Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nathan Söderblom and the Good Samaritan

July 12, 2007

Today we remember the life and work of Nathan Söderblom, architect of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century, founder of the Life and Work movement that led to the World Council of Churches, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was Swedish, born in 1866 and living until this date in 1931. Early in his life, at the age of 24, he visited the United States, and began to form his future ecumenical work through this prayer, recorded in his diary:

"Lord, give me humility and wisdom to serve the great cause of the free unity of thy church."

Söderblom took a practical approach to ecumenical work, reasoning that in the life of the church right action was as important as right belief-hence the outward, active focus of the Life and Work group.

He had already begun to move toward intercommunion between the Swedish Church and the Church of England as early as 1909; in 1995 the Porvoo Communion formalized recognition between Anglican churches in the British Isles and Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and the Baltic states.

Söderblom was elected Archbishop of Uppsala & primate of Sweden in 1914. That year he led a prayer for peace at Uppsala Cathedral:

"May we ask the Lord to grant us peace,
that the day will soon come,
when the peoples are unified in love
and when Christ is the Lord;
the day that fulfils all the prayers of the holy"

In high school P.E. class I heard this story – so it must be true: somebody riding his new motorcycle had a breakdown at the side of the road. Up roared a gang of bikers, who stopped, came over, and – fixed his bike. As they left, one handed him a nice white business card, with a big greasy black thumb-smudge on it, announcing, “Your emergency roadside assistance was provided by your local motorcycle club.”

The Samaritan is not who you would expect. Nor is the man who was robbed.

In the story of the Good Samaritan and the man who fell among thieves, we hear a lawyer asking a telling question: Who is my neighbor? We might well ask: Who are you? Responses could include, I am a person, a human being, a child of God – or, We are a people of God.

Augustine made the analogy, that the man who was robbed was like Augustine, or me, or you – the soul; that the Samaritan was like Jesus and the inn, providing shelter, was the Church.

What however was Jesus response, and what question did he ask in his turn? “Who was a neighbor of the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The one who showed him mercy.

We often think of ourselves in the place of the good Samaritan, but Jesus has the lawyer put himself in the place of the man who was robbed. Before we put ourselves in the superior position, the “helping” role, first we find ourselves in need of a little traveler’s aid ourselves.

And Jesus identified himself with this: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” and he will tell them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Serving Jesus as we serve the least of these we see around us is the motivating force behind the efforts of so many ecumenical workers like Nathan Söderblom: not simply that we all might get along but that we might go forward together into God’s kingdom, where peace and righteousness embrace.

And I should point out one more current example of this. Last week in Tucson, a leader and elder in that community received a visit from a new member of Congress. She talked with her about immigration and our need for a new approach – not confronting each other but working together. She held up her hands as if to push away The Other, then moved them, turning them over and interlacing her fingers, to show that we must work together. Speaking practically, she suggested training for employment could begin across the border, so that people who live there could have a future and a hope. Remember this is God’s promise to us, to his people, fulfilled through Jesus and through Jesus’ hands in the world: our own. I will give you “a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)


Nobel Foundation (

Uppsala Domkyrka (

Luke for Everyone by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2001)

The Word Today: Reflections on the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3 by Herbert O'Driscoll (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2001)

"Living by the Word: Who we are" by Patrick J. Wilson, The Christian Century, Vol. 124, No. 13, June 26, 2007, p. 19. (

also worth a look:

Patrick's Well ( Herbert O'Driscoll

Geranium Farm ( Barbara Crafton et al.

The Word in Time (Revised Edition): A Gospel Commentary for Sundays and Major Feast Days (Complete Three-Year Cycle) by Arthur J. Dewey (New Berlin, Wisconsin: Liturgical Publications, 1990)

Luke by Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) Westminister Bible Companion series.

Luke by Thomas W. Walker (Louisville, Kentucky: Geneva Press, 2001) Interpretation Bible Studies series.

Luke by Fred B. Craddock (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990) Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching.

The Gospel According to Luke by Michael F. Patella, O.S.B. (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press) The new Collegeville Bible commentary, New Testament; v. 3.

Preaching the Gospel of Luke: Proclaiming God's Royal Rule by Keith F. Nickle (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)

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