Emmanuel (i.e. Godly Compassion)

These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, April 22, 2018. The discussion was based upon a reading from Luke 6:36 and Matthew 1:18-25.
   I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group.  You can download it here.  Note: the questions on this handout are often different from the questions raised in the discussion.

 

This morning we are continuing our discussion of Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeil, and Douglas A. Morrison (New York: Doubleday, 1982).  Compassion is more than “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another”[1]  Compassion is more than “a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”[2]  “The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean “to suffer with.”[3]  Compassion isn’t about doing something or fixing a situation for someone, it’s about being with them.

Nouwen et al., write

In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other.  We have lost this gift because we have been led to believe that presence must be useful.  We say, “Why should I visit this person? I can’t do anything anyway.  I don’t even have anything to say.  Of what use can I be?”  Meanwhile, we have forgotten that it is often in “useless,” unpretentious, humble presence to each other that we feel consolation and comfort.  Simply being with someone is difficult because it asks of us that we share in the other’s vulnerability, enter with him or her into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become part of uncertainty, and give up control and self-determination.  And still, whenever this happens, new strength and new hope is being born.  Those who offer us comfort and consolation by being and staying with us in moments of illness, mental anguish, or spiritual darkness often grow as close to us as those with whom we have biological ties.  They show their solidarity with us by willingly entering the dark, uncharted spaces of our lives.  For this reason, they are the ones who bring new hope and help us discover new direction.[4]

I know in my own life that in times of illness, transition, self-doubt, stress, grief and anxiety that the things that help most are not the cards, phone calls, emails, or even the casseroles (and those are really good!).  The thing that helps me the most is the person who sits by my side and says, “I see what you’re going through and I’m here” (actually there, in the flesh).

Compassion isn’t about feelings; it isn’t about doing something; it isn’t about fixing something; it isn’t about doing anything for anyone.  Compassion is about being there, being present amid the suffering, to let the other know that they are not alone and need not suffer alone.

This strikes to the heart of the good news of God’s love found in Jesus Christ—the very message of Christianity—Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

What does it mean for God to be Emmanuel—God with us?  What does it mean for God to be with us?

 

I think it’s summed up well in the old-spiritual that goes:

Nobody knows the trouble I see,
nobody knows but Jesus;
oh, nobody knows the trouble I see,
glory, hallelujah!

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down,
Oh, yes, Lord!
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground,
Oh, yes, Lord! Oh,

Nobody knows the trouble I see,
nobody knows but Jesus;
oh, nobody knows the trouble I see,
glory, hallelujah![5]

Jesus knows because Jesus is there.  He sees what I see.  He’s there by my side when I’m up and when my face is pushed to the ground.  He goes through what I’m going through because he is

Emmanuel, Emmanuel,
his name is called Emmanuel.

God with us, revealed in us,
his name is called Emmanuel.[6]

I’ve shared this before, but I think one of the ways you can (and should!) read scripture is as a record and telling of God’s evolving relationship with God’s people.  Scripture tells us of the many ways God has related to God’s people, and how God’s people have responded; and, through the telling and embodying of this history we are invited into a relationship with God too.

Truth be told, God has revealed God’s self to God’s people, related, in many ways that might sound familiar to those of us who seek to make a difference in the lives of people in our community.

God offered a handout by giving the law to God’s people that they might live according to it and grow closer to God and one another.  We squandered the gift.

God advocated through the prophets, that people should not neglect their relationships with one another and with God.  But, we did not listen.

The act that ultimately brought salvation was not a handout or an act of prophecy, but God’s very presence—an act of compassion where God took on flesh, walked and suffered with us.

What God desires most is to be with us.  The Scriptures end where they began—God and humanity walking side by side, being fully present with one another.  This is the good news: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

He meets us wherever we might be; and, if that means that Jesus must stoop down and sit with us in the deepest pits of hell then that’s where Christ will go to show us compassion and demonstrate God’s love for us.

In Christ, God suffers with us.  Through Christ, God’s compassion is revealed.  May we be ever-mindful of God’s presence with us that we might be fully present and compassionate toward others.

 


Other Ideas, Thoughts, and Questions:

  • So often we perceive the miracles to be a divine gift bestowed by Jesus on those he healed. How does our understanding of the miracles change if instead of seeing them as a predetermined gift (a divine handout to those who were in the right spot at the right time), we understand them to be an act motivated by compassion (God heals by being with and taking on the suffering of the afflicted)?
  • How does our whole understanding of faith change if we see God as seeking a restored relationship with Creation?  How does our reading of Scripture transform as we see it as a record of God’s evolving relationship with God’s people from the beginning to the end?

 


[1] compassion. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/compassion (accessed: April 22, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Henri J. M. Nouwen et al., Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Doubleday, 1982), p3. Emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., 11-12.

[5] No. 520, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989).

[6] No. 204, “Emmanuel, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989).

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