St. John's, Centreville
February 24, 2019
7 Epiphany C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus is continuing his Sermon on the Plain. Large crowds of people have come from far away to hear this man that some are calling the Messiah, to be healed and restored. Last week, we heard the Beatitudes, about those who will be blessed and those who will not.
This morning, the story continues as we hear Jesus tell the crowds about the ethics of being a follower of Jesus Christ. We hear "The Golden Rule", that many of us learned as children - "do to others as you would have others do to you." Most of us could accept that and live, for the most part, by that. Be kind to others and they will be kind to you.
But Jesus goes further than that. "Love your enemies," Jesus says, "and do good to those who hate you." Now Jesus is really going out on a limb here. Who wants to love their enemies? Most of us want to stay as far away from our enemies as possible, as they can make life miserable. But then he goes further. "Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you." Are you kidding? Most of us would want to curse back at those who curse us, and strike back at those who abuse us. Why is Jesus making it so hard to be his follower? Why is he setting us up for failure, because no one can do these things that he is describing?
It's easy for us to love those who love us. Even sinners can do that. But to love those who hate you is something else. But if we look at love as an action and not as an emotion, it makes more sense. We don't have to have warm and fuzzy feelings about our enemies and those who hate us. But what Jesus is calling us to do is to treat them with respect and remember that they, too, are children of God. Loving our enemies and praying for them means living in the hope that our enemy's life can be changed to the goodness that God wants for all people.
"If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you." That is a tall order. Jesus seems to be saying that physical violence and stealing are okay and we respond in kind. But Jesus is not condoning abuse or theft, but is showing us a different way to respond, particularly to those who are in need. If we lived like this, perhaps we could do away with poverty and homelessness, maybe even do away with wars.
Jesus is telling us what things will be like in the Kingdom of God. In our earthly journey, we are a long way from achieving this kind of life. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Because we know that God also forgives us of our failures and shortcomings and fills us with God's grace.
God also knows that we have to deal with the reality of the situations we have in our lives. We cannot say to the child who is being abused by an alcoholic father to just pray for him, and not find a way to get him out of an abusive situation. We cannot say to the child who is being bullied at school to turn the other cheek, when that conveys that he is weak and vulnerable. Another way must be found to deal with these situations. Jesus is not saying that we stay in abusive relationships. We are called not only to love our neighbor but to love and take care of ourselves as well.
I think what Jesus is setting up for us in these passages is the way things will be in the kingdom of God. As we continue our earthly pilgrimage, we are to do all we can to live into that kingdom on earth, to do the best we can, to do to others as we want them to do to us. God's expectations are high, and we might not meet all these expectations this side of heaven. This is God's intent for human life. Jesus is telling us how things should be, how we should strive to love one another as Christ loves us. Throughout our lives, we keep striving to be the people that God created us to be. Sometimes we fail and we try again. None of this would be possible without God's love and forgiveness.
God calls us to live in a way that is contrary to human nature. When we are hurt, either physically or emotionally, we want to strike back, to hurt others the way they have hurt us. It's a natural, human reaction. But God calls us to respond in a better way - with love and prayer and hope and forgiveness - the way that God has loved and forgiven us.
Jesus calls us to a radical faith, a faith that transforms us from the people we are to the people God wants us to be. It is only by living this faith that we can even hope to attain God's way of living in this world. God's grace transforms us as God forgives us of our sins and strengthens us to move forward in love and peace.
The great reward that we will receive is not in earthly things like money, or cars or houses, but our reward is who we become in the process of forgiveness and grace, how we grow as children of God. God does not expect perfection right off the bat. Just like a musician or athlete or academician who has to constantly practice and train their bodies, minds and spirits to become who they need to be to practice their craft, so it is with Christians as well. We may not be able to love our enemies on the first try. But we learn from our mistakes and failures and perhaps we do better the next time we are confronted with a similar situation.
Love is not a legal deal or contract, but rather is a force that gives more than it gets, that meets the other more than halfway, that is willing to risk getting hurt by acting rightly. This kind of morality confounds the world because it reflects the character of God. Jesus points out that even our enemies need love. Not only do enemies need love but we have a need to love our enemy because it changes us as well.
God calls us to a higher plane, a better way to live and to be in relationship with others. May we do our best to follow where God leads us. Amen.