Loving Our Neighbours

We talked a bit 2 Sundays ago about a theology of work. I shared with you then about the vision of Martin Luther and the Reformers to recover the idea of vocation for everyone. That is, the idea of calling does not pertain just to an elite – men of the cloth – but everyone! To paraphrase Luther’s words…the mom who changes a babies nappy does a more holy thing than any monk and his reflections. Why? When we act out of love for our neighbour we are obeying a clear call of God, performing a clear sign of love and devotion to our God. By doing what God has given us to do – whatever it is – we show love to our neighbor, as if God is loving our neighbor through us. Again, as Gene Veith said, 

Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors. 
God thus looms behind everyone who provides us with the goods or services that we need. In one of Luther’s many memorable lines, God milks the cows through the hands of the milkmaid. This means that all work and all workers deserve honor. Whereas the world might look down on milkmaids and garbage collectors, they actually bear the sacred presence of God, who works in and through them. 
God created us to be dependent on others—meat processors, manufacturers, journalists, lawyers, bankers, teachers, parents—and, through them, we are ultimately dependent upon God Himself. 
Just as God is working through the vocation of others to bless us, He is working through us to bless others. In our vocations, we work side-by-side with God, as it were, taking part in His ceaseless creative activity and laboring with Him as He providentially cares for His creation. 
– Gene Veith, “Arenas of Service” in World Magazine, 2010.

This is, perhaps, more true now than ever.

What does it mean for us to love our neighbours with Gospel love in these days? First, it must mean that we continue to live out the vocation God has given us – whether that is as a health care worker, a cook, a care-giver, a cleaner, a volunteer, etc. God is working through the work you do to show Gospel love to those around you at a time when we all desperately need to see God working. So, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it! God is at work through you.

There are other ways that we can redeem these times and extend Gospel love to our neighbours. I firmly believe that one of those ways is by NOT meeting. We should view our cancelled gatherings as a temporary compromise we have undertaken – not just because the government has asked us to, and not because we might be afraid – but, rather, because we love the people both in and around our community enough that we do not want to risk bringing them harm by introducing new points of origin for the spread of this virus. As strange and difficult as it is for us to not be together, it is the right thing for us to do out of love for our neighbour.

Jon Hart has published what he calls “The Redemptive Frame” in which he talks about the move from exploitative activity to redemptive activity. This is a movement from using/exploiting our communities for our own selfish gain (think hoarding toilet paper or pasta) to improving our communities by acting ethically in respect of people. However, for an outpost of God’s Kingdom – which is what a local church is – even acting ethically (good though it may be) is not enough. Hart argues that we should desire to show redemptive love to those around us. We want to see our communities renewed as we die to ourselves in order to bless those around us. This is the kind of work that points people to Jesus. 

Think briefly about the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Who is the hero of that story as Jesus tells it? It is the Samaritan who acted with compassion, giving of himself for the sake of the man who was beaten and robbed. As Jesus says, we are to aspire to the example of the Samaritan; but, at the same time, we are to think about who is the ultimate Good Samaritan. It is Jesus, who gave Himself for us, beaten and robbed as we were by sin. So, as we go and act compassionately as the Samaritan did, we find we are acting as Jesus did. We are showing our devotion to God by showing compassion to those around us – even at great cost to ourselves. In times like these, people’s ears are attached to their needs. This becomes a unique opportunity to show love to our neighbours as we help to meet their felt/urgent needs (which is good in itself), but also to speak to their ultimate need of trusting in Jesus. So we seek renewal in our communities, and that only happens as the Gospel is lived out and proclaimed. That is, ultimately, what makes actions redemptive and not just ethical.

Hart suggests we move through the Redemptive Frame from the inside out in three steps. He encourages us, first, to “attack the exploitative.” This begins, for Jesus followers in these times, with a decision that we will not let fear lead us to exploit the situation for our own gain. This, for us, becomes unthinkable. It isn’t an option for a believer to seek to exploit people around him/her in times of tragedy for their own gain. Think about it, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus did. That means that the bottom-line for us is to act ethically. This is the least we seek to do. As Hart says, we “baseline the ethical.” This is the minimum bar that we seek to clear. Are we living in our community, in these times, with integrity and honesty while we do our work heartily as if we are serving the Lord (Colossians 3:23)? The third move for us, then, as a Kingdom outpost, is to “chase the redemptive edge.” We think beyond the ethical to how the Gospel informs what we do. How can we give ourselves in service of our communities for the sake of the Gospel? How can we do our work in such a way that Gospel restoration happens?

So back to the practical question for us. How can we chase the redemptive edge as we live and work in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis? How can you do what God has given you to do redemptively in this time? Let me offer a few suggestions but I’d be curious if anything else comes to your mind. Feel free to comment below.

  • I bet you could offer to pray for (or with) more people you encounter in your work
  • Be willing to give lifts 
  • Help people shop (I’m glad this was put out as a suggestion on our WhatsApp group!)
  • Give people some of your toilet paper!
  • Phone a friend to chat and pray (not just your believing friends – remember, a lot of our non-believing friends don’t have close networks of relationships that are able to stand through a crisis)
  • Go for a walk (maintaining a safe distance, of course!)
  • If you are a parent, talk with your kids about the confidence we have in God in uncertain times
  • If you don’t know your neighbours, drop a note in their letterbox with your name and phone number and an offer of help if needed
  • At some point we might have people with financial need. Perhaps God would lead you to give to our do-good fund when and if that time comes.

All sacrifice requires that we place our own care ultimately in the hands of another. For us as Jesus followers, we trust in God’s strong hand to carry us through whatever we might endure. Far from meaning we can hide out, that kind of security frees us up to look for the needs of others and rise to meet them.

I leave you with another quote from – who else – Martin Luther (Thanks to a friend for sharing it with me). Even in the 16th century they prayed, wash their hands, and sought to help one another!!

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
– Luther’s Works Volume 43 pg 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague”
written to Rev. Dr. John Eric Hess

If you want to read Jon Hart’s article it is here. He is writing for those in positions of influence in companies to think through, but I think it is relevant for us, too.

Here is the Redemptive Frame in graphic form…

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