Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jesus Has Compassion

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Pentecost.... My parents are both gone now. My mother died this past September and my father died back in 1999.  Like everyone else, I struggle to have a growing faith and to have a peaceful, trusting heart in the face of life’s difficulties, which definitely isn’t always easy. Grief from a family loss is a very major thing to face. I have to say, though, that all the biblical promises of eternal life and heaven helped me tremendously as I contemplated the fulfillment of those promises for my mother, who was 93 and had been ill and infirm for many years.

I like to think of Christ's death and resurrection as bringing about a kind of reality, which is forceful and real for us today. Our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God, because we’re protected in that resurrection reality.

Eternal life is like being kept in a protective and secure place, out of reach of danger. Obviously, we still face difficult and dangerous, painful situations. But if we have a relationship with Christ, then Christ keeps us out of reach of the full powers of death and evil. Our very lives are tucked away and protected, because we’re already sharing in the divine life of Christ. We have a new identity for the remainder of our physical existence, characterized and empowered by God’s tremendous and infinite love.

Nothing we do in this life can separate us from God’s great love, because we have already died and been buried, so to speak, because the physical death we will eventually----awful as death is---has been rendered impotent as far as our eternal life is concern.   Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ.”  Baptism is a sign of this safekeeping, our “burial” with Christ, so that as Christ is buried we are buried with him, and as he has risen from death so too will we be raised to eternal life.

These two stories, from 1 Kings and Luke’s gospel, are traditionally paired together. If you study them side by side, they parallel one another. Scholars think that Luke must have written the story in order for it to parallel the Elijah story, since structurally and thematically they’re very similar.

Elijah and Jesus both approached the gate of the town, they both immediately met a widow whose son had died. Both Elijah and Jesus had compassion, with Elijah’s expressed as a cry to the Lord and Jesus’ by the time he took to address the situation. Also, Elijah’s compassion was expressed in the way he reached out to a Gentile woman, while Jesus reached out to someone who was simply passing by while he was doing something else. In both stories, the son is given back to the mother, and also in both stories, Elijah and Jesus are both recognized as persons from God.

When I took an introduction to religion course during my freshman year of college, I learned my first “cool” biblical word, and it happens to be used in Luke’s story. The Greek work is splagchnizomai, which is translated “to have compassion,” but it is euphemism because the literal meaning is “to feel yearning in the bowels”---or, as we might say, “to feel it in the gut,” a gut feeling.  In other words, Jesus felt compassion in his deepest inner being.

This is an important thing to remember in this story, as Jesus was moving along with a large crowd following him and the disciples. He noticed another large crowd---dueling crowds, so to speak, but this second crowd was following the widow and her dead son. One of my commentaries quotes the epistle from James, that true religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). Obviously Jesus had power to help the widow and raise up the Son, but hypothetically he could have going on his way without discovering what the other crowd was about.

Jesus’ reaction, though, was compassion.

I’d like for us to think about that for a minute. One day my mother made an offhand comment that she wondered if she was good enough to go to Heaven.  I kind of hit the ceiling---because she was a lifelong churchgoer and I wished she had a more confident understanding of the gospel. But as we chatted, I did wonder if we do a good enough job communicating to people that salvation is a free gift.
Being with God in our life and after our death is completely a gift from God.  Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus didn’t say, “I go to prepare a place for you but only if provide good drywall and do the wiring.” It is completely Christ’s work that gets us a room in Heaven.

But I think, how sad it would be if you were a person in a hard situation, many very scared and the thing you needed most was a message of God’s great love and God’s free gift of salvation. But you feel like you should've volunteered more at church, you should have done this or that, you didn't resolve this or that conflict.  Sunday, the pastor might be preaching sermon about how you need to step up and volunteer more. You end up climbing to the notion that you have to earn God’s grace and work hard to get to Heaven.

But our scriprtures this morning teach us that Jesus responds with compassion to our weaknesses and our struggles.  When we’re at the end of our lives, he isn’t checking his notes to see if we’ve passed muster with him, like a fussy boss----he has already surrounded us with more love than we can realize.

That might be just a good all-around phrase to memorize and recite to ourselves when we’re in a bad way, and in particularly if we’re facing our own mortality: “Jesus has compassion....”

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