I once read, that while most non-profit, charitable-type organizations begin with an honest effort to help others, a turning-point frequently comes at which they shift from their original purpose towards self-sustenance. That is, they exist to keep themselves in existence.
Has this happened to the American church? I wondered about this last week, after reading my 6-year-old the story in which Jesus, after his resurrection, cooking fish for his disciples over an open fire beside the Sea of Galilee, asks his friend, Simon Peter, “Do you love me?”
“You know I love you,” Peter says.
“Feed my lambs,” says Jesus. He then repeats the question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me.”
“Lord, you know I love you!” Peter exclaims.
“Look after my sheep,” Jesus says. Still, he asks the question a third time.
This time Peter is hurt. “Lord, you know everything,” he says. “Surely you know that I love you!”
Why did Jesus ask the same question three times? Scholars point out that this is the same number of times that Peter denied knowing Christ just before his crucifixion. Remarkably, Peter is also the one upon whom Christ said that he would build his church.
As I read this story, recorded in John 21, I wondered how well the modern American church is carrying out Christ’s words. Are we existing merely to feed ourselves every Sunday? Or are we reaching out with food and shelter and love for those who are hurting and lonely and lost?
There is so much hurt in the world today. It doesn’t take much to find someone in need of an encouraging word or the hope of God’s love and grace. Or, equally important, food and clothing and shelter. But to truly love others, we must be willing to give from what we would ordinarily keep for ourselves.
“Is this not the fast which I choose,” God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (58:6-7), “to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
If we do this, the following verse says that we will shine like the dawn while receiving God’s healing and protection. The trouble is, it is so much easier to serve myself than to serve others, or, as Peter discovered, to deny Christ rather than to deny myself.
To be those through whom God builds his church—a church of love and healing, of generosity and hope—we must reject self-sustenance in favor of finding our sustenance in God. For if he tells us to feed and look after others, will he not feed and look after us?
How do you start? Like Christ, right where you are by sharing what you have—a campfire, a gathering of friends, and some fish.