Sermon (preached at Cromer on 5/2/17)
Thank you. This is the fourth of our series on fruitfulness on our front lines – the times we spend with colleagues and friends who are not yet Christian. Today’s subject is ministering grace and love, but before we think about it let’s remind ourselves where Christian fruitfulness comes from.
In John 15 Jesus said, ‘I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean so that it will be even more fruitful… I am the vine, you are the branches.’
Notice three things:
1) We are not individual vines, we are branches of the vine. Jesus is the vine.
2) Just as it is the nature of the grape vine to grow grapes, so it is the nature of Jesus to bear Jesus fruit. When we are thinking of fruitfulness on the front line, or anywhere, we are thinking about Jesus’ fruit – the natural results of Jesus’ life flowing through us.
3) The vine dressers encourage that growth by judicious pruning – the whole purpose is to get as many good grapes as possible. The Father wants us, each branch of the vine, to be as fruitful as possible as Jesus’ life flows through us.
Notice also what Paul says in Galatians 5: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.’ The fruit is not our fruit; it is the fruit of the Spirit living in us. We are in the vine; because we have been born again, we are the same stuff as the vine, we are branches, made in the image of Christ, and the life of the vine flows through us. The life of Jesus flows in us as his Spirit lives in us. As the Spirit flows, the fruit grows. Our part is to remain in Jesus, to keep in step with the Spirit.
With this in mind, let’s return to today’s subject, ministering grace and love. The word ‘love’ is the Greek word ‘agape’, which is not just attraction or friendship, but selflessly wanting the best for someone. ‘Grace’ is love in action for those who don’t deserve it. And the story of the good Samaritan is Jesus’ example of someone ministering love and grace – an example we are all called to follow: ‘Go and do likewise.’
The story is designed to shock the religious questioner out of his complacency. He knew the command to love your neighbour as yourself, but he couldn’t believe God wanted him to love all his neighbours. What if my neighbour was a corrupt tax collector or a godless sinner? What if my neighbour hated me? So Jesus told the story in which the one who ministered grace and love was not one of those whom his hearers would imagine to be the first to help – the good, law-abiding, God-fearing priest or Levite – but one whom his hearers would expect to be the last to help – a hated Samaritan.
What can we learn from this story? We can learn nothing from the priest and the Levite, except perhaps that religious people like us do not always practise what we preach, and are not always the best examples of ministering grace and love. But we can learn lots from the hated Samaritan, and that’s what Jesus intended – not so that we would be more informed, but so that we would be more loving. Let’s see what we might learn for our front lines.
First, we learn to see the person, the person behind the appearances or job title. The Samaritan saw the injured man, and did not think about whether he was a Jew or Samaritan, rich or poor, important or ordinary – he just saw a person, a person who needed help. It is so easy on our front lines to look at someone and label them, slotting them into a pigeon hole: that one is my boss at work, that one is a troublemaker at school, that one listening to me is my doctor, that one with the bags and dishevelled appearance is a down-and-out – we put labels on them, and do not see the person. My boss is a person – she’s having a bad day, because she too is under pressure from her boss, and has an ill child at home. That down-and-out is a person, with a history; in the armed forces he saw things no-one should see, and acted with bravery and discipline. Let’s learn to see the person as Jesus sees them. Jesus is living in us by his Spirit, he knows the person we are looking at and loves them even though by rights they may deserve his wrath; and he wants to see them with our eyes – not by seeing them the way we would naturally see them, but by helping us to see them the way he sees them. The new life of the Spirit that is flowing through us transforms the way we see things – and Jesus says to us, let it flow. See the person.
Second, we learn from the good Samaritan to be ready to meet their needs in practical ways. Ministering grace and love is a work of service, it is practical. The good Samaritan treated the injured man’s wounds and took him to a safe place. In our front lines we may not have many life or death needs to meet; but there are needs and we can choose whether to ignore them or to do what we can to help – provided of course the help would be appreciated. Not all want help; they may prefer to try to cope by themselves, or fear looking less able, or fear being placed under obligation. We all know times when people have helped us and then wanted some kind of pay back, or to be regarded ever after as a benefactor or whatever. If our help is accepted we need to ensure we do not try to attach any such strings. The good Samaritan did what he could – and much more than could have been expected – and then moved on.
Not all needs are physical. Frances and I went on a marriage enrichment course where we were introduced to ten top emotional needs, which most people have. Most people need acceptance, affection, appreciation, approval, attention, comfort, encouragement, respect, security, support. CEOs need these things, office cleaners need them, and while it may not be appropriate for us to seek to meet a particular person’s need for affection or security, for example, we can offer most people acceptance, appreciation, encouragement and respect, for instance. In our home group two weeks ago we were told of a man who always tried to end each conversation with something encouraging. That’s ministering grace and love! Even giving someone a smile can lighten their day.
The important thing is to keep in step with the Spirit. If Jesus in us is wanting us to meet a need, he’ll draw our attention to it. On the other hand, if we’re only too keen to get involved, but it is not what Jesus wants just now, he’ll put a brake on, in our hearts or circumstances. He did not meet every need he saw; neither can we; but we have been created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do, so there will always be opportunities to minister grace and love. Don’t let’s think we can do nothing. One of the most important and most practical ways to help is to pray for people – God can do more than we ask or think – and we can all pray. So let us all be ready to do what we can to meet people’s needs, as the Spirit leads – and to do so with grace, ungrudgingly, like the good Samaritan doing more than the bare minimum.
Third, when we see people with a need we can do something about, we learn from the good Samaritan to be prepared to take the risk of doing it. We are not told why the priest and the Levite walked by on the other side. Perhaps they were afraid the robbers were still near by. I find that many of the excuses I make for not ministering grace and love are based on fear – I’m afraid that I will be misunderstood, or that my offer will be seen as insulting or interfering, or that it won’t be convenient, or people will laugh at me. Sometimes the greatest need is for a rebuke, or an apology – either can be scary. They say that the word ‘Faith’ is spelt R.I.S.K,; perhaps that is equally true of love. Simon and Garfunkel sang, ‘If I never loved I never would have cried.’ We may get hurt. But St John tells us perfect love casts out fear. It doesn’t take away the risk, but love makes us brave enough to act. And the love that acts comes from the God who is love, and from the Spirit flowing within us and growing the fruit of love. Take the risk.
Fourth, the good Samaritan teaches us to be prepared to pay the price of ministering grace and love to our front lines. He had to use some of his oil and vinegar, presumably from his merchandise or his shopping, and he had to use some cloth to bandage the wounds. Did he tear up some clothes? Helping the injured man also took time and money. The priest and the Levite may have decided they didn’t have the resources to help, or that they could not spare the time or the money – and that is so often my reaction to seeing a need. I’d love to help, but not now – it’s too inconvenient or too difficult or too…
Mark Greene, in his book ‘Fruitfulness on the Front Line’, tells the story of Chrissie who was working at the reception counter of the County Court when a young man we’ll call Dave got to the front of the queue. He asked for help filling in an important form, which needed to be done quickly and done right. Chrissie soon realised that Dave had special needs, since every question needed to be explained several times. A long queue was forming behind him, of possibly distressed or upset or angry people, and Chrissie realised she would either have to tell Dave she couldn’t give him any more time or… She went to her section manager and asked if a colleague could staff her counter while she helped Dave. When the form was complete, Dave expressed concern that he wouldn’t be able to get to his day centre in time for lunch. He could phone them but needed help to do so. So Chrissie came out and took him to the phone, called the number for him and explained the situation. When she got back to her place behind the counter her colleagues thought she was mad to go to so much trouble for a bloke like Dave. But as Chrissie put it, ‘I saw a person whom God loved, someone in trouble who needed just a little help.’ Many of us do likewise.
When we do put ourselves out in order to minister grace and love on our front lines, why do we do it? Partly because we can’t help it, as we’ve seen – the Spirit of love is flowing through us, we are branches of the vine and the fruit of the Spirit is growing naturally as we keep in step with him. But there is more. We minister grace and love because we ourselves have received grace and love, the amazing grace of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself up for us.
This is a communion service. We are remembering how Jesus gave bread and wine, saying this is my body, eat it, this is my blood, drink it. Let’s not just go through the motions. He died for us, that we might live with him. He bore our sins, he became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God and become alive to God. When we receive the bread and wine, let’s feed on the grace and love of God, poured out for us in Jesus. And then let’s go and minister his grace and love to those we meet, especially to those colleagues and friends and family who are not yet Christians. But also, of course, to one another.