By The Rev. Sherry Deets
7 Epiphany – February 23, 2014
Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and love your enemies. Have we heard these phrases so often that we don’t pay much attention to them? Are they simply niceties? Ideals?
So if we are inclined to read over these familiar words too quickly, or if we want to dismiss these commands out of hand as pious idealisms, I’d urge us instead to slow down and take them more seriously. For in these few crazy sentiments Jesus lays before us the plans for the kingdom he proclaims and the revolution he starts. And so before joining either, we should probably know just what it is we’re getting ourselves in for!
As we do so, I want to make an observation. The last line of this passage — “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” — helps to reframe the whole of this passage. Be perfect. When we hear that command, most of us hear an injunction to a kind of moral perfectionism. But that’s not actually what the original language implies. “Perfect,” in this case, stems from telos, the Greek word for “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” The sense of the word is more about becoming what was intended, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose in the same way that God constantly reflects God’s own nature and purpose. Eugene Peterson’s The Message gets closer to the mark, I think, when he translates it, “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.” Understanding that, might Jesus be not simply commanding something of us but also commending something in us?
Jesus calls the powers of the day into question by describing an entirely different way to relate to each other, inviting us into relationships governed not by power but by vulnerability grounded in love. “’An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Gandhi would similarly say almost two thousand years later. Here Jesus invites us to overcome the urge to retribution with loving submission and forbearance.
Yet he isn’t satisfied with merely overturning this world. For the very essence of his critique — that we were created not merely for justice but also for love and life — is simultaneously the only possible hope for those enmeshed in the orders of the world. What do I mean by that? Strength eventually fails. Power corrupts. And survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life. As Martin Luther King, Jr., a student of both Jesus and Gandhi, once said, “… force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. (You are that person,) and you do that by love.”
There’s another reason why we should love our enemies and that is, if we don’t, we’ll become just like them. Dr. King says, “Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life … So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
So again, I ask, might Jesus be commending something in us? Perhaps Jesus simply knows that we have more to give, that we can be and do more than we have settled for, and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we simply believe in ourselves. And so hear in these commands also the invitation to be those people God has created us to be so that we might not just persevere through this challenging life but actually to flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us. Crazy? Maybe. But Jesus is not only dead serious about what he promises but actually will die — and rise again! — to show us that it’s true.
I ask you to think about one thing you believe is holding you back from living into your God-given identity. “Believing I am God’s beloved child, I know that I am called to share God’s love with others. But I find it hard because….” What is one thing — one fear, one memory, one hurt, one resentment — that keeps you from embracing and becoming the person God wishes you to be. Keep this in mind as you come up for communion. In a sense we’ll be giving God not only some of our treasure but also some of our tragedy, trusting God to receive and redeem both.
Or perhaps we should remember what Augustine said to his congregants while presiding at the Lord’s Supper: “Receive who you are. Become what you’ve received.”
We do not serve a distant God, but one who actually cares about how we treat people and how we are treated. People matter. Relationships matter. The diginity of human beings matters. Dr. King insists, “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something we talk about … love is creative, understanding goodwill for all [people]. It is the refusal to defeat any individual.” Jesus says we should love our enemies because of the redemptive power love has to transform the world, and that includes you and me. This is the meaning of the resurrection – by surrendering to God’s will and not resisting his enemies, but showing mercy and asking God to forgive those who condemned him, Jesus won the greater victory and ushered in a new way of life based not on retaliation, but on the power of God’s redeeming love.
It starts with one. When you go to Giant or Kohl’s after church, maybe you’ll let someone have that primo parking space, even though you got there first. When your neighbor’s dog does a number on your lawn, you don’t pick it up and put it on his doorstep; you just pick it up. When your employer tells you that you are no longer needed at the company, you swallow hard and say “Thank you for the privilege of working here.” And when your Joey is punched by their Billy, you don’t call your lawyer. You call Billy’s dad and say “Let’s take the boys to a baseball game so we can have them become friends, not enemies.”
If we belong to the God of Grace, we become people of grace. And someday, somewhere, someone will be explaining how it is that the neighborhood lives at peace, and they will point to you and say “He started it.” Be a people of grace today! Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Amen.
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