No Man Is An Island
I John 3:13-18
Away back in 1928, a young man fell into a Massachusetts lake. Another young man saw it happen and heard the scream, “Help, I can’t swim!” The youth on the shore, who was a good swimmer, simply sat and watched and did nothing. In the lawsuit which followed, the court ruled that the young man on the shore had no legal responsibility to try to save the drowning boy’s life. That ruling became the “locus classicus”, the legal precedent for all such cases which have followed. That is what the law says. You cannot be sued, you cannot be penalized for not coming to the aid of someone in need. On the other hand, you may be sued if you do. Legally, then, we are in no way bound or obligated to help or to assist those about us who are in need or who are in trouble.
That’s what the law says. But I take to this pulpit today to say to you that that is not good enough for a Christian. In fact, before I am finished with this sermon, I intend to prove the case that in this instance the law of our land runs contrary to the Law of Almighty God.
Let’s begin here.
Like it or not, as members of the human community, we are almost ceaselessly involved with other people’s lives. What John Dunne wrote centuries ago is still indisputably true: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
So I lay this down as truth: As 20th Century Americans, we are regularly, constantly, inevitably involved in other people’s lives. To be involved in a Parent-Teacher organization is to be involved in the education of every child in the community where we live. To have supported particular candidates in recent elections is to have exercised political influence over our city or our state or this nation. The way we drive our cars, whether or not we pay all the taxes we are due, the behavior we insert upon or simply tolerate in our children—these and so many other things involve us in other people’s lives. “No man is an island.” In other words, no one can be neutral. In the face of any significant issue in life, the one thing no one can say is this: “I do not choose to be involved.” We are involved, like it or not.
But let me come at that from a different direction. If any child in our community does not get proper nutrition and proper medical care with consequent poor study habits, and therefore has less chance for success in life—if that goes on and we know about it, whether we do something about it or don’t do something about it, we are still involved. If an elderly person in one of our nursing homes is living under conditions of loneliness which could be improved or alleviated with some volunteer assistance from those who care—then whether we choose to care and to help or not to help—in either case, we are involved. If anyone in our city is having his mind and his heart twisted and perverted by constant exposure to pornography and obesity, even at the local grocery store—if that is happening and we know it’s there, then whether we try to do something about it or just ignore it we are still involved.
So hear the Word of God delivered through His servant James: “If a man knows what is right and fails to do it, his failure is a sin.” That is to say, whether we like it or not, we are involved in other people’s lives. Whether we affirm our oneness with other people in the world or deny it vigorously, whether we vote yes or no or don’t vote at all—to make any of these choices is to affect the lives of other people. “No man is an island.” We are involved.
Now, having said all of that, we, as Christians, have no alternative but to take the whole matter one giant step farther. As Christians, we must affirm that to be involved in other people’s lives is to be engaged in God’s work in the world. To be tied to the concerns of others is to be tied to the concerns of the Almighty. Even the most casual study of the Scriptures will reveal this to be true.
Look at the Old Testament.
The story of Cain and Abel is recorded in Scripture so that we might learn that God regards all of human life as sacred. That which blesses life, God blesses. That which curses life, God curses. To the degree that we do what is good for our brothers and sisters of the earth, to that degree is God pleased with us. The question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is answered by God decisively and affirmatively: “Yes, you most assuredly are!”
Listen to one of the most awesome prayers of judgment found in Scripture. It is found in the Book of Amos. God says: “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation. I will bring sackcloth upon all loins and baldness upon every head. I will make it like the morning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.” Now what could have provoked such a terrible pronouncement from our Lord? Some act of pagan idolatry? No. Failure to attend worship and study Scriptures? No. Surely then something like killing or stealing or committing adultery? No. Here is what roused the wrath of God. “Because (my people) sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes—they trample the heads of the poor in the dust and they turn away from those who are afflicted.” Surely it is clear that God condemns those who live in proud self-suffering while others go hungry in body, mind, or spirit.
Isaiah is playing a variation on the same theme when he writes: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Micah echoes it as well: “He has shown you, O man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Again and again and again, the Old Testament speaks of our meaningful involvement in the lives, in the joys and sorrows, in the needs and heartaches of other people. Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes, under God, and by His command, I am.
Look now at the New Testament.
It is crowded with similar inferences. I set before you only two of them. Listen first to the first text on which Jesus ever chose to preach. Looking at a Saturday morning congregation in Nazareth, He said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s what Jesus said. And would God that today that same Scripture might be fulfilled in us. Would God that we might so live that when we hear such words we need never be ashamed.
Listen secondly to John. “If a man has enough to live on and he sees a brother in need and yet closes his heart against him, how can it be said that God’s love abides in that man. My little children, love must not be a matter of words or talk, it must be genuine and show itself in action. John is saying that we must love as Jesus loves. That means that when we see someone in need in our world, what do we do? Give them a treat? No. Preach them a sermon? No. There’s time for that later. The first thing that we do is open our hearts and the second thing we do is open our wallets. If we have enough to live on and know of human beings who don’t and we can help them and we don’t, then John says that we are not to be called the children of God. My friends, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has two legs, not one. If we preach salvation in Jesus Christ, but turn a blind eye and a stone-cold heart to those who are in need of our words, then our Gospel has but one leg. If we set the church up as just another social service agency, if we deal with a person’s physical needs without dealing with the sin in that person’s heart, then our Gospel has but one leg. The Gospel of Jesus is a Gospel with two legs. He not only offers healing but also forgiveness. He not only offers bread but also the Bread of Life. He not only offers a cup of cold water, but also conversion and new birth.
According to the New Testament, then, our mandate is clear. We are to be involved in the great mission of the church, meeting the physical and the spiritual needs of the people in our world.
But now look at the history of the church.
In its grandest moments, the church has always moved in true obedience to words like those I have quoted.
Consider this. These words describing the early Christians were addressed to the Emperor Hadrian. “These Christians love other people. They take care of the widows and they rescue the orphans. They provide for the poor and take strangers into their homes.” Right from the very beginning, you see, that was the Christian way.
Or consider this. It was direct involvement by Christians that led to substantial changes in the policies of the Roman Empire. Torture was eliminated from judicial proceedings, slavery fell into disfavor, cruel killing-sports were stopped, children were given legal rights, hospitals and orphanages were begun, freedom of conscience was established under the law. All of this involvement in other people’s lives was due in the name of the Christ who cares about those other people.
And consider this. Call the roll of the greatest servants of humanity in history and you will discover that without exception they came from the Church of Jesus Christ. Donatus the Great, Berengar of Tours, Arnold of Brescia, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi—all Christians involved in meeting other people’s needs. Morrison and Taylor of China, Schwartz, Carey, Duff and Newbigin of India; Chalmers and Peyton of New Guinea; Judson of Burma, Moffatt, Livingstone and Schweitzer of Africa, Elliott of Ecuador, McClure of Ethiopia—and on and on the list could go. All of them with one great distinguishing mark: a deep evangelistic fervor on the one hand and an active concern for the world’s people on the other. They fought black magic in Haiti, child-stealing in the 7 Punjab, polygamy in Arabia, opium in Shantung slavery in Madagascar, disease in the Congo, cannibalism in the South Seas, headhunting in Ecuador—all for the love of Jesus and the love of other people.
It is crystal clear, my friends, so clear that we can’t miss it. The Christians in our world today who put their hands into the hand of Jesus and who stake their lives on the truth of this Book have no alternative but to ask: “O Lord, how can I most effectively and most meaningfully involve myself in the needs and in the lives of other people in the world?” It takes courage to ask that—a lot of courage. And it leads to a costly kind of discipleship.
I call us as a church to that kind of courage, to that kind of discipleship. You see, I believe that one day, far down the future, people will look back to this week in November of 1983 as a turning point, a milestone in the history of this great church. For this week, God brings to us Jim McNaull and John Tolson—two men whose hearts burn for the Lord and the Lord’s work in our world, two men as different as night and day but bound together by the love of Jesus Christ, two men who will lead into adventurous paths charted only by the Spirit of God, two men who will challenge us to become all that God intends us to be.
So I call us today to open our minds and our hearts, to bind our souls to brothers and sisters both far away and near at hand to do it in deed as well as in word, to do it as individuals and as a congregation, to do it with concern for both body and soul, and to do it with courage and with willing sacrifice until Jesus comes again.
Phillips Brooks of Boston, called by many the greatest preacher America has ever produced, was a man who so patterned his life after that of his Master that he spent his days giving his life away to those in need in his world. One day, the great philosopher, Josiah Royce, was sitting in his office at Harvard talking with one of his students. The student asked: “Professor Royce, what is your definition of a Christian?” The great philosopher replied, “I don’t exactly know how to define a Christian…But wait,” he added, pointing out his office window, “there goes Phillips Brooks.”
Do you suppose that someday someone desiring to know what it really means to be a Christian in our world will look at you and me and the way we live and then say: “Now I know.”