Compassion, the "Yeah, Duh..." of the Gospel
I remember the first time the driving centrality of Jesus’ compassion for people came into focus for me. I was in Cuernavaca, Mexico, at a month-long summer Bible Institute after my junior year in university. The teacher was taking us through Mark and came to the story of the healing of the leper in chapter 1. He paused at verse 41, and read it again and again: “Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him . . .” Each time he read it, he emphasized a different word or phrase. Finally, with tears in his eyes, he just paused: “He touched him.”
One might chalk this up to oratorical artifice, but it was real. I have followed this man’s ministry for almost 50 years, and he’s still at it. Faithfully preaching and proclaiming Christ, teaching others the power and reliability of the Gospel, not one hint of scandal or falsehood. He is a man moved to compassion for people by the compassion of Christ for people, and even more baseline, God’s compassion for him.
We are familiar with the dual concepts of grace and mercy. Two facets of God’s love for sinners. Compassion forms a third side of the same heart. The distinction is that compassion always does what Mark describes: it moves toward. It reaches out to touch. We might be able to say that grace and mercy are dispositions and intentions that “inevitably move toward and touch.” However, biblically we must say that compassion cannot rest in disposition or feeling. It must move toward and actually touch pain, sorrow, and need.
Compassion shows up through the local ministries of virtually every church in the Diocese of Christ our Hope. Sponsoring refugee families and mentoring their children by All Saints-Durham, Apostles-Raleigh, Redeemer-Raleigh, and who knows how many others? An entire wall of the photos of “Compassion Children” at Holy Spirit-Roanoke. Supportive care for families struggling with opioids from two church plants in West Virginia. An entire volunteer ministry office at St John’s (Philadelphia) to help families facing systemic unemployment. Faithful mentoring of unchurched high school and middle school students by lay members of Christ the King in Boone, NC. Extensive efforts to build bridges with needy Muslim families from Church of the Rez, DC. Steady, personal, practical help for homeless people on the streets near the offices of Bread of Life, Ithaca.
Many specific compassion ministries flow without fanfare from local churches in our Diocese. Why? As I’ve said, moving toward and personally touching those in great need, pain, and trouble is the inescapable logic of our own salvation. We hear it every week – “But you did not abandon us to death, but in your mercy, you sent your only Son Jesus, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all . . .” The entire Gospel is God’s compassion – mercy and grace moving toward us, to be among us, to touch and be touched, to taste our mortality and bear our sins in his own body on the cross. The physicality, the closeness, the practical touch of Jesus, is fundamental to the Gospel we believe and proclaim.
Compassion ministries are not unique to our Diocese. In many ways, we could all do far more than we do. But it is our prayer, and our intent, that compassion is laced throughout all we do in terms of our practical presence in local places. The Lord has reached out and touched each of us, and we cannot not do the same even to those who, like us before his touch, were leprous and corrupt.
Read on to learn about one compassion ministry that has emerged from a lay member of Church of the Advent, Washington D.C.