Thursday, April 14, 2011

Toward An Apologetic of Mercy

The following article is a bit of a work in progress, begun for the May newsletter here in Huntington Beach.

Apologia and Diakonia.  Two Biblical Greek words that seem to have nothing in common with each other.  And yet, they have increasingly become a part of Christian vocabulary lately – and for good reason.  Apologetics, loosely defined, is defending the faith.  Diakonia (or mercy), broadly speaking, is the Church’s work of mercy in body and soul. 
When it comes to apologetics, many of the arguments and debates are familiar: How can a loving God allow pain and suffering?  Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead?  Are the New Testament Documents historically reliable? And so forth and so on.  Redeemer continues to tackle many of these issues in the ongoing Declare and Defend series.  These questions come from the realm of the skeptics: everyone from the hard-line atheists to the ‘average-Joe’; from the cynic who revels in questioning authority to the individual with genuine questions about the Christian faith.  And this is an entirely necessary field.  Christians ought not to shy away from hard-nosed, tough-minded intellectual debate and discourse so rabidly needed in our day and age, not only an age of skepticism, but out right anti-truth.  The Church is challenged from both alleged scholarly and genuine intellectual arguments, everything from popular writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to ridiculous op-ed films, such as “Religulous” by Bill Maher.
However, there is another side to apologetics.  Call it right-brained apologetics.  For some the logic and academic setting of discourse is less engaging.  Maybe they don’t wrestle with particular intellectual questions about the Christian faith.  For some, reading the works of the Oxford Inklings (J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, et al), discussing the finer points of the Chronicles of Narnia, listening to a majestic Bach Cantata, or browsing Lucas Cranach’s collection of Reformation artwork can be just as winsome of a defense for the Christian faith as the hard-nosed argumentation is for others.  To paraphrase St. Paul, “O, People of the theatre, bookstore, and concert hall, I see that you are very artistic!  Let me tell you about the Word made flesh, by whom all things were made.”  The works of music, art, literature, film (and so forth) are not only God–pleasing vocations, whereby we serve God and the neighbor, they also form a “softer” under-belly to the watchful dragons of unbelief.  The people are no less unbelievers.  And the Holy Spirit is no less in charge – conversion is His from beginning to completion.  Yet, in the midst of these various means, the goal is the same.  One, if not the primary goal, of apologetics, is to break down barriers and answer objections that people have put in the way of the cross so that the Gospel might be heard clearly, all done out of compassion and care for the neighbor in need, body and soul, whether that neighbor is looking for an intellectual discussion or a good book to read, there is always a way to speak the truth in love.
And it is here – in the realm of compassion and care – where diakonia meets apologia, where there is an apologetic of mercy at work in the life of the Church.  To be sure, mercy is not primarily interested in defending the Christian faith.  That however does not mean the Church’s life of mercy is somehow separated from a faithful witness to the truth of the Christian faith.  It is, rather, quite the opposite.  The two are inseparably related – an indissoluble union - to Christ Crucified and perhaps it is through love and care for the neighbor that apologetics sneaks in through the back door of mercy in the end.
Mercy is chiefly concerned with loving, caring for, showing compassion to the neighbor in body and soul.  And because the Christian is set free from sin and death, the Christian is free to love the neighbor as Christ loved us.  Or, in the words of St. John, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).  Nowhere is this love more apparent, more fleshly and visceral - even tangible - than in the ongoing reality of the Crucified and Risen present in His Church in the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular.  Christ's Mercy flows from the altar and returns us back to it.  And all of life revolves around the flesh and blood mercy in our Lord's flesh and blood.  For the early church - as it should be to day - any discussion, defense, discource or actual diakonia must begin and return us to the same flesh and blood Diakonia that our Lord has poured out for the forgiveness of sins.
In light of this all-encompassing reality, the early Christians had a Biblical understanding of a diakonic worldview.  A worldview different not only from Greco-Roman (and modern) paganism, but different, distinct and unique when compared to any other world religion.  Already in the book of Acts we see this developing as deacons (notice the root word diakonia) were appointed to care for the widows and the needy so that the preaching of the Gospel would continue (Acts 6).  They – like the church father Tertullian (ca. 220 A.D.) and even Luther, later in the 16th century – had a common treasury, a voluntary fund set up to provide for the needs for the poor in the congregation but also outside as well.  Mercy, like salvation is given indiscriminately – there is no one Christ did not suffer and die for; there is no one to whom Christians do not show mercy.  This was – and still is – profoundly different from the common attitude in the world outside the Church.  Mercy given to all from Christ; mercy shown for all in Christ.
“The early Christians practiced what is called, caritas – or charity – as opposed to the liberalitas of the Greco-Roman world.  Caritas meant giving to relieve the recipient’s economic or physical distress without expecting anything in return, whereas liberalitas meant giving to please the recipient, who later would bestow a favor on the giver.”[1]  There was nothing inherent in the Roman pagan culture that motivated, taught or established any permanent work of mercy for those in need.  Whereas, among Christians, all the needy, sick, suffering, and dying – pagan or Christian – had intrinsic value.  Life meant something entirely different to the early Christians when contrasted with their pagan neighbors, so much, that when Tertullian wrote his Apology of the Christian faith to the Romans, he answers the accusation that Christian congregations and assemblies were gathered together with the collection of common funds, not for drunken feasts and parties as the Romans did, but rather for the support of the poor, the sick, the orphans and widows.
Our secular, materialistic society – the spirit of this age – is somewhat similar to that of the pagan Romans.  Today the tendency is to live within the self.  Just look at the top selling books at your local Barnes and Noble, even the Christian shelves are stocked with titles such as, “Your Best Life Now.”  This is nothing other than a new monasticism.  Rather than retreating into the monastery where imaginary good works were done for one’s own spiritual edification and salvation, now, Christians retreat to the care of self at expense of the care – read caritas and diakonia, mercy – of the neighbor.  To be sure, the secular world has myriads of charity organizations.  But, I would argue, that were it not for the life of Christ and the work of mercy done by the early Christians (where Christ is living in and through His Church) there would be no concept or glimmer of mercy in any meaningful capacity in the world around us, even to this day.  This is not to say that the evolutionist, humanistic (nominally - or even hard-core) secularist has no morals, is amoral or is incapable of morality.  We would be ridiculous to argue otherwise.  But the question must be asked: if there is no objective standard, no transcendant authority, where and who - does the standard come from?  If all we are is atomic particles in the wind - and all the universe is, is randomly molecules, and if survival of the fittest is really pushed to its logical conclusion - where is the motivation, the foundation, the goal and the purpose of morality, much less mercy to the neighbor in need?  There is a necessary distinction between secular and divine morality (a longer topic for another day).  As Lewis mentions in Mere Christianity the person who makes the claim that he believes in no objective moral authority will, in the next breath, deny that when you cut him in line on the bus.  Where will the standard come from - inside or outside of us?

A particularly insightful example of this kind of philosophy can be found in ancient Rome: when epidemics broke out they were the first ones to flee.  It was the Christians that stayed, even to their own risk, in order to help others in need.  Mercy is simply not in the secular vocabulary.  Just look at the language of materialism and atheism (i.e. look no further than Communist regimes the world over!)  To speak of misery and suffering we must speak clearly and candidly about the origin of suffering, misery and death.  Secularism – and pure materialism – cannot and will not entertain such discussions.  In fact, Christians are in the best possible situation to give a foundation for understanding – not just the source of misery and suffering – but infinitely greater, the answer to such evil in the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the Great Physician of soul and body. 
Secular atheism and materialism provide no intellectual foundation for the combating of suffering, misery and death.  They have no meaningful categories to discuss the objective reality of “good and evil” or “right and wrong.”  To go back in history, Rome – for all the grandeur of their architecture, military prowess and socio-political/philosophical advances – had nothing to contribute to society by way of care for the needy.  Yes, the Coliseum was (and still is) an amazing feet of human engineering, but good luck finding a hospital along those finely constructed Roman roads.  What few hospitals they did have were primarily for soldiers.  It was the Christian Church that filled the void by caring for the poor, sick, needy, widows, orphans and the dying by establishing the diakonia (Acts 6), lists of poor and needy in their congregation (matriculum), hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, care the for the mentally ill – the list is overwhelming and comprehensive, not to mention merciful.  For centuries – from Acts 6 to the YMCA – Christians have been on the forefront of showing mercy and caring for those in need, living in the good works that Christ has prepared for them (Ephesians 2) and along the way many have seen their good deeds and glorified their Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5).
Because Christ has set us free, faithful Christians throughout the centuries have taken Jesus’ words in Matthew seriously: “For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25).  Notice the righteous have no idea that they were serving Jesus.  That’s the way mercy works.  It just happens.  How can you not help but serve, love and care for the neighbor?  How can a good tree not do anything but bear good fruit?
Mercy, like apologetics is wholly predicated upon the truthfulness and saving efficacy of who Christ is and what He has done on the cross to save sinners from sin, death and hell.  And although mercy – like apologetics is not the Gospel – it is never divorced from the Gospel.  Just as the Gospel is never divorced from diakonia and apologia.  Otherwise mercy ceases to be the mercy shown in faith and apologetics ceases to be a defense of the faith.  Mercy is defined and embodied by Him who is mercy in the flesh for a fallen world.  Mercy is tangible, a means whereby God comes to help the helpless, the poor and the destitute.  Mercy is noticeable.  Merciful Christians stick out in this world and that’s a good thing.  The Romans sure took notice of those “pesky” Christians.
Today, an apologetic of mercy looks like this: a Muslim woman in Indonesia, ten years after the tsunami, saying to a LCMS relief worker, “You came back” – after all the other aid organizations had left.   An apologetic of mercy looks like this: a nursing school, trade school and an agricultural school run by the Malagasy Lutheran Church (Madagascar), an orphanage in the Kibera slums of Kenya, dollars and people going to Japan in the wake of disaster, a hospital in the bush (wherever that bush may be!).  But an apologetic of mercy also looks like this: visiting the sick and shut-in at Redeemer, the youth making food bags for the homeless, the Priscilla Circle women making cards of encouragement and comfort for local nursing homes and I could fill the newsletter with examples that are presently ongoing.  What could be a better witness to a world so enveloped in misery?  An apologetic of mercy is done, not for mercy’s sake, not even for the sake of increased membership, building campaigns, community presence, or anything else, save that of Christ’s sake.  Christ is mercy and so is His church.  Christ loved us and we love you, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled” (James 2:15-16)  It’s Christ working in His Church, in His people for the Church and for the world in need.  It is a clear witness through caring service.

[1] Schmidt, Alvin.  How Christianity Changed the World. p. 126. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.


  1. This is a fantastic article! Thanks for laying this down on paper so clearly and deeply. I hope to share with others, including my colleagues here at CPH.

    Deaconess Pamela Nielsen

  2. Thank you for your kind words. By all means share with anyone you'd like. Like I said, it's a work in progress and I think there's much more to be said here than could be written at one sitting. Thanks again for reading.