Have you ever grabbed a handful of words and rolled them over in your mind and heart till you could almost taste their essence in your mouth? Have you measured out the beat of each syllable and found the words penetrated through all the layers of your being until they exploded within your understanding with the exquisite spectacle of a fireworks display? Have you ever grasped the words, “For God so loved the world that…” and weighed them in the scales of your spiritual discernment against every love you have known — your own and that of others?
At the time of his baptism, Jesus heard the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved ÷”. Later in his ministry he commanded his friends that they should love each other as he loved each of them. If they obeyed this commandment, he assured them, God would love them as Jesus himself loved them. It is not only obedient Christians whom God loves — the entire Old Testament witnesses to the love God had for one recalcitrant nation, a nation that was disobedient, self-centred and even idolatrous at times. When we turn to the earliest words of Scripture we discover that God loved all that had been created, including humanity. In fact God, who is aware of the perfect souls with which we are all created, continues to love every human person. God’s love, though all encompassing, seeks us out as individuals, in fact as if we were the sole “Beloved” existing in this world at this moment. No matter who we are, or what we have done, God regards each of us as “the Beloved.”
Step back for a moment in time and take a look at some of the least lovely people in modern history. God could see beneath the actions of people like Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin and love the perfect soul they had been created. And Jesus came to live on this earth and to die for them just as if they had been God’s only “Beloved ones.” No matter how many lives have been lost through starvation or murder because of policies of particular governments, no matter what cruelty and deprivation leaders like Robert Mugabe have caused, Jesus asks us to love these leaders, exactly in the way he loves us, for are they too not God’s “Beloved”?
What methods should we employ to draw so closely to God that we are ever ready, evert alert, for God’s presence in our lives? Surely we need to hear and obey the precepts already laid down for us. We have not been encompassed with regulations impossible to obey; instead God asks for our love to be demonstrated in all we say and do. From the book of Micah we hear God’s message to the nation of Israel whose leaders were trying to manipulate God by offering changed sacrifices rather than changed and repentant lives. “What does God ask of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” If that seemed too sweeping a statement for us to discern the exact lifestyle God expects, Jesus spelled out the details, the nitty-gritty, to his friends. Recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is his basis on which our lives and service will be judged. Quoted but briefly from this passage are the words, “Lord, when did see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you lonely and make you welcome, or see you naked and clothe you, or see you ill or in prison and go to see you?” And the king will reply, “I assure you that whatever you did for the humblest of these my brothers you did for me.”
Delving more deeply into this passage we realise that among those gathered around Jesus were many who asked him point-blank when they had failed to serve his needs, as if the only time they would reach out to help others would be when they could see some profit for themselves in such a venture. The assistance such people do give is but selfishness disguised as “good works.” In case any should believe they deserve to spend eternity within Christ’s realm because of the “good works” or “acts of charity” with which they have seemingly filled their lives, the apostle Paul, in one entire chapter of his letter to the people of Corinth devoted to this topic, states that unless our lives and actions are driven by Christ’s love, we are merely going though the motions. We either live our lives spreading love wholeheartedly and prodigally, or we demonstrate that we have not yet grasped the dimensions of God’s love exemplified in Jesus.
What are the fuller implications of feeding those who are hungry, providing drink for those who thirst, welcoming those who are lonely, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are ill or imprisoned?
In our society what is it for which people hunger? Some hunger for wealth, some for health, some for fame and recognition — in fact we seem never to be satisfied with what is at hand, we look constantly for more. Because of the manner in which we were created none of us can live in isolation; to be complete we need the companionship or company of others. So many of us have so little sense of self-value we seem unawares that to God we are precious. If we could but see ourselves through God’s eyes, we might become aware that all we meet are equally loved and valued by God. Many people hunger after peace, yet have not discovered the deep peace communion with God can bring into their lives.
Those who hunger for wealth are people who have not yet begun to tap into the infinite riches of God, but instead seek security from the fading and elusive material wealth this world values. To long for greater material riches rather than spiritual wealth is to misdirect one’s trust. Truly we have a responsibility to shepherd the money and possessions that come our way, as these are part of the talents for which God holds us responsible. There are folk who hunger to be able to express their creative talents, to compose music or verse, to draw or paint, to pot or carve — each of these is a valid hunger, and each needs to be satisfied if one is to live fully. How can we, you and I, provide the means and opportunities so that such hungers may be satisfied?
More importantly, however, is the need to discover ways to satisfy the hunger within each and every person for an intimate relationship with their God. If we are to be part of this process then our communion with God should be so complete that, like the strings of a harp, our lives will vibrate at the breath of God’s Spirit. We will know, because we are living out our prayer life in constant communion with God, exactly when and how God can use us in this process. It matters not whether God may choose to reach out through us, or through the lives of others; if our concern is solely to open doors for Christ, our trust in God will not be misplaced.
Similarly, what is it that will satisfy the thirst of those we meet? To offer a draught of pure water to a traveller on a hot day provides refreshment, but this is but a temporary measure. Some we will meet may thirst for knowledge, whether of material or spiritual things. Though it is a pleasure to assist others in acquiring information, or to assist with research projects, it is always more satisfying to be able to see that traveller slake their thirst at the river of life.
Those who are lonely may be people who have become part of our nation, though their place of birth was far from our shores. Have such people suffered discrimination in the time they have lived among us, so that they still fell strangers in this land we call “home”? Are some of them suffering from trauma and torture inflicted in other countries, for these will need healing far beyond that normally available? Are the lonely in our community those who are homeless, hungry, or perhaps physically or mentally challenged? Have we made such as these welcome within our circle of friends, or do we draw back from the possible cost involvement with them could demand? Within most towns and cities there are minority groups who often feel isolated from the mainstream community. Have we been involved in assisting them to become part of this wider community, or do we prefer they stay “strangers in our midst?”
To clothe the naked has been the goal of many charitable groups, and often weÌve donated clothing — now outgrown or no longer fashionable — to such groups. But have we ever assumed the responsibility of satisfying the needs of those who literally own nothing, and who survive from day to day? Not long ago a young woman was given a “traveller’s pack” from a community resource group. She wept as she opened it, for it contained, among other items, a cake of soap, and though one may be able to beg a cup of coffee or a cigarette as one travels from town to town, who will offer a lost traveller a cake of soap? Where do we stand regarding those who have nothing? Will we judge them because, for an unknown reason, they have left security behind, and wander looking for paradise they hope somehow to find at the end of a rainbow?
Let’s face it, hospital visits can be boring. Of course if there is a tiny, new scrap of humanity to admire and parents to congratulate for such an achievement, then it’s a different matter. But unless one is at home within a hospital environment, hospitals are not places in which to relax and be one’s self — witty, charming and entertaining. But for those confined to a hospital bed, and often in pain, the sight of a loving face is perhaps the best of all tonics. Apart from relieving the boredom of being confined in a place alien to our chosen space, visitors bring news of outside events, and of shared friends. Visitors may also provide the financial means for those who are ill to obtain newspapers and fresh fruit.
But not all those who are ill are confined to hospitals. Some are nursed in their own homes, and for these visitors may provide a time of respite for the whole family. Who knows what stresses have arisen as family members care for one another? Who but one motivated by Christ’s love would offer to share such a load of constant care?
Also within our communities are halfway houses for those who are mentally or intellectually challenged. Have we felt Christ’s invitation to spend time within these places, assessing where we may be able to offer assistance? Perhaps we could offer to become part of a group of volunteers who take our brothers and sisters to the beach, theatre or even on picnics. There are unlimited opportunities for those who let Jesus open new avenues of service.
Those who are in prison may be subjected to constant abuse. Certainly they are being deprived of not only their physical freedom but also the right to make all those choices we take for granted. They cannot choose what to wear, for a prison uniform is prescribed. They cannot choose their menu, a meal at a restaurant or even take-aways. Food is provided for all inmates, the only choice they have is either to eat or not. History has left us with a legacy of recorded examples of incorrect verdicts that have led to innocent people being imprisoned or judicially slain. Across the world right now there are uncounted numbers of political prisoners whose only crime is that they have disagreed with decisions made by their governments, or that they have such a popular following they could vote those in power out of office. When Jesus invited us to consider visiting those in prison he included all people deprived of their freedom, and this includes all those in violent domestic relationships.
We make our life choices in exactly the same way as we make choices regarding our financial portfolios. Do we seek quick returns, money in our hand here and now, even though our investments may be risky? Or do we choose to forgo temporary pleasures now so that we can invest in the more solid, proven, long-term investments — those reliable securities whose benefits will be realised in the future, rather than the present? Just where do we spend our love and energy, on things and people that ensure our comfort and wellbeing today, or do we choose to spend ourselves on those people and things for which there will be no immediate reward? For it is the long-term investments we make that will provide a return in that day we are welcomed home by Jesus as those who have loved wisely and well, those who have been conscious of the closeness of God’s presence each moment of their lives.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.