Sermon preached at Evensong on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2023

Humanitarianism is fundamental to the Christian faith.

The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 20th August 2023 at 3.00 PM

Last Thursday their Royal Highnesses The Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine of Serbia were here with us at Westminster Abbey for our marking of World Humanitarian Day. It is important to note that their humanitarian compassion is firmly based within the context of their Christian faith.

After Evensong, flowers were laid at the Innocent Victims Memorial, outside the great West Doors, and following this service you will pass the memorial as you leave the Abbey.

Humanitarianism is, of course, fundamental to the Christian faith. When we consider the relationship between our faith and our capacity to love our neighbour, we see that the ultimate test of our faith is our ability to love. If we cannot welcome the stranger- then there is something wrong with our faith.

At its heart, faith is the precursor to being able to truly love. Our faith in the Lord of grace and the sanctifying Holy Spirit is what holds the promise that we can love unselfishly.

At the end of the day, faith alone justifies, and love attests that faith is alive. Faith is personal; love is social. Faith is the foundation; love is the goal. Faith is the root and peace; joy and love are the fruits. In other words, Christian faith, with all its vitality and sustenance, must be the foundation of our humanitarian response.

Pope Benedict clearly and very helpfully distinguished between - authentic Christian teaching and the ‘humanitarian moral message’. He highlighted the danger that free-floating compassion substitutes for charity and puts itself in the place of the visible and invisible Church.

Back in 2008, the United Nations General Assembly designated this time in August as World Humanitarian Day to raise awareness about humanitarian assistance worldwide and to pay tribute to the people who risk their lives to provide it.

World Humanitarian Day was commemorated for the first time in August 2009. In keeping World Humanitarian Day, we honour all humanitarians who go to extraordinary lengths in extraordinary times to help women, men and children whose lives are upended by crises.

The dedication, perseverance and self-sacrifice of these real-life heroes represent the very best of humanity. So why do men and women of faith - keep this remembrance firmly within the context of Christian worship? Why is compassion so closely associated with Jesus Christ? 

Well, first and foremost, we see that in the Old Testament, God is a compassionate God, a God whose relationship with his people is marked by unfailing compassion. 

And then in the New Testament, and especially through the Gospels, we see an emphasis upon the compassion of Christ: a Christological statement, telling us something deeply significant about his identity.

In Him the compassion of the God of the Old Testament has come amongst us - to share our human experience, and, as the word ‘compassion’ conveys, he suffers with us, alongside us.                                                                                                          

But what, you may be wondering, has all of this to do with our becoming - more compassionate and caring people? 

Well, before considering the more practical aspects of such a quest, the most important help to our spiritual development is surely to be as clear as possible about our vocation. The reason being that it’s ourselves as the Church, the Body of Christ about which we’re thinking, as we consider the quality of our care. 

In striving to be more compassionate, we’re not just wanting to be a more efficient welfare agency, we’re striving to be the continuation of Christ’s compassion, and the on-going expression of all that that involved.  

Understanding the compassion of Christ then, is for us the primary key to our becoming a more compassionate Church. 

Oscar Romero who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in a small hospital said this in his book, The Violence of Love:

“When we struggle for human rights, for freedom, for dignity, when we feel that it is a ministry of the church to concern itself for those who are hungry, for those who have no schools, for those who are deprived, we are not departing from God’s promise.”

Scripture tells us there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend (John 15:13). It rejects the myth of disconnectedness. We are called to offer our lives in service, not just for our friends, but for strangers. In many ways humanitarians help us to make real God’s love for the world.                                                                                           

Recalling world humanitarianism is a real opportunity for us to celebrate the goodness of so many generous people. It reminds us of the generosity of ordinary people and of the sacrifices they make to support others. It encourages us not to give up on the human race.

We’re also encouraged by diversity of backgrounds and the motivation of people who put themselves out to help and support people who are in need. We are reminded of how much we have in common with colleagues with whose ideas we may disagree.                                                                                                              

Underlying World Humanitarian Day is the conviction that each human being is precious, not because of the groups they belong to, nor because of their race, gender, wealth, good deeds, intelligence and good fortune, but simply because they are human.

Because we depend on one another for life and prosperity we recognise that we also have a responsibility for one another to look out for one another, and to ensure that all people are protected by the rule of law.

In one sense World Humanitarian Day is rightly blind to differences of faith, political persuasion or gender in the people it honours. To make distinctions would contradict the spirit and the activities of the people honoured who in their work ignore such boundaries.

It would also betray one of the most encouraging features of humanitarian work in precarious places.

Typically, in places of crisis Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and people with no firm philosophical or religious convictions come together as companions in situations of crisis, and draw on their own traditions to support them in their commitments.

But in another sense Jesus Christ is the extraordinary, unmatchable example of compassion because as St. Paul tells us in writing to the Corinthians,

"Though he was God, he emptied himself, entered into our human history, became one like us in every way, gave himself over to suffering and even ignominious death on the cross."

Christ became one like us so he could enter into all of our experiences, feelings, difficulties, joys and hopes. The life of Christ embodies, in its fullest sense, all that humanitarianism stands for in today’s world.