The room where we all sat was crowded and dark and made of heavy stone. It felt almost like a castle or a fortress. That wasn’t so surprising. We later found out that the building had been built by the British during the “Raj” as a garrison for their troops. Now it housed little boys who were boarded there so that they could go to XXXXX School, a Christian school in a city in Sind in Pakistan.
The room was dark because the sun had gone down about an hour earlier. But I had the distinct sense that at high noon the room and the whole building would still be dark. It wasn’t build for light and openness and fresh air. It was built for soldiers who wanted to feel safe and secure. But the church has to work with whatever it can get, and it could get this old British army garrison, and so that’s what it uses.
The large central room where we all sat was crowded. There were about thirty-five boys of various ages sitting on benches. Also, there was a handful of teachers from the school there, along with a missionary couple, Mr. “Z” from the school’s board, and of course, Mr. “B”, the boarding master, and his wife. Several bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling gave the room a certain dim starkness. Deep shadows were formed in all the doorways.
It was just the sort of setting that should have been oppressive. But it wasn’t. There was a lightness and even happiness about the room that turned the darkness into something almost like coziness. It was a special occasion. Some American pastors (me and my traveling companion) had come to visit them and they felt honored. So did I.
Through a translator, my fellow visitor told them a story out of John’s gospel. Then they sang us some songs, both in Urdu and in English. They answered some Bible questions to show us how much they knew. Some of them were very shy. They looked down and answered very quietly. Others were relishing the attention, as little boys will do sometimes. And they hammed it up. Everyone laughed. We were all having fun.
Mr. “Z’s” son was there to help out. He is a math teacher from XXXXX Christian School. He wasn’t there as part of his job. He was just there to help out. He’s a good-looking young man. He laughed often and teased the boys a lot. It was obvious that he liked the boys very much, and they liked him, too. He was there simply because he wanted to be.
As I watched it all and laughed and tried to understand what was being said, I felt a heaviness, a sadness growing in me, so that tears filled up my eyes. I think if I hadn’t been such a stiff lipped Presbyterian, I would have wept. I knew almost immediately why I felt that way, even when everyone else around me was laughing and having fun.
We’d been very busy all that day touring the city. Most of the morning we’d spent at the school watching the classes and then being entertained by the children at a special program they’d prepared for us. Later in the afternoon we’d visited with Pastor “Y”, his wife, and a friend of theirs. We’d talked with them particularly about what it’s like to be Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Pastor “Y” told us about how some of the young people had been harassed when they went through the city distributing Christian literature. He told us how his son had been detained by the police several times. On one of those occasions, the rest of the young people quickly passed out all of their material while Pastor “Y’s” son kept the police busy with him at the police station. I thought that was pretty ingenious, not to mention self-sacrificing.
They spoke of how some of the more radical Muslims were trying to pass strict sharia laws through parliament. Those would be laws much like the laws next door in Iran. They would make life very difficult for the Christian minority. We asked what the Christians would do then. Pastor “Y” said simply, “We will do what we have been doing all along. They will do whatever they must. We will not change.”
Later, when I was off to the side with Mrs. “Y”, she said to me, “If the sharia laws pass, it will be very dangerous for my husband.” I asked her why. She said, “Because he is a convert from Islam.” Which I later learned is very uncommon. Most Christians in Pakistan were either born into Christian families or are converts from Hinduism. Muslims rarely convert to Christianity. To do so is a step downward on the social ladder. It’s very costly. And not much appreciated by the Muslim majority.
So, as I sat there in that dark room that evening with all those people laughing and having a good time all around me, I understood why I was on the verge of tears. I wondered what would happen to all these little boys who were learning their Bible stories and singing their Bible songs. I wondered what the future would hold for that attractive, young, Christian math teacher. I realized that I cared what happened to these people. I realized that I loved them. They were and still are my brothers and sisters. And I care about them very much.
I can’t think about missions in the abstract ever again. The missionary enterprise of the church is no longer just some interesting article I read in some magazine or book. It’s no longer some statistics I find in some publication from the General Assembly. The mission work of the church is now living, breathing human beings whom I love.
It has become clear to me that one of the primary motivations for mission in the church is love. As I say that, it strikes me as almost too obvious for words. And yet, we all too often lose sight of the fact that what moves the church out into the world in mission is first and foremost love.
That’s why I chose these particular passages for today. I now know in my heart that when the church goes out into the world in mission, it is fulfilling the command of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves. That verse there in Matthew’s gospel is one of those places where Jesus is quoting a verse from the Old Testament. He quotes directly from Leviticus 19:18 where you will also find the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Just to make a small digression, I think it’s interesting that people often think of the Old Testament law as being rather cold and harsh. And yet here what is often thought of as one of the warmest and gentlest verses in the New Testament is actually a direct quote from the Old Testament law.
But even here Jesus does push this commandment to its limits. He reinterprets it in a very radical and far-reaching way. In particular, Jesus draws out the whole idea of “neighbor” until it takes on a very broad and sweeping definition. For Jesus the word neighbor no longer means simply your friend. In Jesus’ teaching, the word neighbor is expanded until it includes even your enemies. In the passage we read from Luke’s gospel, he says, “Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
What a radical way of talking about love! He really stretches us here, doesn’t he? What he is telling us is that no one must be excluded from our love, whether they live down the street or halfway around the world, whether they are of the same race as we or not, whether they speak English or not, whether they are as educated as we or not. And we could go on and on, but you get the idea. Jesus wants us to realize that those people who seem so very different from us are actually still real living, breathing human beings just like us, with hopes and dream, desires and aspirations, pains and needs just like us, bearers of the image of God, just like us. And of course, that’s exactly what I experienced as I sat in that dark room in Pakistan. Those Pakistani Christians were no longer just some strange people on the pages of a National Geographic. They became, for me, real people like me. In that experience I learned to love those neighbors of mine.
If mission is the way the church works out it love in the world, and I believe that that is true, then just as there can be no limit to our love, so there should be no limit to the mission of the church. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is a very big calling. And all the more so when we consider what it is that Jesus means by love.
Jesus and really the whole of Scripture understand love to be not so much something that we feel, as rather something that we do. The Scriptures are very impatient with a sentimental view of love that separates love from action. Invariably, the Scriptures define love as desiring and actively pursuing the good and well-being of another person or other people.
In the second chapter of his letter, James says this: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” [Jas. 2:15,16]. This passage gives you some idea of how love is understood in the Bible. To simply feel warmly toward someone without doing something to help them in their need is considered worthless, in fact, worse than worthless. And of course, physical need is only one of the kinds of needs that we encounter in other people.
So, then, we need to understand this command of Jesus’ to love our neighbors as ourselves as a call to action, a call to active love. That’s exactly what Jesus has in mind when he utters that most famous of Bible verses: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” You’ll notice that the Golden Rule is essentially active in its orientation. He doesn’t say, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” He say just the opposite. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus calls us to go out and do. And our guide for our doing is–what we would like to have done for us. Active love, a call to action.
Did you know, for example, that it is estimated that today perhaps 1.5 billion people are living outside the reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ. By that I mean that those are people whose situation in life is such that they have not and may never have the gospel of Jesus Christ presented to them. They may be living in an Arab country where there is no Christian presence. Or they may be living in Nepal or North Korea where it is illegal to share the gospel with someone else. Those are people who will go through their lives knowing less about Jesus Christ than you know about Islam. They are outside the current reach of the gospel.
And that number, 1.5 billion, does not include those people living down the street from you and me or those people living in Paris or in Rio de Janeiro who could conceivably hear the gospel, but who still may never hear what Jesus has done unless someone like you or me goes to them and tells them.
Is the gospel of Jesus Christ GOOD news? Is the good news of Jesus Christ dear to you? Do you feel about the gospel in such a way that if you had not already heard it, you would want someone to tell you about it? If so, then what does the Golden Rule require of you and the church of Jesus Christ? Is it loving to withhold the gospel of Christ? The sharing of the gospel is an act of love. It’s not enough to say, “Gee, I hope they hear somehow.” We must sent someone, and we ourselves must go. Love requires it. These are real people, just like you and me.
Did you know that one-third of the children in developing countries die of malnurishment before the age of five? Did you know that something on the order of twelve children die every minute from hunger-related causes? Did you know that just under one billion people in the world do not have enough food to sustain health. Did you know that the leading cause of death among children under five in the developing world is the lack of safe, clean water? What does love dictate that the mission of the church should be in the face of these facts? If these were your children, what would you want to have done for them? These are real live human beings like us.
Did you know that in the United States somewhere around ninety-nine percent of the people can read. In Pakistan only about half the population can read. And among the Christians in Pakistan, the literacy rate is lower than the general population, because Christians in Pakistan are poorer than the general population. In Pakistan, scarcely a third of the people have any formal education at all.
If you could not read and had almost no chance of going to school or sending your children, what would you want to have done for you? These are people just like you and me. I’ve met them, and I love them. What does love require of God’s people in the face of this?
In each of the situations I’ve just mentioned Christian missionaries are at work for us. The way the church loves its neighbors is through mission. In Pakistan and in Peoria and in Philadelphia. Wherever we see our neighbor in need, any kind of need, the church is called to respond in love through mission. This is one of the first orders of business for the church. It must be in the top rank of our priorities.
But I’m not going to harangue you about mission giving, because really that would undo everything I’ve been saying to you this morning. Mission is love. I want you to see the need of your neighbors all around the world—their need for the gospel, their need for food, their need for education, whatever the need may be—I want you to see that need and have your hearts wrenched by it. And through mission I want you to reach out to your neighbors in love.
©2013 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.