But…But…But…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 22 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to the treatment of  “the enemy” as found in Matthew 5:38-48. In addition, we considered one of God’s commands to the Israelites as found in Leviticus 11:44-45.

It has been a hard, hard month for this planet. An African poet named Warsan Shire has expressed it this way in her work titled “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

 

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

 

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

worldterrorIn case you’ve been under a rock, I’m talking about the terror attacks in France, Lebanon, Kenya, Mali, and a dozen other places. I’m talking about the millions of people who are running for their lives, seeking refuge in other towns, cities, or countries. I’m talking about the ways that we have engaged in fear-mongering and name-calling and race-baiting and other such mutually-destructive tactics.

We have not seen humanity at its finest…

And yet here we are, doing what we’ve done for the last couple of thousand years… we come into a room, and we sing a few songs, and we take a look at some ancient texts, and we ask where God is now… we ask what Jesus might have to say, if anything, about a world like ours in times like these.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012 Used by permission of the artist.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012
Used by permission of the artist.

And coincidentally, we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount, a message that has been hailed as one of the greatest expressions of ethical living in difficult times. In each of the last four readings, we’ve heard Jesus compare teaching of old with a new ethic. He has lifted up topics like anger, sexuality, marriage, and honesty and led his followers through a series of reflections contrasting the “things that everybody knows” with a glimpse of God’s intentions for his people. And, as you’ve already heard, today we consider the last two of those comparisons, each of which deals with how we treat the enemy.

As we begin to look at these texts, it’s important to note that for Jesus, the enemy is the one who seeks to harm us. You will find nothing in the Sermon about the people whom we seek to harm, for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus leaves no room to even consider whether His followers have any basis for wishing harm to someone else.

In the New Testament our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility, for Jesus refuses to reckon with such a possibility. The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother…His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus…[1]

That’s a lot to consider, and I’d invite you to think about that the next time you hear someone claim that, as a “Christian Nation”, the USA is morally bound to “bomb those people back into the stone age”. Jesus, it would appear, does not seem to allow for the possibility of my working for your annihilation.

Quite the opposite, in fact, Jesus offers a series of behaviors emphasizing non-resistance. He calls for us to forgo the temptation for revenge and instead to offer what we have – our coats, our energy, our money – to those who ask. And then he proceeds to flesh that out with a series of imperatives that end Matthew 5.

Now, listen to me: we call ourselves Christian. We claim to follow Jesus. We say we want to be his disciples – that we want to be like him. And if there is any place in our lives where we all walk into a room saying those things, and then hear the Gospel, and then say, “Um, nope. Not gonna do that, Jesus”, well, it’s this place. This could be one of the most unreasonable things that Jesus ever said, and frankly, we don’t want to hear it. And so we look at the text and say things like, “I wonder what Jesus really meant? After all, he couldn’t have wanted us to take that literally, could he?”

I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning looking at three specific words in our text in the hopes that we can understand what, in fact, Jesus meant in saying what he said that day.

By the time we get halfway through verse 43 in the Revised Standard Version, Jesus has used 997 words to convey what a disciple’s life ought to look like. One word that he has not chosen to use, at least until we get to 998, is “love”. In Greek, it’s agape. For the first time in Jesus’ primary treatment of ethical living, he tells his followers to love.

Love who? Kind-hearted older people? Adorable grandchildren? Cuddly puppies?

Nope. The first imperative to love in the Sermon on the Mount is directed towards the enemy – the one who wishes you harm.

But how can I love that person, who has sought to destroy me? How can I love this one, who has brought so much pain and death? I’m just not feeling it, Jesus!

Fortunately for us, the kind of love to which Jesus calls us is not based on feeling. Agape means that we act for the welfare of another. It is not a feeling, but rather a pattern of behavior that recognizes the humanity of each person and that moves towards justice and mercy. Jesus isn’t asking me to feel all warm and fuzzy toward you or anyone else; he is directing me to treat everyone – especially the one who seeks to harm me – the way that he has treated me.

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

In my last message I mentioned Corrie Ten Boom, whose family harbored Jews in the Second World War. They were eventually caught, and sent to the concentration camp called Ravensbrück, where she watched her sister die. Two years after the war ended, Corrie was invited to preach in a Munich church. She writes of a man who approached her afterward and stuck out his hand in greeting. She recognized him immediately, but it plain that he had no recollection of their ever having met:

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there…But since that time… I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.

Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.[2]

Corrie Ten Boom knew, far better than I ever will, I suspect, that forgiveness is a posture and a behavior that is rooted in love that comes, not from doing what I feel like doing, but from treating the other as God has treated me.

The second word that leaps out at me from this part of the text is one translated in verse 47 as “more”: “if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

The Sermon on the Mount is a contrast on the ways that followers of Jesus are called to do “more” – in Greek, perisson, whereas the rest of the world does what Jesus dismisses as “the same”.

The world would be happy to live by the old “eye for an eye” rule, where if you push, I push back, and if you hit, I hit harder. But here Jesus states explicitly that his disciples are bound by a higher calling.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

…the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the perisson. It is this quality which first enables us to see the natural in its true light. Where [the perisson] is lacking, the peculiar graces of Christianity are absent. The perisson never merges into [the same]. That was the fatal mistake of the false Protestant ethic which diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness…Not in such terms as these does Jesus speak. For him the hallmark of the Christian is “the extraordinary”.[3]

Do you see? It is in striving for the perisson – the extraordinary treatment of the other – that we participate in the Divine nature. It is in treating others with love that we become more like the One who made us in love.

Which leads me to the third word I’d like to consider this day: Jesus’ call to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Holy smokes, if Jesus is expecting moral perfection from me, then he’s got another thing coming. Is this another instance where Jesus is holding out an impossible ideal? Nobody is perfect, right? How can he even ask that?

The word that we have here is teleioi, and it does mean “perfect” – but perfect in the sense that “it’s all done – it’s complete – it needs no further refinement or change.” In fact, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out as he breathed his last, “tetelestai”, which we have translated as “It is finished”, and which comes from the same root as teleioi.

If you were to attend a session of Congress, or some other body where Parliamentary Procedure is observed, you might hear someone make a motion. Then, someone else might move to amend that motion. What happens next is that the motion is “perfected”. That doesn’t mean that it’s the greatest motion in the history of motions: it means that the people talking about the motion are getting it to say what they really need it to say. They are “perfecting” it in the sense that they are giving it the direction and integrity it needs.

SermonOnTheMountIn this last teaching in Matthew 5, Jesus is calling us to be people who have been perfected: people of integrity and wholeness. We cannot be perfect if we desire that only some hungry children are fed, or only some torture stops, or only some homeless find shelter. That kind of thinking is “the same” – it’s what got us where we are.

Jesus invites us to imitate, not the world, but the Father. Leviticus calls us to “be holy, as I am holy”. That is, to refuse to walk by what we can see right now, and to hold on to a higher righteousness. The Hebrew slaves could have given into the temptation to become just as evil as the Pharaoh had been to them, but instead they are called to a lifestyle of integrity, completeness, and dedication.

I don’t know how I’d feel if my sister had been murdered in the concentration camp, or if it was my child’s body that washed up on a foreign beach after we were forced to flee our home, or if I had to live in a city where bombs rained death from the sky. I don’t know how I’d feel. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to listen to Jesus or anyone else talking about love for the enemy, or the “extraordinary”, or being perfect.

But I hope that I know enough about Jesus to be able to extend love to the people that I can today; I hope that my walk with the Lord thus far has equipped me to pray and to do “the extraordinary” that love requires, even when it involves those who would wish me ill. I hope I can remember that fear is of the devil, and fear-mongering is deceitful.

I hope that in days like these, I am able to act with integrity and completeness, in enacted love, as God in Christ has acted toward me.

This has been a hard, hard, month for the planet. As followers of Jesus, are we making things better for those who suffer the most? May God be merciful to us as we seek to follow in his steps. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (MacMillan paperback 1963), p. 164.

[2] Guideposts Magazine, November 1972. Found online at https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1

[3] The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 169-170.

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