We had all returned to college after the summer vacation, and were comparing experiences from our summer placements.
“I had a strange experience,” said Tom. “Someone in the parish died, but some members of the church were convinced God wanted to raise this man from the dead. They persuaded the staff in the hospital mortuary to let them pray over the dead body.”
Secretly glad that none of us had had to offer advice in that circumstance, we asked Tom what happened.
“Well, don’t you think you would have heard in the national media if he’d been raised from the dead?”
How we wish we might witness in our day the kind of miracles Jesus did, such as the one here. Like this story, perhaps we especially long for such supernatural turn of events when a young person dies. When an elderly person passes away, we often say it was their time and they ‘had a good innings’. But no parent wants to bury their own child, like the widow at Nain did. You will all know of people who died ‘before their time’, and sense something of the pain and injustice that surrounds such deaths.
Some Christians would say that we can receive more of the astounding power that Jesus exhibited in his ministry, and if we would only be more open to the Holy Spirit, we might see more miracles. Others (perhaps infected the disappointments of the years) would rather explain these things away.
I have no doubt we should be more open to the Holy Spirit’s power, and if we do, then we shall certainly see more amazing things than we presently do. Yet even then, we shall still have our disappointments and our questions. So I want to reflect on this story to ask some basic questions along these lines: how does the mission of Jesus in the world as seen here shape the mission he calls us to in the world?
Firstly, I want to draw attention to Jesus’ feelings. Luke tells us ‘he had compassion for her’ (verse 13). The miracle will be for her, not her son, because he gives the young man back to her afterwards (verse 15).
How critical it is that in mission our actions are driven by compassion for others. How easy it is to reach out to others for different reasons. When outreach becomes based on the thought that ‘We need to bring in more people if our church is to continue’, then we are no longer acting with compassion. In those cases, we are simply trying to preserve ourselves. Our feelings are far from those of Jesus.
He knew that the widow was in desperate need. Not only was she mourning the loss of her son – and we know instinctively it is not right for parents to have to bury their own children – he knows she will be in desperate economic straits. Her husband, who would have provided for her material needs, is dead. Now her son, who would have taken over his father’s rôle as the breadwinner, is also dead. There is no pension or other social security provision to act as a safety net for her. She is now potentially destitute.
So this isn’t an indiscriminate miracle. This is Jesus identifying a clear social and economic need, and then responding with the love of God and the power of the Spirit. He calls us to do the same. Who are the people we know in the community who have great needs or who are in pain? He sends us to those people, not to save the skin of our church, but because he has compassion for them. They are people who need the love of God.
Very well, then: how can I share Jesus’ compassion for lost and broken people? There is a simple prayer that any one of us can pray. ‘Lord, give me your heart for those who need your compassion.’
It’s a simple prayer, but it’s a dangerous one. For if we truly want God to share his compassion for people with us, then we may find he breaks our hearts. He will break our hearts with the things that break his heart. Yet if we are to be bearers of his love in the world, we shall need to embrace this simple but dangerous prayer.
An illustration from some of my novel-writing friends might help here. They tell me that when they want to put a point across in a story, the classic motto of the novelist is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ That is, they get the character to show their beliefs by their actions, rather than putting a long speech into their mouths. Clearly for the Christian it can’t be as simple as ‘Show, don’t tell’, because at some point we have to proclaim or explain the love of God in Christ to people. But if we have the compassion of Jesus, it may be something like this: ‘Show before you tell.’ As General Booth once said, “If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it’s the wrapping around a sandwich.”
Secondly, I’d like us to observe Jesus’ actions. His compassion leads to action. What is that action? ‘[H]e … touched the bier’ (verse 14). In those four words are some enormous implications.
This action ‘is a silent appeal for the funeral procession to be stopped’. Now who is ever popular for interrupting or delaying a funeral? You may remember the kerfuffle here two years ago at Effie Downs’ funeral when an irate playgroup mother castigated me for allowing Pennack’s undertakers in the church car park when she wanted to pick up her little girl, and who then protested by gunning her engine as the funeral procession approached the church doors. If you recall that incident, you will have some idea of the disruption Jesus threatens to cause here at such a delicate time. I’m not suggesting for one moment that Jesus was aggressive and hostile as that woman was, but the mourners must have feared for what was coming next.
Not only that, you will probably have heard preachers tell you before that for the pious Jew, touching a dead body (even if all Jesus effectively did here amounted to touching the wooden plank on which the wrapped body was laid) made you ceremonially unclean. Jesus goes outside the boundaries of the Jewish Law in order to make his point.
Put these two insights together and you see that by touching the bier, Jesus risked offending social and religious customs in order to get on with what he needed to do. Jesus will take risks in order to act on the compassion he feels for the widow. He is not deterred by the thought that some people might not like him or approve of him. Staying within the boundaries of social niceties is no priority for him.
This is something that goes deep in the Methodist tradition. In remembering John Wesley, we rightly dwell much on his ‘conversion’ of 24th May 1738, when his ‘heart was strangely warmed’ and he was assured that he trusted in Christ alone for salvation. However, we ought also to dwell on 1st April 1739, when he gave into George Whitefield’s badgering to preach in the open air to the colliers at Kingswood, near Bristol. Wesley said that he ‘submitted to be more vile’, because he had previously considered it a sin to preach anywhere other than inside a church building. That was when the revival began.
For Jesus, the love of God meant disregarding the rules of respectable society. For Wesley, it was the same. What about the Church today? Take the way some churches talk about young people. They agree they want to reach them, but are not willing to take social risks. So they will not let them use parts of their premises for fear of vandalism. Or they refuse to give food and drink to some who do not know proper etiquette.
Jesus would ask us how many social boundaries we are willing to cross in order to bring his compassion to people. The American church planter Neil Cole has a provocative – to me, at least – way of putting it. He says we must be willing to ‘sit in the smoking section’. As someone who detests tobacco smoke in all its forms, those are challenging words to me. Jesus would tell us that if you want to share divine compassion in a hurting world, you’ve got to touch the bier.
Thirdly and finally, let us reflect on Jesus’ words. Yes, the words come last. He shows before he tells. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (Verse 14) Rise up. A literal rising up may not happen as routinely as the people my friend Tom encountered hoped for, but the Gospel leads us into other situations where the message is ‘Rise up.’
One of my very first baptismal services involved the baptism of twin girls born to a church couple. When I visited them to plan the service, the husband told me that his brother and family would be present. He wanted me to know, because – to his bafflement – his brother was part of a strict church where the entire message was about doom, gloom and sin.
“I just don’t get that,” said Steve. “To me, God is about the word ‘welcome’.”
I believe the one Gospel needs couching in many forms, according to different people’s circumstances and needs. For the proud, a message of sin and repentance may need to take the headlines. They need bringing low before they can be raised up. (Although of course, we all must heed the call to repentance.)
For others, though, the message may well be what Steve called ‘welcome’. It will be a message that says “Young man, I say to you, rise!” For the poor and downtrodden, for those damaged by the demeaning or violent actions of others, for those whose self-esteem is lower than ground level, Jesus may well want to say, “Rise up!” The love of God brings new dignity to people, the dignity of being made and being remade in the image of God, the dignity of knowing you are loved by the God of the universe. As the Psalmist puts it:
But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the one who lifts my head high. (Psalm 3:3)
God ‘lifts my head high’ – he is ‘the lifter of my head’, as the Authorised Version puts it. Being loved by a God who gave up his only begotten Son to the Cross lifts our heads high. And because God does that for us, a key way in which we share his message is by raising people’s dignity. Why? Because they are ‘loved with an everlasting love’, just as we are.
Where to begin? Here’s a thought. When the New Testament talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we read that they are for ‘edification’. That’s an interesting word, edification. It has to do with an edifice, a building. Spiritual gifts are therefore to ‘build people up’. It’s time to start practising building people up, because that is key to the work of the Holy Spirit. We may find it easiest to begin with our church family and then look for opportunities in the community.
We can be sure of one thing: we live in a culture that enjoys raising people up, only to tear them down. Which footballers will be subjected to that in the next few weeks during the World Cup? The Christian Church is called to be different. Our call to mission involves building up the lowly and downcast, saying to them, “Rise up! You are loved by God.” That becomes part of our witness as we seek to introduce people to personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Each week, the Essex Chronicle carries a ‘Remember When’ section. It looks back at news it covered in previous decades. Thursday’s edition contained a small piece from 1980 about a Catholic nun from Danbury called Mother Teresa (‘not the famous one’, as they said) who had put a shade at the top of her car’s windscreen with the words, ‘Smile, Jesus loves you.’ She commented how people would come up to her and tell her that it had made their day.
Of course, it will take more than a car sticker to do Christian mission. It will take godly compassion, a willingness to cross social barriers and a thorough commitment to build people up rather than run them down. That is what the example of Jesus shows us. May we have the heart to follow the example he sets, and may we seek the Holy Spirit’s power in order to do so.
 John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p323.