These thoughts were offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, May 20, 2018. The discussion was based upon a reading from Luke 6:36 and James 2:14-26.
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.
They were all together in one place. It seems, to me, a fitting thing for them to do. The disciples had been through a lot together—there had been a lot of change in a very short amount of time. In the last month and a half, the disciples had seen Jesus brutally tortured and put to death, the tomb sealed, and a sentry placed. The earth shook, the guards ran, and tomb opened to reveal that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus, whom they all thought had died, walked among them for forty days, “teaching them about God’s kingdom” (Acts 1:3). He ascended into heaven.
The disciples were in Jerusalem. This is where Jesus told them their work would begin. The betrayal and death of Judas had left an opening among the ranks of the apostles so the 11 prayed and “cast lots” to fill the vacancy. Mattias was chosen.
They were all together in one place. Jesus had told them, before he ascended, that the Holy Spirit would give them power, and that they would be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). They didn’t feel particularly powerful. They weren’t quite sure what they had seen—the death and resurrection of Jesus shook them to their core. And so, they waited, huddled together in one place trying to figure it all out.
They’d been through a lot together. They’d seen a lot, most of which they did not fully understand. It seemed best to stick together. So, they gathered together in one place.
I often envision, at this point in the story, the disciples huddled together in a dark room with the shutters and curtains pulled tight so that no one could peak in and see them. When…
2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. (Acts 2:2-4)
Like a balloon that expands and eventually pops from the pressure, the shutters and doors of the house fly open to reveal a world waiting to hear of the good news of God’s love found in Jesus Christ.
5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:5-11)
The Spirit moves the disciples to an act of compassion. Compassion always moves us to action. It moves us beyond the safety of our locked “upper rooms.” Compassion is always active, never passive, never sitting in safety, but always willing to risk. In the words of James, “faith without action is dead” (James 2:26). Compassion results in concrete acts of service to and with the suffering. Nouwen et al., in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, writes
Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.
The discipline of patience reveals itself not only in the way we pray but also in the way we act. Our actions, like our prayers, must be a manifestation of God’s compassionate presence in the midst of our world. Patient actions are actions through which the healing, consoling, comforting, reconciling, and unifying love of God can touch the heart of humanity. They are actions through which the fullness of time can show itself and God’s justice and peace can guide our world. They are actions by which good news is brought to the poor, liberty to the prisoners, new sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and God’s year of favor is proclaimed (Lk 4:18-19). They are actions that remove the fear, suspicion, and power-hungry competition that cause an escalating arms race, an increasing separation between the wealthy and the poor, and an intensifying cruelty between the powerful and the powerless. They are actions that lead people to listen to each other, speak with each other, and heal each other’s wounds.
Compassion draws people together. It calls us to actions that dismantle the seemingly insurmountable barriers that divide people—whether they be ideological, theological, economic, cultural, or anything else. Compassion calls us to traverse the expanse, no matter how deep and wide it may seem. Compassion moves us step out in faith over the void—whether it be real or an artificial construct—that divides people from each other. Compassion calls us to move in a specific direction—toward others in their suffering, not away from them; and, in doing so we meet Jesus.
Note: compassion moves in a specific way. It starts in Jerusalem, out your own backdoor; then, it moves to Judea, to your town, the familiar places; then, it moves to Samaria, to the periphery, the places your not familiar with or do not like nor agree with; then, to the ends of the earth. We cannot be, and are not being compassionate to the ends of the earth until and unless we have first shown compassion in Jerusalem!
What acts of compassion do you believe the Spirit might be moving you (us) to?
- in Jerusalem—outside your (our) backdoor?
- in Judea—in your (our) town?
- in Samaria—in a part of town you (we) do not like to go, or get nervous going to?
- to the ends of the earth?
The story of Pentecost reminds us that the compassionate way is one of action. That action starts at home and moves to the very ends of the earth.
Jesus said, “Be compassionate as your [heavenly] Father is compassionate.” That compassion calls us into solidarity, it unites us, with others.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may the Holy Spirit empower you to build bridges that bring people together. Be witnesses to God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ our Lord outside your backdoor, in your town—the parts you are familiar with and the parts that make you nervous—and to the very ends of the earth. Let compassion be your guiding principle that God’s reign of Love might be established in your hearts, in your homes, in your cities, and around the world.
Other Ideas, Thoughts, and Questions:
- One cannot be compassionate in isolation. The compassionate way of Christ cannot be lived in isolation or behind closed doors. It is constantly reaching out. It moves us beyond ourselves.
- Compassion starts at home but never keeps us there. It starts in Jerusalem, but moves to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
- Compassion moves us to do things we may not have the gifts to accomplish. It equips us. It moves us beyond our abilities.
- Compassion always brings people together. If people are not brought together–to talk, see face-to-face such that lives begin to overlap and intertwine–then we are not really being compassionate.
- Isn’t it interesting that the disciples only had to go out their front door–into Jerusalem–to meet the world. Perhaps, in witnessing to the work of Christ in our own Jerusalem’s we should focus on empowering people, even the traveler, to bear witness to Christ in their Jerusalem; and, as we are each faithful in own Jerusalem, the world will be transformed, the reign of God will spread like fire.
 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeil, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Doubleday, 2005), p114-115.