HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
February 12, 2017
Matthew 5: 21-26, 38-48 (CEB)
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.
38“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 neighbor and 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.
A few years ago, a colleague friend of mine told a story about a message his young daughter once left for him on voicemail. He had been busy in one meeting after another, and when he finally had the chance to pick up his phone late in the afternoon, he saw that he had a missed call and voicemail from home. A little worried, he played the voicemail and listened as the voice of his daughter came through. She was about 10 then, and he had recruited her to read the Proclamation at church that Sunday. “Dad,” she said, “I’m the lay reader at church on Sunday, and I have that passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ You know that passage, right? Do the other Gospels have that same passage?” she asked, “Is it different in the other Gospels? Could you let me know, because…no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.”
This morning, we continue our look at the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The words contained in the fifth through seventh chapters of Matthew’s Gospel are the most fundamental of Jesus’ lessons for his disciples. They are also probably the most difficult. Last week we explored the Beatitudes, the announcement of blessings for some of the most unexpected of people (at least unexpected by the world’s standards). And we talked about our role in blessing those God blesses as a way of living the Beatitudes and being salt and light in the world. Today, we come to Jesus’ teaching about the Law. Jesus was Jewish, deeply steeped in Jewish teaching, and his audience would have been as well. The Law he is referring to is the Law that was given to Moses thousands of years before on Mt. Sinai, and it is the Law that has guided the covenant life of the Jewish people ever since. Now, Christ is interpreting the Law in a new way. And it’s not that Jesus is changing the Law, or even giving a new Law, but instead he is sort of pulling back the layers and helping people see God’s full intent beyond just the letter of the Law. Remember, as Jesus said earlier in the Sermon, “I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.”
So the crux of everything that Jesus is saying in these readings we heard this morning is wrapped up in the final verse: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Other versions record it as: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is not saying to be pretty good, to be prepared, to be all that you can be. He is not urging us to be practically perfect, or almost perfect, or really something. Christ tells us to be perfect, just as God is perfect. Friends, this is no small order! In fact, this seems like such an impossible task that we might easily dismiss it as more of Jesus’ famous hyperbole (like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle). But instead of dismissing this command, the challenge should be for us to adhere more fully to all that Jesus is teaching, because Jesus is directing us on the path of righteousness and true discipleship.
Now, I understand that saying we must follow Jesus’ teachings here and actually doing them are two different things. Because, the simple truth of the matter is, there are going to be times when we will get angry at another person. There are going to be times when we seek retaliation against those who have wronged us. There are times when we cannot pray for those who persecute us, or offer love to our enemy. Taking Jesus seriously here also means acknowledging our own human shortcomings. But confessing our weaknesses does not mean we can soften what Jesus asks of us. As Christ preaches from the mountainside, he fully intends that the crowds around him will do exactly what he is telling them to do, that they will live in the new way he is calling them to live. Jesus means what he says.
There can be no doubt that Jesus is calling us to a radical, extraordinary new way of living. So the question for us is: how are we going to do this? How do we follow these seemingly impossible instructions from Jesus, especially when they run counter to our most basic instincts? We have to first understand that we are not in this alone. We cannot live by these teachings apart from Christ’s presence. This is a blueprint of Jesus’ own life, and it is a life made possible for us because of who Jesus is. Jesus shows us the path to true righteousness, and he walks with us every step of the way. The second thing to consider is that the perfection to which Jesus calls us, “to be perfect as God as perfect,” does not mean that we will always get everything right, what it means that we will love as God loves; we will be complete in love.
Ultimately, as Jesus calls us to a higher Law here, what he is doing is directing us to live in right relationship with one another. The reason Jesus is urging his disciples in this way is because when our lives are consumed by unhealthy relationships with others, it keeps us from living in full relationship with God. If we harbor anger or jealousy or resentment, we withhold our hearts from God. But love has the ability to bring about change. And that’s really the key to all this: love.
Think about your experiences of love. Have you ever loved someone and been mad at them at the same time? We all have. But we handle our anger differently when it involves a person we love, don’t we? Love compels us toward reconciliation. Love desires the best for another (and certainly never the worst). Love makes possible forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. Having love for another means that you always think of the ones you love more highly than yourself, it means that you consider their needs first, and that every action you take is for the common good, not just for yourself. Jesus has shown us such love—a love that comes from God himself. At the hands of his enemies, he was hung on a cross by his enemies in order that they might know God’s love.
And here’s the thing about love—it’s always active. I think part of the reason this section of the Sermon on the Mount is overwhelming to us is the fact that we feel like if we follow what Christ is teaching here, we become door mats and get walked all over. But love is not passive in this way. Love causes us to rise from the altar and go seek the one we love to reconcile with him. Love refuses to play the adversarial game and instead rises to new heights of service and generosity in the face of oppression. Love directs us to sacrifice our own rights and interests, and thus becomes an imitation of the sacrifice of Christ himself. Friends, the love that God has for us is the greatest love the world will ever know, and it is shown to us in the person of Jesus Christ. If we allow ourselves to be drawn away from this love—to harbor anger against another, to seek revenge upon those who harm us, or to hate our enemies, then God’s love will never be widely known. We will be caught in perpetually bad systems. To foster reconciliation, to offer forgiveness, to love our enemy; this requires an extraordinary effort on our parts. It is terribly inconvenient. But this is the cost of discipleship. And when we live as disciples, we ourselves discover the living God in the loving Jesus Christ; we learn to reflect that love ourselves into a world that needs it so badly.
There was a Serbian Orthodox Bishop by the name of Nikolai Velimirovich who spoke out against the Nazis during World War II. As you can imagine, he was eventually arrested, and he was imprisoned at Dachau. It seems that Bishop Velimirovich suspected one or more of his fellow priests of turning him in to the Nazis, and while in prison, he felt anger at his betrayers that burned like acid in his soul. So he wrote a prayer. This prayer was his way of processing the pain and betrayal he felt, and neutralizing the corrosive acid of hate he was experiencing.
I want to close this morning with Bishop Velimirovich’s prayer. I offer this as a first step in the radical way of life that Christ calls us to, pray these words as if they are your own. Where you go from here is ultimately up to you. But, in the end, we are called to nothing less than a perfect love of our brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends, and even our enemies.
Let us pray:
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have…Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me: So that my fleeing will have no return; So that all my hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; So that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; So that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger; So that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; Ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.
Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends. It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies. A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands. For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Amen.