February 23, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
“How does the community of light treat its enemies?”
Many of you are not going to like me for this, but do you remember that annoying song you would sing as a kid, “this is a song that never ends”? I know, as soon as I said it, those of you who remember it started humming it in your head. As the name suggests, this little ditty was a song that looped around in endless circles until someone would cry out, “just stop singing!” But as annoying as it was, it achieved its purpose, which was to stick in your mind on repeat. Once you started singing, it would go on and on because, well, it’s a song that never ends.
For pastors and others who have been studying the Gospel texts for epiphany this year, they’re probably singing this song: “this is the sermon that never ends, for it goes on and on my friend. Jesus started preaching it not knowing where it ends, and we’ll continue preaching it forever just because…this is a sermon that never ends…” You get the point.
This is the 4th installment of Matthew 5, which is the beginning of what is known as the “Sermon on the Mount” and stretches from chapter 5 through the end of chapter 7. In reality it was probably a collection of teachings that the author of Matthew put into one sermon. It would be like if someone did a research project on Pr. Dave’s preaching, and talked to lots of people, listened to recordings and read manuscripts of sermons, and then pulled out the things that came up time after time after time and put them into one sermon. So we can pretty much expect that the stuff that Matthew included in Jesus’ sermon on the Mount is stuff that Jesus was most articulate about…it’s probably the stuff he preached and taught about more than once.
For us, then, the sermon on the mount is the closest thing we have to a “Christian Handbook.” If you’ve ever wondered how followers of Jesus are supposed to live, study these 3 chapters in Matthew. Whether or not it addresses every single situation a follower of Jesus faces, it definitely offers principles that can be applied to just about every situation. In fact, you may begin to think that this IS a sermon that never ends, because as soon as you think you’ve mastered one lesson, another one will probably pop up.
So we’ve been asking some questions as we have made our way through this sermon. If you’ve been paying attention to the sermon titles, you’ll know that we started with the question, “How does the community of light look?” The beatitudes gave us some imagery there. We moved to “What does the community of light do?” Salt and Light became the guiding images that week. Then last week we asked “How does the community of light treat each other?” And then today we ask, “How does the community of light treat its enemies?” I think, because of what we know of Jesus’ ongoing ministry, I would like to rephrase this week’s title to just be the second installment of last week’s question: how does the community of light treat each other. Because the truth is in the Kingdom of Heaven, those who are perceived as enemies are actually those we are supposed to draw into our community. So to ask how we are to treat each other is also to ask how we are to treat our enemies.
So I just want to make a couple of observations about what Jesus is saying here. And please know that there is much more in these verses. I would encourage you to do your own study, reflection and conversation about these verses, because there is just so much to be said about them.
First of all it’s important to remember that Jesus is talking to his disciples. He’s talking to those with whom he has built a relationship, who trust him and who have already committed to following him. So when he makes these statements throughout this sermon that sound pretty harsh, remember that there’s already a relationship between him and his audience. That’s important for us to keep in mind when we are tempted to use these verses as opportunities to point fingers at what others ought or ought not to be doing. These verses are about discipleship, not about conversion. They are about responding to the call of Jesus, not about receiving or accepting it. When Jesus was interacting with people in a desire to invite them into discipleship, he used a different approach. In those interactions he used phrases like, “let the one who has never sinned throw the first rock,” or “your faith has healed you,” or “today you will be with me in paradise.” So the first thing to remember when reading the sermon on the mount is that Jesus’ audience is those who are already in a relationship with him. And so he can say stuff to them that would sound harsh to an outsider, because they trust him and know that he cares about them. That’s why our sermon titles over the last few weeks have begun with “how does the community of light…” These instructions about relationships, about how to treat each other and how to respond when others treat us wrong, are for us who already have a relationship with Jesus. They are not to be used as rule sticks or weapons against those ‘out there.’ Jesus can say these things to us because we are already in a relationship with him. We know he loves us and will never leave us. We know he wants what is best for us.
It reminds me of times when I was teaching preschool and two kids would start arguing over something. In an effort to settle the argument I would ask one kid, “what could you have done differently?” And inevitably the kid would say, “but he hit me!” or “he took my toy.” And I would say, “I understand that…but you are not in charge of him. You are in charge of YOU. What could YOU have done?” Or when a kid would say, “well, he told me to!” I would say something like, “it may be true that he told you to do that, but you are in charge of your own actions, and you didn’t have to do it just because he told you to.” Or if we would go over the rules before going on the playground to remind everybody of what kind of behavior would create a positive experience for everybody in the class. As a preschool teacher my role was to help kids do some self-reflection and understand that they had control over their own behavior…that the way they react or respond to others is a choice they make, it’s not a choice others make for them, and that their individual actions and reactions had an impact on the whole community.
And I think that’s true for us as followers of Jesus. I think it’s easy for us to spend a lot of time worrying about what others are doing, instead of really paying attention to our own responses. And I think that’s something Jesus invites us to think about through these verses. What do YOU do when someone pushes your buttons? How do YOU respond when someone does something that hurts you? Jesus uses this method of “you have heard it said…but I say to you” to invite us to think about when in our lives we react to something that happens to us because we’ve internalized messages that might not actually be Gospel-based or Kingdom-focused. Additionally, I think Jesus wants his disciples to realize throughout this sermon that their decisions about how to treat others impacts the whole community. How often do we make a decision or react to something without stopping to consider how our reaction will impact the whole community?
That kind of leads into the second point that I think Jesus makes in these verses, which is that a key description of followers of Jesus is that they treat everybody with love, compassion and grace–not just those who are likeable and part of the ‘in crowd.’ You don’t have to be a disciple to love those who love you, Jesus says…even people who don’t believe in God do that. What is going to show the world that you are a follower of Jesus is when you love your enemies, when you do good to those who persecute you, when you pray for those who drive you crazy. That’s what’s going to show the world that following Jesus makes a difference.
And that, I think, is the third point that Jesus is making. Being a disciple of Jesus changes how we act. Following Jesus changes how we respond to anger. Following Jesus changes how we respond to outsiders and strangers. Following Jesus changes how we react when things happen to us that we don’t like. People should be able to tell from our behavior that we are followers of Jesus, and God cares about how we treat each other. Discipleship isn’t just something that happens internally in our heads and in our hearts…it shows up in our actions, in our attitudes, in our behavior towards each other.
Now, it’s important here to pause and remember that our behavior, actions and attitudes do not MAKE us disciples. God, through Christ, has drawn us into relationship with himself. God, through Christ, broke down the wall of sin and death that separated us from God. God, through Christ, invites us into an eternal life with him. That is gift, and is given to all people. This stuff about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, handing over your coat as well as your tunic will not get you a better mansion in heaven or a closer seat at the banquet feast. Similarly, our inability to live as we know we should will not demote us to the Heavenly doghouse or force us to sit in the corner and eat bread and water. There is always…always…always forgiveness when we get it wrong. Because we will get it wrong.
So if loving our enemies, doing good to those who hurt us and praying for those who persecute us isn’t about earning our salvation or securing more jewels in our crown, then what is it for? This passage ends with a sentence that I think often is misunderstood and taken out of context: ‘be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ Perfect in this sense does not mean without fault or without sin. Perfect means whole, complete. Living the way Jesus describes in this sermon makes us more completely who God has created us to be. God has created us to love each other…even our enemies. God has created us to choose reconciliation over retaliation, mercy over revenge. When we respond to the gift of life given to us through Jesus and we choose to live in a way that generates life in us and for those around us, we experience perfection in the way God intends. In last week’s Old Testament passage we heard God say, “I have set before you death and life. Choose life.” That’s what Jesus is saying here. When you are interacting with someone who has hurt you…choose life. When you are responding to someone who asks something of you…choose life. And as we, individually and together, choose life, we show the world that this following Jesus stuff really changes us…it makes a difference…it matters.
I don’t want to make THIS the sermon that goes on and on. So this week, how will the fact that you are a follower of Jesus make a difference in how you treat others? How will the fact that you are a follower of Jesus change how you respond to those around you? How will you choose life this week, and by choosing life experience the whole, complete, perfect life God has given you through faith in Christ Jesus?
Let me end with a reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which I think is helpful for understanding why this stuff matters:
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;[a] but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.”
Let that be your prayer this week, and come back to it over and over again, even if it ends up running through your head like a song that never ends.