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Sunday, January 31, 2016

More Like Jesus: From Comfort to Compassion (Philippians 2:1-8, Matthew 9:35-38)


Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.



Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”



As the president of my college class, my most important executive action was to plan the senior class trip.  The senior class trip was an annual spring break tradition, and previous classes had gone to such exotic locations as Stowe Mountain, Vermont; New York City; Washington, DC; and one confectionary-filled week in Hershey, PA.  Our class had done considerably better in fundraising, thanks to yours truly, and so it was, that we left the snowy confines of Western New York and set sail on a Bahamas cruise.



Donald Trump might have called it, “the hugest, most fabulous, luxurious senior class trip ever.”  And it was.  Ever been pampered, where it seems like everyone was there to serve you, meet your every whim, whose sole reason for existence was to make you comfortable?  That cruise felt sort of like that.  As we arrived at dinner on the second night, and the drinks everyone had ordered the night before were already in place on the table, I distinctly remember thinking, “I could get used to this!”



To be sure, we all need a certain level of comfort in our lives.  If you live with chronic pain, you know the importance of having a comfortable place to sit.  Someone who is living paycheck-to-paycheck knows the importance of having enough money to be comfortable.  We go on vacations to comfortable places so we can recharge and renew from the stresses of every day life. We find comfort in relationships and foods and traditions and places, and again, we all need a certain level of comfort in our lives.



What we don’t need, however, is to become overly obsessed with our own comfort.  As followers of Jesus, as those who are trying, by God’s grace to live and love like him, we are often called to put aside our own comfort in order to show compassion. Following Jesus necessarily moves us from comfort to compassion.



The word, “compassion,” is rooted in two Latin words, com and passioCom means “with,” passio sounds like “passion,” but it literally means “suffer, like “The Passion of Christ,” which depicts the suffering of Christ. “Compassion” literally means “suffer with.”



Compassion is where we see someone’s need, and we feel it as acutely as our own, and we are moved to action with an unquenchable desire to alleviate the suffering.



Our first Scripture reading from Philippians tells us to

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.



Adopt the Attitude That Was in Christ Jesus.

Think of a swimming pool, with comfort at the shallow end, and compassion at the deep end.  Our default is to hang out at the shallow, comfortable end, but as we follow Jesus, who had all power, privilege, and position – equal with God, all the comfort and splendor of heaven, Jesus who left that, willingly gave it all up in order to come to us as one of us, to suffer with us, even to the point of his own suffering on the cross.  He did that, not because he had to, but because his love for us was just that deep.



Again, back to Philippians:

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.



The self-centered life is a shallow life.  Jesus draws us from the selfish shallows to deep compassion.  The more closely we follow Jesus, the more compassionate we become, no longer splashing around in the shallow end, but saving lives and keeping people from drowning in the deep end.  Following Jesus plunges us from shallow comfort to deep compassion.



Compassion for the Crowds

Compassion for whom?  Matthew’s Gospel says, Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:36)



Jesus had compassion for the crowds.  Compassion – a desire to suffer with, and actively alleviate the suffering – for the crowds – a nameless, faceless rabble too numerous to count.



When you think of who Jesus spent most of his time with, who comes to mind?  His disciples – the 12 men he tapped on the shoulder and said, “Come, follow me.”



Imagine, if you would, three concentric circles.  The very center of the middle circle –that’s Jesus.  We will call the first, tightest circle around him “the core” – that’s his 12 disciples.  Now, we also know there were other people who followed Jesus, at different times in his ministry, it fluctuated somewhere between 100 and 150 people.  This group is represented by the second circle, and we’ll call this circle “the congregation.”



But what about that outer circle?  Well, you can call that outmost circle “the crowd.”



The crowd comes and goes.  It varies in size.  There are times in Jesus’ ministry when the crowd is heavy, and other times when it practically disappears.  The crowd doesn’t have direction, it’s aimless, and it’s vulnerable.  “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”



Jesus has compassion for the crowd.  Being like Jesus means we have compassion for them, as well.  Following Jesus is signing on to a life that shows compassion for the crowd, for those beyond our own circle.  Jesus invested in his inner circle, his core, training them, equipping them, empowering them to invest in the congregation by empowering them and equipping them to invest in the crowd.  It is Jesus’ compassion for the crowd that drives the whole process, consumes all the organizational energy – like pebbles being continually dropped in a pond, with the movement of the ripples constantly spreading his love further and further and further.



But, when we start to prioritize comfort over compassion, that’s the beginning of spiritual death.  In the medical world, comfort care is what happens at the end of life. 



From Members to Disciples

Right now, 75% of churches in America are either plateaued or in decline.  One way to reverse the decline would be to talk less about church membership.  Our obsession with church membership is killing us. Membership isn’t Biblical.  Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make members, he told us to go and make disciples!  Clubs have members.  Institutions have members.  The Church has disciples!



Membership is a term that carries all sorts of baggage of privilege.  Catering to people’s preferences, and so comfort is given a higher priority than compassion.  The comfort of the inner circles gets to be more important than showing compassion to the outer circle.  We end up with something completely inverted to what Jesus intended.



Our obsession with membership has created a situation in which too many in the church have forgotten, or never really knew in the first place, to whom the church belongs.  It belongs to Jesus!  He is its owner!  He is its Lord!  He bought it with his own blood.  The church is Christ’s body, his representative to the world, a world he loves and for which he died.



A club has members.  The church has disciples.  Small change in language, huge change in culture – to stop referring to ourselves as members, and to start calling ourselves disciples.  Members are motivated by what they want.  Disciples are motivated by what Jesus wants.



What’s he want?  Compassion for the crowds.  Or maybe you prefer the way he said it in Luke 19:10 - seeking and saving the lost. Or Matthew 28, he told us to go into the world and make disciples of him.  So call it what you will: compassion for the crowd, seeking and saving the lost, or making disciples – however you slice it, this was his passion; it’s what the church, who belongs to Jesus, must always be about.



Compassion for the crowd – it drove Jesus; does it drive us?  Where would you put yourself, honestly, this morning – in the shallow end, or in the deep end?  Splashing around and making noise with your buddies, or diving deep in order to save others?  Member or disciple?  Your own comfort, or compassion for others?



Sometimes we in the church can forget who we are, to whom we belong, and what we’re about.  When the church starts to feel and act too much like a cruise ship, remember we’re really a fishing vessel – none of us are here as passengers, we’re all part of the crew.  Let’s follow and live like Jesus.  Let’s move from comfort to compassion.

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