But the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
Jesus asked: Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
“Neighbors, as Jesus knew. Can be a not insignificant challenge to anyone’s Christianity.” (Niall Williams. THIS IS HAPPINESS. P 92)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
In the United States today we honor the memory of the courageous human rights advocate Martin Luther King whose own work was derived from his Christian faith. He says:
“There may come a time when it will be possible for you to humiliate your worst enemy or even to defeat him, but in order to love the enemy you must not do it… The Greek language has another word [for love]. It calls it agape. Agape is more than romantic love. Agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men. Agape is an overflowing love, a spontaneous love, which seeks nothing in return. And theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level you love all men, not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, not because they are worthful to you, but you love all men because God loves them. And you rise to the noble heights of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. And I think this is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Love your enemies.‘”
Racial equality is a human rights issue. All Americans who love freedom and independence benefit from the work to have civil rights in America. It is not just minority rights, but human rights – and we all benefit from this. We can see in our country’s history, the struggle we have had to be Christian and to accept the declared vision that all humans are created equal. We realize the significance of the anti-slavery movement in our country to defend Christianity and the Declaration of Independence and human rights as well. The American Antislavery Society motto:
“If you come to us and are hungry, we will
feed you, if thirsty, we will give you drink, if naked,
we will clothe you; if sick, we will minister to your
necessities, if in prison, we will visit you; if you need a
hiding place from the face of pursuers, we will provide
one that even bloodhounds will not scent out.”
The civil rights movement has its origins in Christianity. All Christians who attempt to follow the Gospel commandments will see that a struggle against racism and prejudice is a struggle against the passions and for following Christ.
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. (1 Timothy 1:15)
How are we to look at sinners? St Paul identifies himself as the chief of them (an identity we claim for ourselves before receiving Communion). Jesus says He came to seek and save sinners, which is the Gospel which St Paul proclaims (and how we became part of the Church – Christ seeking us out as sinners and inviting us in). We are to see sinners as Christ sees them – because this is how He also sees us. We are to love them as Christ loves us (John 13:34), for while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We are to treat them as we have been treated by Christ. We are to treat them with the same spirit as Christ treats us. This applies to all of us, but very particularly to those involved in any kind of ministry within the Church.
Fr Alexis Trader writes about how a father confessor, or for that matter, a godparent, should treat their godson or goddaughter who has sinned.
“The virtues of love, faith, and humility should be manifest in the way the spiritual father approaches his spiritual child. Without unfeigned love for the spiritually sick and a desire for their restoration to health, the spiritual father can hardly be considered a spiritual physician at all. Without unshakable faith in God, he might be tempted to pronounce those who have been severely wounded in the Christian life to be dead, because he is blind to the fact that God can raise up both confessors and martyrs from those reckoned to be lost.
“For if, as they used to say, we do not despise little things and think they are of no consequence to us, we shall not fall into great and grievous things. I am always telling you that bad habits are formed in the soul by these very small things – when we say, ‘What does this or that matter,’ – and it is the first step to despising great things. … ‘What does it matter if I find out what this brother is saying or what that guest is doing?’ the mind begins to forget about its own sins and to talk idly about his neighbor, speaking evil against him, despising him, and from this he falls into the very thing that he condemns.
Because we become careless about our own faults and do not lament our own death (as the Fathers put it), we lose the power to correct ourselves and we are always at work on our neighbor. Nothing angers God so much or strips a man so bare or carries him so effectively to his ruin as calumniating, condemning, or despising his neighbor.” (St Dorotheos of Gaza, DISCOURSES AND SAYINGS, pp 131-132)
Now the betrayer [Judas] had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to Jesus at once, and said, “Master!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. (Mark 14:44)
“The greatest sin is, as Christ himself stressed, not the violation of a rule but the action against love or without love.” (Michael Plekon, LIVING ICONS, p 90)
“Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord in Thy Kingdom.” (Prayer before Communion)
“This makes a kind of sense until I look at a child, at all that is wonderful in the world, and then see that creation is both profoundly good and wounded beyond our understanding. The fact that it takes the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection to cut into the ice around our hearts shows the depths of the catastrophe.
And the fact that the catastrophe is often more apparent to us than the goodness of creation is not the way God wanted things to be.” (John Garvey, DEATH AND THE REST OR OUR LIFE, pp 42-43)
“… and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:15-16)
“It is a fundamental Christian belief that suffering and sickness are the consequence of sin. The creation narrative in Genesis makes it clear that humanity was created to dwell in paradise, in the company of God, where, in the words of the funeral kontakion, there is no ‘sickness and sorrow.’ …. Sickness, suffering, and death, therefore, are not normal. Humanity was created not for suffering and death, but for eternal life in communion with God.
As a result of human sin, however, this communion has been broken; and the physical consequences of this break are sickness and death, because apart from God there can be no life, but only death. … The inescapable conclusion is that we all sin, we all suffer, and we all die. … Epidemics, disease, strife, suffering – all remain despite the remarkable progress in technology, science, and medicine.” (Paul Meyendorff, THE ANOINTING OF THE SICK, pp 64-65)
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. . . . And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,
for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… (Ephesians 4:7, 11-13)
As St Paul makes clear the spiritual gifts bestowed on Christians are given to each so that they might contribute to the building up (the edification) of the Church – for the good of all other members of the Church. Spiritual gifts are given for “the work of ministry“until “we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God“. Spiritual gifts are not personal empowerment so that you can lord over other people, nor are they for self-glorification. Spiritual gifts benefit others, they don’t put the person with the gift on a pedestal. Anyone who uses spiritual gifts for personal gain, empowerment, career advancement, prestige or to vaunt oneself over others, has totally abused the spiritual gifts. Though some Christians clamor for power and magic gifts to do miracles, St Paul tells us to desire the higher gifts, especially love (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13).
Sadly, some seek spiritual gifts not so much to minister to others as to become ministers – people with power and position over others. The other church members then become not the neighbor to whom they minister but the people who are to stand in awe of the person with power. It becomes very self-serving and is not love. It is a temptation not only for people with spiritual gifts but for clergy as well.
But such problems are not new in the Church. Even in the ancient Church among the desert fathers we see the same kind of problems – people are people after all.
A brother asked an old man, saying, “How is it that there are at this present time men who labor, but who do not receive grace as the early fathers did?” The old man said unto him, “Formerly love existed, and one brother was raised up by the other; but now love has grown cold, and we each drag the other down, and in consequence we do not receive grace.” (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 3846-48)
Love leads us to build up others and the Church. It teaches us to follow St John the Forerunner’s thought that Christ must increase, but I must decrease. It doesn’t lead to superstars who become rich and famous.
One of the old men used to say, “Formerly, whenever we met each other we used to speak words of profit about each other, and we formed companies, and were lifted up into the heavens; but now when we are gathered together, we come to hateful converse concerning each other, and we drag each the other down to the bottom of the deepest abyss.” (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 3768-71)
We can build each other up, or we can engage in behavior that is spiritually detrimental to others. The endless gossip, love of scandal, pointing out the faults of everyone else, self-vaunting, turning people against each other for our personal advantage – these are all ways that cause the community to decline and to inflict wounds on the body of Christ. Our task is always to love God and neighbor and to serve others as Christ served us.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan waxes eloquently on the same topic – how grand the universe and how tiny we humans are on that grand scale of things:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 395)
I suppose Carl Sagan would roll over in his grave if he knew his writings was going to be used positively in a religious context – but then he didn’t believe in an afterlife, so I guess he won’t be rolling anywhere. But his beautiful prose seemed to go well with the poem, “God”, written by Gavriil Derzhavin in 1784:
If all this mass of earth and sky, This universe that we can see, Is but a drop dropped in a sea, Then what, compared to you, am I? And if I saw not just this one But five score times a million Worlds, and if then I dared compare Them to you, they would seem a dot Tossed on an ample sea of air.
I, too, next to you, am but naught. Nothing!—and yet you shine within me With magnanimity of virtue, Your holy image etched upon me, Like the sun on a drop of water. Nothing!—yet, filled with breath of life, Moved by a spiritual strife And thirst, my soul flies up to you And, in a state of high elation And concentrated meditation, It knows: if I am, you are too!
The vastness of space – the size of the known universe – defies human comprehension. Poets, scientists and the Psalmist all have marveled at the universe and the human role in it. The bigger the universe – or at least our understanding of it – the more distant God can seem. And yet the witness of Scripture is that God is not far away, but always close to us, even dwelling in our hearts. “... they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being‘” (Acts 17:27-28).
Additionally, each human is created as a microcosm of the universe, and God dwells in each of us.
“You must understand that you are another world in miniature, and that there is in you sun and moon and stars. … Hear something else that the Lord says to his disciples: ‘You are the light of the world‘ (Mt 5:14). Do you still doubt that there is sun and moon in you, you to whom is said that you are the ‘light of the world’? Do you want to hear still more about yourself, lest perhance by thinking small and humbly of yourself you might neglect your life as of little worth? This world has its own governor, it has someone who rules it and lives in it, the almighty God, as he himself says through the prophet: ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord‘ (Jer 23:24).
Listen to what the almighty God also says about you, that is about human beings: ‘I will live in them,’ he says, ‘and move among them‘ (2 Cor 6:16). … This world possesses the Son of God, it possesses the Holy Spirit, as the prophet says: ‘By the WORD of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth‘ (Ps 33:6).” (Origen, SPIRIT AND FIRE, pp 40-41)