(…continued) Twenty centuries ago the Romans did not know what to make of the early Christians who were so odd as to have only one God, but they were impressed by how the Christians helped each other and everyone else. In most the monasteries of the middle ages there were rules about hospitality, and guests were always welcome for a night’s lodging and a meal. This was crucial for many who traveled on foot at a time when there wasn’t an abundance of hotels and motels in every major city. Congregations worship in a room called a ‘sanctuary,’ and that word originally meant a place of ‘refuge;’ refuge from the spiritual and physical storms of life, and, a place where one could receive help. And today, when one thinks of a refuge for the homeless in the big cities, it is the Salvation Army that comes to mind first, a Christian group supported by other Christians, that tries to make sure the neediest among us have a place where they can be fed and clothed and housed.
This all goes back to the teachings of Jesus. We have a long tradition of giving ‘the cup of cold water’ in Jesus name. Not every culture or religion has this emphasis. Even in Muslim and Hindu countries, after natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes, it is the Christian relief organizations that are on the scene doing the most work.
There is a connection in all this between the physical and the spiritual. The old saying is “The way to a man’s heart is through his belly.” That can also be the way to a person’s soul. When someone’s family is starving, and someone else comes and feeds them, that means something, and it means even more to hear that they were given that food in the name of Jesus. It meant a lot to us just to get help when our car broke down. Imagine what it means to those whose lives are saved by Christian relief organizations. The Great Commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth has always gone hand in hand with this command to hospitality and to service.
Tony Campolo has done Christian relief work in the Dominican Republic. He tells of a Christian doctor he knew there, a young Dominican named Elias. Elias was educated in the United States and could have stayed here, earning a big salary in Chicago and living a comfortable life. Instead, he returned to his native country to work among his people in the very worst slums. He is seldom paid, but when he does get a little money he spends it on medicines for those who can not afford them. Day after day he works with the poorest of the poor, giving them the medical help they could never have otherwise afforded.
One day, Campolo traveled with Elias, riding his old beat up truck into the heart of the slums. There, Elias spent the day seeing patients, diagnosing illnesses, giving medical advice, and handing out medicine. At the end of the day, Elias climbed up onto his truck, hooked up a crude loudspeaker system, and began to preach the gospel. All the people loved Elias, so they came out of their shacks and gathered around to listen.
Campolo then saw in the crowd a young man he had previously met at the state university. This young man was a member of the Communist student movement on the campus. He would come out to the slums to talk to the people about Communism and revolution, but hardly anyone would listen to him.
Tony walked over to this young communist agitator and said in a teasing, but also serious way, “Hey, Pedro! Elias has the ear of the people. You better watch out. He is going to win them all to Christ and then there will be no one left to follow you.”
The young man then turned to Campolo and without smiling said, “What am I supposed to say? Elias has earned the right to be heard.”
Jesus said, “He who receives you, receives me.” This is how Christianity has spread around the world.
The New York Times has become increasingly negative toward conservative Christian groups. Not long ago they published some articles criticizing even those Christian relief organizations that have done so much to alleviate suffering around the world. Therefore, I was surprised a while back to see this quote by a New York Times columnist. He said: “I have lost my cynicism about evangelical groups partly because I have seen them at work abroad.” Can you imagine that? He took the time to look at all the good that these organizations were doing around the world, and he became less critical.
Jesus told us to proclaim the gospel and take the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth. Jesus also tells us to simply help those who are in need; feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. The church, both locally and internationally, has been very effective doing both.
Matthew 10:40 — (Jesus said), “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
I John 3:17-18 — But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
Philippians 2:4 — Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Lord God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served, and to give his life for the world. Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help. Through us give hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved, peace to the troubled, and rest to the weary; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978 (#141)