The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
There is a special sort of danger that comes from doing a good deed. In fact, good is so intoxicating a presence in life that when the most good possible – God in Godself – was among us, we sought to kill that goodness. Christ our Lord, the most Good, was killed for the egregious crime of doing what was right. Doing what is right means doing good even when it is unpopular, it means loving even and especially when that love does not benefit us. We must do good, no matter what, because that goodness is the ultimate act of obedience to our God, who had the parting words to us, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
The Church, despite this high calling, lacks the reputation you think they would have for living selflessly. Why might this be? Some point to a cultural conspiracy, some grand scheme to represent God and God’s people as monsters. While it would be hard to deny some people definitely have an unfounded grudge against the Church, I do not think that constitutes enough people for our reputation to be as it is. The mission of the Church is not to become popular, but it is nonetheless meant to be reputable. The righteousness of the Christian must be such that no dirt thrown at them can stick – not because it is denied outright, but because they have no guilt to be dug up. (1 Peter 3:13-17)
The reality of our situation and position in culture is complex, but the decline of Christianity cannot be denied. No denominations are growing, few local churches even, and most, “converts,” that any church logs in their records are just moving from one congregation to another. We are increasingly unpopular, increasingly scarce, and increasingly liable. As much as it would be nice to point to forces outside our control and blame them, I refuse to accept that we are not culpable. If we say that forces outside the Church are capable of destroying us, then we admit defeat outright and we put more power in earth and people than Heaven and God.
While the complexity of our present state does not allow us to come to a single cause or source to our present concerns, I submit that one of the chief problems we face is that we are never accused of doing good. Never are we brought before councils for making the infirm well, or the poor secure, or the lonely loved. Never are we brought before courts to attest by what authority we care for the wounded or welcome the stranger. Never are we rejected for the good we do, never are we put out of step with our society in the name of justice. Where is our abundant mercy which we offer the world in the name and authority of Christ?
Some may lift up certain people penalized for one thing or another. Refusal to participate in some event or some aspect of their job they consider noncongruent with their faith. While the veracity of such displays is worth discussing in other contexts, I would insist that these are not acts of mercy or goodness but acts of negation. Not doing something perceived as bad is not enough, especially when the matter is one of contention. No, we must actively do good and not merely passively avoid evil. We must not be known as the people against a thousand others, but the people who are for all people, who do all good, who seek out chances to act in mercy and love.
Without a doubt we have fallen, not in totality, but in part, because we lack the love which we are called to give to those around us. While there are occasional headlines here and there of churches doing community work that meaningfully helps others, most of our business is posturing and pretension. Still more, churches are seldom among those fighting for other people in the public sphere. When homeless camps are cleared in midnight raids, where are the Christians to defend them?
When people are being evicted en masse, where are the Christians to aid them? When there is hunger and disease and lack of housing, where is our mercy to care for others?
While there are organizations that do good in the name of Christ – World Vision, UMCOR, and our very own JCCM come to mind – many more do so for profit or else using methods we have known for decades cause more harm than good. How many villages have been wrecked by ill informed and performative missions? How many hungry people turned away from Salvation Arm tables and shelters for being deemed, “too different?” With rare exception, much of our missions infrastructure corporately is as broken as it is individually. While it can be fruitful to send money to people who are doing good, and sometimes better than trying to do something ourselves we do not know how to do, we cannot depend on sending money away to try and make the needy of the world someone else’s problem.
There was a time when the church was the source of support people could depend on. Hungry? Seek out a church. Cold? Seek the people of God. In despair? Go to they that serve a Risen Lord. Over time this tendency decreased. Partly this came from a shift in needs people had and services provided by the state. Yet, we cannot deny a shift in the culture of the Church. Though it is a perennial problem that the church puts membership numbers and income ahead of people, the 1900s saw it morph into a platform. Churches adopted business mentality, business ethics, and replaced conversion with recruitment and salvation with a commodity.
The upheaval in, “Christendom,” over the last hundred years is part of a through line that stretches back to Constantine. One of power and profit and wicked intent. We must divest ourselves of these inclinations and root ourselves in the righteousness of Christ.
Righteousness that manifests in acts of love and mercy, in real aid to one another in times of need. The work of the church cannot be tied up in sitting here on Sunday and waiting for people to walk in the door. It can neither be found in abstention from culture or lambasting of the Other. No, it is to be found in active acts of love in and among and with others.
Though there is no one answer to how we regain our zeal for good works, I invite us to look to Peter’s trial before the Sanhedrin. After his arrest for public preaching and healing of an infirm person, the officials in the temple realize they have no legitimate grounds for his arrest. So, they point to the healing which Peter performed and begin their examination with two questions. “By what power? By whose name did you do this?” Peter opens his defense with a question that reveals the absurdity of the accusation. “Are we to be interrogated for a good deed?
The Church functions best when the worst someone can say of us is that we will do anything hep others. The truest legacy of the church is not found in the pulpits of revivalists or the throngs of the megachurch – not even in the hallowed halls of denominationalism. The legacy of the church is found in radical and outrageous mercy. We attest to God best when our conduct is oriented toward helping. We must live a life by which people will come to ask us, “How has this person been saved?” And where we can answer, “By the name of Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised from the dead.”
“Seek ye first the Kingdom,” and live into its righteousness. Let us abandon our love of scandals of abstention and pursue the scandal of God’s mercy. Go forward and proclaim the mercy of our Lord through the mercy his love enacts in us. Open wide the gates of Heaven, for a feast is set for all who attend. – Amen.