This morning, I was asked to say something about how we can respond to people begging on the street. I would like to do so in the light of something the Apostle Paul said in his sermon in Acts 17 - something that is both simple and obvious, yet totally radical. But first, a little background.
The Bible starts with the creation of the world. What does this tell us? Underneath all the deep theology, there is one very simple point: God is interested in the whole world. It goes on to the creation of Adam, the ancestor of the human race. God is interested in the whole human race.
Come down to Abraham, and God's first word to him has seven components - a good, Biblical number - and the final, climactic promise is that all peoples on earth will be blessed through him. It is the purpose and destiny of Abraham's descendants that all peoples on earth will be blessed.
The Old Testament prophets repeated this truth, and the Jewish people right up to Jesus' day affirmed it. Jesus came, and died for the sins of the world. He commanded His followers to 'make disciples of all nations' (Matthew), 'go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation' (Mark), 'repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations' (Luke).
We could go on, but I think the point is made.
So this blessing is for the whole world. The other vital thing to understand is that this blessing is for the whole person.
In Genesis chapter 2, God creates man from the dust of the earth, breathes into him, and the man becomes a living being. You probably know that neshamah (nesh-aw-maw) - the word used here for 'breath' - also means 'spirit'. We are both dust and breath, both material and spirit. We are bodies made alive by the Spirit of God. This is the Hebrew understanding of human nature.
The Greeks had a different idea: they thought we are essentially spirits, trapped inside material bodies. For them, the spirit was what mattered, and the body was unimportant. That is why Socrates could face death so calmly. Why does this matter?
One of the problems we face is that Christian theology has, in some areas, drawn more upon Greek philosophy than upon the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus and the early Christians understood that God cares about the human body. He cares about the material, physical, practical details of our lives. That is why Jesus put so much time and effort into caring for peoples' bodies, why He washed His disciples' feet. That is why the very first project the Church undertakes is to feed the widows.
Christianity is possibly the most materialistic religion in the world. That is why we have meals together as an act of worship, and why we look towards the resurrection of our bodies, and a New Heaven and a New Earth in which we can enjoy living in our resurrected bodies.
So: God cares for the whole person, both body and spirit, and He cares for everybody in the world. These are truths that every orthodox Jew of Jesus' day would have agreed with.
I want to take a brief detour here, and mention the difference between agreeing and believing. You see, the good, religious people agreed with these truths, but Jesus and the early Christians actually believed them.
I don't want us to get tied up with words here. You may not use the same terminology, but I am sure you will recognise the distinction.
We can agree with doctrines, we can seek to understand them and explain them to others. We can explore the impact they have on other doctrines. But we can do all this without believing them. If you really believe a doctrine, you will live it.
Many people in the church hold to doctrines they don't believe. I have discovered over the years that most evangelicals can explain the concept of grace quite well. But many people who can talk about grace, even church leaders, actually live with a constant sense of guilt and failure. They may say they believe the doctrine, but they don't actually live it. Their life says that God will only love them if they perform to a certain standard, whatever their words say.
It was like that within Judaism: most people would say they believe that God loves the whole world, but they lived as though He only really cared about the Jewish race. And that is the way that people in every nation behave. At times of war, we get the Bishops to bless the guns, because we need to believe that God is on our side.
Let's now turn to Acts 17. We are looking here at Paul's famous sermon in Athens. If you have any interest in the past at all, this is one of the great moments of history: the Apostle Paul bringing the gospel message to the greatest intellectual and cultural centre in the known world.
What Paul did here was vital to the future spread of the Christian faith across the world. There are lessons here that can show us today how we can reach people who do not share our assumptions and culture.
The way you do this is by talking their language and building bridges. But we don't have time to explore that this morning.
Paul says: I see you are very religious. You worship an 'Unknown God'. I can tell you about this God you worship, because there are a few things you really need to know.
Firstly, this God does not need you to build Him a Temple, because He built the whole world and everything in it.
Secondly, He does not need you to give Him things, because He gave you everything you have: every breath in your body comes from Him.
Thirdly, and this is the incredible verse 26, this God made from one man every nation on the earth. We are all brothers.
People have always divided the human race into two groups: them and us. Who is them and who is us varies with place, time and context, but it is always there.
Did anyone see 'The Godfather' on Thursday night? You could see it so clearly there: the 'us' that matters is family. Throughout history, there has always been a them and us. Friends and enemies. You help your friends and fight your enemies.
This is one of the key issues that set the early Christians apart from every other group, that set Christianity apart from every religion and every ideology on the face of the planet. Everyone else said: we care for our own. The Christians said: we care for everyone.
For God so loved... His favourites? ...the nice people? ...the good people? No! He so loved the world, the whole world, that He sent His only begotten Son.
Jesus came and He did basically two things: He healed the sick and He preached the gospel. For Him, there was no conflict between the two. He met people: bodies and spirits together. He cared for everyone, and He cared for the whole person.
For a Christian, there is no 'them', only 'us'. This does not mean, of course, that we have to treat everybody the same. We have greater responsibilities to care for the people who are closest to us. There are circles of caring - spouse, family, friends, countrymen, everyone. The circle encompasses the whole human race.
As Paul says in Galatians, "as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Galatians 6:10). This attitude persisted through the early church. One Roman writer was very peeved with the early Christians because they 'not only feed their own poor, they feed ours also'!
Through the centuries, the church has failed miserably in many ways, but the Spirit keeps on dragging us back to these two basic necessities: to care for peoples' bodies, and to care for their souls. Most of the charities working to relieve poverty and distress across the world have their origins in the Christian faith. Other groups set up charities to care for their own problems or their kind of people. Christians, many of them, set up charities to care for anyone.
So, when you are confronted with a beggar in the street, what do you do?
The one thing you can't do is to pretend that their situation is nothing to do with you. You cannot pretend that you have no obligation, no responsibility.
What should you do when you come across somebody begging in the street? There are only a few options.
Give them some money. But you know where the money will go. Yes, they probably are hungry. But the desire for a fix is stronger than the hunger for food. A warm drink will do them some good, but alcohol will blot out the pain for a while. I know some Christians say you should give money because firstly that means they won't have to steal to get the cash they need, and secondly what they do with the money is not your responsibility. Personally, I do not believe it is moral to give people yet more of the stuff that is killing their bodies and destroying their minds.
Pretend you haven't seen them. It is possibly the easiest option - you walk past and pretend that you didn't see or hear them. After all, I can't help everyone. But, as you walk past, you probably feel fairly sure it's not what Jesus would have done.
Turn down the request. The most honest approach: look them in the eye and say no. "I don't give to people on the street. I don't believe you will buy a hamburger or coffee if I give you some money." But once you start talking, it is so much harder, and they can give you really good reasons why they really need some money now, and what will happen if they don't get it. Sometimes, it is the right thing to do. You cannot respond to every need, you cannot help every individual you meet. Even Jesus couldn't help everyone. But you can't refuse to help everyone you meet and still claim to be following Jesus. Jesus may not have helped everyone, but He didn't just say 'no' either.
Offer to help. If you have the time, you can offer to buy them something. If they say they are hungry, get them something to eat. Spend some time with them, talk with them, tell them there is hope - that God cares for them, and other people are willing to help them. But perhaps you don't know who can help, or have the addresses and phone numbers you need. There is another option for you
Give something useful. What I can suggest to you is a meal voucher. It costs you a pound, and entitles them to a hot meal costing a pound in our Coffee Shop. We will provide a hot meal, and have volunteers ready to talk with our customers. If they are willing to be helped, we have the addresses and phone numbers to hand. We are there to help people move on from the street, and to access the help they need, when they are ready to receive it.
God is there. When you encounter someone - a beggar on the street, a non-Christian at your work place, a needy person in your family, anyone! - remember that God is already in the situation. You don't need to do anything to turn it into a situation He can use. All you have to do is understand what He wants to do, how He wants to bless the other person through you, and cooperate with Him in what He wants to do.
Don't do it on your own. Don't try to do anything without God's involvement, and don't try without support from other people. We are not built to help needy people on our own. We need emotional support, we need advice, we need people to talk to, we need to benefit from the knowledge, experience and wisdom other people can offer.
Remember to pray. If you care about these things, then pray. Pray for the Crisis Centre and all those working with homeless people. Pray about getting involved in a practical way yourself. After all, you need to do something.
One option is to do some volunteering. There are many different and vital jobs volunteers can do. Almost anything you can offer can be a blessing to some group or organisation.
Another possibility I urge you to consider is some form of political activity. Christians - some Christians! - must get involved in party politics. If we leave leadership in our society and the establishment of new laws to ungodly people, we will find ourselves going in an ungodly direction with ungodly laws. Involvement in the political parties is the only way if Christians are to act as salt and light as God intends.
And, finally, follow Jesus. He had a mission to establish God's Kingdom and to destroy the Devil's works. If we follow Him - if we really follow Him - then that, too, is our mission. He cared for people in very practical ways: if we want to follow Him, we must do the same. The question is not whether we will get involved, but how.