A Church of MercyJan 21st, 2011 | By Jeremy Tate | Category: Blog Posts
I heard a story in seminary of a pastor who made late night visits to a local diner when he couldn’t sleep. Prostitutes frequently visited the diner and the pastor couldn’t help overhearing some of their conversations as he sat reading. He was grieved as he gathered bits and pieces of these women’s tragic lives. One night he overheard an older prostitute bemoaning her upcoming birthday. He listened as she reflected on the work she lost every year she got older. The pastor, who had become friendly with the owner, asked if could throw the woman a surprise birthday party the following night. The pastor, with members of his church, decorated the diner for a birthday party, which included a personalized cake and balloons. When the prostitute came in and saw her name on the balloons and cake she began to cry. She asked her friends not to touch the cake because nobody had ever made a birthday cake for her before. As the pastor was leaving the restaurant owner asked him, “What sort of church throws birthday parties for prostitutes at three o’clock in the morning…I don’t go to church, but I think I’d like to go to yours.”
This story profoundly demonstrates the way in which the Church ought to love the unbelieving world. When the seminary professor finished this story many seminarians in the class were nearly moved to tears. One student, however, found reason to object. He raised his hand and asked the professor, “well…didn’t the pastor tell the prostitute and the restaurant owner about Christ?” The seminary professor looked at the student and said, “I think he did tell them about Christ, in a very powerful way.” The class spent a few minutes debating the value of performing acts of charity and other acts of mercy without verbally articulating the gospel afterward.
The conversation these seminary students had illustrates a point that Tim Keller makes in the introduction to his new book, Generous Justice. Keller points out that many evangelically minded and conservative Christians have come to associate acts of mercy (such as feeding the poor, or volunteering at an orphanage) with the liberal social gospel movements of the early 20th century. Since the social gospel movements were marked by an attitude of indifference and laxity toward upholding traditional theological dogma, many evangelicals have become skeptical of mercy driven churches. Conservative evangelicals can be quick to assume that a church acting like a food pantry only does so because it has squandered its real responsibility to preach the gospel. Many Protestants have thus wrongly interpreted the Catholic Church’s prodigious humanitarian work as evidence of a church unconcerned with matters of salvation.
A fresh look at Scripture should, however, should remind believers that the calling to “cloth the naked” and “feed the hungry” is not followed up by a call to immediately articulate the gospel. Instead, Scripture calls the Church to be both a vessel of mercy to a dying world and also the voice of faithful gospel proclamation. Nowhere does Scripture say that both activities must take place simultaneously. The practice of trying to match every act of mercy with a gospel presentation, as is often the case in many Reformed circles, is without biblical warrant. Such a mentality even condemns the work of the Good Samaritan.
The biblical picture for how mercy ministry and gospel proclamation work together is found in the person of Christ. Christ cared deeply for both the physical and spiritual needs of humanity. There are some instances in Scripture, such as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus seems solely concerned about theological truth. In other places, such as the healing of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus seems solely concerned about physical healing as he mentions nothing of theological import while he raises her from the dead. In other places, like the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ reason for taking care of physical needs is directly tied into the ministry of the word. Christ’s ministry, as well as the subsequent mercy activity of the Church, frequently takes the form of God blessing the proclamation of the gospel through acts of mercy.
One of the most powerful examples of how God blesses the proclamation of the gospel through works of mercy can be found in the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Before Mother Teresa began her work in Calcutta, India, several missionaries had already preached the Christian faith. Their efforts, however, were met with little success and few converts. The problem was that the gospel directly contradicted the worldview of the predominately Hindu populace in Calcutta. For centuries Indian people believed that all of humanity was divided into five separate groups or castes; Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and Harijans. The last group, the Harijans, are commonly known in the west as the “untouchables.” This group, made up of completely impoverished peasants, had for centuries been viewed as almost subhuman by the other groups in the Indian caste system. Therefore, the Christian idea that all humans are made in the image of God and are of immeasurable worth, made the gospel sound absurd to the people of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa’s ministry, however, demonstrated to the people of India that the “untouchables” really are image bearers of God. As Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity began to cloth, bathe, feed, and bury the poorest of the poor with dignity, people began to see that the Christian idea of all people being made in the image of God might actually be true. Suddenly missionaries noticed a new openness to the gospel among the people of Calcutta. The work of Mother Teresa, like the radical love the pastor showed the prostitute at the diner, is thoroughly and profoundly Christocentric. The fact that the Catholic Church has led the world in acts of mercy for the past two thousand years should be a clue to separated brothers that the Catholic Church truly is the one true Church of Christ that she claims to be.