Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Define Neighbor (Luke 10:25-37)

"And he said, He that shewed mercy on him.
Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.”    Luke 10:37

Image courtesy of Pixabay
The parable of the Good Samaritan was offered in conjunction with the Great Commandment in the Gospel According to St. Luke.   The Great Commandment was also given in Matthew 22:36-40 in response to the challenge of a trick question, as several opponents were trying to trip Jesus up with his words. Much like in modern politics, they wanted to get Jesus to say something they could then take a little soundbite from, twist it around and turn it into a controversy.

Jesus was teaching after the disciples had returned rejoicing from their missionary journey.  A lawyer asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responded by asking the lawyer what his thoughts were, and the lawyer answered with what would become known as the Great Commandment, to love God and neighbor. These laws came from the ancient times, from the same Law of Moses people quote so emphatically about all kinds of other issues.  Jesus elevated these to the most prominent position of all the laws in the Bible.

Jesus later emphasized, in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week, that these two commandments are the most important of all.  Even though many people often prefer and argue others, these are the ones Jesus says provide the basis for interpreting “all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). Two days later Jesus took this commandment to an even higher level.  On the way to the Garden where he would be arrested, Jesus gave the New Commandment, for us to love each other as he has loved us.  This view encompasses much more territory.  Christ has loved and accepted us with all our baggage and so we are also expected to love and accept others along with whatever that may entail.

The love and acceptance illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan is what makes it so popular among people of all different religious views, and even many who claim no religious affiliation.  The lawyer had a follow-up question, like in press conferences, “Who is my neighbor?" We may decide we will love our neighbors, but then we might also want to limit our definition of who that means. We might be tempted to have a narrow view, confined to those who think and act like us to the point we are picking only those who resemble the image we see in the mirror.  Jesus had a much broader view, calling us to consider everyone as our neighbor and to love accordingly.

One characteristic of the neighbor in this parable is that the Samaritan did not pick the neighbor, but rather met him in an entirely chance encounter. Most of the people we know have been met by chance.  Many different circumstances come together in the crossing of each other’s paths.  We had no choice in the places or the families into which we were born, or the cultures in which we were raised.  Many factors about our lives and the people we know are completely outside of our control.  So it was with the Good Samaritan.  Jesus used that very phrase, “by chance,” in reference to the first passerby (Luke 10:31).  None of the characters in the parable are presented as having been in this situation by anything but chance.

Another characteristic, according to this parable, is that the concept of neighbor includes everyone without exception. The parable sets the standard for inclusive acceptance of everybody regardless of who they are, what they believe or how they practice their faith. God expects us to find it in our hearts to love and accept everyone into our fellowship as fully and freely as Christ has accepted us.

For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Those are very inclusive words in that verse. Any words we might choose to replace “world” or “whosoever” with anything less inclusive would diminish what the Bible says.  Jesus did not narrow his concept in the least.  When Christ gave his life at Calvary it was for all, without exception.  If we exclude anyone at all, our view is narrower than what God had in mind in sending Christ to be our Savior.  No one is excluded, as communicated in the words of this famous verse.  As Christ died for all, so we live for all, extending the same love and grace Christ has extended to us.

Unconditional love is characterized in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The victim was not assisted because of his merit or to compensate him for any good works.  Nor was he helped because of his ability to repay.  Jesus had several other teachings and parables illustrating the importance of loving even those who would never be able to return the favor. Not even was there a limit placed on the extent of need required. The parable concludes with the Samaritan promising to compensate the inn keeper for whatever other expenses might accrue in meeting the needs of this neighbor, no matter what they may be. There were no restrictions, and there were no conditions.

Think about the characters in this passage. The robbers left the traveler for dead, but so did the religious people who perpetuated his circumstances when they went by and left him in the same condition.  Those who actually helped included the donkey who served as an ambulance and the inn keeper who provided hospitalization and served as medic. The issues raised by Jesus in choosing a Samaritan as the main character of this parable bear striking resemblance to our current events in terms of race, religion, marriage and other timeless issues people argue about today in church and society.

"Let us go and do likewise, regarding every [person] as our neighbor who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between [person and person], and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other." John Wesley, Notes on the New Testament (1755), on Luke 10:37.

The parable of the Good Samaritan invites us to unite with those of every age before us in forwarding to the next generation God’s plan of salvation through acceptance and love.  The definition of the word “neighbor” provided by Jesus in this parable encompasses everyone without exception or limitation.  We are invited to address the issues of our day with the same response Jesus indicated to the lawyer at the conclusion of the parable, “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Sunday, May 1, 2016

John 14:23-29 -- Home in the Heart

"Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words:  
and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him,
 and make our abode with him.”   John 14:23

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Continuing their walk from the Upper Room to Gethsemene, the conversation between Jesus and all the apostles except for Judas had taken a heavenly turn.  Jesus spoke to them about his spiritual home as he centered himself in preparation for the events surrounding the Crucifixion.  Importantly, he talked about this eternal dwelling place as a home to be shared by all who love him and cherish his words.  With such people, he promised, God the Father and the Son would come and make their home.  Charles Wesley reminded us of where this home is, concluding his lengthy hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (1739) with the words

Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven.

Jesus promised the Father would send the Comforter in the name of Jesus. He identified this Comforter as the Holy Ghost, who would teach us and bring the teachings of Jesus into our remembrance.  He also promised us his own divine form of peace.  His peace is different than any other peace, the types with which we are familiar.  The peace of Christ is the kind that stills our hearts and vanquishes our fears. This is the centering peace Jesus demonstrated on that very evening as he made his way to Gethsemene to be arrested.  It is the peace of one who is at home in a loving heart.

Jesus wants to share this heavenly home with us even now, and during every moment of our life in this world and extending throughout the life of the world to come. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20 NIV).  At the beginning of this same chapter fourteen, John reported how Jesus told the apostles about the many dwelling places in the Father's house, and his promise to take us there. The Bible concludes with a description of the City of New Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven.

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, 
Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, 
and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, 
and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; 
and there shall be no more death, 
neither sorrow, nor crying, 
neither shall there be any more pain (Revelation 21).


Sunday, April 24, 2016

John 13:31-35 -- Mandate to Love

"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; 
 as I have loved you, that ye also love one another."  
John 13:34

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Jesus and eleven of the Twelve were walking from the Upper Room to Gethsemene on the night he gave himself up for us.  Judas was off making arrangements to betray Jesus with a token of love, a kiss. They had all been celebrating the Passover.  Jesus had instituted the Lord's Supper and washed his disciples' feet.  As this group of friends walked, they talked and sang hymns.  Soon they would arrive at the Garden, where Jesus would pray, "not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42).  He would be arrested and spend the night being tortured in mock trials before his crucifixion the next day. As they walked along, Jesus told several parables and summarized his teaching and ministry.

The New Commandment is the core and apex of the Gospel.  By precept and example, Jesus had demonstrated love and had elevated the Old Testament commandments about love for God and neighbor to the most prominent place among all commandments. On this night of his betrayal and suffering, he fulfilled the meaning of the ancient commandments, bringing them together in his relationship with all who love him.  Our mandate is to love as Christ loves us.  This way of living out the commandments to love, Jesus revealed, would be the mark by which everyone would be able to distinguish his true followers.

Loving as we have been loved makes love personal.  We each have experienced something we are expected to faithfully share with each other and the world.  Together, our relationships formed through the bond of this shared authority reflect God's infinite love for all.  Our commission is to love everyone into fellowship with Christ.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

John 10:22-30 -- The Voice of Love

"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."   John 10:27

The shepherd knows the sheep.
Photo courtesy of Free Bible Images.
The religious leaders complained that Jesus wasn't being clear with them about his identity.  From the beginning Jesus had been clearly stating his mission. They seemed to be using their constant challenges to undermine him.  He said that his works bear witness to the truth of his words. Jesus concluded the Good Shepherd analogy he had been using, having declared himself "the Good Shepherd" (John 10:14), by comparing the response of those who hear his voice to that of the sheep who recognize the voice of their shepherd.  He had emphasized that with the right kind of shepherd, the sheep are safe and free to come and go as they please.  The Twenty-third Psalm, best known since a thousand years before Christ, continues to communicate the message of God's love and protection through the pastoral imagery of a shepherd.  Jesus stated plainly enough, "I and my father are one." 
      God communicates with believers.  We hear God's voice, and God hears ours. "In the rustling grass I hear him pass; He speaks to me everywhere" (Maltbie D. Babcock, This is My Father's World, 1901).  Elijah testified that his encounter with God occurred not in the wind or earthquake or fire, but in a "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:11-13).  God hears everything we say, but how much of what God says do we hear?  We each have a personal relationship with God. With any relationship, we enter into friendship, cultivate growth and explore the infinite mystery we discover in each other.  As the sheep learn to trust and follow the shepherd, so we learn to trust and follow the leading of Christ.
     We are invited to listen to Christ as our Good Shepherd.  Listening begins with a sincere desire to know what God wants to communicate.  Our intentional effort to concentrate on hearing and recognizing God's voice is required.  Cheryl and Kelly and Ryan have a contest every year for who is first to hear a whippoorwill.  If they want to hear, they have to know what one sounds like and be listening for the call.  Another part of hearing God speak is to implement what we have already heard.  Collectively, we are invited to share what we are hearing.  This we do by listening to each other's testimonies, coming to a common understanding of what God is saying to and through us, and following Christ in consensus.  We are also invited to help the world learn to listen.  We are invited to be the messengers and to communicate God's love through our good works.  We demonstrate what it means to listen to the Good Shepherd by listening to those around us.