St. Paul’s – 2-24-2019-Epiphany 7
You have just stood up for the gospel and now I’m going to ask you to sit down again.
We’re going to do something different this morning. We’re going to make a verbal sandwich: two commentaries on either side of today’s gospel.
The first commentary requires that we make an effort to put aside all the preconceived mental and emotional images we have of Jesus. Forget, too, for the moment, all the doctrines and titles about him. Try to think of a first-century Jew living in occupied territory, looking, not like Charleton Heston with wavy hair and blue eyes, but just like the rest of the dark Mid-Easterners you see these days on television news as the Middle East continues to explode. Jesus would be hard to distinguish from any other Arab or Palestinian Jew of today.
Wipe out the titles also. Eliminate them: Lord of Lords, true God from true God, King of Kings, Second Person of the Trinity, and all the rest. See him only as contemporaries saw him. Put desert clothes on him and take away the golden crown, the royal robes, the bright halo of countless centuries of art, the other-worldly look. Think of him, if you can before there was a Vatican , a Papacy or Presiding Bishop, General conventions, canon law, and dioceses. Think of him even before we had Vicars.
Use your imagination and see Jesus from the nondescript village of Nazareth—he didn’t have the title messiah or Christ yet, which would evolve for many people into a kind of last name. See this itinerant rabbi standing there surrounded by a crowd of people, some friendly, some hostile. Watch their faces as he spouts out some of the most outrageous words ever uttered. Some think he’s mad – that’s on record—some are intrigued though skeptical that such a program he outlines is possible to live by. He’s kidding, isn’t he? was a comment heard more than once.
Jesus begins to preach what is basically a radical way of life or, as we would say in hindsight, what following him would mean and cost. Luke, our recorder, got his material from some eyewitnesses, and whether Jesus said these things all at once or here and there in his preaching, Luke has brought them all together as a manifesto of discipleship. So now, put yourself into the scene. You’re one of the crowd: listen with fresh ears as if this were the first time in your life hearing these words. Stand with the others who were there.
At that time, Jesus looked around, took a deep breath, and began to say to those who would wish to be his disciples:
To you who are hearing me, who would follow me, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. (Murmurs and puzzled looks here. Love your enemies???? Pray for those who mistreat you??? Jesus pauses and looks around to see if they’re still with him.)
He goes on, When someone slaps you on the one cheek, turn and offer the other so that other one can be slapped too. When someone steals your coat, give your shirt to them as well. (A few are starting to make circles around their foreheads with their fingers.) Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, do not demand it back. Do to others what you would have them do to you.
Jesus glances around once more. His audience has thinned somewhat. He goes on, raising his voice, If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them back. If you do good only to those who do good to you how can you claim virtue? Sinners do as much. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what merit is there in it for you? Even pagans lend to pagans to be repaid in full.
I tell you – his voice is getting louder—Love your enemies. Lend without expecting repayment. Be compassionate to others as your heavenly Father is to you. Do not be judgmental and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Pardon and you will be pardoned. Give and it will be given to you. Remember—are you listening?—the measure you measure with will be measured back to you.
And here he stopped and awaited a response.
The Gospel of the Lord
As we give the other commentary, you may be seated.
When Jesus finished, the audience response he got was silence, the silence of disbelief. Some people’s mouths were hanging open. Is it possible for anyone to live like that?, they seemed to say. It was an honest response, more honest than our own, for we in practice have found a way to neuter Jesus’ charter for discipleship. We cleverly ran off in another direction and invented doctrines about Jesus, and so distracted ourselves from the words of Jesus. We opted for orthodoxy, right belief, over orthopraxis, right living.
We must immediately add that right belief is critical and necessary, and we owe a lot to those who labored to make it clear. It’s just that orthodoxy alone soon became the criterion for true discipleship. We were deemed to be true disciples—Christians, Christ followers – if we believed the approved doctrines, even while all the time we hated our enemies, plotted evil against them, harbored revenge, and refused to pray for or forgive them. We did not give to beggars; we love only our in-group. We were not only compassionate and have been terribly judgmental and resentful. Those who were different were shunned or declared to be beyond the pale. We often made laws against them and punished them for not being one of us, thus bringing to mind Oscar Wilde’s words: When one looks through the pages of history one is positively appalled, not at the crimes of the wicked, but at the punishments of the just. We freely condemned others and refused to be reconciled. After all, I have my pride, we declared. But we believed. Oh yes, we believed. If we might not live the faith, we would willingly die for it. Deny the Trinity? NEVER! Pray for those who mistreated us? NEVER!
If we would seriously live the spiritual life and live it as Jesus taught; if in short, we would be his disciples, be true Christians, then we have to take a good look at ourselves and start measuring our lives, not by the articles of the Creed—Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven—but by the articles of the gospel: love enemies; do good to those who hate us; bless those who curse us; give to all who beg from us; lend without repayment; be compassionate; do not condemn; forgive; and move our love beyond our circle of family and friends.
It is an outrageous agenda, and who can really follow all of this? We might easily dismiss it as pie-in-the-sky fantasy—except that the one who taught us these things actually lived them. Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.
This gospel, I think, should be made into some kind of alternate creed to replace the one we’re going to recite shortly. This one is a wonderful list of things we believe, and it costs nothing. The gospel creed, on the other hand, is another matter. It costs everything; and I for one find it uncomfortable and hard and wish it would go away, but somewhere along the line, I know that if we love God, if we really want to be saints (our fundamental calling), if we call ourselves Christian, then we have to embrace it and struggle with it.
When Jesus originally spoke those words, some back then also found them a bit much, and some walked away. At least they were honest. Still others—a minority I suspect, ourselves among them—stayed.
What difference has it made?