As Lutherans, we confess that the true Church is the totality of all believers in Christ and therefore it is invisible. On the other hand, we confess that the visible Church is found wherever “the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (AC VII). These two marks, “the pure preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution,” (Walther, Church and Ministry Thesis V) are the infallible indicators of the Church. Where even just two or three are gathered and these marks are present – there is the Church.
Yes, these are the marks of the Church, but have we addressed everything that our Lord commanded for His Church? What about the Great Commission? In this increasingly hostile and humanistic culture, it is not enough to just gather ourselves together within the walls of our churches and preserve the pure preaching and the right administration of the Sacraments. If that is our sole focus, then how will the spiritually dead be gathered to hear the Gospel and partake of the sacraments? How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?[a] And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14).
Indeed, how will they hear if we do not carry the Message into the highways and byways, as Jesus says in Luke 14:21, and “invite the poor, crippled, blind and lame”? In verse 23, Jesus says, “compel” them to come in. I am convinced that our invitation, this compelling, involves far more than our theology. We must become compassion centers, beacons of hope in the midst of a dying culture.
Deeds and Creeds
Let me be blunt: the people perishing around us will not heed our words if our actions betray our testimony. The perishing have no idea what the proper preaching of the Gospel or what the right administration of the Sacraments is. Yet, knowingly or unknowingly, they crave to see an authentic Christianity. Indeed, they cannot describe it beyond, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Younger generations, echoing previous generations, are apt to look for “deeds not creeds”. What they really need to see is “deeds and creeds.” Sadly, what they do see of the Church is often neither inviting nor compelling.
Many of our urban churches have become landmarks of stability in the midst of physical and spiritual devastation. Fortresses, whose members are intent on surviving the siege no matter the cost. Recently, I had to ask the leadership of one of my congregations a blunt but crucial question: Is our ministry this building or is this building here for ministry? They responded well to the challenge. Not all of our churches do. Many urban churches are in a death spiral as aging parishioners face actuary reality, and deficit budgets compete to be the proximate cause for closing.
If asked, I’m sure most neighborhood passersby would identify our buildings as churches. (The architecture is a dead giveaway.) Yet many of the residents would be unable to tell you what difference it would make to them if one of these churches closed. Often their perception is that our churches are irrelevant to their lives and the conditions of the neighborhood. One of my congregations went through a progression in neighborhood perceptions: “I thought you were closed” to “This is a church that helps people;” and finally “This church is part of our community.” It wasn’t the bricks and mortar that changed, but the people of Christ, engaged in acts of compassion and mercy.
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Mercy at Personal Cost
Our confession is our lives and our lives are far more visible than we suppose. In fact, to amplify St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, our lives are open books, our testimony to who Christ is and what He means for us. What do they read when they look at us? I believe what must be boldly written across the pages of our lives is selfless love. Paul tells us as much in Galatians 5:6b: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” That love, agape, is expressed in COMPASSION. That word in Greek indicates a gut-wrenching reaction to a difficult situation. Jesus uses compassion to describe the Good Samaritan. For him, compassion resulted in mercy, though at a personal cost.
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The same compassion surged in the breast of the father, viewing his prodigal son on the far horizon. He willingly sacrificed his dignity to restore his undeserving son. Both of their compassions were selfless love expressed in action. The Spirit uses such compassion to break down walls and penetrate hardened hearts. Finally, compassion is our testimony that Christ is a transformational reality in our lives.
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I find a principle in Scripture: Jesus never asks us to do anything He hasn’t already done Himself. Jesus Himself experienced such compassion many times: for the crowds, when He saw they were like sheep without a shepherd; for the widow at Nain, who had just lost her only son; for the leper, of whom Jesus would ask, “What would you have me do?” In each case, compassion was directly linked to action. If “a servant is not greater than His Master” (John 13:6b and 15:20a), are we not all called to live lives of compassion?
Jesus’ Sheep Show Compassion
At the Family of God in Southwest Detroit, we utilize a four-step ministry plan: Compassion, Service, Witness and Fellowship. Compassion, “the gut-wrenching, we-have-to-do-something compassion,” motivates Christians to action. That action becomes some form of service addressing a need. Very often, although it takes time, the one receiving this expression of selfless love comes to ask the question: “Why?” This is a Holy Spirit moment. We answer, “We love because He first loved us.” Deeds have prepared the listener for the witness of our words. Compassion experienced validates the truth. Compassion is our seal of authenticity. Fellowship, the final step, is the introduction of the meaning of the proper preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments.
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Saint John wrote, “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth(1 John 3:16-18). As our Lord described in Matthew 25, compassion costs, but is not optional. “When did we see you…” indicates a clear division. His sheep show compassion.
Compassion also involves risks. Our dignity and traditions may be ruffled, like the prodigal’s father. Our plans for our lives may be disrupted, like the Samaritan’s. Compassion disregards self and focuses on the needs of the other. Compassion calls us to bear our cross. I am convinced that our cross is simply this: “To love the unlovable, to serve the ungrateful and to forgive the unforgivable.” These three emulate the selflessness our Savior poured out on us. Compassion calls for us to lose our lives in order to save them. The selflessness of compassion cries out the name of Christ in this selfish and perverse generation.
What does selfless compassion look like?
Recently, a lady from an affluent suburban church came to volunteer for the Family of God Women’s Discipleship Program. On her first visit, she focused on doing something: vacuuming, washing dishes or serving food. Instead, I asked her to just be with the women and build relationships. The next time she came, I was astounded to see her deep in conversation with the despondent mother of a drug-addicted daughter. She was sharing her own struggles and ultimately the redemption of her drug-addicted son. Compassion led her to share her own struggle, openly and honestly. Her emotional risk achieved what this pastor could not. She offered a Christ-centered conversation of hope, trust and confidence in the power of prayer, from someone who has been there and back.
Certainly within our visible Church there are only two marks. But these marks are both incomprehensible and ineffectual for the non-believer. Outside our visible Church, compassion is the face that we must show to this fallen world. Compassion, our selfless love in action, is both comprehensible and useful. Compassion is both an invitation and a compelling glimpse of the selfless love of Christ. Compassion, defined as selfless love, marks us as uniquely Christ’s, as Tertullian said: “Look how much they love each other.” Compassion is the only mark of the Church that this world can perceive.
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