“Minister Grace and Love” is the message for Week 5 of “Fruitfulness on the Frontline”. The sermon delivered by Rev. Graham Crawford on 08 March 2015.
In this series so far on Fruitfulness on our frontline – or, in other words, how we can become a missional church – we have looked at
- how we can model Godly character, and
- how we can make good work.
Now, we are looking at ministering Grace and Love.
Why ministering grace and love is hard
For many within the church, this is hard.
The Kirk has been infamous for its rigid legalism, for its lack of grace and lack of love, in the past.
Many who have left the church have done so for this very reason: that while we “talk a good talk”, the practice has seemed far away.
People have made mistakes – errors of judgment – and have confessed their faults to God in repentance, often to find themselves shunned and judged still by those within the church.
I remember one story in particular about a church member who went astray, realised it, confessed it, turned her life around and came back to church only to leave again a few short weeks later because she felt so dirty.
The minister tried to reassure her and tell her God had forgiven her.
Her response was so telling: “God may have forgiven me, but your members have not.”
Unfortunately, stories like that are all too familiar in the church.
If I thought it would help the situation I could go on all day with stories I have heard, conversations I have been involved in, within the church, not just here but in America too where grace and love have been shoved aside for judgment and rigid legalism. It is a real issue, it is a real problem – where the church has got a very bad reputation, which will take some years and some very deliberate action to overcome.
The parable of the Good Samaritan
The passage we are asked to consider in this regard is a very well-known one: “The Good Samaritan.”
The trouble is that this knowledge can lead to contempt: “I’ve heard it all before.” “There will be nothing new for me here.”
However, although it is so well known, I think that the parable of the Good Samaritan is often taken out of context and made into a very simple morality tale of needing to do good to those who might be an enemy.
And whilst that is good Gospel practice, I think Jesus is suggesting something far more radical.
So let us hear the scripture again:-
Luke 10:25-37 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)
The parable of the good Samaritan
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
26 ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’
27 He answered, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”[a]; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”[b]’
28 ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
30 In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
36 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
An uncomfortably wide definition of “neighbour”
In a context of being asked what God demands of us, Jesus points to the central action of lives that are shaped by acts of love – love towards God and love towards the people around us, our neighbours.
That may have been unexpected; the law was being distilled to the principle of love.
And then Jesus introduces his next surprise, when he is asked about the specific identity of our neighbour. Jesus widens the definition to include people who would be unexpected for most Jews at that time.
The story forced the lawyer to acknowledge that the man in the ditch, unnamed and anonymous but assumed to be a Jew, discovered that neither the priest not the Levite were his neighbours.
They might have had everything in common with him, but their actions betrayed them.
The shock of the story was that he would discover his neighbour was a Samaritan.
The man in the ditch received the grace and mercy offered by the last person he would have expected.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that, when the lawyer answered Jesus, he couldn’t even name the identity of the one who was the neighbour (10:37).
The man starts confident but ends uncomfortable. Life has just got more complicated for him.
And then Jesus skewers him for one last time with the command: “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus has told him to go and love God with all that he has – and love his neighbour – but to be aware that his neighbour could be very unsettling – someone who came from beyond the borders of the chosen people.
‘Go and do likewise’ presumably means: go and show the same mercy to those who would not expect it; to those who would feel that they were excluded by religious commitment, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, whatever it may be – go and minister grace and love to those who would least expect it from you.
Ministering grace and love on your frontline
What does it mean, on your frontline, to minister grace and love to those who least expect it from you?
It might be a family member or a church member you fell out with years ago. It might be the noisy neighbour who makes life hell for you, at times. It might be the drug addict you see walking along your street every day heading to the chemist to get his dose of methadone or the person walking their dog who does not pick up their mess. It might be the co-worker who has stabbed you in the back in order to try and win a promotion ahead of you or the committee member who tries to get the acclamation for something that you actually did.
How can you minister grace and love to these people in a way that will challenge their expectations and their stereotypes of church members? – for each one requires a different approach.
Each one requires a fine-tuning of grace and a sharpening of love. Each one requires that you search your own heart.
I can suggest ways in which you could minister grace and love in these situations, but each one is unique and will involve a different approach.
You could even have the same situation with two different people and that too would require different approaches.
Grace and love look different in different contexts and so you cannot generalise.
However, I would say that there are certain common threads which prevent us from acting with grace and mercy.
Things which hold us back from ministering grace and love
There is an element of fear: fear of being taken advantage of, fear of being seen as a soft touch, fear of them repeating what had upset you in the first place.
There is often an element of pride.
Take the dog walker whose dog fouls the street.
You can approach this in one of three ways.
You can be judgmental, report them to the authorities and make sure they are fined £250.
You could, if you happen to have a bag in your pocket stop and pick it up while shouting at the walker, I’ll get this, so you don’t have to pay a fine which, unfortunately, is still judgmental.
Or you can just take your plastic bag, pick it up, dispose of it and carry on. That is the way of grace and love – but how many of us would do that? How many of us feel that this is a case of stooping too low? Pride can get in the way.
Sometimes I believe we think we are too busy: I don’t have time to deal with this right now. I’ll just carry on, instead of taking the time and the energy in order to minister to the person.
The Good Samaritan might have been rushing to get somewhere in a hurry. He could have said he didn’t have time to deal with the injured man, but he made time for him. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to a place where he could heal.
He had things to do, he had places to be, he doesn’t just stay there, but – when he has done what he needed to do – he came back to settle the bill.
He knew that ministering grace and love were more important than anything else and it is that realisation that helps us to make time – to quell our pride and our fear – and gives us the clear course of action.
For that is often the biggest obstacle of all: not being sure of what we can do to show grace and love in a situation – of being unsure in our ministry.
Help from the Holy Spirit
But, once we are committed to this way of living, one of God’s promises is that the Holy Spirit will grant us discernment and will help us steer a course through these pitfalls, helping us to see the people in the ditches of life, who need the grace and love of God to be brought to them, where they are.
The Samaritan did not say to the man: “Get out of the ditch, get cleaned up and then I will be your neighbour.” He went into the ditch, dragged him out of the ditch, ministered to him and by his actions became his neighbour.
However, in our discussion up until this point, we have focused on the Samaritan.
What about the man in the ditch?
He could have been so full of pride and fear that he rejected the grace and love.
He could have said to the man: “I’m not accepting help from you; you’re a Samaritan and I’m a God-fearing Jew! You’ll make me unclean!”
We can fall into that trap too. We can be so fearful, so proud, that we can reject the grace and love of others, particularly others from whom we do not expect it.
We can be suspicious: “Why are they being nice to me all of a sudden? What do they want from me? What do they know that I am unaware of?”
Are we as gracious in our acceptance of grace and love as some people are in giving it? That can often be as difficult as showing grace and love in the first place.
But, do you know something? As with everything that the gospels say, there is only one response. As Jesus said: “Go and do it!”
Go and do likewise
You might not get it right first time. You might not be able to do the big things right off the bat. You might just have to take baby steps, but go and do it, go and try it.
Go and see what even the smallest – seemingly inconsequential – acts of love and grace can do: in your home, in your workplace, in your clubs and pubs.
For, as David Everett wrote in the 18th century –
You’d scarce expect me of my age
To speak in public on the stage;
And if I chance to fall below
Demosthenes or Cicero,
Don’t view me with a critic’s eye,
But pass my imperfections by.
Large streams from little fountains flow,
Tall oaks from little acorns grow.
Plant your little acorns of grace and love today.
With the blessing of the Holy Spirit who knows what tall results will grow.
Image source: Michael Ash via Unsplash