In a Society Where Everyone Believes in God…

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
February 24, 2019

Luke 6: 27-38 (CEB)
“But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

32“If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

37“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”

This week, I had the opportunity to hear a couple of really amazing United Methodist leaders share their hearts for Christ and for our United Methodist Community. I attended this week the annual Holston Conference Minister’s Convocation. The speakers I was privileged to hear were Rev. Dr. James Howell and Rev. Dr. Kim Pope-Seiberling. James is the senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist in downtown Charlotte, and Kim is currently a professor at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, though she will be returning to parish ministry this summer in the Boston area.

I tell you all that because I want to share with you a story which Kim shared with us. One day about five years ago, as Kim was sitting in her office, she got a call from the police. They were calling to tell her that her niece had been murdered. As Kim’s sister had died a few years before, Kim was the “next of kin.” Kim’s niece had gotten into a fight with her boyfriend over a leaking toilet in their apartment. The boyfriend stabbed Kim’s niece in the side 15 times with a pair of scissors. After she died, he stuffed her in a closet in the apartment and left her there. The police found her three weeks later, after a resident of the apartment complex called, complaining of a terrible stench. Needless to say, the man was arrested and went to trial.

On the first day of this trial, this man came in and sat down right in front of Kim. Kim reflected that she was looking at this man who looked so much like the man who had murdered her niece. She eventually figured out the man she was looking at was the murderer’s father. As soon as she made that connection, Kim said, “I started having these angry thoughts: What kind of awful man is this? What sort of terrible things did he do to raise a son who would murder someone?” But then, Kim said, her thoughts were interrupted by the Holy Spirit, which said to her, “Kim, this man is my child.” Her niece’s murderer was convicted, but after that nudging from the Holy Spirit, Kim said she saw it all in a completely different light. She thought to herself, Jesus died for this man’s sins, what more can I do? She said I saw in that man and in his son the Imago Dei, the image of God. Then she said, “Now, my husband thinks I’m a little whack-a-doodle, but I still keep in touch with my niece’s murderer. I write him letters in jail.” She said, “Sometimes, I even send him a little money for shampoo and toiletries, and things like that.” Then she said, “I do that because I really hope that one day I will see him again, and that when I do, that it will be in heaven.” And she finished, “I’ll give him a big hug.”

The mandates Jesus puts before us today are not easy. As he continues preaching among the people in his “Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus says to those who will listen, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” A little later, Jesus offers the Golden Rule, with which we are all familiar, “Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.” This whole section of the Sermon on the Plain is Jesus working to explain what that looks like, beginning with “loving your enemies.” The problem, though, is that “loving your enemies” and “doing good to those who hate you,” and “blessing those who curse you,” that’s like a whole different level. That’s a completely different challenge. But friends, again, this is Jesus giving us very clear instructions; telling his disciples exactly how they should behave toward one another and toward all whom God loves (which is everyone, by the way).

Francis Shaeffer, the great mid 20th-century philosopher once reflected that Jesus gave the world permission to judge his disciples. But that permission came with a condition, the world can only judge the disciples based on one criteria: love, how they love one another. And, of course, that’s exactly what Jesus told his disciples as his washed their feet on the night before he was crucified. He said, “I give you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” It’s this simple, friends, if we don’t love one another, then we have failed. The world will not recognize us as disciples of Christ. But here’s the cincher. Do you remember who was sitting there that night as Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another, and warned them that this love is how everyone would recognize them as his disciples? Peter was there. Peter, the man who would deny not once, but THREE times that he was a follower of Christ. Do you remember who else was there? Judas. Judas Iscariot, who would rise from the table and go straight to the Romans to betray Jesus in exchange for a pouch of 30 silver coins. Traitor. Enemy.

“I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies.” Jesus doesn’t mince words here. In fact, he kind of repeats himself, probably to make sure we don’t miss the point. There should be no question as to what Jesus expected of his followers. Jesus is clear about how we are to behave one toward another. Jesus here is giving us a clear vision of the kingdom of God. Just imagine a society where everyone believed in this God Jesus proclaims throughout his ministry. There wouldn’t be any violence. There wouldn’t be any revenge. There wouldn’t be any divisions. Property and possessions wouldn’t be nearly as important as making sure your neighbor was alright. Imagine if even a handful of us Christians could get this right. Imagine if just a few of us could have courage like Kim, to write the murderer in prison, to send money, to pray that some day, some day, we might meet again in heaven. Can you imagine?

It’s really amazingly astonishing to me how many of us Christians are failing so miserably at following Jesus, at taking seriously his teachings, and seeking to live them out in our lives. There are over 2 billion Christians in the world today. Christianity has been a major movement on the world stage since around the year 300, when Constantine was emperor of Rome. Yet we still can’t get it right. And I include myself among the failures of true Christian discipleship. Could I do what Kim is doing if someone murdered my niece?

I’m really not sure that I could. I can’t imagine the goodness of a society where everyone believes in God because I don’t even see us 2 billion Christians doing all that well with taking God seriously. We’re no good at loving our enemies, and we’ve never been all that great at it. During the Crusades, thousands of Christians mobilized to Arab nations where they brutally massacred Muslims. After Dylann Roof murdered nine people following a Bible Study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015, he declared that he had a vision from God telling him to start a race war. Christianity has been used to justify slavery and violence against Jews. We’ve been doing the same wrong things for 2,000 years! What would the world look like if everyone believed in God? I don’t think we will even have an idea until we Christians can start truly living in the ways of Jesus. I also don’t think a society where everyone believes in God is even possible until Christians live like they believe in God!

“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”

In one of her later talks, Dr. Sieberling reflected, “Being a Christian is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” She had been abandoned as a baby, left at the door of an orphanage in Korean in -10 degree weather. She had been adopted by a family in the United States. She had seen one of her sisters estranged from the family and ruined by a life of drugs and prostitution, eventually to die. She had lived through the brutal, senseless murder of her niece and the trial that followed. She had raised a troubled teen. And she reflected, rightly, I think, that “being a Christian is the hardest thing she has ever had to do.” We shouldn’t fool ourselves. These teachings from Jesus that we heard last week and more this week from the Sermon on the Plain, they are not easy. To think that we might be the cursed of God because we enjoy privilege, because we live comfortably and are never hungry…that’s a tough pill to swallow. To be asked to love our enemies; to pray in hope that we might one day meet in heaven the very people who have wronged us in this life…who does that? That’s HARD! And it doesn’t mean we should just roll over and let the abusers keep abusing and the murderers keep murdering. All who cause harm to others should be held accountable, they should be brought to justice. But through it all, Christ calls us to extend the same sort of extravagant grace to our enemies that Christ has already extended to us. “A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing….”

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.” I don’t really know what to say to you all about how we’re supposed to do this. I’m no good at it myself. This is HARD. All I know is that these are Jesus’ instructions for how we should live our lives, so we have to try. And here’s the thing; we can’t expect to see the glories and wonders of a society where everyone believes in God, until those of us who call ourselves Christians start to act like WE believe in God.

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