Not In My Neighborhood!
by Skip Ryan
"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?"
1 John 3:17
In his sermon last Sunday, Mark pressed upon us the clear Word from the Lord through the Apostle John that we learn to love those who are very different from us, those who “do not have the world’s goods” as the sign, the proof, you might say, that we are Christians (1 John 3:17).
I'm realizing that, if I'm working on my heart's openness to the mystery of my union with Christ, then I will begin to see with His eyes those who are essentially outcasts from the places of privilege where having the world’s goods is taken for granted. The truth is, I hardly see these people at all! I don’t often go to the places where they are. When I stop at a traffic light and a person holds up a sign relating his or her sad story, I actually avoid looking into this person’s eyes. It feels very awkward, this intrusion of a person who doesn’t belong in this neighborhood. In John’s words, “I close my heart to him.” For several months, I've been convicted that this attitude reveals, not only my disobedience, but that I fail to understand that the Lord’s heart is never closed to me.
In a recent interview, Rich Stearns, the president of World Vision spoke about how Christians in our neighborhoods see the poor.
“How should Christians respond? Are we relevant by having short, peppy sermons and coffee bars in church? By offering advice on living nice, comfortable lives? A better response is to call the church back to Jesus' mission. We are to bring the whole Gospel into the world, demonstrating a new, revolutionary way to live under God's rule—living out the Kingdom values of compassion, mercy, and justice. We don't need to worry about so-called 'Christian issues' at the polls when we are confidently following Christ's call in every area of our lives and inviting others to join us."
One of the questions I'm starting to ask myself and others is, "What are you doing this week for the benefit of the poor, the disenfranchised, those we would usually pass by or rarely think about, and the outcasts from our neighborhoods and our lives?" I'm beginning to realize that we can be about many good Christian works, but without some part of our living being directed toward those who are in material, physical need, we may find ourselves one day hearing the Lord ask, "You believed in Me, but did you obey Me?" (Matt 7:21). (Stearns’ recent book is entitled, Unfinished: Why Believing Is Only the Beginning.)
"What goes deepest to the heart goes widest to the world." This phrase is on a banner hanging in the halls of PCPC. I've known it and used it for so long, I can't remember where I first heard it. It is compelling. Those of us who want to "push out into the deep" (Luke 5) in our living with, in, and through Jesus cannot fail to notice the hungry, the sick, the prisoner, the lonely... or else we may, despite our warm hearts, fail to be recognized by Jesus when He comes to us.
We often speak of the need for Christians to change our poor, sick culture that is in the prison of secular values. Surely we should see that the poor, the sick, the prisoners at the periphery of society are the products, and therefore the "test cases” for our willingness to move into the culture itself. I'm not advocating that we spend all our spare time on the outcasts, though some will and should, but what does it means that many of us spend no time with them?
I help lead a theological seminary where we train men and women for Kingdom ministry. I've long thought that we do a woefully inadequate job if we do not help future ministers move what they know intellectually (seminary is a very heady place) to their hearts, so that they are gripped with passion for their own union with Christ. I am realizing that we must also train future Christian leaders to move from their heads and hearts to their hands, which they put to the plough of cultivating the soil for those who are too poor, weak, or sick to do it for themselves.
The key to even beginning to want to do this is to understand that we are all outcasts. None of us belongs in the neighborhoods of God’s Kingdom. We are too poor spiritually to prove our worth to the Lord; we are too weak to stand with courage for Him; we are too much imprisoned by our own desires to be of much use to Him.
The only way we get invited in is because Jesus was the Outcast. He was crucified outside the city to show that He didn’t really belong to all it represented, but that He did belong to those in all nations who are at the periphery of power and wealth. He was the poor One, the sick One, the Prisoner of Caiaphas and Pilate and, yes, the Prisoner of my sin.
We reformed people believe we’re sinners, but the notion that we’re outcasts can be a stretch. The church should disabuse us of the notion that we fit in because of who we are. The church should teach us that in ourselves we are outcasts, we don’t fit in, but when we walk with Christ, no one asks if we belong in that neighborhood.