Sermon 2017 May 14th

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET, LONDON

11 AM SUNDAY 14 MAY 2017

TEXT: THE GOOD SAMARITAN, LUKE 10.25-37

TITLE: “THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR”

Preacher – Revd Andrew Anderson

 

Listen here: https://youtu.be/Cbs03WxhzJM

 

What kind of people are we?  What would others say about us? Are we different from other people? Does the profession of our Christian faith make a difference? I want to consider this question in the light of Jesus’ story, the Good Samaritan.  At the heart of the story is difference. The issue of difference, being different, centres on the person in Jesus’ story we call the Good Samaritan, as I shall try to explain. I think that the story points us to how we should be, can be, different, as Christians. That is my sermon theme.

I begin some years ago when I was impressed with a TV documentary, presented by Sheena McDonald, (incidentally the former Moderator, Bill McDonald’s, daughter), entitled Seven Steps to Tyranny. This set out to analyse why and how we can be so beastly, cruel and unjust to one another. It suggested seven steps, or stages, that we go through in our attitude to others, and how we can end up treating others so terribly badly, even to the point of abusing and killing them.

The very first step towards this dreadful tyranny is when we treat people as different from us. In the TV programme, several examples were cited to show what effect difference can have on the way we behave, and let me deal with just one. What follows was recorded on tv cameras.

An actor dressed up in the football strip of a, let’s say, Team A supporter. He went to a match in which Team A were playing against Team B, and he made a point at the end of the game of leaving the ground in the middle of a crowd of Team B supporters. He feigns an injury, falling to the ground, and appearing to be in some considerable distress. The Team B supporters surrounding him, mostly dressed in their team’s strip, don’t stop to help him, a number give him a wide berth, just passing him by “on the other side” as it were. It is extraordinary that no one stops to help the man who is in such apparent need.

The scenario is repeated. This time the Team A supporter exits the ground with other similar Team A supporters. Now when he falls to the ground, and repeats appearing in pain and distress, he is immediately tended by other Team A supporters who quickly surround him, help him up, show great care for him.

The difference between these two little cameos is “difference”. The Team A supporter was different to the Team B supporters, and they didn’t, or wouldn’t, help. Whereas the Team A supporter was one with all the other supporters of the same team who were so quick to come to his assistance.

The lesson is clear, as the tv documentary showed: in the steps to tyranny, to treating others badly, the first step is to see someone else as different. Ignorance, suspicion, prejudice, these can quickly destroy the veneer of civilisation and apparent kindness in us. Scratch the surface and what quickly appears can be thoroughly unpleasant.

Now let’s all of us keep this in the back of our mind and return to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of Jesus’ greatest parables, brief, but dramatic, and with the most powerful teaching.

In a dispute with a lawyer, a specialist in Jewish religious law, Jesus is asked ‘Who is my neighbour?’ In reply he tells this story.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a notoriously bad road, travellers being regularly attacked and robbed by bandits, who easily escaped into the rocky hills to hide. This man is travelling alone. Perhaps not surprisingly he is robbed and beaten up, and is left badly injured and in great distress, indeed he seems dead.

One after the other three travellers on that same road come across the injured man. The first and then the second are a priest and a Levite, they don’t stop but pass by, on the other side. Then the third, a Samaritan, comes along, sees the man in his great need, and has compassion on him. He goes over to help, and does what he can. He tends to the man’s wounds, then puts him on his own donkey and take him to an inn, paying for him to be looked after there until he is fully recovered. It’s a simple, clear story, but very dramatic.

Several thoughts occur to me as I think about this. The man is foolish to be on such a road by himself. He deserves the trouble that comes to him. He has made himself, by his own choice, vulnerable. The priest and the Levite, with duties to perform at the temple in Jerusalem, quite reasonably, in their own judgment, did not risk defiling themselves ceremonially by touching what could be a dead man, because if they did touch the man, and he was dead, the Jewish law would prevent them from carrying out the duties of their office.

Those listening to Jesus tell this story for the first time must have enjoyed the implied condemnation of the religious authorities, but they must have been utterly astonished at what came next, when the hero, the star of the story, is a Samaritan!

The Samaritans had a long history. They were the descendants of the northern tribes that made up northern kingdom of Israel, and were taken into Exile when, in 721 BC, their capital city of Samaria fell to the invading Assyrians. It was never restored. The people quickly intermarried, so becoming racially corrupted, impure, regarded by the Jews in the southern kingdom, Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, as half-castes, outcasts, foreigners, even enemies. The Samaritans were, therefore, different.

We must not forget the extraordinary power and impact this story had when first told. The hero is the despised and hated Samaritan! The foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee! Racially, religiously, socially, culturally “different”.

Luke makes a similar Point a little later in his gospel when he records Jesus healing 10 men of leprosy (Luke 17.15,16).

Let me ask each one of you this: going back to the lawyer’s question that prompts Jesus to tell the story in the first place, who is the “neighbour” in this story?

Usually the emphasis is on the man who was robbed and beaten up, and is in great need. He seems to be the neighbour whom we should always be prepared to help. Of course, that’s true! We are commanded, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ Christians above all people should be quick to help those in need.  But that’s not actually what Jesus says. The neighbour in this story is the Samaritan,  and the focus of the story is on what kind of a person the Samaritan is, clearly compassionate, generous, and kind – and blind to difference. At real cost to himself, in time, money and inconvenience, he sacrifices himself for the good of the other.

It seems to me that the real message of this story is that of course we are to meet the needs of others as and when we have opportunity. (This coming week is Christian Aid Week, and we have lots of opportunity of helping that good cause.) I hope that goes without saying. But we do so because of the kind of people we are. We are Christians. We are, to use that phrase that we encounter so often in the new Testament, we are “in Christ”. We are his followers, his disciples, his people, he has called us, and he equips us.

We should be motivated, directed in what we say and do, by the kind of people we are, even before we are motivated and directed by the needs of others. It seems to me that in this wonderful story Jesus is telling us that if the needs of the world are to be met, poverty and suffering alleviated, injustice overcome, peace established, then that’s down to us because of the kind of people that we are, or I should say, are becoming, as Christians, in Christ.

Now, I could stop here, and we would have learnt much: Jesus tells a wonderful story of how he wants us to act in love and compassion towards others, meeting need wherever we find it, blind to difference and the barriers and obstacles that difference raises. And what are his last words in the text? ‘Go and do likewise.’

But, there’s a problem, a serious problem, it’s certainly my problem, and I guess it may be yours as well. We listen to Jesus’ story, we hear what he says, we know its clear message and teaching. But we can’t, or won’t, carry it out. ‘Go and do likewise?’ We don’t!

Here’s the rub: we need to be changed, and transformed, we need to become new people, new creatures, a new creation. And the Bible tells us this can only be done in Christ. We can’t do it ourselves. As the Psalmist (in our reading) tells us, we are ‘none of us good, not even one.’ We are sinners, fallen, weak and foolish. If we are honest we say with Paul, (Romans 7.18,19) ‘I have the desire to do what is good but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.’ But it is also Paul who says, (2 Cor 5.17) ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.’

If we are to obey Jesus, live as he intends us to live, be the different people he wants us to be, and go and do what the Good Samaritan did, then we need to live a new life, dead to sin, but alive in Christ.

We are still in the first days after Easter, and our celebrations are still fresh in our minds. Jesus dies on the cross, an appalling, unjust, humiliating death. It should strike horror into us whenever we think about it, but also profound gratitude and joy. He takes our punishment, he takes our place, he sets us free, we are saved. It is the final victory over sin, death, fear and guilt, and over the devil. Here is the very essence and core of what Christians are asked to believe. No other faith has this message, this truth. In the sermon which I heard on Easter day the preacher said, ‘This is what Christians uniquely must offer the world, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ At the door of my church in Edinburgh as you entered there was a memorial to its first minister with these words of St Paul, (1 Cor 2.2) ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’

And it is this, precisely this faith, that changes us, that makes us different, and helps us do what, of ourselves, we cannot do.

It seems to me that we can quite properly say that Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He sees us in our need, in our weakness and helplessness, and in his compassion and kindness, because that is who he is and what he, as God, is like, so he comes to rescue us, to save us.

When we encounter the world’s needs, in all their complexity and diversity, with all the challenge and demand that these needs present us with, we are not to judge on whether these needs are deserving, or to explain away the circumstances giving rise to them, or that we cannot do anything about them. We are to remember we are now in Christ, new creatures, a new creation, in his image and likeness. We act, we speak, we do, we live new lives. That’s what makes us different.

I finish where I began, with the question, what kind of people are we? You? Me? We are Christians! We are now in Christ, bought and redeemed at an infinite cost. Now set loose in the world to show compassion, and make a difference, all the difference.

Last Sunday my wife and I were coming to the end of a short but very happy holiday in Ireland. We were staying at Galway in the mid-west and took the chance of visiting Ireland’s most popular natural attraction, the Cliffs of Mohar. These cliffs rise 600 or 700 feet from the sea, and run for 4 or 5 miles. They are home to thousands of sea birds, including a large colony of puffins. They are spectacular!

Along the top of the cliffs runs a path. There is a barrier between the path and the cliff top, and, because the cliff top is unstable, there are numerous notices warning of danger, and asking you to keep to the designated path.

Sadly, it has been a place where some desperate people have taken their own lives. So it was no surprise to see a large notice at the start of the path saying, ‘TALK TO US’ with a telephone number. It was, of course, an advertisement for the Samaritans. The Samaritans is a wonderful organisation, founded by Christians, still doing very necessary work, helping, saving people in their need, inspired by the story Jesus told.

May we too be inspired by the story and, trusting in Christ, obey his command that comes to all of us here today: ‘Go and do likewise.’ In this way, we will show what kind of people we are.

—oooOooo—

 

Andrew Anderson, retired Church of Scotland minister, presently Chaplain at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Oxford.