Caring for Needs

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Over these Sunday evenings we’re thinking about all that it means to be a disciple of Christ. So far we’ve looked at trusting in him, obeying God’s Word, telling the world and, last week, serving the church. Tonight our focus is on Caring for Needs. By the grace of God we are saved through faith in Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, as these baptisms this evening remind us. But what is it that we are saved for? One answer to that in the Bible is that we’re saved to do good. In his Letter to Titus, the apostle Paul says that Jesus…

… gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

And that doing of what is good by disciples of Christ is something that gets noticed.

A fortnight ago Hurricane Sandy smashed into the eastern United States. The daughter of American friends of ours found herself home alone and without power for over three days. But the impact of Sandy was dwarfed by that of Katrina in 2005 that inundated New Orleans, caused $80 billion of damage to property and killed over 1800 people.

Roy Hattersley wrote a column in the Guardian in its aftermath. It was titled: ‘Faith Does Breed Charity’, with the sub-heading ‘We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings’. He wrote:

The Salvation Army has been given a special status as provider-in-chief of American disaster relief. But its work is being augmented by all sorts of other groups. Almost all of them have a religious origin and character. Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations - the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.

Christian believers, he argues…

are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, [and] replace the sodden sleeping bags … Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists. The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand.

End of quote. There’s nothing new about this. Right from the early days of the Christian faith, the church community has become known for its compassionate service and generosity towards those in need.

For instance, in the Second Century Christians would collect unwanted children, left on rubbish dumps to die, and bring them up themselves. Justin Martyr, in his ‘Apology’ addressed to the Roman Emperor, said:

But as for us [that is, Christians], we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the act of wicked men; and this we have been taught so that we should not do anyone an injury and so that we should not sin against God.

From two centuries later there’s a remarkable letter from the Roman Emperor Julian who tried to revive paganism but found that Christianity was on the rise. He wrote to a pagan priest:

It is disgraceful that … while impious Galileans [that is, Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!

The wellspring of that kind of compassion in action and the heart of what we need to hear is there in 1 John 3v16-18. We heard this read earlier but let me read those verses again:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3v16-18)

And that simply reflects a consistent theme in the Bible. For instance we also heard, from Deuteronomy 15v11:

I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15v11)

So my three headings are three simple questions. First, who are the poor and needy? Secondly, why should we care for needs? And thirdly, how should we care for needs?


There seems to be a whole mini-industry around the issue of the definition of poverty. But let me try and keep it simple. Surely the bottom line is this: the poor and needy are those who lack what they need to survive and thrive.

To survive and thrive we have needs in a range of different areas of our lives. We know almost nothing about the boyhood of Jesus. But I find very striking the description of his development that Luke gives, to sum up those years. This is Luke 2v52:

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men. (Luke 2v52)

That is, we could say, he grew and developed intellectually (wisdom); physically (stature); spiritually (in favour with God); and socially (in favour with men). And to that extent Jesus is a model for us and the children of our community and of the world. We need all that is necessary for us to survive and thrive intellectually, physically, spiritually and socially. And when those needs are not met, people experience spiritual needs, or social and emotional needs, or educational needs, or physical and material needs.

The most severe form of poverty and need is spiritual. And the great danger of spiritual poverty is that people don’t necessarily realise that they are poor. That is the warning that the risen Jesus gave to the Laodiceans. He tells them (this is Revelation 3v17-18):

You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich… (Revelation 3v17-18)

And of course those who suffer materially can be spiritually rich. So Jesus says to the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2v8-11):

I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! … Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2v8-11)

The statistics of material and social need globally are overwhelming, as we know.

Last week at our World Mission Focus meeting John Inglis-Jones of Anglican International Development spoke movingly about conditions in the new nation of South Sudan. 1 in 3 of the population suffer from chronic hunger. 1 in 9 mothers die in pregnancy or childbirth. From where we sit, that is almost unimaginable material need.

Such poverty has, perhaps, four main causes: first, oppression or injustice; secondly, natural disaster or calamity; thirdly, conflict and warfare; and fourthly, personal sin.

And poverty is not just a global concern. It is a national concern for us as well. Absolute poverty must surely take priority, and yet relative poverty is real as well. This double-dip recession has brought hardship to many.

That relates to material poverty, but perhaps the greater issue for us is social and educational poverty. Much that’s important does not relate to how much money we have either individually or as a society. Robert Kennedy once said:

Gross National Product … measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages… [and he goes on] It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth living…

And yet there is a massive economic cost when these things go wrong as they are in our society today. Before he came to office as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith argued that social breakdown costs the UK over £100 billion a year.

Who are the poor and needy? They are those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t have what they need to survive and thrive.


For a start, we should help the needy because we ourselves need help. You could call it enlightened self-interest. Do as you would be done by. That is the fundamental principle of how we should behave towards others that Jesus taught. Jesus said (Matthew 7v12):

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7v12)

How do we want to be treated when we find ourselves in need, as inevitably we do? We must put ourselves in the shoes of those in need and act accordingly. That might be difficult for us, or it might not be – we all experience poverty of one sort or another at one time or another, even if we’ve never had to worry how the next holiday is going to be funded, never mind where the next meal is coming from.

Why should we help the poor? Because of the character of God and the example of Jesus. Jesus became poor to lift us out of our poverty and make us rich. 2 Corinthians 8v9:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8v9)

God cares about the needs of the poor and acts to meet those needs. Psalm 113v7:

[The Lord] raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. (Psalm 113v7)

And God’s care for the poor is an example that we are to follow in our own lives. So, as we heard in 1 John 3v16:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 John 3v16)

Paul says the same thing in a different way in Philippians 2v5-6:

Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (2 Philippians 2v5-6)

So we follow the example of Jesus. But we also should help the poor simply because it’s God’s command. Deuteronomy 15 again:

… do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted toward your poor brother… Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart… (Deut. 15v7,10)

And Paul carries that through in Galatians 6.9-10:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6v9-10)

There is an obvious priority that we should give to the poor who are our brother and sister believers around the world. They are our family. But we are “to do good to all people”. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son.

The help we give should be tailored to the need. And in practice no individual or church can help everyone. But in principle there should be no one who we regard as beyond our sphere of responsibility.

Why should we help the needy? Perhaps most challenging of all is the fact that if we don’t, we are not true believers. In the context of telling us to treat the poor well, James says (James 2v14-17):

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2v14-17)

But there is encouragement in those verses as well as challenge. Because the implication is that when our faith in Christ is real, we will care for the poor, because we find ourselves wanting to care for the poor, because the Spirit of Jesus lives within us. And, though imperfectly, that is our experience, isn’t it? Again and again I see that desire to help the poor grow in people as their faith grows. And again and again I see that desire put into action.

Finally, then:


It needs to be said that spiritual need undoubtedly has priority over other forms of need. Nothing can be more important than the eternal destiny of people, and their need for eternal life through faith in Jesus. Tim Chester, previously research and policy director for Tearfund UK, writes:

We see all kinds of needs around us. They are immediate and evident. But the priority of the eternal future means that the greatest need of all of us is to be reconciled to God and so escape his wrath. And this is the greatest need of the poor. I remember hearing a Christian who had worked among the famine victims of the Biafra conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960s. He spoke of how their greatest concern as they faced death was to be told about life after death. People often say glibly ‘hungry stomachs don’t have ears’. But the hungry stomachs of the Biafrans were all ears for good news in the face of death.

This, though, is a matter of both/and not either/or. We shouldn’t choose between meeting spiritual needs and meeting other kinds of need. We are to keep evangelism central, and we are to work at both.

That will mean caring for needs and also contending for truth and justice in the public square – about which more next week. When God’s ways are embedded in the life of a nation, everyone benefits. When they are discarded, everyone suffers. So Christians need to be politically involved.

In the Bible we will find principles to follow but not detailed policies prescribed for our own situation. So we have to give space for disagreement on policy – on the best way to help. What the Bible leaves no room for doubt over is that we should help.

So that will mean working at caring for needs as individuals, and also as a church. The church is at the heart of God’s strategy for caring for the world.

There is much that already happens through the life of this church, and that is encouraging.

The Navajeevana Healthcare Centre in Sri Lanka works to give affordable healthcare to the poor of Sri Lanka. We help to support that work.

For twenty five years we’ve been in partnership with St Philip’s Community Centre, Mburi in rural Kenya, helping to build, staff and develop the centre.

Saul and Pilar Cruz lead the work of Armonia among the poor of Mexico City. Over the years many people from JPC have been out and helped with that ministry.

I’ve already mentioned the embryonic and creative work of AID in partnership with the Anglican church in South Sudan, to which we make a significant contribution.

We have close links with Andy and Rose Roberts who are starting a new work called ReVive in North-east Brazil amongst exploited and abused young girls.

Those examples just scratch the surface of what happens through JPC. But we need more and more social entrepreneurs with a vision for what God can do through us and the drive to make things happen and the perseverance to see things through in the long term.

All of this caring for needs brings with it all kinds of costs of course, not least financial. I thank God for the generosity that he inspires in this church, and for the tens of thousands of pounds each year that are given to help the poor and needy. That grace and gift of giving is one in which we need to grow and grow, as we follow the example of Jesus.

And what is more, we need to cultivate simple kindness. Tim Chester strikingly says:

Perhaps the most powerful tool in Christian social involvement, a tool with the potential to make a huge impact on our communities, is the humble teapot.

He tells how many needs can be met in some measure by simple human contact. “It can simply involve sharing a cup of tea,” he says. And he quotes a Marxist who had no sympathy for Christianity and who thought that a lot that the church did was a waste of time. But this Marxist said…

… if you took away all the kindnesses and neighbourly acts that Christians do – visiting the sick, shopping for the housebound and so on – then this community would fall apart.

Let that be true of us.

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