Who is our neighbour?
In preparing for mission planning, here are three important questions to ask:
The first question is: Who are we? This question is about It is about our identity.
The second question is: What does God want us to do? This question is about our purpose.
The third question is: Who is my neighbour? This is a question about our context.
With any Scripture text or with any church activity we can ask these questions and reflecting on these questions may help us to focus on being an alive, living, relevant and authentic church.
In Isaiah 58:3 the people ask of God, "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" The answer from God says, Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
Their fasting is selfish, they are doing it for themselves. At the same time they are doing all these religious observances they are exploiting their workers and they fight and are violent. They fast and fight. They pray and fight. What kind of praying is that, that when it finishes people begin to fight? Things haven’t changed that much since those days. How often fights break out in our churches today too.
Their religion is focused on themselves- a me and my God kind of relationship. A religion without any connection to their neighbour. A religion that does not include their neighbour. A religion that does not recognise their neighbour.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:6-8)
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil the law. In Matthew 22:35-40 A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In Judaism whether back in the time of Jesus or even today this is a very important question that Jewish theologians have wrestled with. For some a neighbour has meant a Jew, for others a neighbour only a good Jew. For some gentiles are not considered as neighbours, for others Muslims and Christians are considered as neighbours as they all claim to descend from Abraham. For others everyone is our neighbour and for others everything is our neighbour: people, animals, every living thing, all creation is our neighbour for we are called to love all creation as we love ourselves. To care for all.
In Luke 10:25-37 - Another expert in the law asked Jesus, And who is my neighbour?” And in response Jesus told a story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus finished his parable by asking the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” and the lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
What about you? Who is your neighbour? Are there people we don’t consider as being our neighbours?
Our neighbours may not be Christians, they may not worship like us, they may have different beliefs to us, but there are lots of things we may have in common. We have common fears. We are worried about our children. We are worried about not being able to afford to rent or buy a house to live in. We are worried about our children and their future. We are worried about climate change and the future of the world and even if we are not worried about it we know our children are really worried about it. We are worried about violence against women, whether we will be safe in our own homes or out in the streets at night. We are worried about employment. We are worried about war. We have so much in common.
When I talk to people from different religious backgrounds and people who do not identify as religious, as I get past their beliefs of being right or trying to prove others wrong I find that they are concerned about living, about making this a better world, a just and fair world, a kind and caring world. When we go beyond the pressures of capitalism and consumerism I find people just want to live in harmony with others. This is where Jesus leads us, out amongst our neighbours, to others, welcoming strangers, beyond all that divides people from people and all that divides people from creation.
I think God is looking for us to be different in this world, to be prophets, visionaries, neighbours. But if we are just seeking things for ourselves we will never be part of how God is in the world and is changing the world. We will never be the light of the world. We will never be the salt of the earth, we will never be neighbours.
Asking these questions is very important. They are all connected. When we ask who am I? We begin to uncover what it is to love myself, to love who I am as I am, and if we can love ourselves as who we are and as we are, maybe we can begin to love our neighbour for who they are and as they are.
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3)
Have you ever asked God, what do you want me to do?
Before we do anything for God or in God’s name, we need to know that God is love, we need to experience God as love. If we do not know God as love, if we do not experience God as love, we will never know what God truly wants of us and we will most likely do things in God’s name that are far from God’s character and will.
We need to know and experience God as love before we ask the question what do you want me to do? And it is an ongoing question, a question that we continue to ask within a relationship of love. If we are not following in love, we will be driven by all sorts of harmful things that can lead to the hurt and harm of others. If we are not following in love we can be driven by such things as the thirst for power, or greed, the hunger for possessions and money, or prestige, privilege and place or by jealousy, or bitterness, unforgiveness, hatred, fear, revenge and violence. We end up doing things our own way or the way others want us to do things but perhaps not what God may want us to do.
When we know and experience God as love we will seek to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.
To know love and to live in love is to decentre oneself and find fulfillment in loving the other. Love one another as I have loved you – John 13:34. When we put God at the centre of our life we put love at the centre of our life and when we put love at the centre of our life we put God at the centre of our life. A liberating love for the environment, a liberating love for the poor requires a de-centring of self so that love may flow. Just as water always finds its way to the lowest point so love always flows down. God, like water, is found flowing down among the cracks and crevices and depths of human suffering and poverty. Though he was rich, Jesus humbled himself and became poor and lived among us. French Sociologist and Theologian Jacques Ellul says that ‘Love leads us to a deeper understanding of reality. ’A person that has tasted God’s love will have their eyes opened to the poor, to the injustices of this world and that is where their love will flow.
Jesus declared that the kingdom of God is good news for two groupings of people: The first grouping is made up of people who are poor and who are meek, those who are oppressed and downtrodden by others, those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who have lost everything and are paralysed by grief. The second grouping are those who will walk his path and change the way things are in the world, they are people who show mercy, who live a life of total honesty, with no falsehood or pretence, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for trying to follow the ways of Jesus and those who are placed alongside the oppressed because of their attempts to change things.
Things are upside down in the world. To do justice is to turn things the right way up. We can see the evidence of greed and corruption and the misuse of power in the destruction of the environment and in the growing numbers of people who becoming poor. Just as scientists have been warming that global warming has been caused by human actions so too poverty results from the actions of other human beings.
The beatitudes can help us to see what it means to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with our God. They give us what Jon Sobrino calls the Christian spiritual mindset. This is how we see things. Everything is turned upside down in the beatitudes. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
The poor in Spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and those who mourn are those crushed by the powers of this world. In the kingdom of heaven, it is the poor who are lifted up as the kingdoms and powers of this world are turned upside down.
So, we always need to see with the eyes of love. Without love we participate in the violent loveless ways of the kingdoms of this world. But with love, the kingdom of heaven comes.
As followers of Jesus, we are the blessed who find ourselves not among the rich and powerful but among the poor and despised peoples of this world. We rejoice and are glad not because everything has already changed to the way it should be but because a different reality is already among us; the kingdom of heaven is at hand, the kingdom of life and love is around and about us, falling like rain, flowing down into the depths of human life and raising the poor, like an ancient shipwreck rising from the bottom of the ocean floor and returning it to its place on the waves, to live again.
When we think of mission and we ask what does God want us to do? Our asking this question must always be a question from the heart, a response of the heart. Any response that does not come from a heart of love will quickly become one that seeks to control and dominate. It won’t last. It will become divisive and end up doing the opposite of the will of God.
Ongoing constant reflection is crucial. Reflect Act Grow. Action must always flow from reflection and action must always be followed by reflection - a constant process.
What does God want us to do? To disrupt the world order, to turn things upside down.
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? And we will be blessed in the heavenly calling of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation