). A Christian is a disciple, and that simply means someone who is learning with a teacher. The first disciples learned with Jesus as their teacher in the flesh. We learn by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And when we first enrol to begin learning we know very little. But in the course of time the teacher imparts to you all we need. "A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher" (Luke 6:40). So in our Gospel reading today Jesus is teaching his disciples what it means to have the same kind of compassion that He has..
Compassion means feeling with and acting for others. But this is not the kind of sentimentality that moves us in the sad scene of a movie, or says "Oh, I'm so sorry" and immediately moves on to chatter about the next topic. Our compassion is to be like God's compassion for us. "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
The word 'merciful' is too narrow for our purposes. It merely suggests being kind to someone who deserves severe punishment. We need the idea of a love that emerges deep from within our heart and reaches out to act for others. Paul uses the same word when he writes "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with the bowels (the gut feeling) of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience" (Colossians 3:12). This is what God is like : "The Father of compassions and the God of all encouragement" (2 Corinthians 1:3).
Our text goes on to outline four ways in which we are to be compassionate like God :
Like God never judging (6:37)
Like God never condemning (6:37)
Like God always forgiving (6:37)
Like God always giving (6:38)
In the first chapter of the Bible we are told that God planned for us to be like Him. "Let us make humans in our image . . . So God created humans in his image . . . male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
Obviously for us to be compassionate like God is not something we can learn from the experts of our world. All they can give us are little bits of psychology and worldly wisdom. Most of them want to do without God, and they certainly have no idea of being like God. Which is why Jesus warns his disciples "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?" (6:39). Nor can we learn compassion from the Pharisaic rules and legalism of our churches. Only the Holy Spirit of God can teach us and empower us from within to be like God : never judging, never condemning, always forgiving, always giving. But we need to clarify what each of these four Godlike qualities could mean.
Never judging (6:37) - Judging is very different from making judgments. We obviously have to make judgments about our choice of groceries, the best car to buy, the right person to be church treasurer, and of course the partner we intend to spend our life with. But never judging means that we never classify people by their labels. In the old fashioned melodramas you hissed the black hats, and you clapped when the white hat hero arrived just in time to free his lady love from the approaching train on the railroad tracks.
A previous generation viewed cowboys as good and Indians as bad. Not so long ago in the cold war all communists were bad. Some Protestants still think Romans Catholics are bad. And when a church congregation is about to split apart it is usually because one group judges the other for their style of worship, or the hymn book or prayer book they want to use. But once the Spirit begins to move in our heart we view ourselves, and others, not as either good or bad but as those who are going to be perfected to love like God. That is a great way to pray for people.
Like God never condemning - Jesus himself made it clear that he is not in the condemning business. The very next verse after John 3:16 goes on to say "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). With the woman who was brought to him for condemnation, Jesus said "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Then when her accusers had all left Jesus said to her "Has no one condemned you? " She answered "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (John 8:1-11). This last sentence does not imply "Be sinless from now on, or I will nail you next time." But rather that, although there is no condemnation, God does assign consequences in this life for certain kinds of behavior. As we all know, sleeping around and adultery inevitably have very bad consequences.
If a plumber, who happens to be a Christian, comes and does a poor job on your bathroom, the consequences will be that you do not hire him next time, and others will be warned. But you do not exclude him from your church fellowship, condemn him as an unbeliever, or write him off as someone you never speak to again. When a woman has an alcoholic, womanizing man, who abuses the children, she tries to get help from AA. But sooner or later she lovingly has to assign the divorce consequences. But at no point does she write him off as so much garbage. And so with everyone we have to deal with. We may have to assign consequences but we look to the Holy Spirit to make us never condemning like God.
The church is notorious for our long history of excommunication and excluding this or that group of people. We love to write people off as garbage. But the Holy Spirit will always keep encouraging us not to exclude, or condemn, or write anyone off as a dead loss. And you can be sure that God never ever writes you off as useless garbage.
Like God always forgiving - On several occasions in the Gospels Jesus' first words to someone who came to him in trouble was to say "Your sins are forgiven." In the Apostles Creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins. We should not add any kind of ifs and buts and other conditions. For us forgiveness is free and immediate. The cost is on God's side, but God is always forgiving.
The problem is on our side. The sense of unforgiven sin and failure is at the heart of most human misery. When people go to counselors they are told their behavior is only natural, but the nagging sense of having sinned against God remains. The only solution for many is to convince themselves there is no God to sin against. That is why it is important for us to learn to be priests for the world.
We are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). And the function of priests is first to be good listeners. Begin by listening carefully to the person's story, including his or her sense of sin, and guilt, and failure. Then we say "In the name of Jesus you are forgiven." We may be able to add some teaching from the Bible. Mentioning in prayer what the person has shared with us is also very important. And finally we bless them. "God loves you; I love you; you are going to do fine." That means that every Christian needs to learn how to be in the forgiving business.
That God is always forgiving is an essential part of Christian faith, and as royal priests it is our most important contribution to the world. It is knowing we are forgiven that gives us the confidence to be able to exercise our gifts to serve people in very great need.
Like God always giving - Listen carefully to Jesus' words. "Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed own, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (6:38). God is not niggly in his giving. He gives in full measure.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said we were to love enemies as well as our friends. And the reason is startling. "So that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." In that sense God is always giving. But there is an awesome paradox built into our lives. "The measure we give will be the measure we get back." That means that the mean and stingy always lose out. Have you noticed that many people are permanently short of money because they never bother to give anything much away.
We are to give like God. But of course we do not necessarily give what people ask for. If a maniac asks for a gun, there will be something to give, but not what he has in mind. If a panhandler wants to buy drugs, you are not giving a favor by giving money. There are three things it is always safe and good to give. Give a person your full attention, because God always gives you his full attention. Give a person your time because time is the most precious commodity in the world. Give a person your prayer because God loves to hear our prayers for others.
As we begin to learn to think and act like God, there is a wonderful bonus. "If I as an ordinary sinful human being can learn to stop judging and condemning. And if I find I can forgive and give, even to some extent. Then that assures me God is like that only very much more. We have a God of wonderful compassion : Never judging us, never condemning us, always forgiving us, and always giving to us "good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, and put into our lap."
As I said, the experts of our world cannot help us in that direction,
and church legalism can never produce God's kind of compassion. But the
Holy Spirit is willing to change us deep from within our hearts.