Imagine the People of God: Compassion

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Philippians 2:1-11
July 21, 2019

 

 

 

          In her book, Sailboat Church, Joan Gray writes: “the church’s divine nature is not always easy to see. Sometimes it takes great faith to believe that the church as we know it is the body of Christ. Sin is all too evident in our midst.” Sounds depression, doesn’t it? But Gray continues, assuring us it’s God’s way as she continues: “the church was never meant to be a group of holy people who are in themselves morally superior to everyone else.”[1] Got that? We in the church are not necessarily morally superior. We, too, sin. Let’s remember that Jesus taught us to pray in this manner: forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of others.[2]

         Let me say something that might be a bit controversial. Sin abounds within the church, within Christ’s body on earth. I used to think we should try to root it out, but I no longer do. Instead, maybe we should learn from the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and not risk rooting out the weeds less we also damage the wheat.[3] It’s inevitable that there will be sin in the church and that’s okay if we are compassionate. The church would cease to exist if it only consisted of perfect people. We’d be out of business in a flash! But if we truly realize that we’ve been saved, not by ourselves but by a loving Savior, then we should be both compassionate and loving toward others. And that gives us our reason for being.

Today, in our second week of “Imaging the People of God,” we are looking at compassion. Just as God is compassionate, we too must be compassionate. Our text this week is from the second chapter in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s a very familiar passage, especially starting with verse six, where Paul begins a beautiful hymn to Christ. Today, while we will end with that hymn, we’re going to focus on the first five verses. Read Philippians 2:1-11 from The Message.

          I wonder what our life of faith might look like if we, instead of referring to God as love, referred to God as compassionate. Both are correct. God is love, but in the English language, the word “love” has lost much of its power. As many of you, I’m sure, know, the Greeks had several words for love, erotic love, brotherly love, and compassionate love. We only have one word for love and apply that word too many things. We can love our spouse, our children, a sport team, a car, a sunset, good ice cream, a pair of shoes, a song on the radio… The list continues.

         It’s often pointed out that “love” should be a verb. It should lead us to action toward that for which we have affection. It’s not just a static or emotional feeling, but is something that manifested itself in action for the wellbeing of the other. In that way, it’s like compassion, being moved to work for the benefit of the other. God is compassionate as shown in sending us his Son, to offer the human race a chance to free itself from the muck which keep us stuck and bogged down in sin. Those of us who have experienced this compassion from God are to show such compassion to others.

        The word compassion, in English, implies an awareness of another’s distress, with a desire to help alleviate that distress in some manner. It has a deeper theological meaning, as it is linked to God’s actions. In the New Testament, the word compassion is used to describe Jesus or, used by Jesus to refer to God. Paul is the one who makes the link between the compassion of God, as we see in revelation of God in Jesus Christ, to our own call to be compassionate.[4]

         A modern writer defines compassion as “the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”[5] Compassion is not just us being emotionally troubled by the plight of others; it’s us doing what we can alleviate their plight.

          Paul begins this section of his letter to the Philippians with a series of “if” clauses. This repetitiveness is tricky to translate, for we often use “if” to imply a dream. “If only this was real.”  “If only this had happened…” But Paul’s use of the conditional cause doesn’t demonstrate a lack of certainty. Paul uses this litany of clauses to drive home a point. “If you believe this and if it’s made a difference in your life as it has in mine, then do this!” “If you have gotten anything out of following Christ, being in his Spirit-filled community, if you have a heart or an ounce of care, then you should act in this way.” Verse one is the lead up to how we should live as disciples, which is covered in verses 2 – 5.

 

  • We’re of one mind with each other.
  • We’re to love each other.
  • We don’t step on others.
  • We’re humble.
  • We put aside ourselves so that we can work for the well-being of others.

 

          I love (there’s that word again) how The Message translates verse four: “Forget yourself long enough to lend a helping hand.” Paul’s talking about compassion. And then he drives this home as he tells us to be like Christ, the compassionate one. Starting with verse sixth, Paul appears to be quoting an early church hymn about Christ and he encourages us to imitate Christ’s compassion and humility. Instead of pushing and shoving and demanding that we get our “fair-share,” we’re to be Christ-like which means we lower ourselves in order to help others. In difficult situations, humility helps de-escalate tension.

         You know, our lives tell a story. Whether we like it or not, how we live, what we care for, how we treat others, where we invest our talents and money, all combine to tell our story. As followers of Christ, our story will either compel others to check out our faith or it will repel them. If we realize this, it’s important that we strive to live in a way that will honor Jesus and show our trust in the Almighty. And that means to live compassionately. As one writer commented on this, “It’s not wise to name yourself as a Christian unless you are actually embodying the way of Messiah Jesus.”[6]

         How might we be compassionate? We can look at the life of Jesus and live as he did? Or we might think of some of our contemporaries. Since last Sunday, we have lost a good one, a compassionate man. Jim Fendig was humble and soft spoken and concerned for others. And there are others like him within our community.

As I tried to make clear earlier, compassion is more than just feeling bad for someone else. Compassion is feeling the empathy, and then going the extra mile to do something. We can look at someone disabled and struggling to get inside a building and feel bad for them. But that’s not compassion. Compassion is running up and holding the door for them. We can feel bad for the children separated from their families and locked in, at best, marginally sufficient detention centers. But that’s not compassion. Compassion involves advocating a change in policy or supporting those who are able or attempting to provide relief. We can feel sorry for someone who sits at home alone and lonely every day. But that’s not compassion. Compassion is picking up the phone and calling, or visiting, or taking them out for coffee. We can feel sorry for a person who is being bullied or picked on because he or she is different. But that’s not compassion. Compassion is befriending and standing up for the unloved, the bullied, and the marginalized.

Compassion goes beyond just feeling. It requires action. Last week, we saw how God has given us the gift of imagination. We’re to use this gift. Imagination helps us know how we might respond compassionately. We will not be able to solve every problem.  I can’t cure cancer, but I can walk beside that person who is battling the disease. We might not be able to perform miracles, but we can do something to make the situation better.

 

Compassion is the way of Jesus; it’s how we reflect his face to the world. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Joan S. Gray, Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014), 24.

[2] Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4.

[3] Matthew 13:24ff.

[4] Andrew Purves, The Search for Compassion: Spirituality and Ministry (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 15-16.

[5] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 15.

[6] Charlie Peacock, Following Jesus in a New Way (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2004), 93.


Comments

Imagine the People of God: Compassion — 5 Comments

  1. I’m reminded of the quote – “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” ― Abigail Van Buren. Without compassion for others, we really have no where to go in my mind.

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