Acts of love

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Our readings for today speak about the balance between knowledge and action – between what we know in our heads and what we do with our bodies. What we’ll see is that in the Gospels, Psalms and Paul’s letters, actions are more important than knowledge. It is not the knowledge is unimportant – no! Knowledge is important. But acts of love are even more important. The hallmark of a Christian is not so much what they know as what they do.

In our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:21-28) we read about Jesus first ministry. We read that Jesus went into the temple and was teaching. And people were amazed at the authority of his teaching. The people later conclude, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!” Clearly, Jesus’ teaching, based on his knowledge, is important.

However, only 1 verse describes him teaching, and we don’t know what he actually taught. But there are 4 verses describing is actions. While he was teaching a demon possessed man came and challenged Jesus. Jesus cases out the evil spirit and the man is made well. This act of love, this work of love, gathers more attention than his teaching. And the people conclude, “He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”

While both knowledge and actions are present in this Gospel passage, actions are far more detailed and compelling.

If we then turn to Psalm 111, we find a similar pattern. Verses 7 and 10 speak about God’s precepts. A precept is a general guideline or principle; not a ‘law’, which is far more specific and prescriptive. v7 says that God’s precepts are trustworthy and v10 that all who follow the Lord’s precepts have good understanding; it is the beginning of wisdom. Clearly, knowledge of God’s precepts is important.

However, 7 of the 10 verses speak about God’s works: the words of the Lord (v1), his deeds (v3), his wonders (v4), he provides food (v5), she showed his works (v6), the words of his hands (v7) and he provided redemption for his people (v9). Wow! So much attention is given to the actions of God. And these actions are described as being great, delightful, glorious, majestic, righteous, gracious, compassionate, powerful, faithful, just, holy and awesome! These are acts of love, and Psalm 111 is drenched in them.

While both knowledge and action are present in this Psalm, actions are far more prolific and compelling.

And finally, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul provides some rather complex teaching about eating food offered to idols. I do not want us to get too bogged down in the specifics of the teaching, but rather to focus on what Paul says here about knowledge and action. In the opening verses, Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” This sentence is so direct and clear – knowledge makes us feel bigger and more important, while actions of love build up the community. And then he continues, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” He cautions against over confidence in knowledge – that we may think we know a lot, but we may actually be wrong. And he continues again, “But whoever loves God is known by God”, though there is an alternate reading (in the footnote of the NIV), “But whoever loves truly knows.” Paul’s warning about knowledge is balanced with an emphasis on love. Acts of love are what are most important, says Paul.

In the rest of this passage Paul explains about eating food sacrificed to idols, and the crux of his argument is that acting on the basis of right knowledge rather than on loving consideration of the needs of others harms these other people. Indeed, Paul says that they are “destroyed by your knowledge” and that this is to “sin against them” and indeed to “sing against Christ” (vv11-12). And he concludes this passage saying that he would rather act against his own knowledge, to protect others from falling (v13).

In other words, what is most important is not for us to act on what we believe to be right, or even on what is actually right, but to act out of love for others, so as not to harm others. In summary, it is better to be kind than to be right.

All three passages today give us the same clear, strong and compelling message: Knowledge, while important, is not what is most important to God. What is most important to God, is that we act in love towards others.

What, then, will you do with this knowledge? How can you put into practice this precept, that loving actions towards others are more important than all the knowledge in the world?

Let me make one practical suggestion. Or rather, let me present this to you as a challenge and urge you to make a decision now to act on this. With the lockdown, churches have had to close their doors and we no longer see our sisters and brothers like we used to. This results in a fragmentation of the church community, and as a result, people may feel disconnected and alone, and their faith may wane.

I challenge you to identify two or three people who would normally have spoken to at church, but because you’ve not seen them for a while, you’ve not spoken with them. Give them a call or drop them a note. Reach out to them. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they need anything. Ask what you can do to support them. Show them the love of God. In so doing, we will work to build up our church community, the body of Christ.

Featured image from https://www.alovingcompany.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/iStock_000005355205Small3-e1362098423422.jpg

Kindness

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We live in a world that seems to be increasingly self-centred, selfish, self-serving, self-obsessed. A world that seems often harsh, intolerant, judgmental, hostile and exclusionary. We are seeing a growth in nationalism – people putting their country’s needs first and subordinating or even rejecting the needs of the global community. Perhaps the world has always been this way. But it seems to me to be a growing trend over the past several years.

What do we as Christians do in such context?

When we want to know how to be behave in the world, the best place to go is to the Gospel narratives, to see how Jesus behaved. And to hear how Jesus spoke – not just his teachings, but what he said to people informally and how he spoke to and engaged with people.

In Matthew 15 we find the story of Jesus feeding the four thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread. The story starts with Jesus healing people of a wide array of afflictions, leaving the crowds amazed. But in the middle of this story is a profound verse that ties the entire story together:

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” 

What we see here in Jesus is kindness. He is kind. We could say ‘compassionate’ and that would be correct. But ‘kind’ is a much simpler, shorter word. It is the word a child is likely to use.

If we scan through the pages of the Gospels, we will see more and more examples of Jesus being kind. He is thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, responsive, engaged, attentive, slow, open, willing, touchy, generous. in a word: kind.

Psalm 23 is also a set reading for today: The Lord is my shepherd. The shepherd also is kind. Indeed, there are numerous passages in the first and second testaments about shepherds who care for and protect their sheep, who seek lost sheep, who bind up and heal injured sheep, who fight off wild animals. These images of shepherding are images of kindness.

Jesus was kind – let us be kind.

Painting by Lester Kern,
from https://www.amazon.com/He-Walks-Me-Religious-Unframed/dp/B011O9Q2MA

Turn to Christ’s right

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or click here to watch the video on Facebook (start play at about 18:10 to watch just the sermon).

Today is the Festival of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the church’s annual calendar and the day on which we celebrate Christ as the King of the Universe.

There are numerous passages in the Bible that present Christ as not just a great teacher, healer and prophet, but also as the King of the Kingdom of God, as the King of Universe, as the Cosmic Christ, For example, Matthew 25:31, Ephesians 1:20-22, Philippians 2:9-11 and Colossians 1:15-19.

Our primary readings for today are Matthew 25:31-46 and Ezekiel 34:1-24. Both readings focus on Christ as King – Ezekiel in the form of a prophecy and Matthew in Jesus’ own words about the return of the Son of Man. And both passages tell us the same thing about what Christ will do when he returns:

Christ will separate humanity

Christ will divide us in two groups: those on his right who will inherit eternal life and those on his left who will go away to eternal punishment. This splitting of the world into two distinct groups is hard for us to grasp and accept, but this is what the passages say.

Matthew divides the world into the sheep on Christ’s right and goats on Christ’s left. Ezekiel prophesies two further divisions. First, the sheep on the right and neglectful shepherds on the left. And second, a dividing of the sheep into the lean sheep on the right and the fat sheep on the left.

This separation that the Son of God will create leaves:

  • Sheep (lean/thin sheep) on the right
  • Goats, neglectful shepherds and fat sheep on the left

Surely, we want to be on Christ’s right!

Our passages give us clear, detailed reasons for this separation, which show that we have a great deal of control over which group we may be assigned to in future.

Matthew 25 makes it clear that the division is not based on our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, of our adherence to Christian doctrine, our participation in Church, our tithing, etc. No! Instead, the separation is based on kindness to those who are vulnerable. That’s it. Such a simple thing, it might seem. Just kindness. Compassion. Caring. The sheep who go to the right hand of Christ as those who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40).

Ezekiel 34’s first separation is the shepherds from the sheep. The shepherds here are the leaders of Israel. In our time, the shepherds are the pastors of the church – ministers, priests, clergy – as well as lay leaders – wardens, councillors, elders, ministry leaders. God’s charge against the shepherds was that they did not take care of their flock. They were neglectful, so that the flocks became vulnerable to wild animals. Even worse, the shepherds were eating the sheep entrusted into their care! Thus the Lord says, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ez 34:10). Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for the flock, specifically by those into whose care the flock has been placed, i.e. church leaders.

And Ezekiel 34’s second separation is a separation within the flock of sheep – the fat from the lean. This is not a commentary on body size! Instead, the fat sheep are those members of a church who inflate themselves at the expense of others. The Lord says, “You [the fat sheep] shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak [lean] sheep with your horns until you have driven them away” (Ez 34:21). The separation is based on bullying, criticising and breaking down each other in a church. Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for each other within the flock.

How then do we turn to Christ’s right?

We as individuals – and we as a church community (for my congregation, it is the parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton) – can and should live our lives in such a way that we keep turning to Christ’s right, turning to the right, turning to Christ’s right. And we can do that on a day-to-day basis by showing kindness and compassion to those who are going through hard times, by caring for the God’s people if we hold positions of leadership in the church, and by treating each other kindly within the church community.

It’s kind of simple really!

Keep turning to Christ’s right

Early 20th Century reproduction of a 6th century mosaic, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/466573