Thoughts about a Compassionate Diocese
The last session at the Clergy retreat was about a compassionate Diocese. Here is an excerpt from that session.
We hear that “the lifestyle of Christians is hard to distinguish from unbelievers …. Our need for wholeness … can only be met and sustained by love without strings attached. God loves like that, and the early Christians seem to have been so warmed by his love that it bound them together and flowed naturally from them.”
We should remember that the early Church received praises from even its critics because of its love for outsiders especially the poor and the sick.
The Bible calls God’s people to demonstrate compassion as a reflection of God’s nature and kingdom. The Old Testament characterizes God’s reign fundamentally in terms of righteousness and justice, declaring that these two qualities form the foundation of His throne (Psalms 89:14; 97:1,2). As such, God expects His people to embody these qualities. In the Old Testament, righteousness and justice relate especially to God’s holy character and to the expectations of a holy people created in His image (Genesis 1:26,27; 1 Kings 10:9). Our holy God hates oppression and injustice, which most often victimize the poor and needy.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ work on the cross makes salvation available to all people (Luke 18:25; John 3:5). Christ’s followers are transformed to be like Jesus. This includes sharing His compassion for the world. To be saved is to be Kingdom-hearted —and to embody the concerns of the King. Those who come to faith in Christ experience a radical reorientation of their lives, including a newfound concern for the poor.
We see this played out in a number of scenarios in Scripture. For example, Zacchaeus comes to faith in Jesus and gives half his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8–10). Conversely, those who fail to make Jesus Lord and embody His concerns go away sad, their love of wealth proving a hindrance to Kingdom participation (Luke 18:23). Thus, our attitudes and priorities reveal Christ’s influence in our lives.
A compassionate Diocese reflects the characteristics of the One we profess as our King. In showing compassion, our goal is not to usher in a utopian society — or even the kingdom of God. Only God brings about His kingdom. But by showing compassion, we give evidence that the King of Righteousness dwells among us and within us. How odd it would be to proclaim God as Lord and King — a God who demonstrates great concern for the poor (1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 113:7) — and not also practice His priorities. When we disregard the King’s concerns, we are not His faithful subjects.
The gospel is credible all by itself. It doesn’t need us to make it credible. It is credible and authoritative because it has its origin in God (2 Peter 1:21). It is literally “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). Yet the conduct of the Christian community goes a long way in determining whether the credible gospel will get a fair hearing. If our lives don’t line up with what we say, our message will not likely provoke serious thought.
Numerous passages in Scripture link faith in Jesus to the expectation of deeds reflective of that faith. Jesus tells Nicodemus: “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:21). Similarly, Paul says those who believe in God are “careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 3:8). Scripture doesn’t allow for the separation of our calling to preach the gospel from our calling to live it out. How we live in the world has much to say about the degree to which we have truly heard and understood Jesus’ words.
Another way in which our compassion serves the mission of the Diocese is through the embodiment of hope. According to Galatians 6:10, we should do good to all people. As Christians serve one another, as well as outsiders, through acts of love and kindness, ministry to the poor and needy, and concern for the sick, we demonstrate the incomparable qualities that await us when Jesus returns and brings about the final resurrection.
We are called to show forth the eternal kingdom of God by precept and example. We should be a microcosm of the future to which God is leading us, a future of healing and wholeness in every area of life.
In the Book of Revelation, we read of the future that awaits God’s people. “They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16,17). What a future promise! Can we share with the poor and needy, here and now, a foretaste of this future promise?
When we as a Diocese respond to those who hunger and thirst and lack basic necessities for life, when we comfort those who mourn, we become a community that embodies the hope we proclaim.
This is precisely the idea behind embodied hope. As the Church, empowered by the Spirit, embodies the qualities of our heavenly destiny, we hold forth a taste of a truly first-class life — the abundant life Jesus promises (John 10:10). As unbelievers experience these dynamic qualities, it becomes increasingly difficult to return to a life apart from Christ.
Most errors relating to compassion arise from a faulty understanding of the biblical kingdom of God. Those who understand the Kingdom in entirely earthly terms often focus on Scripture’s ethical and moral teachings, while neglecting aspects such as personal sin and judgment. Others, concerned only with the future aspect of God’s kingdom, emphasize saving souls while overlooking other human needs.
Scripture refutes both lopsided views of the kingdom of God. Jesus taught the Kingdom as both a present and future reality (Matthew 7:21; Luke 11:20). So the first key to preventing compassion from eclipsing our missional witness is maintaining the biblical balance of a present and future kingdom of God — the already and the not yet. By staying balanced, we can avoid overemphasizing the gospel’s social and compassionate mandate. Likewise, we can avoid an entirely future view of the Kingdom that lacks contemporary relevance and leaves the Church seeming cold and calloused regarding present human suffering.
We should not view compassion as a platform or entry point for gaining people’s trust. If compassion is not genuinely part of our life in Christ, our actions become disingenuous. We find ourselves in the awkward and unbiblical position of feigning love in order to preach about love — a position completely foreign to the life and ministry of Jesus. When it becomes obvious that our love was merely a means to an end (and it will become obvious if that is the case), we risk leaving the person worse off than they were before. Then, instead of simply being ignorant of the gospel, they may become openly hostile to it.
While we cannot lead people to Christ apart from sharing the gospel message, it is unlikely our message will receive serious consideration if our lives contradict what we proclaim. And so the apostle John instructs us, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
Apart from evangelism, compassion can only offer temporal comfort. But humanity needs more than comfort. It needs salvation. And we declare that salvation best when we preach the good news and engage in good deeds. Let us be rooted, missional and compassionate.
In Christ Jesus,
Bp. J. A. Morales, OSB, DD