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Acting like a neighbor
Jesus is the ultimately example of lowering the context. God himself needed to be contextualized. So he came on earth in the form of a human to relate to us, to love us, and to know us. God, in the Old Testament, is a transcendent creator, who is also personal. He loves and created humanity and made humans in his own image. But he is a paradox. Other ancient Near Eastern religions kind of set up a codependent relationship between their gods and humans, but our God doesn’t need humans, but he wants them, he loves them. This was certainly complicated for people. And so Jesus enters, I think, to help simplify matters. Of course, this has its own complications. People have been wondering ever since if he is truly God. There’s always a problem, but I think that’s OK. See it as an opportunity.
I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in his version of John 1:14.
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
Jesus moved into the neighborhood. And gave us God’s glory—so that we could see it with our own eyes.
Now, we are like Father, like Son, generous inside and out. Paul calls us the Body of Christ. And we have moved into the neighborhood. I was just telling someone the other day, the reason we are on North Broad St. is mainly for accessibility. We want to be accessible to neighborhoods and neighbors in Philadelphia. That’s why we have people from all over the region that are part of us. And they are impacting their neighborhoods. The real church in your neighborhood is your cell. Jesus is in you and your cell and you bring him where you go.
We are moving out of the idea that the church is contained in a room, between walls. This, like our location, is simply practical. It is not the heart of us. We want this space to be warm and hospitable and inviting. But the real work of the church happens in you and in all of us.
That work? It’s not always immediately rewarding or gratifying. It is incremental. And so we might be wondering? When does it get awesome? We get an idea in the Good Samaritan story.
The legal expert asks Jesus a question about eternal life and how to get it. When Jesus asks him the same question, the lawyer answers perfectly, specifically, he is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 18:19. These are the basics. In fact, when Bernie Sanders was addressing the Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s conservative Baptist college, he tried to bring everyone together on that basic point: the Golden Rule. He thought it was just a common sense principle.
So the man quotes the right Jewish law (that Jesus will say is the summary of the entire Jewish law too). Jesus answers his question, that’s what you need to do.
But who is my neighbor? Who do I need to love? This is a great question. Somewhere in there is the thought that if someone is not our neighbor, we don’t need to love him. Or perhaps, a post-colonial perspective, would think of this is particularly loving our neighbors. Like our immediate neighbors deserve special love that we wouldn’t offer to someone else. The law is meant to demonstrate endless love and this lawyer seems to looking for the fine print.
So Jesus tells a story. A man going downhill from Jerusalem to Jericho and he’s attacked. It is a treacherous downhill road, descending 3,300 feet. A triad of travelers appear and not surprisingly, the first two pass him over. It’s hard to know why the Levite and the priest overlooked him (not the point). But clearly, they have observed and they blow it off.
Then comes the drama. The Samaritan shows up. Even Luke’s readers know that there is major animosity between Jews and Samaritans, as do most Bible readers. He comes, sees, and rather than passing on, he’s moved to help, moved to be compassionate.
This story is famous for this very reason. It shows compassion from the most unlikely person. Who would that be today for you? Who would be the person you’d least be likely to help or the person that would be least likely to help you? Who is your enemy that needs loving?
He is answering the man’s question. Note when he says, “Do likewise.” It is an answer to the lawyer’s question. He tells the man to go and fulfill this command because it is so easy to know the law but not to do it. But Jesus responded to this man because the man asked what to do. The Good Samaritan parable is a story about how grand God’s love is for us and how it extends through us to every person. Jesus isn’t just giving us a new kind of fundamentalism. He’s offering us freedom in his love for us and the world, not legal obligation that if not met will end in our doom.
Look at how Jesus flips the question upside-down. Who is my neighbor becomes “Who acted as a neighbor?” The man knows the answer and Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.
Jesus’ point isn’t who is the neighbor—he’s saying everyone is your neighbor. Jesus’ point is so good and so practical to because he refocuses the man on the things that are happening around him, not the things happening in the future. Following Jesus then isn’t just about what is to come in eternity, it’s about bring eternity here. It’s about being being present and not always distracted by even the hopeful future. We have something to do now. Spread love.
So be the church wherever you are. You and your cell are the churches in your neighborhood. You bring the love to your neighbors, even if they don’t necessarily live close to this particular building or if you don’t either.
But practically, I just want to note that our compassion teams are great ways to love your neighbors and neighborhoods. Our passionate people consider Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and what they need. Consider Circle Thrift, a great neighborhood establishment that is providing jobs and selling inexpensive wares and clothing. Or the Baby Goods Exchange, which gives away free baby goods to those who need them. Or the compassion teams that are centered on serving elementary schools: For the Love of Childs, Advocates for Duckrey, Friends of HA Brown. Or even the team I lead: Development Without Displacement. We are trying to sustainable development Philadelphia without displacement residents. I mention this not just to put another thing on your plate, but to note that people in Circle of Hope are into this, and you are supporting them with prayer, love, and even financially. So we’re all doing it together. Same thing applies to Mennonite Central Committee—if you are wondering how to include, for example, the refugees that are displaced all over the world, consider what the MCC is doing and the fact that we contribute. We are connected to networks, teams, and mission all over—committed to being a good neighbor.