Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

Because He Loved Us

Jesus displayed incredible compassion and then he told us to do likewise.


About 25 years ago I almost became a hero for the cause of justice and compassion. For my first job after college, every morning at 6:00 a.m. I had to get to work by walking past a very sketchy used car lot in a rundown part of south Minneapolis. One morning I heard some scuffling and grunting coming from the back of that used car lot, so I went to investigate. Sure enough there was a guy who was starting to beat up another guy. I immediately thought, Well, I can’t just stand here. I have to do something to help. There’s a Pounder on a top of a Poundee and the Poundee is going to get beat up. As I approached them, I assumed that some brilliant, heroic words would start to form on my lips. Unfortunately, those heroic words never formed.

So, I stood at a distance and cleared my throat. They ignored me. I finally came up with this brilliant opening line: “Ah, yeah, um, (clear throat), excuse me, but I don’t think you should be doing that—you know, beating up that other person.” As you might imagine, the Pounder seemed to have some anger issues already, and my presence didn’t help him. He stood up, got in my face, and started cursing at me. The next thing I saw was a fist coming rapidly towards my face. Sure enough, the fist connected with my face. My glasses and my briefcase went flying. As I was decked out on the pavement, the Pounder chased after the Poundee, and I thought to myself, Now, that didn’t go very well, did it?

How to Plunge in and Fail

I may have meant well, and I may have provided some temporary relief for the Poundee, but it wasn’t an effective strategy for dealing with the broken lives in south Minneapolis. Unfortunately, when it comes to compassion or justice ministries in the church I’ve watched a lot of Christians act like me: We want to show compassion to the poor, we want to help the marginalized, so we just plunge in and start doing what we think is good stuff.

At some point we should plunge in and do something. Why? There are glaring needs all around us. For instance, did you know that there are 45 million refugees or internally displaced people in our world? And do you know which cities in Illinois resettle the most refugees? Chicago is number one, and Wheaton is number two. We also hear heartrending stories about human trafficking and sexual exploitation, abortion, poverty, and homelessness. We see the raw human needs and think, I have to jump in and do something!

But as followers of Christ, we have another powerful reason to help: Jesus displayed incredible compassion and then he told us to do likewise.

(Read Matthew 4:17-25)

Notice in verse 17, Jesus announces the coming of the kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus is saying that God, the Creator of this broken and off-kilter planet is coming to reign as King, to bring true peace and shalom to this earth. But rather than wipe everyone out, he starts with a slow and quiet plan. In verses 18-22 he calls some very ordinary people to follow him. Then in verses 23-25 we see Jesus begin to show what the presence of the kingdom looks like.

In verses 23-25 we see Jesus doing three things—teaching, proclaiming, and healing. The teaching and proclaiming part of Jesus’ ministry focus on Jesus’ call to verbally proclaim the good news so that people can trust in him. Traditionally, it’s called evangelism. But let’s look at the third word for what Jesus did—he healed people. According to the Gospel text, notice the kinds of people Jesus healed: the sick, the afflicted, demoniacs, epileptics, and the disabled.

Imagine an ancient ER waiting room, except it’s outside and no one has to worry about insurance coverage. The people just keep coming and Jesus is standing there—and we can assume his disciples are there too—and he keeps showing compassion and meeting the raw physical needs of people. Understand that the healing also had social and economic implications. Since there were very few support structures, the sick and disabled and afflicted usually couldn’t work and support themselves. So, by healing the sick, Jesus was ushering in not just kindness but also justice for the poor. He was restoring people’s dignity.

Now also understand that if you continue to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the four eyewitness accounts to Jesus’ life—you find that these ministries of compassion and justice weren’t just add-ons. They were at the core of Jesus’ ministry. For instance, notice that this description of Jesus’ ministry in this text is repeated almost word-for-word five chapters later in Matthew 9:35-36.

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom and invited people to place their trust in him. But he also demonstrated the kingdom by healing and restoring and showing compassion. Which ministry is more important to Jesus? Which ministry should Christians focus on more today? Well, that’s like asking, which of your lungs is more important in the process of breathing? Or which of your legs is more important in the process of walking? It’s a question that doesn’t make sense. Because for Jesus both aspects of his ministry are equally important.

Get the Right Foundation

We see the needs all around us, we hear the call of Jesus, and no wonder we want to just dive in and start helping people. But unfortunately, just as I experienced in that parking lot in south Minneapolis, our well-meaning efforts aren’t also very effective. Actually at times we even do more harm than good.

Our ideas of helping can hurt ourselves and other people. Why? Because it’s easy to start moving forward without first getting the right foundation. So here’s the message from our Gospel reading about laying the spiritual foundation for compassion ministries: Before we can “help” others with our compassion ministries, Jesus has to transform us by grace.

This principle is crucial for anyone who wants to heed Jesus’ call to show compassion in a broken world. Let’s watch how this principle works, especially in verses 18-22. In verse 19 Jesus tells two brothers named Simon and Andrew to come and follow him. Then in verse 21 Jesus meets another set of brothers—James and John—and he also calls them to follow him.

Did you notice what kinds of people Jesus called to start displaying his compassion in the world? I mean, why did he call these guys? They must have had an amazing list of spiritual qualifications. They must have been quick learners, sensitive but brave, tender but tough, and of course overflowing with compassion for outcasts and underdogs.

Wrong on all counts. They were pathetically slow learners about almost all spiritual matters. Jesus keeps telling them things like, “Don’t you get it yet?” and “How long do I have put up with this wicked generation” and “O you of little faith!” At times, when hungry people and little children came around looking for compassion from Jesus these guys try to tell them to scram. On one occasion the Zebedee brothers—James and John, the very same “heroes” of this passage—watched Jesus get snubbed by a village of outsiders and they asked Jesus, “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven? Please, oh, please, Jesus, can we do the fire trick and burn them up?” I’d sure love to get those guys on our Compassion Team! Sign them up!

Here’s the point: Jesus called them when they didn’t have any spiritual qualifications—in terms of having merit before God. The call of Jesus was an act of his unmerited favor. The theological term for this is justification by faith, which means that God chooses us and pours out his love for us based solely on his love and his mercy, not our “spiritual resumes.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like resumes. A few years ago when I was looking for a job—for eight long months—my resume was one of my best friends. Resume consultants will advise you to use active verbs to describe your work experience—words like started, implemented, accelerated, and consolidated. Those words prove all the impressive stuff that you’ve accomplished you’re your career. They prove your worth and your merit before others.

During one particularly painful interview, however, I apparently said something inappropriate and the hiring manager wheeled around in his chair and ceremoniously dropped my resume in the garbage can. Then he turned and faced me and smiles as he said, “Well, looks like this interview is over.” I thought , Dude, do you know how long I spent writing that resume? Did you read all those active verbs? Do you know how much amazing stuff I’ve done? Do you know all the things I initiated, activated, launched, and organized?

Well as shocking as that story is (at least to me, anyway), there’s something even more shocking about Jesus. We come to Jesus with our most impressive spiritual resumes. Maybe for some of you it’s five pages of amazing spiritual accomplishments. Maybe for some of you, spiritually speaking, your resume looks like a 12-year-old’s resume—“Ah, let’s see, I washed my dad’s car, I helped an old lady across the street, I haven’t murdered anyone, I prayed a few times last year, and I’m pretty nice. So do I get the job?” Here’s the point: Jesus is going to take both kinds of resumes, wheel around and dump them in the garbage can. And then he’ll say, “Here, take this resume.” You look at it and notice it only has only three short sentences on it: “MY LIFE GIVEN FOR YOU. IT’S ALL BY GRACE. NOW REPENT AND FOLLOW ME.”

Why is this transformation in our hearts so important? What does this have to do with serving the poor and marginalized? Because if we don’t understand and respond to the Jesus we meet in this passage of Scripture, if like Peter and Andrew and James and John we don’t respond to the Christ who calls us by sheer grace, then here’s what will happen: We will minister to people from a position of superiority.

We won’t say that or maybe even think that we’re superior, but people may be financially poor and physically vulnerable but it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The attitude of our heart will look like this: I’m up here and I’m here to help those unfortunate people. It’s my responsibility—I mean, look at the needs and hear the call of Jesus. And after all, I have a pretty impressive spiritual resume, so it is my Christian duty to help you, nice little poor person—and I hope you’re grateful.

I can summarize about 80 percent of our strategy for compassion ministries with one word—relationships. I mean, real relationships based on mutual respect, mutual brokenness before God, and a mutual ability to learn from each other.

I love the way Pastor Tim Keller describes how the gospel of Jesus Christ abolishes any sense of superiority and paves the way for mutual, life-giving relationships with other people. Keller says:

When a Christian sees prostitutes, alcoholics, prisoners, drug addicts, unwed mothers, the homeless … he knows that he is looking in a mirror. Perhaps the Christian spent all of his life as a respectable middle-class person. No matter. He thinks, Spiritually I was just like these people, though physically and socially I never was where they are now. They are outcasts. [Spiritually speaking] I was an outcast.

Then Keller uses the following image: Try to picture the most unsightly, smelly, disheveled homeless person you can imagine. He has no resources. He has no resume to hand to a potential manager. But in God’s eyes, apart from the beautiful work of redemption in Christ, this is how we all look in terms of earning or deserving God’s love.

But when we understand grace, it makes all the difference. We can become friends with people who don’t have a lot of resources. We can walk beside people who are in long-term, no-quick-fix financial or relational trouble. We can show patience, kindness, and genuine interest—not out of sense of superiority (“Here, let me help you”) but out of a sense of real identification (“We actually have a lot in common”).

Imagine a Compassionate Community

Let me emphasize again: this isn’t about giving you more activities. Like Jesus’ call of the disciples in this passage, this is about responding to Jesus. As we see in this text, Jesus calls us when we weren’t even looking for him.

Jesus called the disciples when they weren’t qualified to be disciples. Jesus called Peter and his brother when they hadn’t accomplished any amazing feats of faith. And yet he still approached them and issued an amazing invitation: “Come, follow me.” And it wasn’t just an invitation; it also involved an amazing job description: “I will make you fishers of men.” In other words, Jesus was saying, “I will make you people who relate to and lead and influence others. I will make you leaders of my incredible movement on this earth.”

Ultimately, this grace-initiated group becomes the basis for an entire community of people—a community called the church—that live and breathe and display grace. Unstoppable grace. So that displaying grace and compassion isn’t just something we do; it’s who we are. This call of a few disciples on the beach 2,000 years ago wasn’t a one-time event. It becomes the mark of the church in the world.

What would that compassionate community look like? Let me tell you a story. There’s a Christian brother named Jean Vanier who has started little Christian communities around the world called L’Arche. L’Arche communities provide a Christ-centered home for people with profound physical and developmental disabilities. Jean Vanier once shared a story about a 76-year-old woman named Francoise, also known as "Mamie." Francoise had serious mental and physical disabilities. She was blind, bedridden, and incontinent. She could not feed or dress herself. She was unable to communicate through words. And yet the entire staff of this L'Arche community followed the words of Scripture and showed Christlike love for Mamie.

It wasn’t always easy. As a matter of fact, at times showing Christlike love to Mamie day after day could be tiring and burdensome. The rewards weren’t always apparent. But day after day they loved her and eventually loving Mamie became a blessing. The community began to see Mamie as a blessing to them. Mamie had things to teach and gifts to offer the entire community.

Well, one day a woman came to visit the director of that L'Arche community. As the visitor watched Mamie struggle through life—weak, blind, powerless to feed or dress herself or change her diapers—she offhandedly asked the director, "What's the point of keeping Francoise alive?" Surprised, the director looked at the visitor and said, "Well, madam, because I love her."

Now because L’Arche is so centered on the person and teachings of Jesus, I think it’s safe to assume that what she really meant was, “Well, madam, because Jesus loves me, of course I love Mamie.” Now imagine if people asked the same question about the church. What if people asked: “Why do you care so much for the unborn? They are so tiny and insignificant. They’re not efficient or productive. Does it really matter? Do we really need them?” And then other people might ask, “No, I want to know why you care at all about women and men who have been involved in an abortion—or even people who work in the abortion industry? Why waste your time on them?” And we would say, “Oh, that’s easy: Because in and through Jesus we love them.”

What if people looked at our church life and said, “And why do you care about refugees and immigrants? Don’t we have enough problems of our own? Do we really need to spend our limited resources on them?” And we would say, “Oh, that’s easy too: Because in and through Jesus we love them. Apart from Christ, we were spiritually displaced. We needed to find a spiritual home. And, besides, these refugees are a gift to us.”

Others may say, “Why do you care so much about women or even men caught in the web of sexual trafficking? That’s a difficulty, messy issue and it’s going to take a lot of time and your success rate will be very low.” And we would say, “Oh, we don’t do it for success. We’re all messy and difficult people. We do it because we love them and they are a gift to us.”


You see, dear brothers and sisters, every week we gather and celebrate what we call the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. Every Sunday we come and receive the body and blood of our Lord. Every Sunday we hear Jesus say to us, “I loved you while you were still so far from me. I died for your sins while you were still living in your sin.” And Jesus says, “I still love you. Take this bread, which is my body. Take this cup, which is my blood given for you. Receive my life into the depths of your soul.” So we take and we drink. We receive and we are given life.

But the Lord’s Supper does not end there. It is also about giving out. As Jesus poured himself out for us when we were spiritually poor, we must pour ourselves out for others. If we don’t do that, our entire worship service becomes a sham and a show. It is shallow religious activity. We don’t just receive from Christ. We become people who live with everything within us the message that because he loved us, in the same way that he loved us, so we will love others around us. That is the message of the gospel. That is our food. That is how we walk and breathe and live as followers of Christ.

So let us walk with both legs. Let us breathe with both lungs. Let us love others because he first loved us.

Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

Related sermons

Donald R. Sunukjian

Choosing What Is Best

Increasing discernment by growing in love

Working Out the Working In

How the church displays what God is doing in its midst