Compassionate Religion

In 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the passing the Edict of Milan. Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire. Although Constantine’s decision was enforced throughout the empire, it was not unanimously accepted. There were some that desired Rome to return to her pagan traditions. Julian the Apostate was one who desired such a return. He was the last non-Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire serving from 361 to 363 A.D. Julian was a gifted philosopher and an outspoken critic of Christianity. Julian, like many today, had a disdain for Christians and their traditions. And yet, his complaint against Christians would sadly be uncommon today. In one letter to the High Priest of Galatia, Julian complained about the Christian Galilaeans:

Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues…For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.1 Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.[1]

Julian, an enemy of Christianity, believed the compassion to the poor, kindness to strangers, care for the dead and holy lives were the number one reason for the increase of Christians in the Roman empire. The 4th Century Christians cared not only for their own poor, but the poor throughout the empire.

            Christians were clearly identified by their compassion. Can the same be said today? Are Christians known for their compassion? Of course this is a loaded question. The answer may vary depending on who you ask and in what community or country it is asked, but it is question that we must ask. Are American Christians known for their compassion? Are South Carolina Christians known for their compassion? Are Rock Hill Christians known for their compassion? Are we at Park Baptist Church known for our compassion?

            I believe this question is an important one as we consider the sanctity of human life this Sunday morning. There have been over 58 million abortions in the United States since Roe vs. Wade in 1973. There have been over 46,000 abortions in the first 17 days of this year. Each number is not only a statistic, but a human life. Each number is filled with the agony and regret of a mother, father, grandparents or siblings. Each number is filled with a number of complex reasons that may only make sense to a few. Each number represents far more than we could possibly imagine. This morning, we are not going to examine all the reasons women decide to have abortions, but to examine if we are the kind of people that men and women would turn to when considering that decision. I want us to ask if we have the compassion of Christ. And if we are lacking compassion, how do we get it?

Do you have the Compassionate Hearing of Christ?

            James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote a very practical letter to the churches. It has been referred to as the Proverbs of the New Testament. The letter is simple, but it is powerful. The best advice may not be difficult to understand, but difficult to follow. James 1:19, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Listen before you speak. You have to listen if you are to think before you speak. You have to listen to work to understand someone before you speak.

            We know all know this to be sound advice. I am sure we have all experienced the frustrating reality of someone not listening to us. Someone who is not listening to hear what we have to say, but only is waiting for us to stop talking so they can make their point. It feels very different during a conversation when someone is actively listening. They are not just hearing the words coming out of your mouth, but they are seeking to understand your perspective. Active listening is essential for a good relationship and is a sign of true humility. Active listening takes time.

            Our world values expediency. We love convenience. The development of email, text messages and social media has changed the way we communicate. Face to face conversations with friends are becoming rarer. It is difficult to engage in a conversation without having the other person check their cell phone or to have yourself pulled away from that ominous “Bing” that alerts you to a new message. Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear and slow to speak. James’ words are becoming more and more important as the speed of our world continues to increase. Active listening is also a sign of compassion. Listening to someone’s pain and problems communicates care and love. Think about how the gracious love that God shows us in how He listens to our prayers. We are told to cast our anxieties on Him because he loves us. God is actively listening to His people. He inclines His ear towards his people.

            The Lord’s listening is an ever-present model for us. His patience and perseverance towards us should be an example of how we are to communicate to others. The Lord had every right to express His wrath and anger towards us because of our sin. Although God had the right to be angry, he chose to lavish us with kindness. 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Anger and rash words are an indication that we have forgotten the Lord’s patience.  We are called to reflect the righteousness of God to a lost and hurting world. When we do not listen and seek to understand others, but respond rashly and with anger, we are not modeling the patience and kindness God has towards us. We forget our past sin. We hold others to a standard that God has not held towards us.

            Beloved, let us never forget that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Jesus came to us when we were at our worst to save us. Jesus is patient with sinners. If you come this morning having struggled with sin this past week, God is patient with you. Allow his kindness to lead you to repentance. He does not want you to experience wrath, but patience. One of the reasons I have always loved the Apostle Paul was the fact that he never forgot his salvation. He was willing to endure hateful speech and harsh persecution because he knew his salvation was a sign to others. He said:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

Paul never forgot that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. The kindness God showed Paul through Jesus Christ was an example to all who would come after him. The same is true for us. And when we forget God’s kindness towards us by lashing out anger and hasty speech, we obscure the gospel. We are not witnesses of the resurrection power of God, but showing we have forgotten that we have been cleansed by our former sins.

            What does this have to do with sanctity of life? If our reputation as Christians is not that of patient listening, but harsh, rash words, why would a woman considering an abortion come to us for advice? If we are not full of compassion, then people will not turn to us to receive the compassion of Christ!! Are you quick to judge or quick to give compassion? Are you slow to speak and quick to hear?

            Sadly, I believe most non-Christians do not believe the church is compassionate. And the lack of compassion is leading younger Christians to turn away from the church and to become more accepting of sinful practices such as abortion and same-sex marriage. They may understand the doctrine of the church, but they do not understand that attitude of the people. If we are going to have a place to offer the life-giving patient Word of God, then we must be people of compassion.

            How do develop the compassionate hearing of Christ? James 1:21, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” We repent of our sin and humbly accept God’s Word. James uses an image of soil clothing. If someone has dirty clothes, they need to take off or put away the filth and put on fresh clothes. We turn from sin and we turn to God. We accept the Word spoken of Jesus. We accept that we cannot clean ourselves, but turn to Him who is able to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all our unrighteousness.

            If we are a humble people, we will be a listening people. We must first listen to God. As we sit under his Word, both privately and publicly, God will bring righteousness in and through our lives.

Do you have the Compassionate Hands of Christ?

            We first must hear God’s Word, but we must never be hearers only. We must be doers of the Word. James 1:22-25,

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

It is not enough to hear the Word. We must be doers of the Word. James uses the image of a mirror. A mirror was a common symbol in the 1st century used as a metaphor for moral development[2]. He is pointing out two common mistakes made by those who encounter the Word.

            The first is viewing the Word only in theory. We may seek to understand its meaning, but we do not work to apply it to how we live. The Word of God is like a theory, but is a practical one that should affect every area of our lives.[3] The second mistake is to only glance upon the Word without an intention to obey. It is as if someone approaches a mirror believing they already look fine and therefore do not pay attention to how the mirror reflects our appearance.

            James encourages Christians to look into the perfect law (i.e. the Word of God) and to obey it. This means that when we come to the Word both publicly and privately we should always be asking, “What must I obey?” I have been studying and reading a lot lately about Christians in other parts of the world. I have been convicted that the majority of world Christians approach the word with an expectation of obedience. Christianity is growing in South America, Africa and Asia because when Christians read the Word, there is an expectation of obedience.

 The Word is supposed to bring about the obedience of faith. One of the questions that you should consider following this sermon or at the end of a Bible study is, “What did I hear that I need to obey?” Maybe over lunch or when you are hanging out after the service ask one another, “What from the message did the Holy Spirit convict you of to lead you to obedience?” Let us encourage one another not to be hearers only, but doers of the Word. God’s Word demands a response.

Do you have the Compassionate Heart of Christ?

            Lastly, let us consider if we have the heart of Christ. Jesus was full of compassion. His compassion was expressed to the hurting, the outcast, the lame, and the poor. Jesus came to those who were weary to give them rest. He came to the hurting to give them healing. He came to the least of these to show them love. Do we have his heart? James 1:26-27,

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James is concerned that his readers are not self-deceived. It is very easy to think more highly of ourselves than it is to think with sober judgment. We rationalize our own behavior by comparing it to others rather than comparing it to the Word of God.

            When James says if anyone thinks he is religious he clearly means if anyone thinks he has faith in Jesus. For James, to be religious means to have faith in Jesus. Before we look at what James defines as pure religion or faith in Jesus, do not miss the implication that people can be self-deceived. There are some who believe they are Christians, but are wrong. If you do not believe that people can be self-deceived, watch American Idol. There are thousands of people who have gone before the judges believing they have the best voice in the world only to have their dreams shot down. If you watch them, everyone knows they can’t sing, but they will not believe it. Even after they receive professional advice that they are awful singers, they are defiant, holding on the hope that they really are the best.  James is saying that it is possible to be an American Idol singer. It is possible to say one is a Christian and to be wrong.

            James says to the one who claims they have faith in Jesus, but does not control their tongue that their faith is worthless. They are self-deceived. True Christians should be easily identified by their speech. One’s speech reveals one’s heart. If you have unworthy speech then you have an unworthy heart. If your speech is filled with anger then your heart is full of anger. If your speech is full of filth then your heart is full of filth. If your speech is filled with bitterness then your heart is full of bitterness. Do not be deceived. Out of the heart, the mouth speaks. People who do not bridle their tongues need to receive with meekness the Word of God which is able to save their souls.

            James does not merely stop at one’s speech, but he turns towards how people care for the powerless. He says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” We see that God has a concern for two aspects of our lives here. He cares about our holiness as well as our care for the powerless. First, we are called to keep ourselves from being stained by the world. The church should look different from the world. The church represents the righteousness of God to our world. Secondly, God cares for the powerless. He has a heart for orphans. At the center of the Universe is a Father who has a heart for adoption. He wants to adopt orphans. We were once lost and helpless and God sent Jesus Christ so that we could be adopted into his family. Romans 8:14-17,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

We have been called sons and daughters of God. God cares deeply about adoption. In teaching on his passage, John Piper makes the direct application to abortion. He writes,

What does abortion have to do with orphans? The connection I see is this: God wants us to be concerned about orphans because they are helpless without mother and father, and we should feel compassion for the helpless who depend utterly on others for life. Picture a three-year-old child riding in his safety seat on the back seat of a car with his mommy and daddy riding in the front. There is a terrible crash and both mommy and daddy are killed. The child has minor injuries, but is okay. The hospital officials check and discover there are no grandparents and no other family members known. This is a heartbreaking situation. And God says to the church, step in there and take care of that child.

So orphans are children whose parents have died and left them at the mercy of others to take care of, lest they die. How does abortion relate to that? Well, abortion puts the child in a worse situation. The parents are not dead, but they have turned on the child and choose to have the child dead. This is worse than being an orphan. To have Mommy and Daddy choose to have you dead is worse than Mommy and Daddy being dead.

So it seems to me that if God wants us to care about the orphan whose life is endangered because his parents are dead, he would want all the more that we care about the child whose life is endangered because his parents choose to make him dead[4].

What would happen if the church had compassion for orphans? What would happen if the church was known for not caring only for their own children, but the world’s as well?

            Beloved, there are orphans in our world. There are orphans whose parents are dead and there are orphans whose parents choose to make them dead. Abortion is a harsh reality of our time. Let us be known as a people who are quick to hear and slow to speak. Let us be a people who are quick with compassion and overflowing with grace and mercy. Jesus Christ came for both the hurting and those who hurt. He did not come to call the healthy, but the sick. Beloved, our world is sick, so let us apply the healing power of the gospel to the children whose lives are endangered and to those who endanger them. Our gospel demands both. Jesus has a heart full of compassion. Let us desire a heart like his.

 

[1] http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/julian_apostate_letters_1_trans.htm accessed 1.16.2015

[2] Richardson, Kurt A. James. Vol. 36. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/visiting-orphans-in-a-world-of-aids-and-abortion accessed 1.17.2016