* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 19, 2017 *
Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.
Texts for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 + Psalm 119:33-40 + 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 + Matthew 5:38-48
Please pray with me this morning:
We are often caught up in the world’s
cycles of retribution, and revenge, and violence.
Increase our capacity for love, as you have loved us.
And by loving, may we begin to overcome and end those cycles.
For the past 2 months, as we’ve been moving together through this season of Epiphany, I’ve been centering us in the narrative of a life of discipleship. I’ve been noting for us how a life of discipleship fits certain patterns of life, how a way of living and being that is modeled after the life and ministry of Jesus looks a certain way and reflects certain values. I’ve been calling attention to the ways in which living and being this way, as a Christ-follower, sometimes…oftentimes…looks very different than the patterns of life that are lifted up as good or desired or admirable by the world.
But mostly, I’ve been highlighting how these patterns of living and being aren’t easy and don’t come naturally for us.
In my own sermon preparation, in my devotional time, or in leading weekly Bible studies for the staff, I find myself saying, “These are some of the most difficult words from Jesus.”
In fact, it’s possible that I’ve said those words explicitly each week for the past 4 weeks as we’ve been working through the Sermon on the Mount.
Each week it feels like Jesus is taking the calling on our lives a little further. Each week, it feels like the expectations are increasing, like the bar is being set higher and higher. Each week, it feels like Jesus is trying to outdo himself from the previous week.
And this week is no exception.
This week, with his talk of resisting retribution and loving enemies and nonviolent resistance and praying for those who would prevent others from living full and abundant lives, Jesus is taking this Christ-like living to another level.
But how can we? How can we truly love like Jesus is asking us to love?
The word for love here is not the emotional kind that we associate with the holiday from this past week. This love is consequential relationship. It’s a deep and abiding love. But I want to suggest something to you this morning that I think will help us as we unpack Jesus’ words, and it’s something that I also hope will totally shift how you think about and live out love.
Love…is an action verb.
You cannot love passively. This type of love that Jesus is talking about is actualized. It’s embodied. Love requires something of you. Those of you who have deep and abiding love for your partner or spouse or significant other or children or grandchildren or family or loved ones know that this is true.
Love requires something of you.
Father Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk and mystic who lived in rural Kentucky said, “Love seeks one thing only; the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
Love seeks the best for the one being loved, not the one doing the loving.
Love means that we risk vulnerability. That we give up our innately human desire to pluck out eyes and pull teeth. Love relinquishes the need for retribution or revenge.
Love has no use for violence, because our world is violent enough.
Love is the ultimate self-giving act… It’s a cruciform way of living… It’s the way of the cross.
When we say that God is love, we mean that God seeks, above all else, the best for God’s beloved, which is all of us. And not just us here, but those that are not here this morning.
God so loves the world, right? Do we take God at God’s word?
When Jesus says to us this morning, “Be perfect, therefore, just as God is perfect,” I think he’s talking about perfect love.
The Greek word for “perfect” here doesn’t mean to be morally right, as we so often characterize it. In fact, it has nothing to do with morality or sinless living. It means to be complete, to lack nothing necessary for completeness. To live with integrity, like we talked about last week. To let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.”
To truly love is to be lacking nothing in completeness.
We live incomplete lives when we place restrictions on our love. You know what I’m talking about when I say “restrictions,” don’t you, Church? When we try and characterize “us” as “us” and “those others” as “them.” When we try and step in and do God’s job for God…thinking that we get to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out”… Who’s covered under the bounds God’s love and who is not…
At the end of our reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul gets at this. “Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas…or the world…or life or death…or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ. And Christ belongs to God.”
All things belong to God, church.
You belong to God.
St. Paul uses this language of belonging to talk about ownership. You are God’s. All things are God’s. Your employment status does not own you. Your earning potential does not own you. Your depression or addiction or marital status or anything else does not own you.
But to take Paul’s words further I think is to get at what Jesus is talking about with this “love your enemies” thing. Because if I belong to God, and all things belong to God, then how I treat you depends on my answer to a fundamental question: Who do I think *you* belong to?
Does the person sitting next to you belong to God? What about your next door neighbor? Your co-workers? People of other faiths? People of no faith?
All things belong to God.
What about your enemies? What about people that don’t wish the best for you?
Who do I think you belong to? Who do you think they belong to?
How we answer this question is essential to how we understand ourselves in relationship with other people. If I belong to Christ and you belong to Christ and all belongs to God, that radically reorients how I treat you.
And here is where I think Jesus’ command to love your enemies makes us maybe more than a little uncomfortable. Because it sounds like foolishness.
But it is the way of the cross.
Jesus, even on the cross, did not shout curses at those acting on behalf of the empire, putting him to death. He cried out for forgiveness: “Forgive them, God, they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus proclaims blessing to those he was executed alongside: “Today I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”
A couple of chapters earlier in First Corinthians, Paul calls the way of the cross foolishness and a stumbling block. This word translated as “stumbling block,” it’s an interesting word. The Greek word is skandalon. Any guesses which word we get from skandalon? —– Scandal, right.
Living a life of discipleship, living a life that is cruciform, following the way of the cross is scandalous.
Loving your enemies, actively seeking the best for them, is certainly not easy, but it also isn’t very fair, is it? At least according to our Western ideals about fairness and justice.
And you’re right. It’s not fair. But fair is not for me to decide. Fair is not for any of us to decide.
We restrict our love. God does not. All things belong to God. God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good. God sends God’s rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
God is absolutely and completely abundant and extravagant with God’s mercy, grace, and love, and quite honestly, most of us find that offensive.
And you’re right. Grace is offensive. It is a scandal. Because grace means that “they” don’t get what “they” deserve. But grace also means that I don’t get what I deserve. And thank God for that.
Thank God that I don’t get what I deserve, but instead God delights in lavishing me with mercy, grace, and love. Thank God that none of us get what we deserve, but instead God is pleased to shower all of God’s creation with the cleansing and refreshing rains of justice and mercy. Instead God delights in warming all of God’s creation with God’s sun of grace and love.
And if God doesn’t restrict God’s love, who are we to restrict ours?
The Christian life…the life of discipleship…is not easy, church. I’ll say it again, it will demand your life.
But by truly loving—by actively working and fighting for the best for—not just those who we agree with…or those who look like us…or think like we want them to think…or act in ways that we might not understand or agree with…we begin to live ever more closely to the heart of God.