I was talking to someone recently about our church’s involvement in helping homeless families obtain sustainable housing. He thought that it was great that we were helping people in this way, but then asked me whether we also look after their spiritual needs as well as their physical needs.
I’ve heard this sentiment before and I think it gets things wrong.
It comes from an imagination of the church as the place of spiritual wealth. It assumes that we have physical and spiritual resources and we have the prerogative to share these with others. When we meet physical needs, we should also share from our wealth of spiritual resources.
Jesus, however, sees things differently. In Mark 9, he says this:
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (vv. 35-37).
Jesus envisions the church as a place of spiritual poverty. When we serve and offer hospitality to the marginalized—those in need—we are not sharing from our spiritual wealth. We are gaining spiritual riches. We are welcoming into our fellowship Jesus himself and God, who sent him.
When we serve others by meeting their physical needs, our spiritual needs are being met—our need of the presence of Christ and of God who sent him.
Jesus radically reverses how we ought to see ourselves. Whatever our physical wealth, we are spiritually poor. We are not in a place of power and privilege; we are weak and in need.
God sustains the church with his life-giving presence when we serve others.