Rev. Father Alan Heatherington, Grace Anglican Fellowship, February 19, 2017
Did you notice that there is one theme that runs through all 4 of today’s lectionary readings? It’s the theme of perfection as the standard for the believer:
Lev. 19:2 says: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Ps. 119:33 says: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall observe it to the end.”
I Cor. 3:16 says: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” And Mt. 5:48 says: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Raise your hand if these verses perfectly describe your life as a believer. There is no way to lessen the standard that they set of holiness, of faithfulness to God’s commandments, of consciousness of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us and of practicing godly perfection in our daily walk. The last of these verses raises the bar completely out of reach, both by its comprehensiveness and by its placement at the end of Matthew 5 where the ethical requirements of the Sermon on the Mount transcend anything of which we find ourselves capable.
Last Sunday we grappled with the lofty proscriptions against anger and lustful looks, where Jesus equates the former with murder and the latter with adultery. And then He threw in the suggestion that we pluck out an offending eye or cut off an offending right hand in order to escape hell, that we avoid calling anyone a fool lest we put ourselves in danger of hell fire, and that we work out any interpersonal issues before we go to God’s altar with our offerings.
Now we have another set of ways that Jesus re-interprets the Old Testament laws, making them seem ever more out of reach. Israel had lived by the lex talionis, the law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And, as is the manner of humankind, the law was perverted from its divinely intended use to limit retaliation and came to be used instead as the excuse for exacting the last possible measure of revenge. Gilbert and Sullivan put a better spin on it in the Mikado when they memorialized the saying, “Let the punishment fit the crime.”
But even this was not the way of Jesus. In His characteristically countercultural way, He says,” do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” His hearers were expecting, at the very least, “Slap him back.” But no, they got, “Turn the other cheek.” Really? This is so counterintuitive and countercultural.
As we were traveling to the Kansas City airport Friday, Gayle read aloud part of an article purportedly explaining in their own words why millennials who grew up in church have quit attending church altogether. Among the stated reasons was that the Church is always beating up on the culture rather than adapting to it. That may be true, but even if we profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, we are unlikely to come close to being as counter-cultural as He was. If we take Scripture as a whole rather than dipping in here and there for our favorite warm-fuzzy bits that affirm what good people we are, we will discover that Scripture is unusually consistent in what it teaches, through and through.
The 10 Commandments are given in Exodus, repeated in Deuteronomy, explicated and expanded in today’s passage from Leviticus, affirmed and endorsed by the Psalmist and reinterpreted without apology by Jesus. Then, in the New Testament epistles, they are rephrased in specifically Christian terminology that was every bit as countercultural in the context of the ancient Graeco-Roman world as they had been in the land of Canaan. God’s commandments and ethical standards are perpetually countercultural, and that’s the whole point: God never adapts His standards to those of the world around us, and neither should we. Obedience to His ethical demands always requires separation from the ways of the world, whether or not this pleases the millennials. And complete obedience to His commands would render us holy as He is holy and perfect as He is perfect.
You may be thinking that this is so altogether Polyanna-ish that it always will remain out of reach for real people in a real world. And you may be right. So what does this mean: that we should throw in the towel? No, it means we should return again and again to the words of the Psalmist that permeate all of Psalm 119 where, verse after verse for nearly the whole of the 176 verses we read variants on these thoughts:
35 Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, for I delight in it.
36 Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to dishonest gain.
37 Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways.
54 Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning.
11 Your word I have hid in my heart, that I may not sin against You.
On the countercultural side of things the Psalmist writes, 19 “I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide Your commandments from me.” On a really good day, he writes, 24 “Your testimonies also are my delight; they are my counselors.” But on more brutally honest days, he writes such verses as this: 96 “I have seen an end of all perfection; Your commandment is exceedingly broad.” And on more needy days, he writes this: 29 “Remove the false way from me, and graciously grant me Your law;” and this: 88 “Revive me according to Your lovingkindness, so that I may keep the testimony of Your mouth.”
Returning to the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus adding some challenging words regarding generosity and love of one’s enemies. It’s these admonitions that immediately preface His words about being perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. If we were allowed to choose between the two, it seems likely that every one of us would choose generosity over loving our enemies. But, as usual, Jesus raises the bar by throwing out a standard of generosity that few of us will ever attain. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” We definitely are willing to give up both a shirt and a coat, as long as we have a closet full of back-up shirts and coats. But the audience Jesus was addressing didn’t live in 21st century America. The principle is obvious: give more than is asked, even when it becomes absolutely sacrificial. The same applies to going the second mile, a concept that has found its way into common parlance without our even remembering that it comes from the mouth of Jesus. Then there’s the completely unqualified exhortation simply to “give to him who asks of you,” and the very specific one to loan to the person who wants to borrow from us. Who’s going to do that?
I imagine that some of you can recall specific instances when you or a family member or a friend loaned money to someone and never had it repaid. Perhaps it was not money, but some object, maybe even a treasured possession, and it was never returned. At the same time, some of us can recall other times when money was loaned to us with absolutely no expectation of repayment and things were loaned to us with explicit statements that we could keep them indefinitely. We’re inclined to think of the persons who did this as angels in disguise or persons already qualified for sainthood. But Jesus makes it sound like an expectation for all of us to do such things without thought of gain. Even the Old Testament contains exhortations not to loan money with interest. This is not in conflict with the parable of the talents where those who receive an unsolicited gift of money are expected to use it well. Rather Jesus is speaking here about our expectations when we are the lenders, not the recipients.
These things Jesus is saying are characteristically hard. He meant them that way. He was teaching the loftiest possible lessons regarding how we should live if we are to be in quest of God’s own perfections. But here in today’s excerpt He decidedly saves the hardest challenge for last: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He acknowledges that when it comes to loving those who love us in return, even the despised tax collectors and the Gentiles who have no covenant relationship with God will do that. But loving one’s enemies is decidedly not something that comes to us naturally. Our auto-pilot reaction to our enemies is to shun them, avoid them, one-up them if possible, pull out the lex talionis (eye for an eye), speak evil of them and, at the very least, shake the dust off our feet and go away from them. Loving them is another matter altogether, and we are likely to forget that loving them was a commandment of Jesus.
How does Jesus really expect us to love those who are our enemies? It’s one thing for Jesus Himself to look down from the Cross at the scoffing crowd that cried out “crucify Him” and say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is well beyond human love and it veers sharply into the realm of divine love, the love of God’s only Son. But then the closer, the final line, comes back to haunt us: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” And inevitably we think of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, who was as human as we, but while being stoned to death uttered as his last words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
And there’s the key: Stephen did exactly the thing that Jesus tells us to do: not just to love our enemies, but to “pray for those who persecute” us. You’ve heard me say this before, that the surest way to get over hating an enemy is to add that person to our daily prayer list and to pray for them without fail. It’s amazing how quickly that hatred will morph into forgiveness and love when we remember our enemies while on our spiritual knees. It becomes impossible to harbor that hatred any longer. We may redefine what we mean by “love,” but we will begin to find a warm place of acceptance.
Gayle and I were in O’Hare last Wednesday eating lunch along the C concourse when a woman came directly up to me, asked if I was a pastor, and asked me to pray for her that she would be able to forgive someone. It was the first time anything like that ever had happened to me, and I was blessed by the moment. I can’t know whether my praying with her effected any lasting change in her heart, but it was a powerful reminder to me of how hard it is for all of us to forgive others who have wronged us in some way and have become our enemies. Jesus does not make loving them optional. It’s His command that we love them and pray for them. And perhaps in that very specific way we at least will have felt for a moment what it means to practice the perfections of our Heavenly Father, to be perfect as He is perfect.
Remembering that we were created in His image, we see that we are held to that highest of all standards: to be like Him. Does that sound remarkably countercultural in an age when we are told that the highest goal of humankind is self-actualization? Yes, countercultural it is, because our culture is perfectly described by Paul in his second letter to Timothy when he writes “that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.” Most if not all of that sounds remarkably and painfully familiar. Read the newspaper.
What reasons are given for the expectation that we should be both holy and perfect? Only one reason: because that’s what God Himself is like. In the former case, holiness, every demand that is made of us in Leviticus is followed by the simple words, “I am the Lord.” We are to be holy simply because He is holy; we are to care for the poor and hungry simply because God is the Lord; we are to be truthful because God is the Lord; we are to be fair in all our dealings with others, including the deaf and blind, simply because God is the Lord; and we are not to hate or take vengeance or bear any grudge, but to love our neighbor as ourselves, because God is the Lord. Paul writes that we are to repudiate the wisdom of this world because “all things belong to” us and we “belong to Christ” and “Christ belongs to God,” which brings us right back again to the One Who says, “I am the Lord.” And Jesus says that we are to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give generously to the needy, and love and pray for our enemies so that we “may be sons of our Father who is in heaven” and “be perfect,” just as our “Heavenly Father is perfect.”
How likely is it that everyone in this room this morning will achieve that perfect godliness in this life? When we ask that, we definitely are asking the wrong question. The only question that matters is whether that is in fact our goal: whether we are trying daily, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to measure our thoughts and our actions against what is expected of us as persons created in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of His only Son, who Himself challenged us to be perfect. Let’s renew that commitment, each one of us, and we will become difference-makers in our church and in our world as we grow in the grace of sanctification and dedicate ourselves to being all that God desires us to be.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen