I’m immersed in Romans 12 thinking about what it means to be the church. What struck me forcefully this morning was the thought that for Paul authentic Christian community will always be characterised by a genuine concern and practical care for those who are in need or are marginalised.
“Rom12: 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. “ ….. The Apostle John explained it like this “17If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John
According to the New Testament if we have genuinely experienced God’s love, then, when we are confronted by need, apathy or indifference will never been an option for us. Instead we will respond in a practical way and do what we can to help. We can’t do everything for everyone, but we are called on to do something practical for the someone we see in need if we can. When we work as a community we can make a powerful impact.
“Practice hospitality.” … This is about way more than being warm and welcoming to people we don’t know when they pop into our worship services. It’s about loving the stranger and all too often in the ancient world, the stranger was a foreigner or someone who was homeless and destitute. Origen the Early church father put it like this “We are not just to receive the stranger when he comes to us, but actually to enquire after and search them out everywhere, lest perchance somewhere they may sit in the streets or lie without a roof over their heads.”
Origen’s words reminded me of the work of the Bethany Christian Trust in Edinburgh through which churches help run the Night Shelter for those who would otherwise be living rough and the Car Van that brings food to those in need on the streets. I think Paul would have approved. This about being a community of sheep rather than goats) (Matthew 25:31-46) A community to which Jesus will one day say “ 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
“Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.” …. Sadly at times Churches have cared for those in need from a paternalistic posture that looks down on them from an attitude of superiority. The tragedy is that, that posture to the poor is ruled out in the church by Paul in Romans 12. Paul says we have not to keep the poor and those in need at a safe distance or look down on them with paternalistic superiority, we are not just to offer food and help but a genuine welcome and friendship, an invitation into community. Eugene Peterson really catches the implications of what is being said here when he translates Paul’s words like this “don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies”
So the NT vision is of churches which are communities where those who are marginalised and in need find practical help, and genuine friendship, when those who have experienced exclusion find themselves warmly and genuinely welcomed.
This surely has something to say to how the church responds to the contemporary problems of homelessness, poverty and refugees?
If we don’t reach out to, welcome and offer practical help to those groups we may be many things but we are probably not the church in Paul’s eyes. As Anthony D’Angelo says this kind of caring is indispensable to creating genuine community, especially Christian community. It is in fact, a hallmark, a defining characteristic of , Christian community. Where there is no genuine welcome for the stranger and no practical help for those in need, there is no church.