Sunday, May 7, 2023

Mercy in Flesh and Bone

At Lydda, Peter was watching the evangelistic campaign of his post-Pentecost life. By the power of his risen Lord, he'd had the pleasure of releasing poor paralyzed Aeneas from his bed. The sheer sight of this man, whose every step was matched by a confession of Jesus, had people turning to the Lord left and right (Acts 9:32-35). Then, two men came to town, hunting for Peter. He was needed elsewhere. Joppa, in fact – that old port city where Jonah shipped out west on his eastward trek. The men led Peter to a house, to the upper room, to look at a dead woman. Next to her wept a gaggle of poor widows, who pointed to the clothes they were wearing, and a larger pile of sewing. They said that this Tabitha, a Christian, had lived out her faith by making these for them, free of charge, to save them from utter destitution. Tabitha had been so full of this and other 'works of mercy'; wasn't there something Peter could do? In this case, yes – the episode ends with Tabitha alive, and the gospel spreading in Joppa (Acts 9:36-43). In the very next story Luke shares, Peter will be called away to Caesarea, to meet a centurion named Cornelius. Already a God-fearer, Cornelius was known for “doing many works of mercy to the people, and praying to God continually” (Acts 10:2). During the afternoon prayers, Cornelius would see an angel saying, “Your prayers and your works of mercy have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4). So Cornelius would, by Peter's hand, be the first Roman baptized into Christ.

This year, to remind you again, we've been talking about our great human journey. Each and every one of us is made for a purpose, and that purpose is to see God as he truly is, and, by seeing him, to become like him, as like him as any creature can be. That's the supernatural destiny God offers every person who ever has, does, or will live. As a supernatural destination, we can't get there under natural powers; we have to be given supernatural power in our lives – that is, we must be born again. But once we are, then as long as we abide in Christ, we have that supernatural power in us. Yet it isn't an autopilot situation. Guided by the same grace that powers us, we have to actually pursue our destiny, grow in grace, so that we move toward our destination and ultimately reach it. Now, since our journey is a relationship journey, all about achieving union with God by knowing and loving him, things like worshipping in church and reading your Bible and praying have a pretty important role in that journey. We called them 'spiritual activities.' They're the most directly God-related things we can do.

But something's still missing from our story. It wasn't just Cornelius' prayers that ascended to heaven like good smells from the altar. Something else went with them. And the same word Luke uses to describe Cornelius' offering is how Luke also describes what Tabitha was known for. It's the word that binds these scenes back-to-back. If it weren't bad English, you could translate it as 'mercifulnesses.' So maybe let's just call them “works of mercy.” These “works of mercy” were shown before God as reason for Tabitha to rise from the dead. These “works of mercy” ascended before God as reason for Cornelius to be the first Roman baptized into Christ. So our notion of 'spiritual activities' had better expand, because these “works of mercy” fit right in with praying and Bible reading and churchgoing as activities that advance us along our great human journey. Which means that if we want to get close to God, if we want to chase after God, if we want to be brought into our supernatural destiny with God, then works of mercy aren't really any less essential than prayer, scripture, and church.

This word I'm translating as 'works of mercy' – there are various kinds of good deed that Greek-speaking Jews understood it to cover, and when Jesus paints a picture of the Last Judgment in the passage of scripture we read, he uses six of them as things the sheep did and the goats didn't. Here in Matthew 25, Jesus says that, when he sits on his throne of judgment, “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left” (Matthew 25:33-34). On his right, the sheep will inherit the kingdom; on his left, the goats will inherit the devil's due. And the difference between them, Jesus says, are these six things the sheep did that the goats had the chance to but didn't.

Of course, just like in the Bible, the Church really likes things to come in packs of seven. So by the Middle Ages, they'd found a seventh good deed to round out this perfect picture, adding it to the six that Jesus outright mentions. And these became known as the “seven works of mercy,” or specifically as “the seven corporal works of mercy” – we'll figure out why next week.1 These seven things are ways of meeting the tangible needs of the needy. But because Jesus identifies himself so strongly with the plight of the needy, serving the needy in this way is really service of Christ our King – and that's why these works of mercy, which both imitate Jesus and serve Jesus, enrich our life in Jesus and usher us further on our great human journey.

None of these seven works of mercy are especially hard to understand. The first is feeding the hungry. The psalmist says that feeding the hungry is God-like behavior, since “the LORD... gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:7). Isaiah says that one mark of a fool is “to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied” (Isaiah 32:6), while the life God wants to see us live is “to share bread with the hungry” (Isaiah 55:7). And Jesus praises the sheep insofar as “I was hungry, and you gave me food” (Matthew 25:35). James warns that a faith that would send away any brother or sister who's “lacking in daily food” without actually feeding them is a faith that's empty, dead, unable to save (James 2:15). And so, in the early church, one philosopher commented on how “if Christians find any among them who are poor and needy,” then they feed them, but “if they have no spare food, they fast for two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”2 That's just what Christians do.

In the fourth century, one of our heroes of holiness to imitate was a man named Basil. He'd become bishop just in time for a massive famine to hit his area, and people were starving left and right. So he preached forthrightly on the necessity of feeding the poor and hungry, and by his instruction and example, he was able to organize maybe the world's first soup kitchen, and “ministered to the bodies and souls of the needy.”3 Not only did he “open up the storehouses of the rich,” but he even called on the poor to give what they could: “Are you poor? You know someone who is even poorer. … As a good and generous person, redistribute your surplus to the needy.”4 Basil, among his other virtues, excelled in this first work of mercy, and called others to do likewise.

Given the importance Jesus put on feeding himself in the hungry, St. Basil had the right idea. Unlike in that fourth-century famine, we here don't have so many starving in the streets, although food insecurity is with us even today. But there are still soup kitchens like Basil's to work at. There's still need for CrossNet to offer its monthly community meal, and every little bit helps. There are still food pantries like the one we've begun to partner with.5 And as you join us in gathering this monthly collection, or volunteering on our appointed months, just think: you are buying that food to feed Jesus. It's a work of mercy, bringing you closer to God in love.

The second work of mercy isn't so different. It's giving a drink to the thirsty. Isaiah says that another mark of a fool is “to deprive the thirsty of drink” (Isaiah 32:6). And Jesus praises the sheep insofar as “I was thirsty, and you gave me drink” (Matthew 25:35). Now, around here, we have clean water pouring freely from every faucet. But elsewhere in the world, that isn't so. Nearly three quarters of a billion people lack access to clean water at all, and hundreds of little children die daily from lack of it, to say nothing of the adults. World Vision is one of the non-government organizations striving hardest, they say, to address this grave global water crisis, supplying communities with wells and hand pumps, or even generator-powered or solar-powered water systems. It doesn't take much to chip in there, just as it doesn't take much to hand out bottled water to runners or fairgoers here.6 Whenever you do it, this work of mercy is for Jesus.

A third work of mercy would be to clothe those who don't have adequate clothes. There's a reason we cover ourselves, and it's not purely out of modesty, though there's that. Paul and James agree: it's a bodily essential as much as food is (1 Timothy 6:8; James 2:15). Moses preached that God supplied the defenseless with “food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). Isaiah says that God wants to see a life that imitates him in doing that: “When you see the naked, to cover him” (Isaiah 55:7), and Ezekiel agrees that a righteous person “covers the naked with a garment” (Ezekiel 18:7). This work of mercy was Tabitha's specialty! And not just hers alone.

A few years before Basil opened his soup kitchen in Turkey, a 22-year-old Roman soldier named Martin lived in France, and he was desperate to become fully a Christian. And one freezing winter day, as he walked into town, he saw a shivering man with no coat, begging someone to help him get warm. Martin had nothing left but the barebones of his military uniform, including the cloak he covered himself with. But he took off his cloak, drew his sword, and sliced the thing in two. Wrapping himself just barely in one half, he wrapped the other half-cape around the beggar. That night, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing that other half of the cape. After all, hadn't Jesus told his sheep, “I was naked, and you clothed me” (Matthew 25:36)?7

St. Martin of Tours launched his heroic journey through this characteristic work of mercy, and so can we, when the need confronts us. It's not quite as easy as shipping our leftover clothes indiscriminately overseas. I've walked the streets of slums in Africa and seen mountains of discarded American T-shirts for sale, helping almost no one. But there is still need of clothing; we just have to be more strategic. Around here, we have quite a few thrift stores and other ministry projects, like Anchored Ministries' Clothing Closet, that will gladly take any clean and intact clothes you can donate. And when you give to them, and they pass it along to someone in need, then you have clothed Christ. And that work of mercy, like the others, will bring you closer to the face of God.

A fourth work of mercy is to harbor the harborless – which might mean welcoming the traveler or sheltering the homeless. Isaiah tells us that the life God wants to see is to “bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 55:7). The author of Hebrews commands us to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2). And Jesus, whose proverbial Good Samaritan paid room and board for a man he'd never met (Luke 10:35), praised his sheep by telling them, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). In the early church, this was another Christian hallmark: “When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a true brother.”8 And in the sixth century, one bishop laid his claim to fame by being “always zealous in showing hospitality.” One day, he invited some Roman soldiers to stay at his house. Unfortunately, just then, the Ostrogoths invaded town, and Bishop Cerbonius had to hide his guests to save their lives. For refusing to betray the men to whom he'd opened his home, Cerbonius narrowly escaped death and was exiled.9 Now that's what I call welcoming the stranger – he was willing to lay down his life in hospitality for Christ.

Today, thanks to hotels and motels and short-term rentals, travelers are mostly taken care of – though do any of you remember the story from last winter, when that blizzard in New York stranded a group of ten Korean tourists, who were then taken in by one local couple who opened their home to these strangers?10 Or how about the small town in Canada – just twice the size of New Holland – who, on 9/11, found over three dozen airplanes bound for the US grounded in their midst, and so this little town threw open its arms and took in thousands of strangers for nearly a whole week?11 Meeting those short-term needs were works of mercy. But there are also many others in long-term homelessness, or whose homes are in jeopardy amidst the present housing crisis. Even in just our county, to afford the average rent at minimum wage, you'd have to work over 100 hours a week. Not only has rent more than doubled in recent decades, but some economists said just the other month that housing affordability in the United States is at an all-time low.12 And yet there are some of us blessed in owning homes much more spacious than our lives should really take up, or even multiple homes all for ourselves. Perhaps at the judgment, we risk hearing Jesus say, “I needed a roof over my head, and you didn't welcome me.” But even those of us without space to share can help – our county isn't devoid of homeless shelters, and CrossNet operates a Pathways to Housing program that can always use some financial assistance. Again, whatever we can do here is a work of mercy – helping to house Christ in anyone who needs sheltering.13

A fifth work of mercy Jesus mentions is tending to or even just visiting the sick. Ezekiel censured Israel's false shepherds in that “the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up” (Ezekiel 34:4). Unlike the false shepherds, our Good Shepherd “had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). Then he tells his sheep: “I was sick, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). We may not work miracles as the apostles did to bring healing, but in these more mundane ways, we can do our part. In the third century, a serious plague struck places like Alexandria, whose bishop Dionysius wrote about how the non-Christians, living out of terror, abandoned their contagious friends and relatives to die. But Christians lived differently – “visiting the sick without thought of the danger to themselves, resolutely caring for them, tending them in Christ.”14 Fresh on the heels of a recent persecution, nevertheless many Christians cared for the sick even to the point of catching the plague and dying from it themselves – but their care saved others, Christian and pagan alike. That's mercy!

That was in an age before the professionalization of healthcare, but even now, we can tend to the sick by caring for our loved ones, by bringing food and supplies to lighten the burdens on patients and caregivers, by helping with errands or chores for those who are laid up.15 Then there are ministries of visitation and encouragement in settings like hospitals and nursing homes. And there are also charities like RIP Medical Debt, which buys bundles of hard-to-collect medical debt for a fraction of its theoretical value but, unlike a collection agency, forgives it instead of pursuing it. Just a month ago, I read about a church in North Carolina that raised enough money to buy and forgive over $3 million in medical debt in their tri-county area.16 Now that's a work of mercy.

There's one other work of mercy that Jesus mentions, and that's freeing the captive or visiting the prisoner. The psalmist says this is God-like behavior, since “the LORD sets prisoners free” (Psalm 146:7), and Isaiah says the life God wants to see in us is to “let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke” (Isaiah 55:6). From the very beginning of the church, Christians sought to care for those in prison, especially their fellow believers who were jailed for the sake of the gospel.17 Many great heroes of the faith, including St. Nicholas, famously interceded for prisoners.18 And in the sixth century, when countless prisoners of war were brought back to his city, Bishop Caesarius not only offered them food and clothing, but he sold all his property, even gifts from the king – and then also the decorations of all the city's churches – to pay these poor people's ransom.19

As in the days of St. Caesarius, there are plenty of places in the world today where captives – hostages – must literally be ransomed on a routine basis. But here, we have a different problem. The United States has more people in prison than any other country, and the sixth-highest incarceration rate. And if Pennsylvania were it's own country, we'd have the highest incarceration rate of all the nations of the earth. Setting aside questions about the policies that have awarded us such a dubious distinction, it's clear that practical care of and ministry to prisoners is more vital here than maybe anywhere else. And to the first Christians, that would've been a no-brainer. And yet we often think and talk about the imprisoned population in ways that dismiss them as redeemable and worth loving. I fear that Jesus may say to us, as to the goats, “I was in prison, and you didn't write me, didn't visit me, didn't think of me, but only cheered at my mistreatment.” But it doesn't have to be like that. We could visit, we could write letters, we could support programs with Prison Fellowship or Support for Prison Ministries, we could donate to a prisoner's commissary account – there are plenty of ways to do practical works of mercy for flesh-and-blood people who are God's image-bearers behind bars.20

That leaves that seventh work of mercy, which is burying the dead. One of the psalmists lamented how tragic it was when, in Babylon's attack on Jerusalem, God's people were killed and just left lying around, “and there was no one to bury them” (Psalm 79:3). The Book of Kings holds up a man who, seeing the corpse of a man of God, “brought it back to the city to mourn and to bury him, and he laid the body in his own grave” (1 Kings 13:29-30), much as Joseph of Arimathea would do for Jesus on Good Friday (Matthew 27:57-60). The early Christians were sometimes mistaken for a funeral association, because “whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each of them (according to his ability) gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial.”21 And the last pagan emperor complained that the biggest factor driving the growth of Christianity, aside from Christians' holy lives and “their benevolence to strangers,” was “their care for the graves of the dead.”22

Like tending the sick, there's been a lot of professionalization since those days, and yet we still have choices to make in how we treat people in death. Sometimes we're tempted to skip holding a funeral, if we think it's too much trouble or too expensive or not enough people will attend. But a funeral is about glorifying God by honoring a body he fearfully and wonderfully made, and about seeking God's grace for departed and grieving alike.23 Every few years, our county morgue has to deal with an increasing number of unclaimed bodies, which, cremated, are buried together in a public mass burial, with a short service led by a police chaplain and those in attendance who wish to come. God bless them. Offering basic dignity in burial and in rest is a work of mercy.

Seven corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the harborless, tending the sick, visiting the prisoner, burying the dead. There are so many ways all of us, any of us, however rich or poor, can do these works of mercy. And inasmuch as we do them to the least and the last, we show mercy to the Christ who is himself God's mercy to us. “And should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant,” he asks, “as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33). So “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) – Jesus' words, not mine. So are these: “Go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). May God move you, as he moved Tabitha and Cornelius, Basil and Martin, Cerbonius and Caesarius, Nicholas and Dionysius, to beautiful works of mercy, and thereby guide you to your supernatural fulfillment in him. Amen.

1  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.32, a.2, obj. 1 (thirteenth century).

2  Aristides of Athens, Apology 15 (second century).

3  Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 43.35 (fourth century), in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 22:58.

4  Basil of Caesarea, In Time of Famine or Drought 6 (fourth century), in Popular Patristics Series 38:83.

5  Andrew Apostoli, What to Do When Jesus is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy (Ignatius Press, 2011), 30-31.

6  Andrew Apostoli, What to Do When Jesus is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy (Ignatius Press, 2011), 42.

7  Sulpicius Severus, Life of Saint Martin 3 (fourth century), in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head, eds., Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 7.

8  Aristides of Athens, Apology 15 (second century).

9  Gregory the Great, Dialogues 3.11 (sixth century), in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 39:125-126.

11  Jim DeFede, The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland (Regan Books, 2003).

13  Andrew Apostoli, What to Do When Jesus is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy (Ignatius Press, 2011), 68.

14  Dionysius I of Alexandria, festal letter to the brethren in Alexandria (third century), in Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 7.22.7 (fourth century), in The History of the Church: A New Translation (University of California Press, 2019), 364.

15  Andrew Apostoli, What to Do When Jesus is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy (Ignatius Press, 2011), 77.

17  Aristides of Athens, Apology 15 (second century).

18  Proclus of Constantinople, Encomium on Saint Nicholas 2-3 (fifth century); compare anonymous account Stratelatis (fourth/fifth century).

19  Life of Saint Caesarius 1.32, 37-38, 44, in Translated Texts for Historians 19:25, 28, 31.

20  Andrew Apostoli, What to Do When Jesus is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy (Ignatius Press, 2011), 90-91.

21  Aristides of Athens, Apology 15 (second century).

22  Julian the Apostate, Letter 22, in Loeb Classical Library 157:69.

23  Andrew Apostoli, What to Do When Jesus is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy (Ignatius Press, 2011), 93.

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