In the early years of the Christian Church, when a complaint went up from the Hellenists against the Hebrews that the food collected for the poor was not being distributed fairly, the Apostles had to deal with it. What were they to do?
Notice that from its very inception the Christian Church was a place of charity, a place where the poor and hungry were taken care of. Widows and orphans, two groups that needed special care, found food, clothing, and shelter in the ranks of the Church. But there were disagreements.
Two different cultures, Greeks and Hebrews, shared one faith, one Jesus. But the Greeks accuse the Hebrews of being unfair. When the food, or money, or clothing was given to those in need it seemed like the Greeks were being left out or short changed. The Hebrews got more. The Greeks got less.
So what were the Apostles supposed to do about this? Notice that they were unwilling to do two things. First, they could not ignore the ministry of the Word and Prayer in order to serve the poor. The Word of God must be preached and they were the men with a special calling from Jesus to do just that.
They were also unwilling to neglect the distribution of goods to the poor. While the Word of God must be taught, the poor must also be served. While that is not specifically the Apostles’ task, it is the Church’s task. It must be done, and so they appoint seven men, deacons, to take care of this essential duty.
The Word must be proclaimed. It must be taught. It cannot be neglected. Yet neither can charity, love, mercy, or compassion. It was never an option for the Church to choose one over the other. In fact one leads directly to the other.
When the Church has been forgiven of its sins, when it has been taught the doctrine of the faith, then it is motivated and empowered to serve others with love and compassion. The love of Jesus for us gives birth to love in us for others.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s love for us. Everything that Jesus does in His life, from His conception to His ascension is an act of compassion for humanity. All is done for us. None of it is done from selfishness or greed.
Every healing is an act of mercy. Each miracle is a pouring out of compassion. His willingness to teach and preach is God’s love in action. The suffering and death of Jesus was not done for His health. It was done for our salvation. In His resurrection He obtained for us a resurrection. In His ascension He showered down on us His Holy Spirit.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God showers His mercy upon us giving us what we could never achieve on our own: forgiveness, life, and salvation. In His Word He lovingly teaches us so that our faith will be strong, enduring until the end.
And this is what drives the compassion of the Church. We have received from God eternal blessings for an eternal life. How can we not share our temporal blessings with others in this temporal life?
And yet that has been, at times, the case. We in the Church have soaked up the forgiveness of our sins and the teachings of the Bible only to ignore the needs of those around us. We are more than happy to receive from God. We are not always as willing to give to others.
This is, in large part, because service and love, mercy and compassion, are messy. They entangle us with others, and we don’t like to be tied down. We like to be free to do what we want and go where we please. But when we show compassion that draws us into a relationship with someone. That creates a link between us that requires more than the simple writing of a check.
Acts of service are not always big, dramatic, and flashy. They are often small, simple, and unnoticed by the world at large. And that is another reason we shy away from it. Not only does it cost us time and energy, we probably won’t even get a pat on the back for it.
Our sin predisposes us to lean in on ourselves, to think of myself first. So service, love, and compassion are always a struggle. They are an uphill battle against our sinful nature.
That is why we need Jesus. Jesus serves us with His death and resurrection, forgiving our selfishness, atoning for our sinful lack of love. Jesus daily and richly forgives our sins with His Word and Sacraments, washing away each time we have failed to serve, failed to show mercy, failed to be compassionate.
Compassion is not just a one-time event in the history of God. It is a daily outpouring of His grace. We are the constant, moment-by-moment recipients of the mercy of God.
How can we not be filled with mercy and compassion for others? How could we possibly neglect the service of the poor and needy? It is simply not in our nature. It is not in the nature that is ours by faith in Christ Jesus.
I don’t know what this will look like. I really don’t. For the Apostles it meant appointing deacons to make sure the poor had what they needed. It probably won’t be exactly like that for us, but we can begin to consider the possibilities.
What are the needs of our community that our congregation could work toward meeting? What are the needs of your family members, friends, or neighbors that YOU could work toward meeting?
There might be some big and flashy things that need to be done. More likely, however, there are simple things, little acts of compassion, which will help those in need. And we are free to do them.