The True Law
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
March 23, 2013
Matthew 5: 38-48 (CEB)
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighborand hate your enemy. 44But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Just about a year ago, the movie 42 came out. It captures the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues. It’s a really great movie for all sorts of reasons, and if you haven’t seen it, then I recommend you do, if for no other reason than the fact that in the midst of the movie, Brooklyn Dodgers Manager, Branch Rickey, declares God to be a Methodist!
In any case, I want to share with you a particular scene from that movie, a scene that truly played out in Jackie Robinson’s life. I’m speaking of the moment when Robinson and Rickey first talked about Robinson coming to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey asks, “What do you think, Jackie? Do you got guts enough to play the game no matter what happens? They’ll shout insults at you. They’ll come into you spikes first. They’ll throw at your head.”
“They’ve been throwing at my head for a long time, Mr. Rickey,” Robinson responds.
As the conversation continues, Rickey fabricates a scenario: “Suppose I’m a player on the eve of an important game. Suppose I collide with you at second base, and when I get up I say, ‘You dirty black so-and-so.’ What do you do?”
“Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?” Robinson asks.
Rickey answers insistently, “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back. You’ve got to do the job with base hits, stolen bases, and fielding ground balls, Jackie. Nothing else. Now, I’m playing you in the World Series, and I’m hotheaded. I want to win the game. So I go into you spikes first. You jab the ball in my ribs and the umpire says ‘out’. All I can see is your black face, that black face right over me. So I haul off and punch you right in the cheek. What do you do?”
Robinson calmly thinks for a moment, then answers, “Mr. Rickey, I’ve got two cheeks.”
As the conversation comes to a close and Jackie is preparing to leave Mr. Rickey’s office, Mr. Rickey stops him and says, “Remember one thing, Jackie. No matter what happens on the ball field, you can’t fight back…you can’t fight back.”
Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson knew the only way they would be successful in breaking the race-barrier in major league baseball was if they didn’t fight back against the resistance they knew they were going to receive. But the thing is, this wasn’t really a new way of living; they were simply following the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, who 2,000 years earlier stepped up on a mountainside to preach to the crowds around him because he knew if those people put anything but love first in their lives, then God would not be made known in the world.
The problem is, we hear these words from Jesus, and we consider his imperatives impossible to follow. Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile. Love your enemies. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Can Jesus be serious? This is crazy talk. But the thing is, Jesus wouldn’t command something of us that wasn’t possible. And besides, our faith assures us that in God ALL things are possible. So the question for us is, what do we make of these words we hear this morning from Jesus?
As Christ-followers, we are all about being Christians as long as it involves potlucks, baptisms, and weddings. We really like being Christians at Christmas. We even like being Christians at a funeral. But we don’t so much want to be Christians when its time to turn a cheek, give away a cloak, go the second mile, give to a worthy beggar, or loan everything we have to anyone who wants it. This sounds like complete foolishness to us. And so we listen to these words from Jesus and we decide that these are really just spiritual directions, aimed at our souls, not at the actual way we live our lives, which may require hoarding, bombing our enemies, and generally being selfish slackers. Then that’s how we live; without even thinking about, as if Jesus’s teachings, his life, and death, and resurrection, mean nothing. All the while, we go about the “easy” path of Christianity full of covered-dish dinners and weddings thinking we’ve got it made!
But here’s the thing. Jesus didn’t call us to just to show up for worship on Sunday mornings, or to only study the scripture in the weekly Bible study. Jesus didn’t tell us to “go forth and win the chili cook-off,” or the church softball championships. Jesus said, “be perfect.” And perfection doesn’t mean always choosing the right fork at the dinner table, or praying a “proper” prayer (as if there is such a thing). Perfection means loving as God loves, with every single breath God gives us.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught a lot about what he called “Christian Perfection.” I think it’s fair to say that it was a central tenet of his teachings. A simple definition of Christian perfection is: “Perfect love of God, and perfect love of neighbor.” When ministers are ordained in the United Methodist Church, they stand before the body of believers that is their Annual Conference, and they answer a series of questions. One of the questions is, “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” Anybody who wants to be ordained will answer that question with a resounding, “Yes!” But I have to admit, that was a difficult question for me to answer honestly. In fact, to this day I’m not sure that I was being honest when I answered that question five years ago.
By my thinking, Jesus is the only one who is perfect. I find it hard to believe that I can be perfect, ever. But then, just a few weeks ago, I was sharing this concern with a fellow pastor, and he said, “The question is not, ‘Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?’ As in completely flawless; the question is, ‘Do you expect to be made perfect IN LOVE…’ I think we can be made perfect in love.” And you know what? I agree with him! I believe that we can grow in this unashamed, unconditional love of both God and the people around us. It is a love born out of humility and self-sacrifice; a love that realizes we are in no place to judge, precisely because no one is perfect, flawless, sinless. This is a love that turns the other cheek, walks the extra mile, gives freely and without restriction, and loves even one’s greatest enemies. That is perfect love, and it is the kind of perfection Jesus was calling out of his disciples and the crowds gathered on the mountainside. Not impossible, but certainly no easy task, either because it is a love that follows the blueprint of Jesus’ own life and the sacrifice he made for all people in all times and places.
Still, all this sounds so great in THEORY, but when it comes to actually living it out, it seems so impractical. We can’t give away our coats because then our kids would have to stand out at the bus stop in winter without anything to keep them warm. We can’t give to anyone who asks, beggar or borrower, because we have to save for retirement. We can’t actually love our enemies, because how can we stop terrorism if we just let the terrorists walk all over us?
In the real world, this stuff just isn’t realistic. I get that. If I followed these words from Jesus letter by letter, then I might run in to a scenario that would play out something like this. A young husband calls me up frantically three weeks before Christmas. He asks to come and meet with me as soon as possible. Within the hour, he is sitting across from me in my office, telling me that he has just found out his wife is having an affair with his best friend. In tears and panic, he wonders about his four young children and how he is going to deal with this in the midst of the holiday rush—parties, presents, shopping. And I respond to him, “Well, Jesus says to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile. You just need to do what Jesus says to do. Let me know how that works out for you.”
Seriously? I can’t say that any more than that young man could walk out of my office and immediately start living it. Living out these words from Jesus in everyday life is hard; very, very hard. And we’re probably not going to get it right most of the time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be striving after perfection every moment of our lives. It might take decades for the young husband to find the strength to forgive his ex-wife, but the very minute he stops trying is the moment when he has lost touch with Jesus’ words.
The thing to understand is that all of Jesus’ life was about his unwillingness to let evil win. Certainly, there are times in our lives when it seems like evil has the lead. But if we really listen to Jesus today, what we will hear him saying to us is that evil must be overcome with good, not with a stronger version of evil. Break the cycle, is Jesus’ idea. Break the cycle with your estranged brother or sister. Break the cycle with your spouse or your child. Break the cycle with the person at work, or the neighbor next door. And the key to breaking the cycle is love. Extreme evil requires demands extreme good, and there is no greater good than pure love. For centuries, Jewish people had been defining righteous living according to these sometimes crazy and obscure laws. And now Jesus teaches that there is only one law that is necessary for true righteousness, for true perfection, and that is the law of love.
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey broke the cycle back in 1947 when they refused to fight evil with evil. And this is the pattern we are called to follow; the very pattern of Jesus’ own life. In his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus points us to the heart of God the Father. God, who loves the unlovable, who comes to us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go another mile, lend, love the enemy—because that is how God loves, perfectly. And we can love perfectly, too!
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?