Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbour’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven”. (NLT)
Loving like God
While checking in his bags at
the airport, a man became angry when one of the bags he was checking in was
overweight. For several minutes, he
ranted about ‘stupid airline rules’ and the people who enforced them.
He loudly belittled the man behind the check-in desk with the worst
language and criticised everything he did.
Surprisingly, the young man didn’t seem to be troubled by the man’s
verbal abuse and stayed very calm. After the angry man moved on, the next person
in line asked, “How do you put up with such rude and arrogant people?”
The young check-in man said, “It’s easy. That guy is going to the UK. I sent his luggage to Brazil”.
Can you understand the young check-in man’s motive for getting back at this angry man? Of course you do? We all do this at some time. We call it revenge, pay back, giving someone what they deserve, giving back as good as you were given, or “an eye for an eye”. Sometimes we even call it “justice”, but let’s admit there’s something in us that wants to get even with those who hurt us – there is a nastiness in the attitude that we have toward those who cut across our path in some way. Even as Christians we struggle with a knee jerk response and other times a calculated reaction of nastiness toward others.
Now we could easily say, “That’s part of who we are. We are just being human. We can’t help it”, but today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t let us off that easily. What we hear today is part of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus speaks some quite radical things here that make us cringe.
Earlier Jesus sets the tone saying, “You know you are forbidden to kill someone. I forbid you even to get angry with anyone. Call someone a fool, and you'll go to hell. Make no attempt at reconciliation with the person you’ve had a falling out with or don’t attempt to settle a dispute, and you are putting yourself in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt 5:21-22). That’s some pretty straight talking as he cuts deep into relationships issues and makes a connection with the Ten Commandments.
Then he says, “Don’t take revenge.
If someone slaps you on the right cheek (which when you think about it’s a
back-handed slap – the ultimate insult in those days), don’t slap him back, let
him slap the other cheek.
When someone takes you to court and sues you for your shirt, give him your outer coat as well, which is far more precious to you than your underwear.
When one of those horrible occupying Roman soldiers demands that you carry his backpack and armour a kilometre down the road (not a small task and never with a please or thank you”), do him a favour and carry it another kilometre.”
Jesus throws down a further challenge. “Why should God reward you if you only love those who love you? … And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary?” But that’s what we do. We don’t waste our energy loving those who don’t like us or talk to people we don’t get on very well.
Jesus is taking everyday examples of life in his time and highlighting those times when it’s really easy to be vengeful and nasty and horrible especially to those who mistreat us or ignore us. Jesus is not saying do nothing when people mistreat you. He is saying that the cycle of revenge and violence and cold-shoulder tactics needs to be broken. Violence brings more violence. Revenge creates more vengefulness. This is not God’s way – this is not the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. Then Jesus concludes, “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you, annoy you, make demands of you, get under your skin! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven”. Break the cycle of unkindness, hatred, violence and revenge with the love of Christ that dwells within you.
In short, Jesus is saying 4 things,
1. Disciples of Christ are to love everyone, friends and enemies alike.
2. As they love all people, they are imitating God and his love for all people.
3. As they imitate God, they will stand out from the crowd. Their love is shown in actions and words that will be different from the rest of the world.
4. By doing all this, disciples of Christ will fulfil their goal to be like their Creator – they will be who there are created to be.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 4:48).
Maybe I could rephrase these words of Jesus this way. “You were made in the image of God, so then be perfect just as God created you to be”.
It’s just at this point that we throw up our hands in frustration and declare that this is impossible in this life; that Jesus is being way too idealistic and hasn’t taken into account that sin has far too tight a grip on our lives and will always lead us to unkind and vengeful actions and words and thoughts. It’s tempting to dismiss all this as something that we should aspire to knowing that we can never really achieve it.
It’s unfortunate way the word ‘perfect’ has been interpreted as only meaning sinless. The word that’s used here is the same word that Jesus used when he said on the cross, “It is finished”. He meant, ‘I have reached my goal’ or ‘my work is complete or reached its maturity or fullness’ or ‘God’s plan is fully developed or reached its perfect end’.
So when Jesus is talking about being perfect he isn’t urging us toward perfectionism that is impossible in this life or offering useless advice how to attain perfection. He is urging us to be complete, fully developed, mature, rich as people who have been saved and redeemed by the blood of his Son and now reborn in the image of God.
Jesus calls us to love with the same love as he loves us, to imitate the patience and love of our heavenly Father and to make God’s will our will. When we are ruled by the love of Christ then we have reached fullness and completeness in our walk as disciples. This is not a journey where we can say, “Now I have reached the end and done as much as I can”. Learning to walk in Christ’s love and maturing to richness is an ongoing one.
It changes our whole perspective on things especially our relationships with other people whether friend or enemy. We are no longer followers of the world’s moral view; we follow Christ. We are called to live like Christ every day.
But all this is only possible because
he allowed himself to be lifted high on a cross.
With that cross up on the hill of Golgotha, with the newness that we
receive through God's grace and forgiveness we are able to be what God intended
us to be when he first created humanity.
In Christ, our heavenly Father no longer sees our failures but instead sees the goodness and righteousness that Christ has won for us.
The question that needs to be raised now is this – what are we to do with these words from Jesus in our own lives? It’s nice to hear what Jesus had to say and what it means. It would be easy to walk away from this morning’s worship service and let all this evaporate as we leave. But the words of Christ won’t let us do this if we take them seriously. They are not simply nice words; they are words to put into action.
So we are challenged to look at our
own lives to see how well the love of Christ is ruling our lives and how well we
are imitating God. Have we been the
people God called us to be – his holy, loved and chosen people for whom Christ
gave his life?
How well have we been determined, wilful, resolute, single-minded in loving that person who has been a real bother to us,
making amends after a falling out,
going out of our way to befriend a person even though our emotions and self-centredness scream at us to stay away?
How often have we preferred to hold a grudge, rather than take the first step and reach out with forgiveness and love?
By the way, this is not about allowing some perpetrator of evil to wreak havoc in our lives, to do that is not loving that person at all.
We all know hard it is to love and forgive a person who has hurt us. Our feelings and emotions are telling us that the person doesn’t deserve our friendship and healing. It’s with revenge in mind we are happy to let that person “stew in his/her own juice” so to say, while we feel all righteous about what has happened. Sometimes we need to will ourselves to love and forgive.
This well known story illustrates this point. Corrie Ten Boon was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War 2. She tells of the occasion she met one of her guards at a church service in Munich. All the horrible memories of the concentration camp, the hunger, the humiliation, the brutality and the death of her sister came flooding back.
The former SS guard came up to Corrie as the church was emptying, he thrust out his hand asking her for forgiveness.
She recalls, “I tried to smile. I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so I breathed a silent prayer. ‘Jesus, I can’t forgive him. Give me your forgiveness’. ‘…I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened – into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that brought tears to my eyes. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on God’s. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself”.
Be prepared to be surprised the way God’s grace impacts on our lives and we become conduits of his love and forgiveness. To do that at home, at school, at church, among friends is to be perfect, whole, mature, complete people of the Kingdom of God.